Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Two Bookend Experiences

Trinity + St. Philip's Cathedral, Newark NJ
Service of Renewal of Ordination Vows
April 7, 2009

The Tuesday in Holy Week
Jeremiah 1:4-9
Psalm 119:33-40
Matthew 9:35-38

Two Bookend Experiences

At Grace Church in Madison where I’m the curate I have sort of a running joke with the rector, Lauren Ackland. It’s not particularly funny, so don’t feel obliged to laugh. The joke is whenever I’m faced with the task of preaching a difficult text or whenever inspiration doesn’t seem to be striking I often say, “Lauren, don’t worry - it’s no problem, I’ve got it – I’ll just talk about myself.”

Even though by now she’s heard this routine many times, Lauren is very polite so she’ll usually at least smile. Not quitting while I’m ahead, to get a laugh, sometimes I push it a little further and start to say something in “preacher voice” like, “I’m reminded of one day when I was in third grade, I was sitting in math class, and…”

At this point - if I still haven’t gotten a laugh - then I usually back away slowly and slink back to my office and get to work on the sermon.

I had one of those situations a couple of weeks ago when, like many of you, I guess, I had to preach on that bizarre story from Numbers about God sending poisonous snakes to kill the Israelites and then instructing Moses to create an idol, which apparently did the trick. As for the prohibition against idolatry – it seems there’s an exception in case of attack by poisonous snakes.

And now this morning I’m faced with one of those challenging situations again with the task of preaching to you – most of whom have been ordained far longer than I have been – preaching to you about…ordained life.

So, although I’m not a kid anymore, I can really sympathize with Jeremiah when he tries to wiggle out of the task he’s been given from God by saying he’s only a child.

But, Lauren, don’t worry – I’ve got it – I’ll just talk about myself!!

Having lived almost my whole life in Jersey City, I wasn’t able to come up with any poisonous snake stories, but I have had lots of experience with the ordained. And, as I’ve reflected back, I realize that I have had two bookend experiences that have shaped my understanding of what it means to be ordained. These two bookend experiences have shaped my understanding of our vocation, the kinds of lives we are called to lead as deacons and priests.

The first of these bookend experiences was way back in about 1971, when I was three or four years old. As good Roman Catholics, each Sunday my parents and I went to church – in this case St. Boniface Church in downtown Jersey City. One of the priests there was named Jack Egan – some of you Hudson County folks may remember him. He was actually one of the many Roman priests who had been radicalized be Vatican II. But, of course, as a little kid I knew nothing about that – all I knew was when he came down the aisle to shake my hand at the peace, I always refused.

I can’t explain why – maybe shyness or standoffishness - but that is my earliest church memory. The priest, smiling, extending his hand, and I shake my head no, or turn away, as my embarrassed parents smile apologetically.

Fast-forward about thirty years. By then I was married, still living in Jersey City and now teaching history at St. Peter’s Prep. My wife Sue and I were having trouble finding a church home. A fellow teacher said that we should take a look at her church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, which was actually just a few blocks from our house.

Since I’m interested in local history I thought this would be a chance to see the inside of this historic church. The Sunday when we visited St. Paul’s we discovered a beautiful church with a diverse and welcoming congregation, great music and intelligent and passionate preaching.

But what sticks out most in my memory is the exchange of peace. People seemed genuinely happy to see each other and to offer one another a sign of peace. People were out in the aisles, shaking hands and hugging one another.

Sue and I didn’t know how to react. This was very friendly. Very different from what we were used to – maybe you’ve seen this - people hoping no one would sit near them so they could just give a little wave rather than having any physical contact.

Anyway, near the end of the peace the priest approached Sue and me, reached out his hand and said, “I’m Dave Hamilton. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”

This time, instead of standoffishly turning away, I reached out my hand in return and began a journey that has led to me standing here today.

These two bookends – these two stories of priests reaching out – symbolize for me the kind of lives we are called to lead as ordained people.
Reaching out is the heart of ordained ministry.

The work that Jesus describes as the “harvest” is our vocation. It’s the vocation of reaching out to people – to a world – that is surely at least as harassed and helpless as the people of Israel were during Jesus’ earthly lifetime.

And when we stop and think about the enormity of that vocation, I am sure all of us have felt overwhelmed.

Fortunately, though, as I frequently need to be reminded, it’s not really about us. No, our task is simply being open enough to allow God to work through us – open enough to allow God to reach out through us – to reach out to a world desperate to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and to see that Good News in action.

And - as I’ve already discovered in the short time I’ve been ordained - if we are open enough to allow God to reach out through us - it’s amazing what can happen.

As Gail Godwin writes in her novel Evensong, “Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you.”

I’ve heard the bishop quote that line and I quoted it in some the things I wrote for the Commission on Ministry when I was in the ordination process.

But I am only now beginning to realize just what it means.

“Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you.”

To be honest, there are plenty of times when I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into and think, you know what, I should have stuck with teaching history. I mean where’s the good news in poisonous snakes? And I do miss Saturday night. And I could really live without having to chant in front of so many talented singers. And I used to have the whole summer off – what was I thinking giving that up!?

But at my best, when I am open enough to allow God to do God’s work through me, then I remember this really is my vocation and that by reaching out God keeps making more of me.

When I’m open enough to allow God to do God’s work, when I’m open enough to allow God to reach out through me, then the visit to the hospital seems to happen at just the right time or an image in a sermon seems to land in someone’s heart, or I run into someone on the street or in the supermarket and it’s like they’ve been waiting for me and their fears and joys just pour out of them right then and there.

And each Sunday at the peace as I make my way down the aisle I remember my two bookends. Sometimes little kids see me coming in this weird outfit, smiling. I reach out my hand and they turn away in fear, or, who knows, maybe standoffishness. And I think – vocation!.

And there are other times when I’ll spot newcomers, go over, reach out my hand and say, “I’m Tom Murphy. Welcome to Grace Church.”

May the renewal of our vows inspire us to even greater openness, allowing God to reach out through us into the harvest.