Thursday, June 12, 2014

Keep Your Books in Their Boxes

Sermon Delivered at Bentley Manning's Deaconal Ordination on June 11, 2014 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Propers for St. Barnabas:

Isaiah 42:5-12 
Acts 11:19-30;13:1-3 Matthew 10:7-16 Psalm 112 

Bentley, you’ve just packed up your study carrel at Sewanee.  For three years you’ve pored over the inhabitants of its bookshelves, searching for insight into the length, and breadth, and width, and height of God.  You have taken in the sacred story of God’s people and made it in many ways your own.  You have been a good and faithful student.  Well done.

Now your books are in their boxes, still to be unpacked.  That’s fine.  I’d keep them in the attic for a while.  Because you’ve got a new study carrel, a new place to struggle and come to grips with the mysteries and glories of God: your new study carrel is Birmingham.  The neighborhoods are your bookshelves.  The people whom you befriend and minister to and with are your beloved texts.  They will share with you unimaginable tales of grief and glory, of God’s powerful presence in their lives.  Welcome to the margin between the church and the world.  Welcome home.

A deacon’s jobs are many, but the one that may be the most compelling and the most challenging is this: to interpret to the Church the needs of the world.  And there’s only one way to do that: to be in the world.

Because we know you’ll be in church.  We know that you love church.  You’ve been nerding out on church for years.  You met Leslie in church. You read about 19th century English clerics for fun.  You even spend your time off in church, having just returned from the ancient sanctuaries of the Holy Land.  Heck, you spent last summer doing extra field education so you could be in church more than was required by your seminary, which is owned by the church.

But the wily, wild Holy Spirit that has so recently come upon us in flames of fire has surprise after surprise in store outside of church walls.  As we understand from St. Luke’s account in the Book of Acts, in the time after the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit led “some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also” -- spoke to the Gentiles, not just the Jews!  And what were they saying?  They were “proclaiming the Lord Jesus!”  

But this wasn’t supposed to happen.  Sure, the tongues of fire that preached the good news through the apostles on that pentecostal day did speak not just to Jews but to all people.  But Jews were God’s chosen people.  And Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.  Something wasn’t right, and the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas -- a Levite who had had a conversion experience, sold his field and distributed the profits to the faithful -- the elders sent Barnabas to investigate the Spirit’s troublemaking in the world.

Who knows what Barnabas expected to find on arrival, but what he did see was the grace of God at work among those who were not Jewish.  Apparently, there was a need among the Gentiles, not just the Jews, to know God’s remarkable love.  Barnabas’ eyes were opened.  This harvest would be plentiful.  He rushed to Tarsus to find a man named Saul, formerly a persecutor of the church, and brought him to Antioch.  And a great many people came to the Lord.

This story is the beginning of a lifetime of missionary adventures for St. Barnabas and St. Paul, many of which they would share together.  But this story also marks the beginning of change in the church.  Barnabas and Paul brought back stories of the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles, and the church has not been the same since.  We have come to understand that all people are chosen by God to be loved; we Christians have come to know this blessed Jewish Messiah to be the savior of us all.  God’s people thus are called to and formed for God’s mission in the world.  And we are called to follow the Spirit’s lead in her curious and powerful troublings among the comfortable, and her comforting ministrations to the afflicted.

The task of the deacon among us is this: to lead the work of God’s people in the world alongside the Spirit, proclaiming the good news, watching for and naming the Spirit’s many movements, and bringing this news of the Spirit back to the church, so that it too might be refreshed, refocused, rejuvenated.  The church needs this, for it can be all too easy to keep our red doors closed.

How is the Spirit working here, right now, in this time and place?  Perhaps only God knows -- but we, God’s people, can surely feel the Spirit among us.  Bentley, we are here as the church to set you apart, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that you might help answer that question of the Spirit’s movements among us, and help us to figure out what to do about it.

This is no easy task.  Your deaconal ministry demands self-effacement.  Don’t worry -- that will happen naturally, as the stories told by those whom you meet in these neighborhoods sink in.  You will hear stories of such need, such heartache, such loss, such suffering that only prayer, communal and personal, will keep your own hope aflame -- for it is risky and difficult to be alive today.  Only God’s every breath into the world sustains us.  Take comfort in God’s abiding love, study the sacred Scripture of God’s people, and delight in Leslie and Mary Bentley, in your family and friends, in the beauty of this earth.  There is grace and power in your ordination -- and it will provide as you struggle to understand and serve and love those whom you meet and minister to outside church walls.

For the needs of the world are many.  But the imaginative Spirit inspires our responses.  In the Diocese of San Diego, Deacon Bob Nelson recently raised funds for a mobile shower unit so that those living on the street might know the blessed peace of a warm shower and the elation of cleanliness.  Who knew the good news could be communicated through a shower head?  The Spirit’s languages are countless.

Bentley, when you return to God’s sanctuaries, when you proclaim the Gospel and bid the confession and the prayers, when you prepare the table and send forth God’s people, you will find your own story richer and more complicated than it was before.  For you are set apart today to be a bearer of the pain and joy of the world, the bearer of the world’s stories, stories of the world’s needs that the church must hear for its own good.  

Thanks be to God, you are home now.  You are a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  Now leave your books in their boxes for a while.  These neighborhoods are your bookshelves, and Birmingham’s residents -- especially the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely -- have stories to tell.  Hear them so that you might challenge us, Bentley -- speak to us the truths of the world -- tell us where the Spirit is working, where we are needed as the Body of Christ, and take us there, so that we may see the grace of God at work, and participate alongside, so that we too may be healed.