An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

Laying on of hands

The Secret Sauce of Ministry
A Recipe in Two Parts

Hebrews 12:1-2
Philippians 2:1-11

As some of you know I like to cook. This time of year, when the weather gets fine, I fire up my grill and do some grilling and barbecuing. And I love to sit on my back porch near the grill with a cold beverage and read cookbooks, of which I have many, or as Martha would say, “too many.”

Many of these grilling and barbecuing books contain recipes for a “secret sauce.” I have been noticing lately that the term “secret sauce” has migrated from its culinary context and is now being employed as a metaphor for that special something that makes things work properly.

For example, I recently heard a journalist talking about “the secret sauce” that would create “a grand bargain” to overcome the Congressional budget impasse. Good luck with that.

So I started to wonder, “ What’s the secret sauce of ministry?”  If I had to come up with a simple recipe for what makes ministry faithful and effective what would it be?

So here’s my recipe, which comes in two parts, which I hope you will take away with you today for your own ministry, whether lay or ordained.

1. The first part of the secret sauce is this: You can’t do it alone. Rebecca couldn’t have come to this day alone, and she can’t do her ministry alone. No one does it alone.

How does one come to know God? And to love God? And to want to serve God?

When I look out at this congregation I see so many here today who have helped to shape and influence Rebecca. I am reminded of the scripture from Hebrews we just heard that says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” The image is from the ancient stadium where the races were held, and the cloud of witnesses are the spectators who cheer the racers on.

This great crowd includes both the living and the dead, “the church militant” and “the church triumphant.”

So among the crowd present in the congregation today are many members of Rebecca’s family, let’s call them “the crowd of the proud.”

In addition to Martha and myself, are Rebecca’s brother Andrew and his wife, Jessica. Rebecca’s maternal grandparents, Art and Marianne Talis, are here. As are several assorted aunties, an uncle, and a cousin.

These family members represent a great line going back through generations of Talises and Beers, Floyds and Laffoons, and, let me tell you, there is a lot of church in these families.

We represent a great ecumenical melting pot, from the Greek Orthodox faith of Rebecca’s grandfather’s forbears, to the German Protestantism of her grandmother.

My mother’s father, Bill Laffoon, a descendant of French Huguenots, was a deacon at his Congregational Church in Wichita, Kansas. His schooling ended with the 6th grade, but saw to it that his two daughters went to college during the height of the Depression.

Granddaddy read his Bible every day, and his speech was sprinkled with scripture verses.

So when I was growing up my mother also had a scripture for every occasion, I thought she was so wise, she’d say, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And, “Do not cast your pearls before swine.” When I went to seminary I discovered that they weren’t original with my mother, but came from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Years later, Rebecca had the same experience at Yale when she learned where all my wise sayings came from.

On the other side of the family, I think today also of Martha’s grandmother, Marta Beer, which in our family is a family name and not a beverage. My Martha is named after her. She raised three daughters by herself in wartime Germany, and was another great churchwoman.  How proud she would be.

This rich ecclesiastical family DNA has helped to shape and form Rebecca into a minister. They are all part of this congregation today, a part of the cloud of witnesses.

But there’s more. For as grand as Rebecca’s family legacy of ministry is, and as important as family support and nurture is, family alone cannot make a minister.

And so I look around this room and I see many people from Rebecca’s past, a number of the good people of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, where Rebecca was baptized and confirmed. I see some of her Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, mentors and supporters, who have made the trip down here today from the Berkshires.

And when I look around today I also see many other friends, Pittsfield neighbors, UCC and ecumenical colleagues, and folks from the Berkshire Association, who have been part of Rebecca’s life.

I see some of her Wellesley College roommates up in the balcony. I see Yale classmates and New Haven friends, and, of course, all of you from Green’s Farms Church, members and staff, who have so warmly embraced Rebecca in your community, and are now such an important part of this most recent chapter in her life.

There are others, too, I must mention, who are neither related to Rebecca nor have ever met her, who she knows from the books she loves and the scriptures she studies. Those many other witness, men and women of the church:  prophets, apostles, martyrs, evangelists, theologians, reformers, writers and thinkers down through the ages. They are part of this great crowd, too. They were all witnesses to God, and to God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.

So all of you here, and all the unseen but present, make up the great cloud of witnesses, who cheer us all on as we go about our several ministries, and especially cheer Rebecca on today. I thank God, for you and for them.

So to take nothing away from Rebecca, who as you know, is a remarkable young woman and certainly gets much of the credit for us being here today, she hasn’t done it alone. Because this ministry business is a team sport, and I have just described to you just how really big the team is.

Nobody gets to ministry alone, and nobody does ministry alone, because you can’t do it alone.

So that’s the first part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry.

2. The second part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry is this: It’s not about you. To do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ you have to get out of your own way.

What does this mean? Recall how Jesus was always confusing the disciples by saying things like “the one who would gain his life must lose it.” And “The one who exalts herself will be humbled, but the one who humbles herself will be exalted.”

And the disciples never quite understood what he was trying to teach them until after Easter. Their hopes had been dashed on Good Friday as they fled from him and his cross. But after Easter all those things he said made sense. He was showing them a way, a way of selflessness, of servant-hood, a way to be a person for others.

And recall also how our brother Paul kept writing to churches that were fighting, and saying in one form or another, “It’s not about you!”

