Friday, March 18, 2016

Serving Saints and Pagans

[Sermon for the ordination of Mary Lynn Coulson to the transitional diaconate, March 17, 2016]
As we gather here tonight for this joyful event – and perhaps a somewhat frightening event for one of us – I’d like to look backward for a bit before looking forward to Mary Lynn’s ministry.  In fact, I’d like to look backward about 16 centuries. Today is the feast of St. Patrick, missionary to the peoples of Ireland.1  And I have to say, St. Patrick’s feast is a very good time to be ordaining someone into the ranks of servant leaders for the Church in our own day.
We associate Patrick with all things Irish, but he wasn’t Irish – born in Britain and raised in the upper class.  He was the grandson of a priest but only a nominal Christian himself, and apparently he ridiculed clergy quite openly as a teenager (imagine that). 
At 16, everything changed for Patrick, and for the Church, when he was captured by invading Irish pirates and sold into slavery.  That might well have been the end of his story, spiritually if not physically.  But as a slave in Ireland, Patrick experienced three changes that would set his life’s course.  First, he came to know God as revealed in creation, and he was transformed from a nominal Christian to a disciple with deep trust in the Trinity.  Second, he came to understand the culture of the Celtic peoples of Ireland.  Third, and most unexpectedly, he came to love those Celtic peoples of Ireland, wanting them to know God as he had come to know God. 
After six years a slave, Patrick heard a voice in a dream telling him to escape on a ship that would be awaiting him the next morning.  Sure enough, when he awoke, the ship was there; and Patrick escaped.  Eventually, after time in Gaul and perhaps Rome, Patrick found his way back home to England, where he trained for the priesthood and served a parish for several years.
But at 48 years old, Patrick had another dream that changed his life and the lives of generations.  He dreamt his former captors were calling him back to Ireland, and he interpreted this as a divine call – a call to share his love of God and trust in God with the peoples of Ireland.  He proposed this mission to his superiors, who affirmed his call and ordained him the first missionary bishop in Christian history – the first bishop without an existing church to pastor.
So, Patrick and his small band of apostles arrived in Ireland in 432.  His mission was unprecedented because Patrick turned the Church’s assumption about mission on its head.  Before Patrick, the Roman Church assumed that Christian faith could only take root in Roman culture.  If the people hadn’t been taught to speak Latin and follow Roman ways, the Church assumed, Christianity couldn’t happen.  It’s the same set of missional mistakes the Church made over and over again with peoples in the Americas, Africa, Asia … mistakes we’re finally coming to unlearn today.  It turns out Patrick was centuries ahead of his time in showing us how to be a mission-shaped Church.
How Patrick went about that mission might sound familiar to someone coming out of seminary in 2016.  In a nutshell, Patrick practiced church from the bottom up.  He didn’t franchise an institutional brand and open up in new locations.  Patrick was a community organizer.  He and his apostolic team came into a new context, got to know the people there (both leaders and regular folks), got involved in people’s day-to-day lives, and lived as Christians, narrating their faith story and their trust in God along the way.  More than anything else, Patrick and his followers took individual people seriously.  He knew their culture; he knew their language; and he knew that a relationship with the Triune God would change their hearts as it had changed his.  And it worked.  Patrick would take a dozen or so assistants into a village, engage the people there for several months, and create an indigenous church – one that remained when the team moved on.  Estimates are that Patrick and his team raised up expressions of church in 700 locations in Ireland over the 28 years he was there.
Interestingly, and sadly, that happy ending wasn’t quite the end of Patrick’s missional story.  He and his fellow apostles had this amazing experience of joining with the Holy Spirit to breathe church into being among people who had never known the Good News.  But back in Britain, the bishops who’d sent Patrick generally condemned him and distanced the institutional church from his methods.  They disowned Patrick because … wait for it … the Church hadn’t done it like that before.  In that day, apparently, bishops understood their role to be administrators and chaplains, and the Church saw its work primarily as running its operations and ministering Word and Sacrament to the existing flock.  The British church leaders didn’t know what to do with someone who wanted the Church to be mission-shaped.  So they condemned Patrick for spending so much time with barbarians.  They would have preferred that he spent his days in the office rather than out in the bars and coffee shops with the pagans.
