The Sermon I Can Never Give

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When I was ordained a priest forty-seven years ago, at St. Philip’s Cathedral, downtown, Bishop Alexander included a charge in his homily.  There were seven of us ordained, I believe, so he had something specific to say to each one of us, a little nugget to carry with us for our entire lives.

I know this isn’t exactly what he said to my six colleagues, but looking back on it, this is what it felt like he said to them: “Make sure you know how to properly work a thurible, because incense is important.”  “Make sure you have as many people as you can on the pastoral care committee to make casseroles.” “Don’t leave candles burning unattended.”  Things like this.  I was last to receive my charge, so when it came my turn, he looked down from the high pulpit, made eye contact with me, and said, “Stuart, give us God.”

Give us God? My eyes bugged out, and I remember turning to Lisa and mumbling under my breath, “do you think I could swap with someone else?”

But that was my charge from the bishop, “Give us God.”  And, these three words have stuck with me for almost a decade now.  They are always there, as a reminder for me of what a vulnerable, humbling, exciting, excruciating, blissful, and awe-inspiring thing it is to be a priest.

Cynthia and I were talking this week about how every priest has a “secret sermon,” one that we have written over the years deep within our hearts but don’t think we can ever really share…because it’s too vulnerable.  I have to tell you, today’s sermon comes as close as I have ever come to offering the “sermon I can never share.”  I want to take a risk with you, aware of the difficult time we all find ourselves in.  And, I commiserate with St. Paul who told the Corinthians, “I come to you in weakness, fear and trembling.”

Let’s begin with the Hebrew prophets.  I have to tell you, they get on my nerves.  I can imagine the priests and temple scribes comfortably ensconced in their positions, wanting to go about their routines, and here come the prophets again, announcing that they’re not paying attention.  Like in today’s reading from Isaiah:

“Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

“As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”

“Great,” say the temple officials to one another, rolling their eyes, “here they come again.”

Indeed.  Here they come again.  Here they always come, shaking people awake from complacency, calling the entire society to remember God’s command to love the stranger in their midst (for you too were an alien in the land of Egypt, don’t forget that!), to care for the orphan, the widow, the poor, the struggling, the oppressed, those who are captive.

Here they come again.

And, then there’s St. Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, reminding them that the basis of our Eucharistic identity is that everyone has a place at the table—that we are called to self-sacrifice and raise up those who are downtrodden to the place of honor rather than eating the good portions ourselves and leaving the left-overs to those less fortunate.  That is literally what the Church in Corinth did, and St. Paul ended up writing them two letters to make sure they got the point about hospitality and Eucharistic identity.

“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” he tells them.  In other words, if you want to know what discipleship looks like, the thing that costs you is going to be the thing that saves you.

But that doesn’t sell well in our day and age.  It doesn’t sell in a culture where the prosperity Gospel gets so much air time (it gets that air time because it reinforces our culture that says that more stuff and “success” equals God’s favor and blessing).  So, no one really wants to come to a service where we remind ourselves of Jesus’ call to lay down our lives, sell what we have, sacrifice ourselves, where the Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well are our guideposts for what discipleship looks like, where the Beatitudes are our standard for what Christian practice looks like.

Here they come again…

So, Jesus gives his disciples the image of salt to meditate on, “You are the salt of the earth.” Oh yes, we like that, see, he sees how wonderful we are. But wait there’s more, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”  On second thought…

 “You are the light of the world.” Don’t hide your light.  “Let your light shine before others…”  And the challenge of our vocation is laid before us.

We’re just not let off the hook at all.  Our eyebrows furrow a bit and we’re uncomfortable.  Which brings me to my next point: discomfort.

You may or may not know that we don’t choose these texts for Sunday services.  Lord knows if I could choose, I would have John 3:16 right now or that cute text from Isaiah about the lion living with the lamb.  I would have something much fuzzier and less abrasive.  But I don’t get to choose; our texts are assigned each Sunday on a three year cycle.  It’s one of the brilliant things about our church, because it doesn’t let us hide from difficult issues.  So, when the text for the day lines up with the events swirling around us, we can do one of two things: ignore them and pretend we don’t see the obvious, or perhaps admit that that the Spirit may just be at work.

When we get the Beatitudes and the prophet Micah texts with “walk humbly with your God” on the Sunday following Holocaust Remembrance day, when an immigration ban is put into place, what are we supposed to do?

Over my ten year priesthood, some folks were uncomfortable that have said things out loud from the pulpit, but I want to honestly ask you, what would disturb you more: that your clergy leaned into the difficult spaces and wrestled right in front of your eyes, trying to find a theological way to understand this (because that is what we are called to do, wrestle to find a theological grounding).  Would it disturb you more if we leaned into that risky and vulnerable space, or if we avoided it all together and skirted around it?  It’s like pastoral care, what would disturb you more, that we entered into that risky, vulnerable space with a terrifying diagnosis or family death, or if we skirted around the edges?

As much as it is wonderful to be present when the fourth generation of a family has a baptism, we must also try to be present when there is pain and confusion in the world.  And I would have given anything to have had four Sundays to reflect on the exciting news from our Annual Meeting, but dagnabit, as my grandmother would say, if things didn’t get all wonky.  We don’t have that luxury…

These past few weeks, and as best I can tell this is going to be a pattern, I feel like I did that time I went to make a smoothie and forgot to put the lid on the blender.  I was so looking forward to that smoothie, and I smiled and hit the button and then spent an hour cleaning banana goo and milk off of everything within twenty feet.

