Finding the Unexpected Jesus in Hard Times

This is the sermon to our clergy at the Renewal of Vows Service on Holy Tuesday, March 31, 2015


JesusSir, we wish to see Jesus.

I know we’ve all preached the sermon — I certainly have — or we’ve all said to our parishioners: You have to come to services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. You won’t understand the joy of Easter unless you’ve been through the pain and loss and darkness of the crucifixion.

As clergy, we know this. I know you are all making this week as meaningful as possible for your congregations and yourselves. It is a truism of life, particularly of the Christian life, that we have to endure the dark times to come into the light. The times of struggle are the times when we learn. We are tested and tempered by life’s difficulties and we emerge stronger.

Speaking to the public outside St. Paul's Cathedral in Buffalo on a recent dreary day.

Speaking to the public outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo on a recent dreary day.

I had that thought in mind the other day when I read in the newspaper that Buffalo was tied with Seattle for first place on the “dreariness index,” which measures gray, wet weather.

If struggle begets success, then after this bitter winter, we ought to be in line for an absolutely glorious summer and a beautiful autumn. We’ve paid the price.

The idea of passing through a dark time to get to the light has been on my mind lately because I’ve sensed a feeling of dreariness and weariness among us. This was reinforced last week at the meeting of the House of Bishops, when so many of the formal presentations and the informal conversations had to do with what’s wrong in the church these days.

Many of the conversations, both at the House of Bishops and here at home, center on the idea that we’re all being asked to live a life for which we were never prepared. My fellow bishops tell me the episcopate is nothing like what they expected it to be. It’s a completely different job. From priests I hear over and over again: Nothing we studied in seminary prepared us for what the church looks like now.

If seminaries really want to teach students what they’ll need to know in parish ministry, they’ll offer courses in Plumbing and Electrical 101. They’ll offer courses in finance so we can negotiate the complicated financial deals that are necessary to make a parish self-sustaining these days. Or they’ll offer courses in entrepreneurship and how to be an NGO so we can effectively use our buildings and our capabilities in partnership with our communities to provide the services our neighbors need.

It’s no wonder we feel the world is slipping out from under our feet. The expectations many of us had when we went to seminary no longer apply:

  • That we’d always have full-time jobs
  • That we’d be on a steady upward trajectory to larger parishes
  • That the world would listen to what the Church had to say.

None of those statements is true today.

Look at the disciples in our Gospel reading today. Some Greeks come and tell Philip: Sir, we wish to see Jesus. What does Jesus do? Instead of taking time to meet with them, he launches into a teaching about what is going to happen when he is gone. The disciples don’t know what to make of this riff about seeds of wheat falling into the earth and dying.

The disciples and the Greeks aren’t seeing the Jesus they expected.

We have all heard sermons — we’ve all probably PREACHED sermons — about the disciples not understanding what Jesus was talking about. Because we know the end of the story, it is easy for us to say that the disciples should have understood what Jesus was saying. (Of course, WE would have!) However, we should put ourselves in their sandals for a minute.

When Jesus called the disciples to follow him, they might have thought they were following a prophet or a wandering teacher. They may even have suspected he was the Messiah.

But they really had no idea what they were being called to DO. They didn’t know what it was going to mean to follow Jesus.

  • They were asked to converse with Samaritans, which was scandalous.
  • They were asked to go out two by two to talk about God — which was uncomfortable and challenging.
  • They were asked to deal with large crowds and small children, for which they had no training.

 

By the time Jesus is telling them that the Son of Man must be lifted up and tells them to walk in the light until the darkness comes, is it any wonder they aren’t sure what he means?

They saw Jesus arrested and brought to trial, and few of them could find the courage to stand witness at the crucifixion. They could not have imagined that — despite their fragile faith and their fear — they would receive the Holy Spirit and preach the Gospel to the ends of the world. None of this is what they expected to see.

When we answered the call to ordained ministry, we also had no idea what we were signing up for.

We have to do things that we never thought we would have to do, and learn new things all the time. We are constantly being called out of our comfort zone.

Like the first disciples, we are increasingly being called to proclaim Christ to a world that doesn’t know him and in which there is plenty of competition. Like them, we will have to be strong and courageous and make it up as we go along. Like them, we aren’t sure what Jesus is going to require of us next. All we can do is trust that he knows.