So, what does all this have to do with our work here tonight on this feast of St. Patrick?  The first point is obvious:  Mary Lynn is being ordained into leadership in a Church that the Holy Spirit has placed – and increasingly is placing – among non-Christians, if we can imagine such a thing.  God is asking us to be a mission-shaped church every bit as much as God was asking Patrick to raise up a mission-shaped church in Ireland.  The church God calls us to be is formed in conversation with the context of a given time and place, just as much as in conversation with Scripture, tradition, and reason. 
So that’s the first point of connection with Mary Lynn’s ordination tonight.  The second point of connection may be less obvious until you’ve lived it a while.  As we hear St. Patrick’s story, of course we focus on his faithfulness, his trust, and his courage in following God’s call.  What we don’t hear is the cost to Patrick himself.  Just imagine the spendthrift servant heart it must have taken to raise up church in 700 Irish villages. 
That servant story is also Jesus’ story, as we heard in the Gospel reading tonight.  Out of context, we may not get the full irony of that reading about greatness and servanthood.  A dispute arises among Jesus’ followers about which of them is the greatest, which seems the height of presumption and immaturity in any case.  But in the context of the larger story, it’s just appalling.  Jesus is at table with his friends for the last time that night, celebrating God’s redemption of Israel at the Passover while the chief priests and Judas have hatched a plan to have him arrested and killed.  Jesus washes the feet of his friends and institutes the Eucharist, as we will remember one week from tonight – asking his friends to re-member him in bread broken and wine poured out, the fullest expression of self-giving love.  And then, in the next breath, his friends are arguing about which one of them is the greatest.  Maybe they’re considering the practicalities of succession before the body’s even cold.  Maybe they’re just astronomically tone deaf.  I imagine Jesus slack-jawed, even he being surprised at their blindness.  “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” Jesus says, “… but not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).  After all, Jesus reminds them, “I am among you as one who serves” (22:27).  Remember?  Remember.
Mary Lynn, would you please stand?  Now, at this moment, I’m supposed to give you some sage wisdom about the call you’re about to undertake.  I don’t know that what I’ll say is particularly wise, but I do know that it’s true:  Being ordained to serve Christ in his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church will cost you everything.  That costly process has been well underway for you for some time, I know.  It will feel sometimes like you can’t win.  The Church will commission you as an apostle to those outside the assembly, and it will expect you to give your all to those already within the flock.  Bishops and colleagues will remind you of the need to set good boundaries even as you have two deaths and a parish meeting that week.  The institutional culture, as well as your own brokenness, will tempt you with visions of greatness, especially when the day-to-day work of loving people becomes more grind than gift.  As a deacon, and later as a priest, you are absurdly called “to serve all people” in the name of Jesus Christ (BCP 543), incarnating his presence in everything you speak and everything you do.  Acting under our own power, all this is simply impossible.  Acting through the power of the Holy Spirit, this call that costs you everything is paradoxically life-giving – for those you serve and, astonishingly, for you.  As you join with St. Patrick in re-inventing the Church and in serving thousands of individual children of God, remember the verb that will save your life.  It’s the verb that drives the creeds, though we mistranslate it and hear it intellectually, asserting, “We believe….”  Don’t just believe.  Trust.  That’s the verb that will save your life.  Along with St. Patrick and his glorious hymn, trust in the “strong name of the Trinity.”  Trust in the “power of God to hold and lead.”  Trust in Christ within you, Christ behind you, Christ before you, Christ beside you.”  Trust in “the Lord of [your] salvation,” that you may be Christ’s deacon and, later, priest, loving both the saints and the pagans God sends you to serve.

1.      St. Patrick’s story is summarized from: Hunter, George G.  The Celtic Way of Evangelism.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2000, 13-25.

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