Considerably Less Dramatic

Posted by secondchurch on February - 11 - 2019


On a day when I was feeling a little restless in my work, I visited a closed group on Facebook for women clergy in the United Church of Christ.  I typed this post: “In the book I’ll never write about parish ministry, an entire chapter will be devoted to (finish that sentence).  My one post generated 88 replies!  Some of them were sentimental, some sad, but most were very funny and really, really familiar.  Here are a few of my favorite chapter titles: “Why Yes, There ARE Bats in the Belfry”, “Boilers and Toilets, and Mice, Oh My”, “The Parking Lot Meeting: Who’s Taking Those Minutes?”, “Ugly Budgets”, and my favorite (because Ash Wednesday is fast approaching), “A Recipe for Ashes: Did you Know You Can Use Copier Toner?”  For several days, new responses would pop up.  It appeared to be an invitation to which a good many women clergy needed to respond.  Someday I’ll post another one.  I’m thinking it will be: When I finally retire from parish ministry, I’ll be able to (finish that sentence). 

I think of my fellow UCC clergy on Congregational Annual Meeting Sundays.  Our polity, as you know, calls for our common life to be largely determined by our members gathered in a kind of throw-back to the New England Town Meeting.  We own our properties.  We call our clergy.  We determine what we will spend, who will serve as our leaders, what our priorities should be – and all of these matters come before us in our congregational meetings. 

In one of my former churches, I could always count on one dear parishioner to bring up some truly extravagant and unattainable idea, something like “we think there should be peace in the Middle east – let’s vote”.  Yet another parishioner would bring up some truly inconsequential issue, something like “we should  switch to bar soap in the bathrooms and donate the wall soap dispensers”.  Those examples notwithstanding, congregational meetings reveal quite a bit about the culture of a church, its courage and hopes, its commitment to the future and its respect for the past.  Congregational meetings demonstrate how we live our faith, and how we respond to God’s call to discipleship, how we talk to one another as fellow people of faith.

The balance between the consequential and the insignificant in communities of faith could be a study in itself.  What rises to the level of common concern?  What is dismissed as simply quirky or unnecessary?  Whose voice carries authority and what is the source of that authority?  Is passive resistance a result of fear or an awareness that sometimes, to act, especially when it is quickly and thoughtlessly, does damage?  Is drama necessary to move God’s people forward, or, does the movement toward justice for all people and creation occur like the motion through a mighty wave, which does not so much displace water as it pushes through it?  Does my individual call from God carry more influence because it was dramatic or does your steadfast study of scripture and human history offer greater wisdom?

Most of us here this morning became Christians because our parents were Christians – not all of us, of course, but most of us.  While we can trace our commitment to and participation in church life back to our childhood, few of us could describe a dramatic, transformational experience that brought us to faith.  We weren’t struck blind, like Paul.  We didn’t have a burning coal pressed to our lips like Isaiah.  We may have had a vision or two but that’s because some of us have rich imaginations and we enjoy interpreting dreams and serendipitous experiences.  So when we read the story of Isaiah’s call, or Paul’s recitation of visions of the risen Christ, we have a difficult time connecting our faith experience to theirs.  And no wonder – Isaiah’s call from God to become a prophet was visual, audible, physically painful, veiled in smoke and frighteningly dramatic.  If such a thing had happened to me, if I had had such a vision, even if it had been a dream, I would be terrified.  If it happened to you, and you told me about it, I would be worried for you.  But here we have it recorded by the prophet himself and from one who, arguably, was the strongest, clearest, most confident and effective of all Israel’s prophets.  In a brief description in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, C.R. North described Isaiah as “fearless and frank in the presence of majesty; he could pour withering scorn on the pretensions of a state official; he was scathing in his denunciations of gluttony, land greed, and social injustice; he told the society beauties of his time exactly what Yahweh thought of them, without any mincing of words; and his compassion for the unprivileged never made him pander to the mob.  He must have been, far and away, the greatest human being of his time.”  (Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, “Isaiah”, C. R. North) 

There are many examples in the Scriptures of God’s dramatic, frightening, and deeply symbolic call to great prophets and apostles.  A reluctant Moses was called through a burning bush that was never consumed by the fire.   Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel were all called in visionary, dramatic ways.  The gospels tell us that Jesus felt a strong sense of having been sent by God, that the heavens opened and a dove descended upon him at his baptism, that he was transfigured before the eyes of his disciples.  And the Apostle Paul had a dramatic conversion experience, struck blind when he saw a vision of the Risen Christ.  In our reading from Corinthians, Paul described the magical, mysterious appearances of Jesus to a number of people.  It could be said, and our Scriptures support the view, that the difficulty and the danger of the call to be one of God’s prophets or apostles was as difficult and dangerous as the work of discipleship itself.  Your lips will be burned by a burning coal.  You will be battered about as if by the wings and talons of huge, six winged  birds.  There will be fire and smoke, a burning sun.  Your throat will be parched and your hands and legs will shake.  There will be a roaring thunderous sound of wind and you will have difficulty standing.  Your mind will be blank at that moment.  Thoughts and words will have fled.  You’ll lose your sight.  My goodness, who among us would welcome that kind of call to the walk and work of faith!

I confess to you, most of my days in ministry have not been very dramatic.  But then, that’s probably because parish pastors don’t tend to confront powers and principalities in any particularly threatening way.  We’re not often up in the faces of presidents, trustees, insurance company CEO’s, chiefs of police, military generals, or Supreme Court justices.  We’re not so often speaking truth to power as we are trying to describe truth about power.  We are not so much demanding justice from the unjust as we are trying to help our people live under the injustices visited upon them, and to care more deeply about the injustices heaped upon people they may never meet.  We are not so much threatening empire as we are helping our people to resist surrender to its seductive, destructive reasoning.  We do not need dramatic other-worldly experiences to prove that the life of faith is worth the work.  No, we don’t, and neither do you.  What I need, and what I think you might need as well is the one step, one day, one conversation, one prayer, one decision at a time life that prepares us steadfastly but also thoroughly, so that when the question is asked – Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? – we are ready to say Here am I.  Send me.

It’s possible that it would take a few six-winged seraphs carrying burning coals to get our attention.  It’s possible that we need a frightening, dramatic experience to shake us out of our lethargy, out of our compliance and complicity, out of our deep and dreamless sleep.  It’s possible we need the earthquake, wind, and fire before we can hear the voice of God.  But here’s the thing – the thing I believe deep in my bones – it is the frequently exercised and stretched faith muscle that prepares us to carry the load of one another’s heartache.  It is that persistently worked faith muscle that helps us forgive one another’s failings and stings.  It is the gently and constantly moving faith muscle that reminds us to listen more than we speak, pray more than we proclaim, sing more than we pontificate.  It is the working, moving, stretching faith muscle that keeps us going for the long haul.  Amen.

Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Carla J. Bailey, February 10, 2019




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