Archive for April, 2008

The Mysterious Allure of Service

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

John 14: 1-14

Preface

He that believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do” (Jn 14: 12).

Which works? Which works are your works? Which works are the shared works of the Mysterious Christ?

How shall we sense whether, and how, we are called? How do you know what you are called to be and do?

Between the basin and towel of the washing of feet, in chapter 13, and the cross and pain of the crucifixion, in chapter 19, the strange voice of Christ is raised again, here, in a well worn passage.

This morning we shall leave to one side the better known, though often misinterpreted, lyrics in this song in John 14, and hold fast to the conclusion of the reading, about works.

In faith one will do the works I do…

In the face of all our troubles, a radiant memory remains of the power in service to, service with, service for others.

This week, that is, we face squarely the overwarming of the planet, the hunger of the earth’s children, the steady drumbeat of warfare, and the manifold hurts and ailments which beset every family to some degree and every person at some moment.

Yet, this week, we also hear and overhear a high note above all our troubles. We hear this high note, even when we cannot see out to its origin. We hear and overhear a long, sonorous melody that will not cease, will not let go, and will not let us go. To hear it more clearly may be why we come to church.

You heard a bit of it as you listened to your student friends and neighbors sorting out, now that graduation is near, the various claims upon their lives. What a privilege to listen in on the hardest of hard works, the decisions about vocation. Every community harbors such conversation, as does every University worth its salt. Career placement is good, but vocational discernment sings in a higher key. Marsh Chapel is focused on vocation choices. A mysterious allure there is to service…

You heard a bit of it as you listened to your Jewish friends and neighbors celebrating the Passover. So lovely and choice are the rhythms of a holy meal around a family table! Questions and answers. Songs and psalms. A memory of hardship in times of ease, and a memory of redemption in times of trial. The service includes, at its outset, this high note for which we listen. ‘To know one’s service before the Lord is the task of the wise’. A mysterious allure there is to service…

You heard a bit of it as you listened to your Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, watching the Bishop of Rome, making his choices and visits. You may have wondered, psalm in mind, how he ever would sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. You saw the throngs, parades, and visits. And where was the high note? Was it heard when a moment of pastoral attention, a moment of watching over one another in love, stood out? Flickeringly, the memory have served up Pope Gregory’s self description, ‘the servant of the servants of God’. Servant of the servants. A mysterious allure there is to service…

He that believes will do the works that I do…’

What are these works? How shall we hear of them in this strange passage?

These words, however finally sifted, for historical information and insight, as we have done here with regularity, also deserve and require application to life as we know it. The passage and its message, and indeed its Messenger, bear to us an indirect invitation, an evocation of the allure of service in relationship to the divine. It is an odd reading. But the whole of the gospel is of this type.

It is odd that John has no record of the Last Supper, in his account of the passion. It is odd that John demotes Peter from his regular central role. It is odd that this gospel carries no remembrance of parables. It is odd that hardly anything of the standard ministry of Jesus, usual gospel fare, appears here. It is odd that the humanity of Jesus has virtually disappeared into the bright eternal light of his form in John, “God striding upon the earth”. It is odd that the New Testament would include a Gospel so fully at odds with its three synoptic cousins. Cousins, not siblings. It is odd that John, by the main, has no use for the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Where would the church be without birth to cleanse and guilt to absolve? It is odd that the Gospel we read today is shaped around seven stunning miracles, and four impenetrable chapters of teaching. It is odd that a Gospel so wildly different from the rest of those in the Bible should have made the cut, and been included. If you think having Ecclesiastes—which rejects, contradicts and humiliates much of the rest of the Hebrew Scripture—included there is a strange thing, then multiply that odd presence by 20 or 50 and you have a sense of how different is John. Nor in church nor in academia have we yet begun to account for the radical freedom and difference of this nonconforming gospel. It is odd.

What remains, as we consider our calling, our vocation?

A testimony to the power of relationship remains. John 14 sets aside predictions, instructions, and demonstrations, found here in the other gospels. Here relationship, relationship alone, remains. The relationship of Father and Son. The relationship of departed and devoted. The relationship of doubter and disciple. The relationship of community and pastor. The relationship of faith and works. The relationship of Jesus and his own.

