Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives to me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never send away; for I have come down from heaven; not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. —John 6:35–38
Let me begin by saying publicly what I said yesterday in private conversation with the five to be ordained priests today: It has been a privilege to walk alongside you for a small part of your vocational journey, and I thank God for each one of you. I have been deeply impressed by your faithfulness and perseverance, your courage and love. I thank God for your families and friends, teachers and mentors who have supported and guided you. I give thanks for your accomplishments and those moments of affirmation that are such grace points in the life of a Christian, particularly when we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. I also give thanks, as the Prayer Book says, for those disappointments and failures that led you to acknowledge your dependence on God alone.
We spoke yesterday, the six of us, of what it means to be mortal and yet called to incarnate the mystery and power and love of God, known to us Christians in Jesus. Whatever the call means and wherever it leads, it must take into account who we are in our humanity—our strengths and vulnerabilities; our passions and blind spots; our desire to do what is good and noble and excellent and worthy of praise, and the inevitable times when we fall short in that quest.
My friends, God has called you. And the more deeply you can claim that call, the more resilient you will be when life seems to negate it. The more firm the foundation upon which you stand, the more you can help others find it for themselves. As a river can rise no higher than its source, you cannot proclaim a gospel that you do not live, you cannot follow a Savior whom you do not know, and you cannot offer forgiveness that you yourself have never received.
In the words of Martin Luther, “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but a true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, and not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Therefore be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ.” (Luther)
I’d like to speak to you with some urgency about the times in which we live, the context of our work now, and what God needs from us as leaders in the Church. A few vignettes to set the stage:
I was talking to our elder son not long ago. He is working for a new company called Civis Analytics–one of those start-up companies run by people in their 20s and 30s which describes itself as “a community of statisticians, data scientists, organizers and engineers, whose mission is to solve the world’s biggest problems using what’s known as Big Data.” (www.civisanalytics.com) They are not kidding. Their mission is to solve the world’s biggest problems and they are hiring people now, to expand their team. When I asked my son what skills and education applicants should have, he said, “You know, Mom, it doesn’t really matter what their backgrounds are. We’re looking for people who think big and creatively, work hard, value excellence, and want to learn new skills. We’re looking for people who want to solve the world’s biggest problems and will learn what it takes to do it.”
Hold that thought.
Vignette number two. Years ago, I attended a conference on church growth and renewal led by one of the many leaders raised up through the ranks of Saddleback Church in California. He told the story of a woman in his church who complained to him about something that she didn’t like. And this is what he said in response: “I am so very sorry. Somewhere along the way, I must have communicated to you that this church’s mission is to satisfy you. Please forgive me, and let me clarify that we here to serve others, putting our own preferences aside.”
Hold that thought as well.
Vignette number three. I have been in regular communication with an Episcopal priest who until just recently was the rector of one the largest and arguably most successful congregations in the Diocese of Chicago. Not very far away from that congregation is the main campus of Willow Creek Church, a church that makes a large Episcopal congregation seem small and whose annual growth of 20% a year would lead one to imagine that things were going quite well.
Willow Creek decided to do a self-study in order to fine tune and improve upon its already successful spiritual offerings. They hired a consultant to help them devise a survey to measure subjective experiences of faith and spiritual growth. That consultant happened to be an Episcopalian worshiping at the church whose rector I mentioned. What Willow Creek learned from that parish survey devastated them. They were not nearly as successful as they imagined; in fact, many of the members expressed feelings of being spiritually stuck and disconnected, so much so, that some were at the point of leaving. This was a huge wake-up call for Willow Creek. It shattered many of the myths they told themselves about themselves, but to the leadership’s credit, they set themselves to the task of re-orienting their entire ministry based on what they learned. They also offered to share the survey they devised (with the help of the Episcopalian marketing guy) to any other congregation that dared to offer it to its people. The Episcopal priest I just mentioned jumped at the chance.
