I really love those signs you see in some workplaces. “You want it when?” “Quality, Price, Speed: Choose Any Two”. My favorite, though, is the time-honored, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.” Those of us who work in churches know something about all three signs. We live under the constant pressure of the tyranny of the urgent. We are always trying to do more than we have resources for. And our work lives are dominated by intense, interpersonal relations with parishioners, coworkers, and ourselves. Nobody goes into this business to make a lot of money, and nobody goes into it who doesn’t carry a personal burden of some kind. And nobody goes into it who hasn’t, in one way or another, felt the personal touch of God.
Why do we do what we do? As a former seminary person, I have long pondered the mystery of why people go to work in the church. I know a priest/therapist who firmly believes that all clergy were what they call “parentified children” when they were young. According to him, those of us who gravitate toward church work grew up by functioning as adults before we were ready to do so, and we spend the rest of our lives fitting neatly into that role. There are all kinds of ways to psychologize people who give their lives over to serving God and the world. In the 1960’s, the great psychologist Robert Coles was criticized by his colleagues at the Harvard Health Service for refusing to diagnose the students who went on Freedom Rides as neurotic. Some impulses, Coles felt, went beyond analysis. Call it conscience, call it faithfulness, call it the Holy Spirit. We do what we do because something both within ourselves and from outside ourselves prompts us to. Like the Richard Dreyfus character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we follow these promptings not because we’re better or nicer or smarter than other people. We follow them because we have no other choice.
Tonight we gather to say thank you and goodbye to three of our colleagues: The Reverend Canon Kim Turner Baker, our Canon Pastor; Duke DuTeil, our Head Verger, and Richard Weinberg, Director of Communications. Because this is a valediction and not a funeral, I will not attempt to eulogize them. But I’d like you to think with me for a couple more minutes about our readings tonight and what they say to us as we send these friends and colleagues off to the next phases of their lives and ministries.
In the Old Testament reading tonight, we heard this: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” [Leviticus 19: 2b] A series of commandments, both ritual and ethical, follows that statement. As important as those commandments are, though, we should not let them obscure the basic premise of Yahweh’s charge to the people of Israel. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” We do what we do—we follow Jesus, we worship God, we spread the Word—primarily because we have experienced holiness in some primary and powerful way. In her great little book On Beauty, the Harvard philosophy professor Elaine Scarry says that our primary response to the beautiful is the desire to replicate it. In the same way, for those of us who experience the holy, our primary response to it is the desire to make it available to others. Some of us do that through preaching and teaching. Some of us do that through pastoral care. Some of us do that through liturgy and music and the care of beautiful buildings like this one. Some of us even do that through seemingly secular means like public relations. Whatever the avenue, all of us who love and work in the church do so because we want to extend the experience we have had of the One whose presence we feel in ineffable and numinous ways.
Sometimes, given the highly interpersonal nature of this work, we can become overwhelmed by stress and conflict, and working in the church can feel more like laboring in a sausage factory than serving as custodians of the divine. That’s why it’s important that people who work in the church pray together: so we can remain grounded in the fundamental experience that brought us here. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” As we stay connected and present to God’s holiness, we can exemplify and live out our own.
Our Gospel reading for this evening is from the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel:
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15: 3-5]
In this familiar analogy, Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Paul’s metaphor uses the body: Jesus is the head, we are the members. However we think of God, Jesus, and the church, it’s clear that we are all in this together. If the first reading reminded us of why we do all this in the first place, the second tells us that we need both each other and God if we are to do anything truly meaningful and lasting. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Apart from God and Jesus, we can do nothing. Apart from each other, we can do less. Jesus left behind him a community who would live out his love and purpose in the world. And it is in living out his love and purpose in the world—not in celebrating ourselves or advancing our own personal agendas—that we live out and keep faith with the call that brings us together to work in blessed and complicated places like Washington National Cathedral.
“You want it when?” “Quality, Price, Speed: Choose Any Two”. “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.” We are holy only because God is holy. We are empowered to serve only as we are in and with God, Jesus, and each other. I am so grateful to all of you for being the body of Christ with me and our brother and sister followers of Jesus, and I am so grateful to Kim and Duke and Richard for the ways they are members of that body and so will stay a part of us as they go forth from this place. For them, for their work and ministries, for their love and dedication to this place, for their friendship and their collegiality, let us all proceed to give thanks. Amen.