Things that really matter are ultimately relational, whether that relationship is with others, with self, or with God. Our friends give
us ourselves. Our instincts give us ourselves. Our sense of presence gives us ourselves. So this morning let me directly ask you to think about your close relationships, your work relationships, and your relationship to God. In these relationships you may overhear the humming, mysterious allure of service.

Close Relationships

First, think about your closest relationships, and the ways you were raised to them. Last week I asked you to draw to active awareness the name and memory of an influential teacher. Likewise, for a moment this morning, I ask you to draw up into active awareness, the close relationships that have given you yourself, along the way life, deep in the truth of life. An influential complex of relationships…

For example, here is one account, one testimony, no worse or better than any other. Through our upbringing, we were given a hint of the allure, mysterious but real, of service. I offer my own memory of close relationship, only to encourage your active awareness of your own.

We learned to love Jesus in the simple rhythms of the ordinary. We learned to love Jesus in the pause before meals, with grace in his name. We learned to love Jesus singing hymns to Him, in church, at camp, in the car. We learned to love Jesus as we read about his life in the Bible. We learned to love Jesus by celebrating his birth in snowy December, and his destiny in snow melting April. We learned to love Jesus by seeing older people love him, really love him, with their hands, and their money and their time and most especially with their choices, and within that, with their choices about things not to say, not to be, not to do. We learned to love Jesus like we learned to speak English, one lisp at a time, one dangling preposition at a time, one new word at a time. The music of Jesus played the accompaniment to all of the growth and decay of life around us. There was no wall of separation, neither artificial, nor sacramental, nor communal, between our life and his. His was our life, and our life was his.

This sounds romantic, but it is not meant to be. Conflict, envy, hurt, gossip, anger, misjudgment, unfairness, tragedy, hatred, fear, abuse, neglect, betrayal, addiction, and loneliness sat around the table too—around the kitchen table, around the picnic table, around the coffee table, around the communion table.

Still there was a closeness in the Christ who raised us—a pine needle Christ, with the dawn scent of the forest primeval, a sunlit lakeside Christ, a blue collar chapped finger Christ, a blizzard Christ, an autumn peak Christ, a high summer Christ, a Christ with mud on Easter shoes. You could say that we were more Gospel people than Letter people, more Peter than Paul, more Good Samaritan than justification by faith, more Methodist than Calvinist, more song than verse. There was no forced or feigned distance between Jesus and us, between his life and our own.

He was with us in school, at home, in the summer, as we grew, as we studied, and married and worked. In relationship, in relationships.

Look, for a moment. Look at the good relationships that have sustained you thus far.

Trust your experience. Honor your instincts. Listen to your heart.

Your relationships are crucial, crucial in the dawning of a sense of vocation.

Work Relationships

Second, think about your work relationships in light of relationships that actually work. Let us for a moment be bluntly practical.

So now you are beginning to work, to hold a job. Day by day you may think about your work. Why does the television show ‘The Office’ appeal to so many?

What counts in your work relationships? Can you honestly list what is meaningful and what is not about what you do? There are clues here, deeply important ones. Do not, do not ensnare yourself with something that diseases your soul.

A while ago I picked up a book about work. Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class that gives me hope about the future of the culture, the church, and the ministry. He surveyed people about what they want in work—a kind of white collar Studs Turkel. Regarding work, he found, the question ‘what?’ is often secondary to the question, ‘with whom?’ People prefer the hair salon to the machine shop, for relational reasons. Hear his five part report on surveys of what people most want in work:

I. Responsibility: Being able to contribute and have impact. . .Knowing that one’s work makes a difference. . .Being seriously challenged.

II. Flexibility: A flexible schedule and a flexible work environment. . .The ability to shape one’s own work to some degree.

III. Stability: A stable work environment and a relatively secure job. . .Not lifetime security with mind-numbing sameness, but not a daily diet of chaos and uncertainty either.

IV. Compensation: Especially base pay and core benefits. . .Money you can count on.

V. Growth: Personal and professional development. . .The chance to learn and grow. . .To expand one’s horizons.

Now hear some good news! Many forms of service, including by the way, the Christian ministry, get A+ in four of these five, in responsibility, flexibility, stability and growth. There is no greater challenge or responsibility than shepherding souls, or otherwise attending to human need. Those invested in service often have some flexibility in determining use of time. A pastor has a pulpit—somewhere. Reading a book a day, or the equivalent, is a guarantee of personal growth. Responsibility! Flexibility! Stability! Growth! (And compensation? I will leave compensation for another day).

