Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Homily: Installation of Amy Butler as Senior Minister [October 5, 2014] The Riverside Church, New York

It is an enormous pleasure and great honor to stand in this pulpit today, both because of my high regard for the Riverside Church and your new Senior Minister, and because of the dazzling array of preachers who have spoken in this place. Over the course of my lifetime, The Riverside Church has stood as the preeminent social justice congregation in the United States. As a faith community, you are a beacon to the rest of us, calling our nation and our world to living out the implications of the Gospel in our public space. There is no place like this, and I am deeply grateful for you, your ministry, and your perseverance on the tough issues of peace and justice.
And I have a personal reason to regard this assignment with some awe. I am a Christian largely because of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., one of Amy's great predecessors, whose ministry beckoned me into the church when I was in college. I did not grow up in the church, but was attracted to it because of the involvement of Bill Coffin and other clergy in the leadership of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the 1960s. For many of my generation Bill Coffin was not only an early influence but also a lifelong model of faithful, prophetic Christian witness.
If you don't know it already, you will soon learn that you have in Amy Butler a worthy successor of the great Senior Ministers of The Riverside Church. Amy is a prophet-pastor in both senses of that term. Her tenure at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington was both prophetic and nurturing. She is one of the few clergy I know who can take on a hard issue and be both strong and loving as she does it. She cares about the world, yes, but she also cares about the real people with whom she lives and works. I don't know anybody else with precisely her mixture of gifts and skills. She can stand both for and with people. Many of us progressive Christians like to use the old Quaker phrase about “speaking truth to power”.  The great Noam Chomsky said "You don't have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. You don't speak truth to anybody. Join with people and try to find the truth." Amy speaks the truth with, not to, people. She is for me the model of emerging Christian leadership. We miss her in Washington already. And she's barely been gone a month.
Let's think together for the next few minutes about the scriptures we've been given as we celebrate your and Amy's new ministry. The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-12] are commonly called "The Beatitudes" because of the repeated use of the word we translate as "blessed". That same word can also mean something like "happy". For many of us progressive Christians, The Beatitudes serve as a warrant for action. When Jesus says that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are "blessed" or "happy", many of us hear those words as a to-do list for our ministries. If we want to follow Jesus, we need to be about serving the poor, being peacemakers, and hungering for righteousness.
That understanding is true as far as it goes. But let me suggest another that might stand beside it. Jesus's Beatitudes are not only, or even primarily, a set of marching orders for setting the world right. They are an announcement of what Christians have always called the gospel. They are a proclamation of the good news. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not so much telling us what we ought to do as he is telling us what God is already doing. These verses are an announcement of what God is up to in the world. This "kingdom of heaven" that Jesus talks about is not some future blessed state up in the clouds someplace. The kingdom of heaven is breaking in even now in the ministry of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him.
In Jesus’s day as now, human culture and human values were massively messed up. First century Jewish Palestine was an occupied territory, and people were taxed and starved beyond the breaking point to support the imperial Roman state. Into that culture of oppression and scarcity, Jesus came and announced that people could actually live lives that were both free and abundant if they would gather together in a community. People followed Jesus not because he was a great teacher but because he was a healer who embodied the freedom and generosity of God.
In other words, in stepping into the Jesus community, you stepped into a space or place or zone where life is lived as God intends that it be. Jesus did not come to found an institution called "the church". In fact, the word we render as church—ekklesia—is a Greek term which means "the called". It's a newly coined word for the New Testament because the older words-synagogue, assembly, temple— couldn't quite name the reality of what the Jesus movement was about. The church, the ekklesia, is the body of those called into the Jesus community to make real in their lives and the world what Jesus calls the reign of heaven. The church is the gathering of those who want to live life on God's, not Caesar's, terms.
Living life on God’s terms means, of course, that we will try to live out those Beatitude values in the world. Living life on God's terms means standing with the people Jesus names in these verses—the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the mourners. Living life on God's terms means naming Caesar and all Caesar's successors as impostors, pretending to an authority that belongs only to God. But we will be neither authentic advocates for those up against it nor credible critics of empire if we can't love and accept and forgive and celebrate each other first.
As we gather this afternoon to celebrate a new covenant between a minister and a congregation, Jesus's Beatitudes call us to rekindle our awareness of what it is we're actually doing when we gather in church. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to step into that zone where life is lived on God's terms. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to share in the good news that we can critique and change the world only to the extent that we can love it and each other first.
You and I, Riverside and Amy, are, together, the church. We are the ekklesia, the called. We are, together, those who have been invited into the zone which Jesus calls the reign of heaven and we might call the place where life is lived on God's terms. We occupy the space where Jesus, not Caesar is in charge. We are, together, those who can find such depth and fulfillment of relationship inside these walls that we can reach out to extend God's reign of love and justice and peace to everyone else.
The world needs The Riverside Church. We face daunting struggles and challenges: global warming, income inequality, ongoing deportations of people at our borders, a legacy of systemic and institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia, shootings of African Americans by armed white people, 30,000 annual deaths by gun violence nationally, mass incarceration rates especially of young men of color, a rush to war that seems to me both hysterical and wrong-headed. The world needs The Riverside Church as a theological and policy leader to lead the faith community and our nation in prophetic action to address these crises. Only a church that is strong and united and grounded in the Gospel will be up to these 21st century challenges. But we don't need you to presume to speak truth to power. We need you to speak with others to find the truth. We do not need your ideological rage. We need your gospel compassion. We need you as you love and serve each other. We need you as you show forth God's healing and forgiveness in your common life. Power will hear you more clearly if you speak with them as those who have known God's grace from the inside out.
In the 1980s there was a time when I thought I was going to lose my job because of my involvement in the Nuclear Freeze movement. I asked Bill Coffin for advice. He said, "In my experience, clergy don't lose their jobs because they're prophets. They lose their jobs because they're not pastors. So by all means go out and be a prophet, but don't forget to be a pastor too." Words for us would-be truth-tellers to live by.
We could call the need for prophets to ground their ministries in pastoral love "Coffin's Law". In a spirit of Coffin-like audacity, I would like to offer “Hall's Corollary”: a church, even a great, historic church, will be a credible leader in peace and justice only as far as it can learn to bask in the grace and abundance of God's compassionate, transforming love. The world does not need more angry people with an agenda. The world needs a vital and engaged Jesus movement that embraces creation out of the fullness of our love for and acceptance of each other.
As Jesus tells us in today's Gospel, "You are the salt of the earth." What he means, I think, is that if we lose what makes us distinctive we lose what makes us useful. If salt is no longer salty, you wouldn't bring it to the dinner table. You and I are the salt of the earth. We are the ones who call ourselves "the called", who know ourselves to be loved and accepted by God and want to bring others into the embrace of that transforming love.
So, Amy and Riverside, my charge to you is this: be the salt of the earth!* Be edgy and prophetic. Keep our eyes focused on those who are the primary focus of God's concern—the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the dying, the marginalized. But while you are being salty, do not forget what it is that makes you that way. In the panoply of justice movements, what makes you distinctive is that your advocacy is grounded in the gospel love that you live out with each other in the hard, daily stuff of being a church. Be what Dr. King called "the beloved community". Be prophets, but also be pastors—to the world, each other, and yourselves.
The Gospel we proclaim is not about us. It is about the love and hope and justice and peace alive and at work in the universe, embodied in Jesus, and present now in our common life. We proclaim that Gospel when we speak and act with others to alleviate suffering, promote peace, and establish justice. This day Amy Butler and The Riverside Church embark on a new chapter pf ministry together. Speak truth with each other. Love each other. And then go out to love, challenge, and transform God's precious world. Amen.


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