What he learned from his congregational survey had a similar myth-shattering effect. For what the survey revealed was that, while as Episcopalians they liked to think of themselves as people who proclaim their faith through service rather than words, in fact very few congregants were involved in service acts of any kind. Even more troubling, most of the people surveyed reported a low commitment to their lives of faith and low expectations of their spiritual lives. You might say they had very low expectations of God in their lives and little sense of God’s claim on their lives. And for the majority of people, that was just fine with them. A low-grade faith life with periodic worship, haphazard spiritual practices, and a relationship with God that asked little of them was just fine.
Weaving those three vignettes together, what I want to say to you is this: you have been called to ministry at a time when the Church needs its leaders to think big and creatively, to work hard, and to be willing to learn new skills. God needs leaders who are willing to face the Church’s biggest problems and learn what it takes to solve them, which we will never be able to do if we insist on minimizing the problems, or even denying that they exist. We won’t be able to solve them if we have lost faith in God’s faith in us and in our abilities to address the challenges we face. We will be able to solve them by grace and hard and creative work and the willingness to learn new skills.
You have been called to leadership at a time when all of our churches are wrestling questions of preference—what we like or don’t like in music, or liturgical tone, or prayer settings, or social agendas, and the list goes on. What I’d like to say to you is that when we begin the conversation with our preferences, we have lost sight of something essential about following Jesus. Remember, he was the one who came, as the gospel reminds us, not to do his will, but the will of God. Surely our preferences must always be secondary to serving others as God would have us do. While there is much about traditional Episcopal liturgy and community life that I love and am deeply committed to, I am also listening for God’s direction in a time when what we have to offer seems to be misaligned with our mission context. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m convinced that we have to ask the questions. And I ask you to ask them, too—putting your preferences aside, if need be—to serve others and introduce them to Christ.
Finally, you have been called to leadership at a time when the need for spiritual renewal among our own people is great. While there are indeed saints and spiritual giants among us, there is also great complacency. It’s not just a question of knowledge, although as Episcopalians we share the dubious distinction of being among the most well educated but biblically illiterate Christians in the country. It’s more than knowledge. Many of our people have yet to encounter the living Christ in a significant way and to establish patterns and disciplines to strengthen their walk with Christ and faithfulness to his way. I came across a quote by the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer from when he first visited America in 1930 that spoke to me of our tendencies as Episcopalian Christians. He wrote of his astonishment about the students at Union Seminary “who talked a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation…They’ve become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases; they laugh at fundamentalists and yet basically are not even up to their level.” (Metaxas, 2010). For all your love of this church of ours, I ask you to have the courage to look at where we need to be transformed and renewed.
Yet for all the challenges we face, this is an amazing time to be called to leadership in the church. Something is stirring in and among us. The seeds of our future have been planted among us, and we sense God at work. And I believe that God has a need for us and for our witness as Episcopalian Christians. God has a need for our church in all its strength and vulnerability; and we have been entrusted with a perspective on Jesus’ gospel uniquely suited for our time. Consider the possibility that there are many, many people who will never know the love of Christ as we have known Christ or understand his Gospel as we have been blessed to understand it, if we are not there to live and proclaim it. Consider the possibility that the world’s biggest problems hang in the balance and are waiting for us to learn what we must in order to be part of God’s redeeming solutions.
Elizabeth, Kristin, Timothy, Rebecca, and Lisa, please stand. You have been called to be priests, which in part, requires your life to broken, as the bread is broken at the altar each week. You are called to be yourselves and more than yourselves, as you allow God’s grace to work through you. Yesterday we spoke of the importance of clarity, which at times, is more important than empathy. Yet remember without empathy, clarity can be a bully.
And so I leave you now with these words from St. Augustine: “Love God, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” (Ulanov, 1883)
Luther, M. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Martin_Luther.
Metaxas, E. (2010). Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Ulanov, B. (1883). Prayers of St Augustine. NY: Seabury Publications.