Isaiah 6:1-8, Matthew 9:35-38
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” —Isaiah 6:1–8
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” —Matthew 9:35–38
Yesterday Canon Preston Hannibal and I were blessed to spend a few hours with the nine men and women to be ordained today. I never know how those pre-ordination conversations will go, but it seems important to stop for moment, catch our breath, and allow those to be ordained a chance to think back on the journey they have been on from the time they took their first conscious step toward this day until now. It’s important for all of us to remember those first conscious steps we take toward a dream, and then the long journey itself. I ask you to bring to mind such a moment in your life, a first step of your own, and offer the power of that memory in our collective prayer today.
“How do you feel?” I asked the nine. Their emotions filled the room. They spoke of being awe-struck, grateful, excited and a little scared. Timothy said that he felt welcome. Elizabeth felt as if she were getting off a roller coaster. Several said that they felt ready and glad that this day had finally come. These feelings belong to all of them, and to all of you who have loved and walked alongside them. The feelings will come and go and return again. The roller coaster never really stops.
I asked if loneliness was a part of their experience, particularly for the four who have been ordained as deacons for half a year. We talked about the loneliness that accompanies ministry, that relationships change, and how we must move on from the communities that have sustained us.
There is a spiritual dimension to aloneness as well, which is the solitude. It’s essential that we as leaders cultivate the capacity for solitude, even in the midst of many people. The spiritual discipline of solitude involves learning to keep one’s own counsel, regulate one’s public expression of emotion, and know the difference between allies in ministry and confidants, in other words, those with whom we can share the depths of ourselves and those we best not. At the heart of solitude is learning how to pray as a leader, to lean on one’s abiding connection to God. For leadership both requires and offers us a particular connection to God, the One who is known to us in the wonder of Creation, the person of Jesus, the wisdom of Holy Scripture, and the grace of Holy Spirit. As lonely as leadership can sometimes feel, we are not in this alone.
I’ve been reading a book about Abraham Lincoln entitled, Rise to Greatness, which I commend to you. It focuses on one year in Lincoln’s presidency, 1862 (the year prior to events portrayed in the recent film), which the author suggests is the pivotal year not only for Lincoln, but for the nation. I’m struck by how often Lincoln prayed with and reflected on the Scriptures in that year, most often with the Psalms. Every day at lunchtime he would read from the Bible and reflect on what was happening around him and what was his role was in that crucible time.
Clarity of call emerges from that place of solitude and prayer. From that place within emerges the clarity of call. And so I ask you, each of the nine, Why has God called you to ordained life? Why you? Why now?
You know as well as I that it may not be for a paying job in the Church, at least not all the time. It most certainly will not always be for the job you want, you know, the perfect job, although miracles can and sometimes do happen. Most of the time you will be tasked with taking a less than ideal position and making it a place of great potential. But in so doing, you will learn to live your vocation with great freedom, for you won’t need perfection to be faithful. On the other hand, there is something to be said for learning how to equip yourself, to get ready, so that when the places of great potential are within your grasp, you can reach for them.
I also asked the nine to reflect with me on the nature of power, and the associations we make with that word. We discussed how power can be misused. It can be slippery, one said, moving from person to person or group to group. Power can be shared, distributed, and given away, both appropriately and inappropriately. We need power to get things done and to move initiatives forward. Power in the church is relational, but it is also closely aligned with authority and influence. There is an institutional aspect to power—positions can be bestowed. But power is also personal and must be earned.
I’ve been thinking a lot about power in the last week. Because of my position and that of our Church, I’ve had the privilege of hearing two sermons preached this week on the occasion of the President’s inauguration, sermons preached with the President in the room and for the President himself. Imagine that pressure the next time you step into the pulpit.
The preacher at the private service for the President, Vice President, their families and closest colleagues, held at St. John’s Episcopal, Lafayette Square, was Pastor Andy Stanley from North Point Community Church, outside of Atlanta, Georgia. He drew upon the scene of the Last Supper as depicted in the Gospel of John, which begins with this statement: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” Notice, Stanley said, that at the precise moment when Jesus realized the full extent of his power, that God had given all things into hands, he prepared himself to wash his disciples’ feet.
