It is a great pleasure to be with you tonight as you celebrate the renewal of your ministry here and welcome Court Williams as rector of Trinity Church. Court was a student leader at Seabury when I served there, and Julie was an active member of the spouses group which my wife Kathy convened. How they managed to be so present on campus when they lived all the way up in Mundelein (if I remember correctly) I never quite figured out. And having done some time in what they used to call the wilds of the Pacific slope in Oregon they have come back to God’s country to live and work. And it’s always a joy to be with Jeff Lee, your bishop, who made a similar move back from Washington state when he became Bishop of Chicago. As one who is preparing to move back to my native California early next year, I hope there is not some horrible thing about the west coast that they’re not telling me.
I’ve been a priest for almost 40 years now, and one of the things I love about the church is collecting all the sayings people think are in the Bible but are not actually there. You know, adages like “God helps those who help themselves.” “This, too, shall pass.” And, as an Episcopalian, my favorite, “We’ve always done it this way.” This third is perhaps the most widely used in our church, said usually in jest, always meant in earnest. At Washington National Cathedral I’ve actually had it said to me straightfaced and without any hint of irony at all. “But dean,” they say to some proposed new thing, “we’ve always done it this way.” To which I usually reply, “Isn’t that one of the Beatitudes?”
The liturgy we do tonight is a new—and to my mind much improved—way of celebrating a new ministry. The rite I have lived most of my working life with came in with the prayer book of 1979, and it was more like a kingly coronation than the installation of a servant of Jesus. But over the course of my working life we in the church have begun to “get” the radical implications of Baptism, a sacrament also rediscovered in the 1979 prayer book. In the church I grew up in, we used to think of ordination as the fundamental commissioning to ministry—indeed the people we called “ministers” were the ordained. But all the historical and liturgical scholarship that led to the 1979 prayer book revived our understanding of what Baptism is all about and how it creates and renews the church. All of us here tonight—from the bishop to the priests and deacons to everyone lay person in the building—are baptized people. Some of us in ordained ministry are called to live out the baptized life in particular ways. But there are no fundamental differences between us.
So when we celebrate the renewal of ministry and welcome a rector, what we’re really doing is asking Court to live out his Baptism in a way that will help and empower you to live out your Baptism. Court is not coming here as your ministry service provider. (I think we sometimes conceive ministry as akin to going to the butcher—“I’ll take a half a pound of weddings please, and throw in a couple of funerals.”) Court is coming as one baptized person called to live among you in a priestly way, and his primary job is not to do your ministry for you but to help you live into the Gospel in such a way that you can discover and live out what it means to follow Jesus in the circumstances of your own life.
As we prepare to welcome Court and renew our own shared sense of what it means to be baptized, we have three readings to consider. Briefly, here’s a thought about each.
Our first scripture passage [Exodus 3: 1-6] tonight tells of Moses’s encounter with God in the form of a burning bush on Mount Sinai. Maybe it’s because I have been privileged to serve churches with wonderful buildings—Seabury in its days in Evanston, Christ Church Cranbrook in Michigan, and now Washington National Cathedral—that I am particularly attuned to the strangeness of this encounter. Moses meets God by the side of the road in an ordinary bush. True, the bush is on fire, but still. It’s not a Gothic cathedral. It’s just a bush. And yet, as Moses approaches, God says to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Thought one: if God can speak out of a bush, God can be anywhere. Indeed, God is everywhere. The “we’ve always done it this way” part of us wants to locate God in the sacred space of a building. But a church is not a building. A church—what Paul in the Bible calls the ekklesia—is a community, the group of those called to follow Jesus. If Court and all of you are to emulate Moses, you must be attentive to God’s presence not only inside this sacred space. The ground on which you stand—at work, at home, in school, in the community—that ground is holy ground. And Trinity’s ministry is present there as you are present here.
In our second Bible reading tonight we heard Paul tell the Romans [Romans 8: 12-17], “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” He then goes on, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” We who follow Jesus are not slaves to fear. The events of the last several weeks—shootings in Paris and Colorado and California, an overheated presidential campaign, an escalating war in the Middle East, violence on our city streets—are disturbing events, and our natural tendency is to view the church as a place to flee from them for refuge and safety. But as Paul reminds us, we who follow Jesus are no longer slaves to fear. God’s encounter with Moses assures us that all ground is holy ground. Paul’s letter to the Romans asserts that fear is not a Christian category. In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus showed us that the kind of love and compassion he stood for always outlast the things we fear. In the midst of a culture cringing in terror, the church, the ekklesia, those called to follow Jesus, we are called to remind that culture of a bigger and enduring set of truths. The things that scare us will not last. But the values of the baptized life—the values of love, joy, compassion, forgiveness, justice—those things do last. As a parish community your job is to proclaim God’s abundant fearlessness to a world desperately in need of the things that matter.
And then we have the third reading, the story of Nicodemus seeking out Jesus by night [John 3: 1-16]. We have come to see Nicodemus as a type of the seeker, someone driven perhaps by the fearful atmosphere of Jewish Palestine under Roman occupation to come to Jesus for answers. Jesus tells Nicodemus a couple of things he has a hard time taking in. ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus for answers and what Jesus gives him is neither refuge nor a set of ideas but rather a community. Jesus gives Nicodemus Baptism. The thing that will help you give shape and meaning to your life, says Jesus, is living into the baptized life. And the baptized life is something you can only achieve in community. Jesus is not a guru. He does not promote an individualistic path to holiness or salvation. Jesus is himself a baptized person, and what he offers finally is something like solidarity with others and with God. We will all get through this, but only as we do it together. Being born from above means being born anew with others. We don’t get through life by hunkering down in fearful isolation. We get through life by making common cause with others. We get through life through compassion and forgiveness, not through power and fear. We get through life by inviting the world onto the holy ground where we already and always stand.
So to *Court and Julie: I’m sorry we won’t see each other out west, but I rejoice that you have come here and tonight join with the women and children and men of Trinity Church as we all renew our shared commitment to follow Jesus as those who have been given life and identity and ministry in Baptism. The ground on which we stand tonight is holy. A world overcome with enmity and fear longs for the authentic vision of life on offer in the Gospel. May we all be born anew tonight both within and from above, so that the ministry not only of Trinity Church but of each and all of us may offer that vision to others and call everyone to gather around God’s abundant table and give thanks. Amen.