I am as kerfuffled as the rest of you right now with all that I read and see, but I’m just trying to be honest… you may squirm in your pews, but thank God you don’t see my knees knocking underneath these pretty robes I wear.  And I want you to know how hard it is to preach right now—and  I want you to know how seriously we take the change given to us to “Give us God.”

But back discomfort:

Somewhere along the way, someone decided that it was inappropriate to talk about politics in any way from the pulpit.  I don’t agree.  I don’t agree because I have the same understanding of politics as the ancient Greeks:  that the polis, the gathering community of the people, is the locus of our existence, and that we struggle to understand and order our lives together as a community.  If community life is at the heart of who we are—and I believe it is—then it is not a matter of never reflecting on politics; rather it is a respectful pledge to never abuse the privilege we have and promote a particular party platform.  And we don’t do that… We don’t do that, because, if we did, as your rector, I would have a lovely framed photo of Her Majesty the Queen next to the photo of Bishop Wright in the narthex.

When things come at us, with these texts that we have been given, what are we to do?  And, do we believe that God has a call on all our lives, or have we compartmentalized ourselves so much that we have lost our saltiness in the process?

We so often just want to hear “This little light of mine,” but we so often need to hear the last verse from the Sequence Hymn:

We have no mission but to serve
In full obedience to Our Lord;
To care for all without reserve.
And spread Christ’s liberating Word.

Here they come again…

I have only purposefully poked one person in the eye in my entire life.  And that was my sister.  And she had it coming.  We don’t wake up in the morning, as your priests, and call each other and say, “hey, let’s say this today and make sure we tick someone off so that we spend the next four days on phone calls or exchanging emails and not make the hospital visits we need to make.”

When I took my vows to be a priest, I meant them.  And I wasn’t naïve.  I knew that it was going to be hard, with the hardest part being that people want church to be a safe, comfortable space, somehow removed from the struggles and pressures of the world.  I knew full well that my charge of “Give us God” would be met with “I’m just fine, thank you very much.”  And that tension begins in my own heart!

In this crazy world we live in, where someone has left the lid off the blender, being a “safe space” doesn’t mean avoiding difficult topics!  It means that we hold each other accountable to lean into these difficult topics in a theological way—recognizing that no one of us is the cause of our discomfort.  The root cause of discomfort is the Gospel, which has a nagging tendency to poke me in the eye as often as it can.  And the Gospel’s call extends to our whole life—not just the easy parts.  This is the message of the prophets, and it is the call of the church.

And what a luxury to have this community where we can lean into this space together?  What a luxury to be able to sit and have theological conversations?  Is it awkward?  Yes, lord….awkward as a junior high school dance, with each of us standing on walls of the school gym looking at each other wanting to talk with each other and not having a clue how.

But friends, it’s what we’re called to do.

It is NOT that the church or clergy talking about politics makes us nervous or uncomfortable.  That is NOT at the heart of the problem.  If all politics was off limits, then there would be no problem with me removing the American flag and not observing Veterans Day, Memorial Day, or Independence Day.  And, we would stop weddings, because we’re agents of the states during weddings.   But we’re not stopping these things, because they are important parts of our life that deserve to have a space near the altar.  No, politics, in and of itself, is not the issue.  The issue is that we get uncomfortable when the Gospel convicts us, and we realize the call that Jesus has on our lives as disciples.  THAT is what makes us uncomfortable, so the way we avoid that is to project this expectation that we just don’t go near “political conversations.”  And we lose our saltiness…

IF we can do this, if we can lean into this space rather than leave it, I truly believe that we will be utterly amazed at what we can experience as a spiritual community.

We so often say, “I know the Beatitudes say that, but…” or “I know the prophets say that, but…” or “I know Jesus says that, but…”  But, what if we stopped with just saying “I know Jesus says that…” [pause] and stay in that tension as a community? Don’t give ourselves a way out…

Not jump to escape the tension but stay in it, all awkward and squirmy and frustrating…yet trusting that each and every one of us is striving and stumbling to live into this call we have as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Then, we can hear Isaiah’s admonition from today’s text, that the type of worship God expects of us is to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”

And we can feel so awkward and tense—and even angry!      And we can look at each other, and maybe…just maybe…say “Oh sweet Jesus, I don’t like that at all.  It makes me uncomfortable!  I’m so angry! How are we supposed to live into this?”

And I can tell you that you’ll hear one of your priests say, “I know.  I feel the same way.  I don’t have any answers, but, if you’re willing, come by this week, we’ll put on some tea, and we’ll give it go.”

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
St. Matthew 5:13-20
Epiphany V, Year A
February 5, 2017

2 comments

  1. I missed this homily.Fr. Stuart. Last week I was being a Baptist at Blackshear Place, taking the ladies of My Sister’s Place to church. I know my friend, Robin Hale, is coming to talk with you, about his concerns. I, too, feel conflicted, about what Jesus calls us to do in this uncertain time.

  2. Jo, thank you for your note. I appreciate your taking the time to reply. Maybe we can meet up soon and visit? Robin is coming this week, and it will be good to see him. You take care! All the best, S+

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