Pastor Stanley looked out at the congregation and asked, “What do you do when you are the most powerful person in the room?” He looked at the President. “Most of us know that’s like,” he went on. “We have been that person. What do you do with your power when you are the most powerful person in the room?”
Jesus’ example is one of servanthood. He took his power and used it for the benefit of everyone else in the room. And demonstrated a use of power that he wanted those who followed him to emulate. “Use your power for the benefit of other people,” Jesus taught by his example. “And show them how to do the same.”
As your bishop, I say to you, our newest priests and deacons, use as much of your power as you can in service to the new, where people are and therefore where God must be, but where we as a church, as yet, are not.
Two of the Scripture passages you selected for today speak to us of being sent. As I ponder them, I hear such poignancy in God’s question and Jesus’ prayer.
God asks in the passage from Isaiah, speaking aloud, it seems, to God’s very Self, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And Isaiah, sinful man though he is, stands up and says with great courage, “Here am I. Send me.” Similarly Jesus says, almost in lament, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Pray with me that the Lord of the harvest will send out laborers into his harvest.” Jesus longs for people willing to go out where the harvest is.
On the spectrum of Christianity, I think it is safe to say that the Episcopal Church is more comfortable staying put. We want people to come to us, and if they do, we will happily welcome them. In fact, most of our congregations rightfully pride themselves on being welcoming places, and it’s true. The Episcopal Church welcomes all, provided—and here is our downfall— those who come meet us on our terms and conform to our ways of being the Church.
It’s understandable that we approach the world this way. We don’t want to change what we treasure—the liturgy, music, traditions, and architecture that speak to us. And we’re convinced that it will speak to others as well, if they would only come and see. There is truth here. I’m certain that God isn’t asking us to throw everything of what love in our churches away.
But God is asking who among us is willing to be sent out. Who among us will go? Who will labor in different vineyards where the harvest is plentiful?
Putting aside the moral imperative to meet others on their terms rather than ours, as God has met us, the simple reality is that if we as a Church cannot adapt to a new mission environment, we will never thrive in it. Just as any other species that finds itself in a new environment, if we cannot adapt, our survival is at stake. I’m not worried about the Episcopal Church going extinct at the moment, but we are in danger of being even further escorted to the sidelines of irrelevancy than we currently are. And that, my friends, is a sin, because we have so much to offer the people of our day.
So I say again to the nine of you: spend time in the new. Two of you, I know, are already doing that. All of you want to do it. I also know that your desire must be balanced with the pressing need of finding a job and, therefore, tending to the center of the Church. There is important work in the center as well. But as much as you are able, spend time in the culture around you. Learn to be a guest in this world.
We have a lot to learn, as Episcopalians, from Christians who are more adaptive than we are. The two pastors who preached before the president have this in common: they serve congregations that were established 20 years ago and have grown now to several thousand members. This is noteworthy, for what we think is impossible can, in fact, be done and other Christians are doing it.
Our initial response to such Christian endeavors, that from our perspective (because we weren’t paying attention), sprang up out of nowhere, is that of alarm and even disdain. In our arrogance and ignorance, we even take pride in not being “like those other Christians.” I’m not suggesting that we need to agree with other Christians on everything, but surely we have something to learn from them.
Would the nine of you please stand?
First of all, I want to thank you. On behalf of all of us here and all whom you will serve, as Jesus served, thank you for your first conscious step toward this goal and the countless other steps in between. Thank you for your perseverance, study, sacrifice, and love. Now it is time for you to help lead the way. Pay attention. Claim your power. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t imagine that your vocation is limited by your job as defined by others.
As you bishop, I charge you, go out and learn. I’m not asking of you something that I’m not willing to do myself. I also hear the call. I feel God asking me, asking all of us if we will go for God.
Pray, as Jesus asked us all to pray, for the Lord to send laborers into the harvest. And then be an answer to his prayer, and help the Church we love become one, too.