To the Corinthians he wrote, “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4,5). And a couple of lines later in that same letter he wrote them, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7).

What was he trying to tell them about ministry? That “it’s not about you.” To be a minister you have to get out of your own way. And the reason that you have to get out of your own way is first to make space for God to work in and through you. And you have to get out of your own way, secondly, to make space for the other, the ones you minister to.

I was with Mary Luti at a meeting the week before last and I told her how excited I was that she would be laying holy hands on Rebecca and doing the prayer of ordination today. I said to Mary, “It is so fitting because it was under your ministry that Rebecca started discerning her call.”

And Mary demurred and said, “I really didn’t do that much.” And I thought she was just being humble. But as I started pondering the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry, I realized she was quite right.

And you know why she was right? Because it wasn’t Mary who called Rebecca into the ministry. Mary was just doing her job, which is how ministry works. Rebecca was a questioning young woman in a pew in Cambridge, and Mary was doing her job, which was to share the God she knows and loves. And Rebecca was in the right time and the right place with the right person, and God’s Holy Spirit works like that, in what seems mundane, but can at the same time be quite marvelous.

Our society cultivates a cult of personality, a cult of celebrity, but ministry is not about that. There are celebrity ministers, but the good ones, the faithful ones, know it is not about them.

The word minister actually means one who represents another. The Europeans use it this way in describing their government officials: the minister for finance, or the foreign minister. These are the ones who represent the government in their particular area of expertise

Likewise, a Christian minister is one who represents Jesus Christ. And representing Jesus Christ means taking the form of a servant. Jesus once told his disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28.)

Not to be ministered to, but to minister. Not to be served but to serve.

This is counter-cultural in our self-obsessed society. To tell people to get out of their own way for God and for others is not a particularly popular philosophy today. When I peruse the magazines at the super-market checkout there are titles such as Self, Us, People (meaning famous self-absorbed people) but I don’t see Servant or Ministry magazine.

There was a fascinating interview with director Sofia Coppola in last Sunday’s New York Times about her new movie, The Bling Ring. The movie is based on a true story about five teenagers from the San Fernando Valley in California, who were so obsessed with the culture of personality and the trappings of celebrity that they started breaking into celebrity’s homes and stealing stuff.

They would often just walk in through an unlocked front door, or climb in an open window. They robbed people like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

In the course of a nine-month spree they looted more than 3 million dollars worth of jewelry and designer clothes. I found the story shocking, but part of it got me chuckling to myself. Apparently they broke into Paris Hilton’s home six times before she even noticed. “She had so much stuff that it took awhile for her to realize someone had broken in.”

Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “The one who dies with the most stuff wins?” A better, truer one would say, “The one who dies with the most stuff dies.”

Sofia Coppola said she chose this subject for her movie because she has two small daughters, and she fears for them growing up in this glittery world of celebrity culture, a culture that sends the message that it really is all about you and your stuff. She describes hearing some of her daughter’s 6 year-old friends talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and a couple of them said, “I want to be famous.” She asks, “Where does that come from?” I don’t think we knew about that when we were six years old.”

And that is a challenge for ministry these days. I am particularly thinking of parents and youth ministers. How do we raise our children in a society that tells them it really is all about us?

When we were driving through the countryside in France we would sometimes see vast fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see. The sunflowers would be facing East toward the rising sun in the morning, and as the sun moved through the sky the sunflowers would turn toward it, so that at dusk they would have turned completely toward the West. In fact the French world for sunflower is tournesol, which literally means “turn to the sun.”

Sunflowers do this because they are heliotropic; they need the sun to live. By analogy, we are theotropic, we need God to live, and we are made to bend our love toward God and others. But we too often bend our love toward ourselves, and that is where we get in trouble, for instead of living for God and others we try to love ourselves and control things as if we were God.

And that is what is so beautiful about our second reading today from Philippians; it turns the equation entirely upside down. God in Christ bends toward us, and shows us what love looks like.

The late British theologian Colin Gunton said,

 Sin is for the creature to think and act as if it were the creator. But here in Philippians 2 Jesus is godlike precisely in going the other way.

Here Jesus empties himself even of his divinity to become a servant, “a man for others” as Dietrich Bonheoffer described him.

And it is this humility, this self-emptying, this relinquishing of privilege, that Paul wants the church in Philippi to emulate. He writes them to “let the same mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The church in Philippi was having one of those squabbles that have been known to happen in congregations, even in our own time. Paul admonishes them to get out of their own way, and have the very same mindset as Jesus, the mindset that led him to empty himself, and in humility take the form of a servant, the mindset that ultimately led to his death on the cross.

But it’s not so easy to have the same mindset as Jesus. Remember those WWJD bracelets, that stood for “what would Jesus do?” Some people criticized those WWJD bracelets for being overly simplistic. Because asking, “What would Jesus do? doesn’t really solve the problem. It usually isn’t that hard to know what Jesus would do. People talk about the hard passages in the Bible, and there are some, but the parts that really challenge and convict me aren’t the parts I don’t understand, but the parts I do. “Love your enemies.” “Feed the hungry.” “Welcome the stranger.”  “Share your possessions.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” Just to name a few.

So the hard part, after you figure out what Jesus would do, is doing it.

To “practice what we preach,” to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk” is where we pretty consistently fail, and why we need grace and forgiveness to keep trying. And the good news is that is exactly what we get from our God, grace and forgiveness.

