Sermon 4-15-18 Sean Matthew Weston Installation at Lyonsville Congregational UCC,
Indian Head Park, IL texts:
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-30; and Luke 9:57-10:2
The Rev. R. Kent Cormack
To you who are salt and light and leaven, the saints of Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ: grace to you and peace in the name of the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.
You have prayed and evaluated and prayed and interviewed and prayed and discerned and prayed and listened, and you have called a pastor. And you hope that it is a match made in heaven. You have called someone who will tell you that he has been called—called to preach and teach and listen and heal, called to ordained ministry in this amazing, beautiful, cantankerous, prophetic strand of the holy catholic church that we call the United Church of Christ. I am grateful to be invited to be here today, for I have had the privilege of witnessing certain aspects of the call of Sean Matthew Weston firsthand. I was not there to hear your borning cry as the hymn says, you were, I think, in fourth grade when your family arrived in the congregation in 2002. Certainly you wasted no time becoming involved. A search of my computer files revealed some things I had forgotten. Did you remember that, a few months later, you and your sister landed the roles of Joseph and Mary in the Christmas Pageant? Or that within months you were a regular part of the rotation of lectors reading scripture in worship? If any of you are wondering how leaders are formed in the Christian community, take note. They are formed, in part, by being invited into leadership, where from time to time, the Holy Spirit ignites and calls in ways that may surprise and disturb.
During the past couple of weeks, considering what I would say today, two memories in particular kept surfacing. You didn’t invite me to preach today thinking I wouldn’t tell any tales did you? The first memory was of Pentecost, when the youth and their fearless leader (Sean’s mom) prepared a really cool “tongues of fire” to be part of a dramatic reading of the Pentecost story in our outdoor worship service. They had filled a metal garbage can lid with sand and soaked the sand with charcoal lighter fluid. The trial run before worship produced a controlled, but fairly impressive, conflagration. Eventually the time came in worship for the tongues of fire to be ignited. Someone struck a match and tossed it on the sand … and we watched the match go out. Then a couple more folks came forward with butane lighters, but the results were the same. Soon there was a small ring of pentecostal wannabes gathered around that stubborn pile of sand something like the Prophets of Baal (at least as I imagine them) gathered about the altar, calling down fire from heaven, and having about the same success.
What we had not counted on was the effects of the Kansas wind causing the fluid to evaporate. The Holy Spirit is like that sometimes, I suppose, all wind and no fire. And, lesson #1: clearly not something to be summoned at our bidding, or controlled and domesticated. I suspect that has something to teach us about call—that it is not simply something we choose, but something that chooses us. Sometimes we call it destiny, but the theological word is call. And if you haven’t noticed, let me tell you, call and calling and being called, it is dangerous stuff, because somewhere swirling through it all is that uncontrollable, wild, incendiary power of the Holy One.
You have called Sean to his first settled pastorate. We like to think that all of this is very decently ordered,. I know firsthand that Sean complied with the numerous requirements to become a member in discernment. Over the ensuing years he submitted all the proper papers and transcripts and documents, he’s been examined and questioned and examined again. And in January that path to ordination was finished. I trust that your search committee followed all the right steps and procedures outlined in the Pilgrimage Through Transitions and New Beginnings document. You have all jumped through the hoops, dotted your “i’s” and crossed your “t’s”. It’s almost decent and ordered enough to be Presbyterian!
Decent, ordered, and authorized. Just like God told Moses to do it: Select the seventy, bring them to the tent of meeting. I’ll come down and talk with you there. (Sounds a little like a Church and Ministry Committee meeting.) Then I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them. And so it happened.
But since context is everything, it would not hurt us to notice what has occasioned this mass authorization of ministry. Just before this, Moses had been having humdinger of a whine to God about these cantankerous Israelites who have themselves been whining to Moses about their endless diet of unidentifiable what’s-it manna. Moses says to the Lord: “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people: Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Cary them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat! I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.” (Numbers 11:11-15)
Lesson #2: Moses discovered that this call thing can be a really big pain in the posterior, and that, as a solo performance, it doesn’t work.
I trust that every one of you sitting here this afternoon knows something about what it is to be called. I don’t know how you have experienced it, or how many times, or how long you resisted. Or how long you think you can continue to hold out in your tug of war with the one who refuses to let go just because you keep digging in your heels. The one who calls is annoyingly patient.
God calls us out of comfort and into challenge. God calls us out of the status quo and into unexplored regions. God calls us out of predictability and into surprise. God calls us out of our safe zone and into windy cities where we are wide open to the gale force of the Holy Spirit.
And God calls us into the church—to do it together. That’s a dicey proposition. Calls all of us hard-headed conservative and liberal, male and female and transgender, democrat and republican, able and challenged, young and old, gay and lesbian and straight and bi and and queer, passionately called ones into one church. All of us who haven’t been in full agreement about anything since whether or not it would be a good idea try some of that luscious looking fruit in the center of the garden that we heard is ssssso good, called into one church. God has a wicked sense of humor.
It is not easy to be a church in which we do not agree, in which we do not all subscribe to one single creed or to any creed, a church in which we have all been wounded in action from time to time. It is not easy, but it is fertile spiritual ground—to be a place where all hearts are one so that nothing else has to be. It asks of us so much trust, so much openness of heart and mind. You know what hard and painful work that can be. Because when we disagree, people never seem to behave so badly toward one another as when they believe they are protecting God.
