Sermon for Sarah’s Ordination

I’m grateful for the privilege of preaching at Sarah Kye Price’s ordination to the priesthood today at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond. Texts were Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 43, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:35-38. Here’s the homily!

May God give us grace not to sell ourselves short, Grace to risk something big for something good, Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.  – Adapted from William Sloane Coffin

Good morning! We’re all here for Sarah’s ordination, but you might not have noticed that you’ve just made some vows yourselves to support her. And since we’ve made vows, we need to be a community if we’re going to keep them.  I invite you to take a moment to stand up and find someone you don’t already know, a reasonably friendly-looking stranger, and find out who they are and what has brought them here today.

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This crew of saints and sinners is gathered here to bear witness to the vows Sarah is about to make as a priest in the church. So I think it bears telling some truth about what we are doing here today.

What is the church? What is it for?

The church is at least two things: It’s a religious institution that has offered souls a place to discharge the discomfort of our complicity in the systems that separate people from each other. When we partake of the drugs of divine justification for white supremacy, when we eat the bread blessed to the idols of economic and ecological exploitation, when we baptize systems of oppression, we are not just poisoning ourselves, but wreaking destruction in the name of our Creator. (We needed to take a moment to feel great about meeting each other before we dove into this kind of bad news.) Just to make it a little worse, in some times and places, the church has turned a mighty profit from salving consciences and shielding us from our bigotry. When we behave and preach and believe that way, friends, the church becomes a monstrosity.

I’m not here looking for that kind of comfort or that kind of church, and I don’t believe you are either. We are here, I think, because the church is also a hospital for those who have felt the wounds of that other kind of religion, a gathering of those who have turned to each other and to the way of Jesus for repentance and healing. We might even say that the church is more like a base camp for those who are seeking wholeness and speaking truth in the world, a place where we can come down from the wilderness, find shelter, tell the stories of our adventures, bandage our wounds and find courage in community to go back out, back up the mountain.

What we find in church is, yes, the legacy of humanity’s worst impulses – but also a hotbed of resistance, of hope, of communion with each other across differences. Followers of the way of Jesus look to him as one who shows us what God looks like when God shows up.

And this is what God did when he showed up in Jesus of Nazareth: he ate with people.

You know these stories. Tell me, When did Jesus eat with people? These are a few examples:

  • The Last Supper
  • “This guy eats with tax collectors and sinners[1]” – Jesus built relationships with people across the proverbial dividing lines. With the ones who had sold out their own people to profit from the empire. With the ones who were deemed too brash or too sick or too abused to be seen in polite company.
  • Feeding the 5,000 – up to you whether the miracle there was Jesus’ ability to multiply food, or his ability to get people to want to open their bags and share what they had brought for themselves

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus said, I am the bread of life. And if that statement made sense to his friends at the time, it was because he had lived into that metaphor by making dining such a large part of his life and teaching.

It doesn’t stop there. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, except the people you’d expect to be there didn’t bother to show up, and instead a bunch of unlikely characters came in to celebrate. In that strange teaching, and in all the other strange things he said about the kingdom of God, Jesus pulled forward the ancient vision he learned from Hebrew Scriptures: that in God’s dream for us, the lion lays down with the lamb, the relationship between the powerful and the powerless can be transformed and reconciled. Shalom. Fast forward to the Civil Rights struggle in the United States – that vision is what theologians like Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King, Jr. called Beloved Community. What we see in Jesus is God’s mission of Beloved Community.

Glimpses of that Beloved Community find us in unlikely places. Places as strange and wonderful as Monroe Park, and the School of Social Work at VCU, and even, amazingly, in church. God isn’t done showing up to be the bread of life shared among strangers.

Sarah, in taking on the yoke of priesthood in this age, you are making vows to an organization inspired by the hope that love is the ultimate force in the universe, that our fears and our divisions will one day be reconciled in the light of love, the hope that in the end, Beloved Community will be the truest thing about us.

At the same time you are also making vows to an organization that on a good day is run by beloved children of God who are doing their best while carrying heavy burdens and their own blessed idiosyncrasies and various levels of tolerance for conflict and criticism. And, on bad days, a church that has earned the distrust and the scorn of much of the world because of the way it has failed to live up to its own values. And every day, our faith communities carry the burden of history, the stories, or lack thereof, of interaction and relationship with our neighbors, trust earned slowly and lost in an instant.

Speaking of trust, we live in a time when our culture has gone from a baseline trust toward institutions and leaders, to an attitude of skepticism and even suspicion to institutions and leaders. So in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t know you yet, moral authority has to be earned, not ordained. When the church speaks now, friends, we start well below a neutral baseline of curiosity in the hearing of many of our neighbors.

The good news for you, Sarah, and for every person in this room who preaches, is that you are free to preach a gospel that matters because the church has nothing left to lose. Rob Wright, the Bishop of Atlanta, recently said that “If young people are leaving the church, it’s because what they see and hear there is inconsequential” in the face of the brokenness of the world around them.  I’d contend that that’s true not just of young people but of all of us. We want to hear the church and its leaders tell the truth and speak about how the way of Jesus lets us respond with courage and love.

So you are free to preach that good news of Jesus Christ. You are free to proclaim from the pulpit and in your conversations in the classroom that we are so beloved that we get to live lives of consequence even when it costs us. You are free, in fact, to let that Good News continue to blow up your life and mess with your career and probably even your bank account and take you places you didn’t know you could or should go.

The good news for the rest of us is that we cannot wait, and we don’t have to wait, for the church or for our preachers to get the story straight. Before Sarah takes her priestly vows, we get to remember our own baptismal vows — the promises we make, and break, and make again. The promises that remind us who we want to be in response to God’s way of loving the world.

Celebrant: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.

This, friends, is a blueprint for life in the way of Jesus. Even if you just pick one of these promises to make, you’re accepting an invitation to the feast. You get to seek out the ways the kingdom of God is breaking in to your life, in your neighborhood, your school, your workplace.

You get to ask, What unlikely beautiful work is the Holy Spirit doing here, and how can I join in?

Who will you find there, and who will you invite to come with you?

Another way of saying this is, You are free to let that Good News continue to blow up your life and mess with your career and your bank account and take you places you didn’t know you could or should go.

Community developer John Perkins writes,

Each of us has to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus across the dividing lines of our world. We are not called to be heroes. We’re called to commitment where we are. We’re called to join God’s movement and enjoy the life were made for together with all of God’s children. [2]

We start, again, now. We make the promises again. We stand by Sarah as she makes her vows. We meet this strange company of beloved people at God’s table. And then we will return to our regularly scheduled programming, but we will be free, if we want to, to change the channel, to make instead something beautiful and beloved.

[1] Matthew 9:11, Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30

[2] John Perkins on the cultural captivity of the church in Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, Marsh and Perkins, p. 52.

 

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