In the cross of Jesus Christ, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and saves us from ourselves, among other things, such as sin and death.

All ministers, you and me, lay or ordained, even Rebecca, fail at being consistently Christ-like. But the wisest ministers know that our ministry is at its most faithful when we realize that it is not about us, when we get out of our own way, as Jesus did, to be a servant, as he was a servant, to serve as he served, to love as he loved, and to be a person for others.

And here’s the beautiful thing: if you follow this recipe you don’t really lose yourself at all, you will actually find yourself. Only the empty can be filled with the new life God wants for us. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)

Because this self- emptying doesn’t mean we lose our personalities or our personal identities. On the contrary, when our love bends toward God and others, as those sunflowers bend toward the sun, when we lose ourselves in service, when we live for others, we are most ourselves, our own true best selves as God intended us to be.

Just as Jesus’ exalted lordship is ultimately revealed in his humble servant-hood.

Let us listen to it again:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a servant

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the Ordination of my daughter, Rebecca Megan Floyd, on June 9, 2013, at the Green’s Farms Congregational Church, UCC, in Westport, Connecticut.

Here are some thoughts on the Gospel reading for this Sunday. I first blogged this in 2010.

When I Survey . . .

Mary of Bethany pours out a whole pound of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. This is an extravagant, seemingly wasteful and impulsive act. And why would she pour it on his feet and not on his head, as would have been the normal act of hospitality for anointing? Because, although you would anoint a living man on the head, this is how you would begin to prepare a corpse for burial.

The house immediately fills up with the smell of perfume. I once ordered my wife two bottles of her perfume on-line, since it is hard to find in stores. I ripped opened the paper package and handed it to her, and she went to pull one of the bottles out of the package, but it had one of those decorative plastic tops that pull off. The top held the bottle just long enough to let it be pulled out…

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Are the banks too big for trial? Seems so!

WarrenMy Senator, Elizabeth Warren, wants to protect you and me from fraudulent and criminal practices that hurt consumers. She fought to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she should have been asked to lead. If she had she wouldn’t have been free to run and win a seat in the Senate, and some of those who feared her might be wishing now that they had let her run the agency, which Congress is trying to cripple into impotence anyway.

Today we can see why Wall Street and the banking industry poured a record number of dollars into Scott Brown’s campaign to try to defeat her. They fear her honesty and tenacity, and that was on display in her questioning of top regulators.

Many have wondered why nobody went to jail for the criminal banking practices that led to the international financial crisis. Now, because of Warren, we know the answer. Because no governemental regulatory agency brought any one to trial.

That was the ‘take away” from Warren’s first hearing of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

According to Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post:

Warren questioned top regulators from the alphabet soup that is the nation’s financial regulatory structure: the FDIC, SEC, OCC, CFPB, CFTC, Fed and Treasury.

The Democratic senator from Massachusetts had a straightforward question for them: When was the last time you took a Wall Street bank to trial? It was a harder question than it seemed.

One after another regulators obfuscated until Warren finally got them all to admit that they had never brought anybody to trial. She responded by saying,

There are district attorneys and United States attorneys out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it. I’m really concerned that ‘too big to fail’ has become ‘too big for trial.’

I applaud Senator Warren for speaking truth to power and getting at the essential unfairness and inequality of our legal system, and for exposing the federal regulators who are supposed to be protecting us. If banks are too big for trial it means they are above the law.

Warren herself summed it up pretty well when she concluded:

‎If they can break the law and drag in billions in profits, and then turn around and settle, paying out of those profits, they don’t have much incentive to follow the law.

Or no incentive at all. Because several days of a trial would bring out to the public their fraudulent and criminal practices and embarrass them.

So what can any of us do about it? Well, for one thing we can vote and support courageous candidates like Warren. And we can put pressure on our representatives for more transparency and action around these issues. We can pressure Congress to strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and confirm director Richard Cordray. And we can use social media to embarrass the banks and the regulators. Because they should be embarrassed. They should be embarrassed that they made huge sums of money at the public’s expense, and got away with it.

Marilynne Robinson writing about the limits of science criticizes our current culture’s lack of ethics or morality, which she sees as part of the loss of religion (and the religious imagination.) She writes: “Science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth.” Religious people may want to speculate on how it is that the disparity between rich and poor in our country grew at the very same time that the world financial system came apart? And why nobody faced any consequences. Was it that nobody was at fault? Seems unlikely.

So those who were at fault should be embarrassed. More correctly they should be ashamed. And some of them should go to trial.

Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances: An Installation Sermon

Dire StraitsI am very glad to be here to celebrate with you the covenant between you and Mike as you begin your ministry here together. Today feels like a homecoming of sorts for me since I began my own ordained ministry 38 years ago, just an hour up the road from here in Northwest York County, Maine.

I was privileged to worship with you this morning, and inspired and humbled by the atmosphere of worship here in this congregation. As we like to say, “We had church today!”

I was also impressed and gratified to discern the obvious affection you already have for Mike and his family after just a few months in life together.

This afternoon I want to think aloud with you about what shape your ministry together might take in the years ahead. I was at a meeting with Mike about a month ago, and we all went around the room and introduced ourselves, and Mike introduced himself as the Pastor and Teacher of the First Parish Church in Dover, New Hampshire. Mike knows that I like that title better than senior minister, first of all because it has a nice old fashioned New England feel about it, but more importantly, it better defines the role of minister as I see it. And understanding the role properly will go far in Mike and you succeeding as pastor and people.