We are getting ready to stand at the foot of the cross, but — unlike the disciples — we know the end of the story, and we know it doesn’t end at the cross. From here we go to the empty tomb and to Pentecost, and from there to all the corners of the world.

Like the first disciples, we are being sent away from what we know and out from what makes us comfortable. Like them, we will have to share Jesus with people who have no idea what we are talking about, some of whom are actively hostile to our message.

A lot of what we do is the boring tedium of parish ministry: renegotiating the copier contract … hoping the sexton remembers to refill the paper-towel dispensers … proofing the bulletins … praying that the lectors have been adequately prepared to read the lessons on Sunday. We spend our days managing details. That’s not what we expected to be doing. But as I think of it, Jesus’s disciples spent a lot of time doing unglamorous, mundane tasks too: reserving the room for the Last Supper and hiring a caterer. Making sure there was a boat on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus wanted to cross to the other side. Lining up that donkey for Palm Sunday.

What we do — and what they did — in these routine tasks is this: We are preparing the way of the Lord. We are setting the stage so Jesus can do what he came to do. We are making it possible for others to see Jesus. That is holy work.

On Pentecost we will read from Acts about how the disciples were gifted with the ability to speak in many languages, the better to spread the Good News. Like them, we will have to learn new languages. For some it might be the ability to communicate in English with someone whose life and challenges and burdens are foreign to anything we know.

Like the disciples, we will have to learn to worship in new ways and translate our teaching and our practices to different cultures. Like them, we will have to step outside the doors of our familiar worship places and find new sacred spaces: at Starbucks, in a college lounge, in a bar, at a retirement community, in a coin laundry, in a park.

As challenging as that is, we know that is where Christ has sent us and that the Holy Spirit goes with us.

Jesus’s entire ministry was about stepping into places where he wasn’t welcome, saying things that surprised or angered people, turning their expectations upside down, and inviting them into a place where many of them were not sure they wanted to go. That’s our ministry too. We won’t find Jesus in the tomb, or in the comfortable, familiar places. We will find him in the most unlikely places, and that’s why we have to go there. And the Jesus we see there may not be the Jesus we expect, but it likely will be the Jesus we need.

At the House of Bishops meeting I was speaking with my friend Marc Andrus, the bishop of the Diocese of California. He directed me to a line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He acknowledged the difficulties of the journey, but said that it is faith in our ability to change that gives us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.

He said:

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.

That creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born is exactly the conflict we are engaged in today.

Do Not Be Afraid Event Photo

The 4th of five Do Not Be Afraid conversations — this one held at St. James Church in Batavia, NY.

One of the gratifying aspects of the House of Bishops meeting was discovering that we are ahead of the curve on many of the issues that perplex my brother and sister bishops.

  • Our conversations on race — the “Be Not Afraid” sessions — address one of the hardest topics of our time.
  • Our cooperation with the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania is a model that many other dioceses are watching.
Photo of GC Deputations

Gathering with the bishop and deputation of the Diocese of Northwestern PA is just one of the ways in which our two diocese are forging a working partnership.

  • Our conversations about restructuring — are of interest to dioceses that realize the old way no longer makes sense.

These are all works in progress. We don’t know how they are going to turn out. The important thing is that we are doing something, not just talking about it. Sometimes this feels like repairing the plane while we’re flying it, and that’s something else for which we were never prepared.

Creative TurmoilWe are involved in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born. This is the work for which we were called to ordained ministry.

The Greeks who approached Philip wanted to see Jesus. We became priests and deacons and engage in lay minisry because we want to see Jesus. Now we are discovering that the way to see Jesus may be different from the way we anticipated, and the Jesus we see may be different from the Jesus we expect. The important thing is that we look … and that it’s still Jesus.

In a few minutes we will renew our ordination vows and consecrate the chrism. These oils are used to heal and to symbolize the presence of the Holy Spirit. Even in our dark times the Spirit is with us, providing grace moments on our dreary days and inspiration on our weary days.

At the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA, it is the custom on Wednesday of Holy Week — the most austere week in Christianity — to serve rich, flaky, hot biscuits that have been dipped in melted butter. The reason: to remind us that Jesus is coming. To remind us, as we go through the darkest days in our Christian calendar, that what awaits us at the end is resurrection, not burial; love, not hate; life, not death. A genuine civilization struggling to be born. And it is to this exciting, terrifying task that we are called. This is what gives me hope: What we are giving birth to is a place where we all, more clearly, may see Jesus.

Amen.

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