Says Robert Fogel:

Growing segmen
ts of the population work for challenge, enjoyment, to do good, to make a contribution, and to learn. Such motivations will eventually eclipse compensation as the most important motives for work … People on their death beds never wish they had spent more time in the office.

The mysterious allure of service challenges us to measure our relationship with work by our relationships that work. The mysterious allure of service challenges us to measure our relationship with work by our relationships that work.

A Relationship with God

Third, think about your relationship with God.

For the strange, even odd, mystery of this passage, its acclamation of the mysterious allure of service, takes us farther still. ‘He who believes in me will also do the works that I do.’

A longing deeper than the relationships of belonging, in family, and the relationships of meaning, in work, lies within our passage this morning. Here is a deeper longing, a longing for a relationship with God.

St. Augustine of Hippo at long last found himself, his soul, and his true vocation, by finding a personal relationship to God. Yes, Augustine entered the ministry. He became priest and bishop in North Africa about 400ad. He wrote 500 letters, 200 sermons, 2 great books. In an age, like yours, of intercultural conflict, Augustine made sense of faith’s highest vision…the city of God. In a culture, like yours, that wore the nametag of Christianity without fully understanding its meaning, Augustine celebrated…the grace of God. In a political climate, like ours, that honored highly individualized freedom and the power to choose, Augustine praised God’s freedom to choose, and acclaimed…the freedom of God. In a highly sexualized age, like ours, Augustine colorfully confessed his own wandering, his own mistakes, which, he attested, did test but did not exhaust the …patience of God. In a religious climate, like ours, which buffeted a truly biblical belief, Augustine praised his maker, and so reminded the church of the proper…praise of God. His Confessions—perhaps part of your summer reading—his great autobiography, is a prayer—for the city of God, by the grace of God, in the freedom of God, to the patience of God, as the praise of God. Augustine found a relationship with God and was ordained. And vice versa.

That is…

It may be that the only way God has to relate to some of us, to get our attention, to mute our pride, to kindle our affection, is to get us into the ministry. Baptism and confirmation suffice for most. But for the real hard cases—the guy who wrote the book on pride, the gal whose picture is alongside the dictionary definition of sloth, the one who embodies real falsehood—like us, like Augustine….like you?…God keeps ordination in reserve.

Coda

Friends.

There are many, many ways of keeping faith. There are many paths into the future. In light of today’s gospel, we affirm the mysterious allure of service. Close relationships, work relationships, relationships in faith give us clues.

There is a mysterious allure to a life of service. Frederick Beuchner well named its location: Where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. There is a mysterious allure to a life of service.

A Teacher’s Influence: Communion Meditation

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

April 13 2008

John 10:1-10

Who told you who you are?

Who taught you who you are?

Jesus meets us today, in the Gospel, speaking through the many echoes of many other voices. Take…Eat…As often as you shall drink…In remembrance of me…

Mixed in some of those voices, painstakingly remembered, may come the voice of the shepherd.

Our community of discipleship is centered today upon the Marsh Chapel altar. In a moment we shall celebrate Holy Communion. Presence beckons to us. Memory beckons to us. Thanksgiving Beckons to us. Again we are called and called out.

Do we hear, here?

Other echoes add acoustic bounce.

The sudden recognition of end of term calls too. Papers to edit, projects to complete, exams to prepare, irregular verbs to parse.

Concerns for safety of troops afar, refugees overlooked, a future to engage, with courage and humility. These greater issues call out as well.

The daily routines of hospitality and generosity, they too beckon. We have lunch downstairs today. Somebody is thinking about the oven temperature. Among our radio congregation a brunch or several thousand are in preparation. Somebody is thinking about the meal, as the service of worship, of word and table progresses.

Our Gospel is spoken, lisped, ‘gospeled’, amid other, many other echoes.

We have our monthly offering from our Inner Strength Gospel Choir. Their words and music encourage us.

We have our weekly gifts from the Chancel choir. Introit. Hymn. Kyrie. Gloria. Benediction.

Together, since Easter, we have heard loving voices of caring teachers. A young man from Chicago. A wise man from New Jersey. A word for the wise and foolish. A word of graceful rememberance.