So let me say, first of all, what ministry is not. Ministry is not a commodity. Unfortunately, the search and call process does commodify ministry for both pastor and congregation, and perhaps it has to, but it is a very bad model for ministry.

The very term “installation” further confuses the matter. It occurs to me that the word installation sounds as if what we are doing this afternoon is plugging in a major appliance! And to add to the metaphor, a little later in this service Mike will get not one, but two charges. Let’s be playful with the image of installation for a minute.  I picture a giant cardboard box arriving at the front door. In my imagination the appliance store delivery guys look something like the cartoon characters on the old Dire Straits video, “Money for Nothing:” big burly guys in sleeveless T-shirts with visible tattoos, chomping on the butt-ends of cigars.  “Where do you want it?” they ask.  “How ’bout right over here by the outlet so it can get a charge. It’s a beauty, isn’t it?  much more efficient than the old one, and with many new features. Here’s the operating manual.  It comes with a one year warranty.”  Just about the time of your annual meeting. You get the idea!

I suggest that we regard that little flight of imagination as a cautionary tale for ministry. Because in contemporary America we tend to think of everything as a commodity, which then can be bought and sold. So it is a temptation for churches to think of their new minister as the new and improved model. And equally tempting for ministers to buy into that expectation. Who doesn’t like to be thought of as valuable and more worthy than others?

I caution you not accept that image. Mike is a gifted pastor, smart, well trained, well read, committed, personable and resourceful. But he is not a major appliance! It is precisely because of his vast talents, which make him especially vulnerable to being perceived, and perceiving himself, as a valuable ministerial commodity. And, like most temptations, there is just enough truth in it to give it appeal. For in fact, from a human point of view, Mike is a valuable ministerial commodity, in an age where both the supply and morale of talented clergy are low.

So how shall we think of the role of minister, of pastor and teacher?  In the Fourth Chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians he tells the church how to regard his ministry among them: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The word translated as “servant” here is peculiar to Paul in the New Testament, and, in the common tongue, it was the name given to slaves on a galley ship. I just saw the movie version of Les Miserables, and I picture the shackled convicts in the opening scene who are pulling a great ship into a slip to be like the galley slaves of Paul’s time. It is a harsh metaphor, or it would be except the master in this case is Jesus Christ.

The second of Paul’s images, and the one I want to focus on today is “steward.” We know this word from Stewardship Sunday, when we pledge our time, talent and treasure; or at least we do when we understand stewardship at its best and not at its worst as a dreary fund raising project.

A steward quite simply was a household servant, a sort of house manager, who looked after things for the master.

What’s Paul’s point in employing this humble job description? Paul was dealing with an early version of the cult of the preacher and the commodifying of ministry. That was the pagan way, as it still is. Preaching was all about skill in rhetoric, reading your audience, moving them, engaging them, entertaining them! And there was competition to see who did it best. So some liked Paul, some liked another itinerant preacher named Apollos, and some liked Cephas, which is just another name for Peter.

Paul rejects this cult of the preacher as unworthy of a Christian community. He himself, he writes them, “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God . . . in lofty words of wisdom.” No, he said,  “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1Corinthians 2:1,2)

The good steward doesn’t have to please the crowds, only the Lord, who will ask for an accounting when he comes “to bring to light the things now hidden in darkness.” (1 Corinthians 4:5) That is the only judgment that counts for the minister of God.

But what exactly is it to which the steward has been entrusted? “The mysteries of God.”  The NIV calls them “the secret things of God.” Here’s our first hint about the proper role for a pastor and teacher. As Mike and I know a minister can spend inordinate amounts of time in meetings, making plans, reviewing budgets, and managing all matter of things that none of us ever dreamed about or wanted when we received the call to ministry. So be it, it goes with the territory. These are duties of ministry, but not the role of minister, and it is dangerous to confuse duties with role.

The role of a pastor and teacher is to be a faithful house manager of the divine mysteries, a steward of the mysteries of God. And what are the mysteries of God?

Paul says that the divine mysteries are quite simply the Gospel, the good news of God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.

This good news tells us that whoever we are, whatever we have done, wherever we have been, wherever we are going, God’s love will not let us go. This love is as deep as the ocean, as fierce as the cross, as powerful as the resurrection, and as forever as time and beyond time.

The Good News about this love, Paul says, was once hidden but is now revealed by the Spirit, which is a good word for this Epiphany Sunday.

Let us think of the many glorious aspects of this Gospel as the secret things of God, secret in that they are not apparent to the eyes of the world, but only to the eyes of faith.

Now we are at the heart of the role. For it is the pastor and teacher’s responsibility to keep the eyes of the congregation on the horizon of eternity, rather than on the wearying preoccupations of the world. The steward of the mysteries reminds us again and again that the church is not our project, but God’s project. This is not easy. The cult of the preacher is easier and more fun. The cult of the preacher lets us assign success and blame depending how the numbers go. Every pastor is pleased when the numbers, members and money, look good, but the smart ones know they don’t control them. Unlike me, Mike with his economics background, actually understands numbers, and he’ll tend to that part of the job, but again that is a duty and not a role.