In too many churches there are impassioned, blessed, well-meaning souls who are defending their God with every ounce of their might against various and sundry threats. It’s nothing new. Remember Eldad and Medad, the two that did not make the Church and Ministry Committee meeting in the tent that day, but on whom that reckless uncontrollable scorching Spirit rested anyway. And they prophesied anyway. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua, son of Nun, and vice chair of the committee said, “My Lord Moses, stop them!” They are not properly credentialed. Their theology sounds suspect. Who knows what things they might say about the Almighty. They do not lead a life worthy of their calling— not the sort of folks who ought to be in the pulpit. Who knows where this could lead! The next thing you know they will want to let women speak God’s word. Or people who don’t talk like us. Or look like us. They will want to sing songs we don’t know and aren’t even in the Bible. They will invite the wrong people to the table. They will want to redefine who knows what. My Lord Moses, stop them!
But Moses saw this disorder differently. Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them! Moses reckoned the Lord God had more to say. God was still speaking, still coloring outside the lines. Eldad, Medad, and Sean. That’s the other memory that kept surfacing. I kept remembering the first time I heard Sean preach. It was a year later, and again we were outside the historic walls of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Manhattan, Kansas. We were out in City Park, for another outdoor worship and picnic, and the Confirmation class had planned and was leading our worship. Sean, a member of the class and now in junior high, had volunteered to preach. After that first sermon, I think some of us suspected that the Holy Spirit was up to something. But this is the other thing you need to know: Sean was not yet baptized or confirmed. That would happen two weeks later. Like Eldad and Medad, he was not properly credentialed yet, he hadn’t been to the tent to meet with the committee, hadn’t submitted any papers, and there he was prophesying in the camp anyway. Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!
Such moments of holy disorder are a healthy antidote to what may be the greatest threat to our being called to be church: We can too easily settle in to our call and conclude that we are home no more to wander. We have sanctuary in which to hide out. We have a nest to feather and make comfortable. A place where we have arrived in safe harbor, where the boat need not rock. We become content.
In Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall a man goes to a psychiatrist because his brother-in-law, who lives with him thinks himself to be a chicken.
“Describe the symptoms,” the doctor says, “Maybe I can help.”
So the man replies, “He cackles a lot, he pecks at the rug and the furniture, and he makes nests in the corners.”
The doctor thinks for a moment, and says, “It sounds to me like a simple neurosis. Bring your brother–in-law to my office next week. I think I can heal him completely.
The man replies, “Oh, no, Doc. We wouldn’t want that! We need the eggs!”
We need the eggs. I need to go bury my father. I need to go say goodbye to my family. And Jesus says, you are not who I am looking for. I don’t think we are to take Jesus literally here. He’s making a point about how all consuming this gospel journey can be, and that if we want to sign up we need to know up front that it’s no safe harbor. It will ask of us more than we dare.
During the most difficult days of the war, when President Lincoln would visit New York, he sometimes slipped into the mid-day service at the Presbyterian Church. One day, he and his aide entered the sanctuary by a side door, a few minutes late, and sat unnoticed in the corner. Following the service, the President lingered after the others had gone home. Finally, his aide asked, “Mr. President, what did you think of the sermon today?” The President replied, “I thought it was eloquent, well thought out, and powerfully delivered.”
“Then you liked it?” the aid continued, trying to fill the silence.
“No. It failed. It did not ask of us something great.”
When Jesus says, “Follow me,” make no mistake about it—he asks of us something great.
Installations in our tradition have often included charges. A charge to the pastor and a charge to the congregation. In my experience, these were usually assigned to various clergy, and they became two more opportunities for sermons to be preached, thus rendering the service every bit as long as the liturgy which accompanies a papal visit. Sean has wisely elected not to do that today. So here is the Charge: A couple of things that need to be asked of you, which I suspect you already know.
Sean, people don’t come to church to hear you tell them what they do not know; they come to hear you say what they want to say but don’t know how. That’s not my advice, it’s Fred Craddock’s, so I think it is sound. Never forget what a colossal act of trust is extended to you by those who gather here. They come to this place where you have already decided what they will sing and say and pray out loud. You have already decided what truth needs to be said and oftentimes what they ought to do about that truth. They have every reason to keep the security bolt latched for their own self-protection. But they come and crack open the door of their heart anyway, wondering if the truth you have to tell might be what they want and need to say. But despite that colossal trust they have extended to you, never stop expecting of them something great.
And you, good people, eternally hopeful and fools for Christ, who have come and cracked open your heart, please do not forget that you have not called Sean to serve you. You have called him to serve Jesus Christ. And that is dangerous, because how often do you read the gospel stories and not get burned? How often do you encounter the Holy One and not feel the heat. If you expect him to speak the truth about such dangerous and holy encounters, you can count on hurting from time to time. If you expect of him something great, do not be surprised if that comes at times in words that sting more that salve, that confront rather than accommodate, that are honest rather than nice. When that happens, do not forget that you do not pay him to love you. Because you know what that would make him. And you know what it would make you.
Sean is taking a risk here too. A risk that you will forget that you are all in this together—all of you who have been called by the Spirit. Don’t expect that he is any more called, gifted, or holy than you are. One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “Leaving Church.” puts it like this:
“While I know plenty of clergy willing to complain about the high expectations and long hours, few of us spoke openly about the toxic effects of being identified as the holiest person in a congregation. Whether this honor was conferred by those who recognized our gifts for ministry or was simply extended by them as a professional courtesy, it was equally hard on the honorees. Those of us who believed our own press developed larger-than-life swaggers and embarrassing patterns of speech, while those who did not suffered lower back pain and frequent bouts of sleeplessness. Either way we were deformed.” (pp. 149-150)
So the charge in a nutshell is this: that you keep each other honest. And as I said, you already knew that. So to all of you, called and gifted by the Holy Pestering One who never gives up on the possibilities of new life, who refuses to be contained by our human structures and ordered by our timelines, and who may sometimes seem to call the wrong people: Thanks be to God! The Holy Spirit is upon you. So, look out!