The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Trusting in God through transition


** First Sunday at Holy Trinity, Valley Stream, NY


In the name of God.  Amen.

I’m going to do something today that I almost never do.  It may not seem particularly out of the ordinary to you, since you’re not used to my preaching style or patterns or voice, but I assure you it’s highly out of character for me.

When I was first exploring this preaching vocation, my mentor trained me to “preach the Gospel”.  That, she assured me, was my call.  And sure, while there are certainly ways to preach the gospel without using the words of the gospels’ accounts of Jesus, the surest way to make sure that you’re actually doing it, is to preach from the words of the gospels.  Not from the Hebrew Bible, or from the Epistles, or from some extra-canonical text, but from the four gospel accounts of Jesus Christ.

That advice has served me well throughout my preaching life, and I’ll return you to that regularly scheduled programming shortly.  But for today, I’d like to take a little side trip.

There aren’t many times in the course of a ministry when the appointed texts or prayers of the lectionary cycles line up so nicely with the pastoral needs of a congregation (and, if I’m honest, with the pastoral needs of their priest) as is the case today.  When I read what the crafters of our Prayer Book had set up for us, I almost laughed at how appropriate it is.

In case you missed it at the start of the service, let’s hear that collect again:

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

I really can’t think of better words for us to hear and say as we begin this journey together.  “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…”  Even if the prayer didn’t go on from there that alone would be enough for us to live by.  But this beautifully appropriate prayer doesn’t stop there.  We are warned against “confiding in our own strength”, and we’re urged instead to “make our boast of God’s mercy.”

Transition can be unsettling.  It might even be scary, sometimes.  I know, as I’ve moved into this transition in my own life - of leaving a full-time parish position, and going back to school to try to develop skills to enable and enhance my vocation as a priest - it has been literally unsettling.  I’ve moved.  Into a new house, a new diocese, a new state…  That’s about as literally “unsettling” as something can be.  And, it’s frightening.  I’m starting a new master’s program at Adelphi.  I haven’t been in school for a long time, so it’s a little unnerving to consider going back into a classroom again.  It’s scary to be taking on new student loans again - despite Paul’s warnings against owing anyone anything.  It’s daunting to imagine taking on the rigors of starting a new ministry in a parish at the same time that I’m taking on the rigors of being a student.

It all feels tenuous and unstable.  Unsettled.  Scary.

But before your eyes glaze over entirely - let me assure you that I know that preaching isn’t all about me!  I’m telling you all of this so you’ll see that I’m in the boat with you.  I understand that transition can be a difficult season in our lives - I understand it because I’m living it right along side you.

Christianity has been described as “one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.”  In this peculiar community that grows around our faith, no one is above another.  No one is the boss of another.  No one is at the top of the ladder lording his or her position over another.  We are simply fellow sojourners, traveling the way of Christ together, sharing with each other what we’ve learned on the journey to ease one another’s passage.

That’s not to say that we don’t have leaders, or that we don’t each have our own place within the community or our own tasks to accomplish and our own goals to strive toward.  Of course we do.  But the essence of the Christian experience is that we’re traveling together.  We’re each flawed.  We’re each burdened in our own ways.  But we’re also each gifted in our own ways.  We’re each empowered in our own ways.

We’re all looking for bread, and we’re all here to help each other find it.

So, in this season of transition - the transition we’re embarking on together as a community, and all of the other transitions that we’re all facing in our own lives, both large and small - in this season of transition we all need to help show each other a bit of the way.  For whatever legs of the journey through which we hold the map, we need to share that wisdom freely and joyfully.  For those legs of the journey when we feel lost or disoriented, we need to be ready and willing to be vulnerable with one another and to know when it’s time to let someone else lead the way.

We are called to trust in God with our whole hearts.  Not to rely on our own strength, but to boast, instead, of the Lord’s mercy.  Part of how we experience that mercy is through the wisdom and guidance of the gathered community.

In times of stress or uncertainty - the kinds of stress and uncertainty that we might experience during times of transition - it can be easy to try to rely solely on our own capacities.  It can be easy to try to imagine that we have it all - that we have everything that we need.  But the truth is, none of us do.  As individuals, we need the community.  As a community, we need the world beyond the sanctuary of these familiar and safe walls.  And through it all, we need the guidance, love, and support of God our creator, the Christ who came to set us free, and the Spirit who continues to birth renewed freedom into our lives.

We can’t do it alone.  We need God and we need the resources God has given us, in each other and in the world around us, rightly used.  We need to trust in God with our whole hearts, because we can’t ever do all that we’ve been called to do alone.

The paradox of it all is, confiding in our own strength will only reveal our weakness.  Our real strength is in the mercy of God.

Through this journey that we’re about to take together, we need to be strong enough to show each other the way.  And, perhaps even more importantly, we must be vulnerable enough to follow someone else.  That’s the only way we’ll find bread. 

So take out the lessons insert for today, and join me in reading the collect for the day.  May it become the collect, not just for today, but for our whole time together:

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

And Amen.

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