Too many clergy and congregations today are focused on the numbers, how much money and how many people. It’s a great temptation, and it can be deadly for a church because if the pastor is not a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God, then the congregation may get disconnected from the Gospel, and lose its way. It happens! And when it happens you may find yourself doggedly presiding over a frenetic activism that is all movement and no substance, what P.T. Forsyth once called the besetting sin of the church: “the sin of bustle.”

Too much of what passes for religion is not about what God is doing among us, but what we are doing ourselves. In this regard we have absorbed from the culture the misguided utopianism that thinks humans can control all things. The Czech dissident poet Vaclav Havel called modern utopianism

an arrogant attempt by human reason to plan life. But it is not possible to force life to conform to some abstract blueprint. Life is something unfathomable, ever-changing, mysterious, and every attempt to confine it within an artificial, abstract structure inevitably ends up homogenizing, regimenting, standardizing and destroying life, as well as curtailing everything that projects beyond, overflows or falls outside the abstract project. What is a concentration camp, after all, but an attempt by utopians to dispose of those elements which do not fit in.” (Interview in Times Literary Supplement)

A steward of the mysteries of God looks for height and depth as well as movement. What might that look like here in Dover?  Part of your role, Mike, is to keep the church in Dover a place where God’s story is not an ancient tale, but a present vibrant reality; a place to expect miracles, because the world is full of them for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. There are divine presences in every mundane transaction, and daily epiphanies around every corner. Keep that sense alive here. Gerard Manley Hopkins was right when he wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

A steward of the mysteries of God believes that all things are possible when God is involved, and helps others to believe it too. And when people believe God’s Spirit and power are among them, who knows what might happen?  Do you remember Thomas Merton’s comment about a Shaker chair?  “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” (From the Introduction to Religion in Wood by Edward Deming and Faith Andrews, 1966.)

The other piece of the role of pastor and teacher is the context: the congregation and its life together. Mike is gifted in this regard with a great deal of personal authenticity, warmth and humanity.

Are there any homiletic teachers in the congregation today? No, good, because I want to break a rule? Oh, what do I care, I am retired!? So I’m going to be personal and confessional and say that I met Mike about ten years ago during a particularly difficult time in my life, as I was struggling with the challenges of a new disability. Mike’s response to me was so empathic and tender without being in any way condescending. No one has been a better friend to me these last years, no one, and you are and will be blessed to have him as your pastor.

Mike embodies what the great preacher Gardner Taylor was after when he advised preachers “to look beyond the peripheral signs of preaching greatness to the real source of pastoral insight–the common bond with one’s hearers provided by suffering.” If you let him, Mike will share your lives, will rejoice when you rejoice and weep when you weep, and become your pastor. Gardner Taylor continues:

Now you may tickle people’s fancies, but you will never preach to their hearts, until at some place, some solemn appointment has fallen upon your own life, and you have wept bitter tears, and gone to your own Gethsemene and climbed your own Calvary.  That is where power is.’  The power of preaching is “not in the tone of voice.  It is not in the eloquence of the preacher.  It is not in the gracefulness of the gestures. It is not in the magnificence of the congregation. It is in a heart broken, and put together by the eternal God.

In conclusion, despite the fact that we are “installing” him today your new pastor and teacher is not a major appliance, neither is he a ministerial commodity, nor a quick fix or a paid Christian so everybody else doesn’t have to be one. No, Michael Steven Bennett is a minister of Christ’s church, a servant of Christ and a steward of God’s mysteries.

Mike, if you accept that role you will find that it will be shaped by the cross more that by the judgments and expectations of people. But the only judgment that really matters is the one whose ministry it is anyway. Those who remember their identity and their role as steward, who anticipate the return of the master, look forward to hearing the master’s praise: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Lord.” Amen.

(I preached this sermon at the installation of Michael Steven Bennett as Pastor and Teacher of the First Parish Church (UCC) in Dover, New Hampshire on Epiphany Sunday, 2013.

My Top Posts for 2012


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In keeping with my annual end of the year tradition here are the top posts from “When I Survey . . .” for 2012:

“Confused? Interpreting Your Congregation’s Numbers” was by far the most popular with nearly 3,000 hits.

Other popular posts from this year were:

Posts from previous years that continue to get visited frequently are:

I am working on a book that I hope will be published this coming year with the tentative title of “Prepare Three Envelopes” (and other ruminations on pastoral ministry). It will collect many of the posts from this blog, and from my former blog “Retired Pastor Ruminates” plus some other previously unpublished pieces of mine. I will keep you posted about it. In the meantime thank you all for you support this year. I hope you will continue to visit here in 2013.

Christian Teachings about Life after Death: A Pastor Ruminates

stream 2I have been asked to speak about “Christian teachings about the after-life.” This is final installment in a series of helpful presentations on preparing for death. There have been presentations on wills and bequests, end of life care, grieving and the like. And once again Max (Stackhouse) has asked me to bat clean-up and talk about theology.

One of my friends in the church said to me last week, “Oh, your talk is theology, so it won’t be practical.” She was kidding, I think, but let me respond to her remark by suggesting that a theology about death and what comes after it may be the most practical aspect of all for the Christian preparing for death. It is a shame how theology has come to have a bad name, even in the church.

Because theology is not some specialty for professional theologians, but simply the way we talk about God. That is what theology means, the logos of the theos, the word about God. And everybody has a theology, at least implicitly, so the more we can make it examined and explicit the more chance we will get it better rather than worse.