We have also had our losses. Which remind us of other losses. The newer give again voice to the older losses.

Jesus meets us in a particular place and time, his voice like none other, so equable, so magnanimous, so serene, so true, so real. We cannot fully separate the voice of Shepherd from the many other sounds of the sheepfold.

While the table is open to all, it will not do to suppose that the table this morning has no place or time or context.

Hic et nunc. Here and now.

Listen…

He calls his own sheep by name

They know his voice

I am the door

If any one enters by me he will come in and go out and find pasture

If any one enters by me he will come in and go out and find pasture

If any one enters by me he will come in and go out and find pasture

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly

Listen….

There is an immediacy to his voice.

Its own echoes pierce through the many others, the many other sounds, the many other voices.

A month ago, I was not with you for communion. Our able team provided excellence in preaching and sacrament. For this we are deeply grateful. We had traveled to the mid-west for a wedding. We found ourselves in a community, located near the heart of Michigan State, an ecumenical congregation devoted for some 75 years now to ministry among teachers and students, People’s Church of Lansing. In the course of the regular wedding rituals and rhythms, we came to know a whole of host of new friends. At dinner, following rehearsal, we found people who had known one of my dearest teachers, Richard Baurle. One memory evoked another. In preparing the homily for the next day, the teacher’s own influence came again to mind. One memory of Scripture evoked another. In the delivery of the sermon, his name emerged, spoken and heard. One memory evoked another. In the congregation, so it happens, others had known him, for, as it happens, he was raised and educated in that region. One name memory evoked another. The community of the wedding dispersed, but the recognition of this fine teacher carried and was e-discussed, including a note from his son, and a request for further, other memories. One story evoked another…

Days later this message was sent.

Dear Jim (if I may),

Greetings to you and best wishes from Boston. I am glad you wrote.

Yes, I did mention your Dad in the course of the wedding homily. The homily was prepared earlier in the week, and I had not originally included Richard in it. But Friday night we had dinner with John and Marv, close friends of the Heinze family, who had known both Richard and Ruth. We spent some time reminiscing about your Dad particularly (I only knew your Mom to greet her, not having studied with her at all). It was one of those serendipitous moments when people from Grosse Pointe and people from Boston find out they have a lot in common.

When I was preparing the sermon for delivery on Saturday morning, I was thinking about Dr Baurle, and realized that some of the material mentioned in the sermon was literature I first had read under his fine guidance. It happened then that Mike Weiss and I spoke together about your Dad and about his friendship with you.

Your Dad was one of the three or four most influential teachers I had at OWU (others–L Easton, R Davies). In his classes I learned to read and write, at a certain level, under his careful teaching. I remember him telling us to write an essay from the middle out, a habit that has been a part of sermon preparation for me for three decades now. I remember his S…E…X teaching about the structure of a paragraph, guaranteed to stay in the 20 year old mind (statement…explanation…example). I remember his emphasis on introductions and conclusions. I won’t blame all my patterns and foibles in writing on Richard Baurle, but many, many of the things he taught us have stayed with me (including the few mentioned above).

It was not however the craft of writing which was his main gift to me, as important as that was. It was his human spirit, or his humanistic spirit, or his brooding, careful, loving, serious yet playful attention to the texts we read. Everything from Socrates to Fahrenheit 451. I do not know his personal history, so I do not know, really, what depths he drew from to convey both the pathos and the poignant power of the human spirit. You knew you were in the room with a real person, which drew me to take 3 or 4 courses with him in the course of earning a Humanities degree. It is strange, but I can see him right in front of me as if we were together yesterday, though I graduated in 1976.

Beloved, as you come to the table this morning, I invite you to a sharper memory, and a better life. As the rhythms of hospitality proceed—liturgy, music, cup and bread—I invite your active awareness of one, someone, who taught you who you are, one someone whose influence shaped you. For those invisible in our communion, listening across in time across space, I invite you to a sharper memory and better life. I invite your activated awareness of one, someone, who taught you who you are, one someone, who shaped you.

The enchantment of Easter comes in the Resurrection voice of Jesus who meets us today in word and table. In very humble elements, table elements, of bread and wine, he meets us.

If any one enters by me they will come in and go out and find pasture…

As the 23rd Psalm recalls…