So right off the bat let me suggest a better title for what I hope to do here. I much prefer the phrase “life after death” to the term “afterlife,” because I think the former rightly expresses the Christian belief in the reality of death, while the latter can obscure the boundary between death and whatever comes after it.

I want to explore with you four ideas or concepts: 1. The reality of death, 2. Immortality of the soul, 3. Resurrection of the body, and 4. Eternal Life. Finally, I want to summarize the features of an adequate Christian theology of life after death, and the promises of the Gospel that are our hope in the face of death.

1.The Reality of Death

The first concept to ponder is the reality of death.  Some of the earliest thinking about death in the Bible is about its not only ending one’s natural life, but also severing our relationship with God. For Israel human purpose was to praise God, and death put an end to it. This relational view was visualized in spatial terms, so that places like Sheol and “the Pit” were places far from God.

Christianity inherited this relational view of life with God, and sees death as its cessation and the opposite of the fullness of life that God intends for us. So unlike some other religions that view death as an illusion or an escape, for Christians, death is real, as are the sense of loss and grief that accompany death, which are also real and nothing to ashamed of or denied. I have said at countless funerals: “There is nothing unchristian about grief; Jesus himself cried at the grave of his friend Lazarus.”

Moreover, Jesus himself died, and his own death provides a template for thinking about this. The creeds say quite simply, “He died and was buried.”

So accepting the reality of death is an important first step in thinking about it properly as Christians. In my nearly forty years of ministry I sometimes counseled people who wanted to deny or blunt this reality. People often asked for much-loved sentimental poems to be read at the funeral. I would gently suggest something more appropriate, but I was pastorally sensitive enough to allow their selection to be read if they insisted, knowing that I would get up and say something quite contradictory in my homily.

Let me give you some examples of poems that deny or minimize the reality of death, and I apologize in advance if these are your favorites.

Here’s a line from A. L. Frinks’ the Rose Beyond the Wall:

“Shall claim of death cause us to grieve
And make our courage faint and fall?
Nay! Let us faith and hope receive–
The rose still grows beyond the wall,”

Another and even better known poem about death is James Whitcomb Riley’s Consolatio:

“I cannot say, and will not say
that he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
he has wandered into an unknown land.”

“We do not sorrow as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), but we do sorrow. So while as Christians we have much more to say than death is real, it is where we must start, reminding ourselves that Jesus, in his human nature, really did die, as all human beings do.

To make this point I once began an Easter sermon years ago by saying that “On Good Friday Jesus was as dead as a doornail.” I wasn’t trying to be shocking, but I was surprised by how many people took offense to this statement.

I know something of death. Both my parents died too young, I have worked in a funeral home, been an EMT, and a minister for nearly four decades. I have been present at many deaths, and each time I have been struck by how clear the line is between the living and the dead. And yet everything I know about death is on this side of it, as it is for us all. But  one thing I do know about death: it is real.

So if the first theme is the reality of death, how shall we properly think and talk about what comes after?

2. Immortality of the Soul.

One very prevalent idea of life after death is immortality of the soul. I would like to explore this popular idea with you, and show you why it is an inadequate view for Christians, admitting that in my early years it was my own view.

Let me share something about that with you. My own theology of death and what comes after it was shaped, at least in part, by my childhood bedtime prayer, a somewhat terrifying one from the New England Primer:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but in my child’s imagination I had adopted a somewhat Platonic dualism about the human person, separating body and soul into the perishable and imperishable.

My own children, at the insistence of my wife, had a more sanitized version of that prayer that didn’t get them pondering sudden death in the nighttime. Whether they are better off for this is open for discussion. But in my own early thought-processes I figured that if such a sad event as my childhood death did take place, it would only be my physical body, and this invisible spiritual thing “the soul” would go swiftly to God. This is the essence of the idea of immortality of the soul.

I was taken aback to be told that this view, while widely held, was not particularly Christian. I learned in seminary that the Hebrew word translated as “soul,” nephesh, more rightly means “self,” in other words, the whole person.  Harrell Beck, my wonderful Old Testament professor, liked to say that your fingernails are as much a part of your soul as any other part, which is to say human selves are embodied. Or as I like to think of it: we don’t have a body so much as we are a body.

It is from the Greeks, and especially from Plato, that we get the notion of a disembodied soul housed in a physical body, an idea that still clings to many Christian ideas about an afterlife.

These ideas were ambient in the ancient Near East and in the Hellenistic world in which the New Testament was written, and they lived in uneasy tension with the more holistic Hebraic views of personhood. We even get a whiff of Greek dualism in the New Testament, such as in First Corinthians, one of the undisputed letters of Paul. He writes in 1 Corinthians 5:1:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

So if the disembodied immortal soul flying away from the perishable body is not the Christian theology of life after death, how are we to think about it?

3. The Resurrection of the Dead

Resurrection of the dead is the cardinal Christian idea of life after death. It is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, which pervades all New Testament thinking. In Jesus’ resurrection God has vindicated the humiliated and crucified Jesus, and begun the eschatological process of the salvation of humanity and the world, a process to be completed at the end of history, when Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

This distinguishes Christian theology from other views that see life after death as something intrinsic to the human person. Resurrection of the dead, on the other hand, is about the discontinuity between life and life after death. The rupture of death is overcome only from God’s side by God’s action. So resurrection of the dead is not resuscitation, but a new creation analogous to the first creation. It is not resurrection of the flesh, but resurrection of the body, a new kind of life that we can only guess at. When Paul  speculated on what kind of body we would have in the new life he employed the oxymoron “spiritual body” to refer to what form are we raised.

There are clues to this mystery in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. After Jesus is raised he appears to the disciples in bodily form; he is the same, but also transfigured in some way. The accounts contain mysteries: sometimes he is recognized, but other times he is not, as in the road to Emmaus story, when the disciples only know him when he breaks bread. Yet he still bears the marks of the Roman nails in his hands and feet.

However we want to take these narratives they point to the consistent conclusion that the new life postmortem is embodied life.  The Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead is a theological interpretation based on the death and raising of Jesus. The expectation of a resurrected body also emphasizes the continuity of personality and the integrity of personhood. I said that Christian views stress discontinuity between life and life after death, but here we see continuity of personality after death. So we have both discontinuity and continuity as the person really dies, but in the new life is the same person as before death, although changed. So it is not some spiritual part of you that lives the new kind of life; it is you, embodied and recognizable to God as you. This contrasts to various views of a disembodied postmortem existence, such as immortality of the soul and reincarnation.

It is important to remind ourselves that, while we are not surprised by the claim of Jesus’ resurrection and have difficulty with the idea of a general resurrection, for the people at the time of Jesus death it was just the opposite. A general resurrection vindicating Israel involving a Davidic messiah or the Son of Man was part of the general religious imagination. The resurrection of an individual however was not, which is why the raising of Jesus was understood as the beginning of the eschaton, the final reckoning, restoration and vindication of God and his faithful. We hear this in the language of Jesus being the first-fruits and the forerunner.

The raising of Jesus then is the primary theological template by which all things are measured, including death and life after death. Consistently in the New Testament death is viewed through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In 75 places in the New Testament the principle Greek adjective that means “dead,” nekros, is the object of either egeiro “to awaken” or anastasis, “to raise.

This raising from the dead makes Christianity an Easter faith, and so the Christian sees death in Easter light. Because Jesus is raised we too will be raised with him. This is a far different idea than immortality of the soul. Let us take a few moments to contrast them.

The great scholar Oscar Cullmann wrote an important book in 1956 called Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead in which he starkly contrasted these two views. Some of his critics have complained that he contrasted them too sharply. They may be right, but the book remains an important one for understanding the predominant Christian views.

Cullmann’s thesis is, and I quote, “The widely accepted idea of ‘The immortality of the soul’ is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity. The concept of death and resurrection is anchored in the Christ-event, and hence is incompatible with the Greek belief in immortality.”

Cullmann deftly illustrates his point by looking at the death of Socrates in contrast to the death of Jesus. He writes:

The death of Socrates (as described by Plato) is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of sense. Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies — this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.

Cullmann then turns to the death of Jesus:

In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The Synoptic Evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins ‘to tremble and be distressed’, writes Mark (14:33). ‘My soul is troubled, even to death.’ . . .

In Luke 12:50 it is completely impossible to explain away the ‘distress’ in the face of death, and also in view of the fact that Jesus is abandoned by God on the Cross [Mark 15:34], it is not possible to explain the Gethsemane scene except through this distress at the prospect of being abandoned by God, an abandonment which will be the work of Death, God’s great enemy.)Jesus is afraid, though not as a coward would be of the men who will kill Him, still less of the pain and grief which precede death. He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for Him is not something divine : it is something dreadful. . . .

Here (in Jesus’ death) is nothing of the composure of Socrates, who met death peacefully as a friend. To be sure, Jesus already knows the task which has been given Him: to suffer death; and He has already spoken the words: ‘I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how distressed (or afraid) I am until it is accomplished’ (Luke 19:50). Now, when God’s enemy stands before Him, He cries to God, whose omnipotence He knows: ‘All things are possible with thee; let this cup pass from me’ (Mark 14:36). And when He concludes, ‘Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt’, this does not mean that at the last He, like Socrates, regards death as the friend, the liberator. No, He means only this: If this greatest of all terrors, death, must befall Me according to Thy will, then I submit to this horror. Jesus knows that in itself, because death is the enemy of God, to die means to be utterly forsaken. Therefore He cries to God; in face of this enemy of God He does not want to be alone. He wants to remain as closely tied to God as He has been throughout His whole earthly life. For whoever is in the hands of death is no longer in the hands of God, but in the hands of God’s enemy. (Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead)

Here Cullmann has eloquently expressed the New Testament view of death as the enemy of God. For another example we can turn to Paul, who calls death “the last enemy.” Because death in the New Testament is not merely the end of biological life, it is also a power that insinuates itself into our living of these days. I’ll say more about this now as we turn to the idea of eternal life.

4. Eternal Life.

The final concept I want to explore is eternal life. One of the problems we have as moderns in understanding the world of the New Testament is its conception of time. There is a persistent eschatology that sees events both in the present and the future. Theologians refer to this as “the already and the not yet.”

Advent is a good time to talk about this, for while we have too often boiled Advent down to merely preparing for celebrating the birth of Christ, it is also a season of anticipating Christ’s second coming.

We see this in the memorial acclamations of many Christian liturgies: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. ”

Eternal life is one of those concepts that sits in an eschatological frame, or to put it another way, has an “already but not yet” quality about it. In early Christian preaching Jesus is said to offer eternal life to his followers, not just post-mortem, but now before death. In John 5:24, for example, Jesus says. “The one who hears my word . . . has eternal life: he does not come unto judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

But this realized aspect of eternal life does not take away from the reality of death, and the promise is that eternal life in its fullness lies on the other side of the resurrection.

The words said at many graveside committal services speak of “the resurrection to eternal life.” For example, this one from the Book of Common Prayer:

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother or sister N.; and we commit his or her body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Notice the reality of death here expressed in the ashes and dust.

As I mentioned earlier, death in the New Testament is more than the final cessation of biological life, but also a power that can insinuate itself into our living. In some sense the realized eternal life in Christ is the opposite of the power of death, which Christ defeated by his cross and resurrection.

And eternal life is not an individualistic state. Eternal life is life with Christ and in Christ and by extension a life in community, in the church, which is his body. Many contemporary speculations about life after death are very individualistic, but the Christian hope is a corporate and communal hope, the hope to join the communion of saints.

There is a wonderful sermon by Jonathan Edwards, the second pastor of this church, on 1 Corinthians 13: 8-10, called Heaven is a World of Love in which Edwards explores the metaphor of the communion of saints as a heavenly choir.

How many of you know it? (No hands) I wish it were better known because it is a better example of the essential Edwards than the terrifying Enfield sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which everybody seems to know.

In Heaven is a World of Love Edwards begins by beautifully describing heaven and all its social arrangements, and in so doing puts forth a protest against the social arrangements that we know so well on earth; for in Edward’s heaven there is no pride or jealously, there is decency and wisdom, and an equal prosperity among all. He says, “Love (poured out from God) resides and reigns in every heart there.” And then he says: “Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God.” So life after death is life in community.

5. What then can we say about life after death?

Having said all this, and leaving much more out in my brief time today, what can the Christian cling to in the theologies of life after death? I’ll sum up my main points:

  • Christians understand life after death through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • For the Christian, death is not an illusion or an escape, but a reality. Death is God’s enemy, yet God has overcome it through the cross and the raising of Jesus from the dead.
  • Life after death is not intrinsic to the human person, but a gift of God in the raising of Jesus Christ.
  • Life after death is bodily life with continuity of personality and integrity of personhood. It is not a part of you that lives the new life, but you.
  • Life after death is relational and communal, where we join in the communion of saints across all times and places.
  • Life after death is relational and imagined  as spatial, nearer or farther to God.
  • The purpose of life after death is for the praise of God. In the words of the Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of men and women is to love God and enjoy him forever.”
  • Both the living and the dead live between the times, in “the already but not yet” between the first and second coming, as we wait with the church on earth and the church in heaven for the Day when Christ comes in glory at the consummation of all things.

The basis for all this is, of course, faith in the God we know here and now, the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  In Don Hammond’s (the outgoing interim pastor) graceful ministry among us he has said again and again in a variety of ways something like this, “Whoever you are, whatever you have done, know that you are truly and forever loved.”

The Christian hope for this life and the next is rooted in this Gospel truth about the love of God, that God’s grace is greater than our sin, that God’s love is stronger than anything else in the world, even death, the last enemy, which God defeated on the cross.

There are numerous eloquent witnesses to this love in the New Testament, but none is better than this by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and I will close with it:

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

I delivered this paper at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, MA on December 9, 2012, the Second Sunday of Advent.

Adam Desnoyers’ Thanksgiving

Adam Desnoyers is a wordsmith extraordinaire, a winner of an O’ Henry Award for best short story, a putative novelist, a creative writing professor at the University of Kansas, and a valued part-time employee of  Harbour Lights, a hipster townie/student bar in Lawrence, Kansas. In the interest of the kind of transparency you have come to expect from this blog, I need to admit that Adam is also my nephew and godson.

He writes periodic blurbs for Harbour Lights, which he posts on Facebook. His most recent one is about Thanksgiving, and, since I was with him on Thanksgiving when he wrote it, I can attest that it is (mostly) fictional, though none the less funny for being so. So for all of you who have survived the messy and comical goings-on of your families at Thanksgiving,  enjoy:

No one saw the dog hop up and lick the turkey so you made sure you got a cut from the other side. Aunt Myrtle burned a Virginia Slim hole in the loveseat when the weight of the day had her dozing off. Cousin Dane had been waiting in a Black Friday line since Tuesday; got incarcerated for events occurring somewhere between Hosiery and Electronics. Mikey floated him bail. Bro-in-law Tyler left the linen closet full of dirty diapers and Hot Pocket sleeves. Darlene neglected to mention the weed in the pan of muffins. Hugh emptied your Ativan prescription but left you one because he’s thoughtful. Morgan announced she’s preggers again. Your mother tried really hard. Nobody has seen the cat. You haven’t really lost the weight, mostly you’re just dehydrated. Eddie says during the Rapture you should come to his house, he’s got a year of Hungry Mans and light beer. The athletes left it all on the field. You wonder if you really married the right person. Linda and Frank promise things will be different this time around. Sometimes there’s this tightness in your right lung. You never know if the bright one’s a star or a planet. One place never changes–well, maybe just a little right now, but soon it will stop. HARBOUR LIGHTS.