Monday, January 29, 2018

“Aprons, Cups, and Napkins”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
on the occasion of the Ordination of the Rev. Sean Weston
Sunday, January 28, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Texts: 1 Samuel 8:1-22 and Luke 22:14-27

Jesus’s followers are so delightfully human. Here they are, gathered around the table with their teacher and friend for the last time. Jesus shares words with them - important words. But the only part they really seem to hear is the part about one of them betraying him. Immediately, they start to whisper and wonder, “Who is it, do you think? It’s it Chad in accounting? No. I heard it’s Cheryl who works in the mail room.”

Moments after Jesus lovingly passes the bread and the wine the disciples have somehow devolved into a full-on argument about which one of them is the greatest. I always imagine this scene with the disciples using the words of The Greatest - you know, Muhammad Ali - to make their point.
"I should be a postage stamp. That's the only way I'll ever get licked."

“It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."

“My only fault is that I don’t realize how great I really am.”

And then Jesus steps in, as he so often had to do - as he still has to do - to gently correct his followers. “It turns out,” he says quietly, “That this whole notion of who is the best is pretty complicated.”

And, as always, there’s something about his voice and the love in his eyes that makes them sit down and listen.

That makes us sit down and listen.

It turns out that humans have always struggled with hierarchies and labels. People were arguing about who was the greatest long before Muhammad Ali, long before Jesus’s disciples. I have this working theory that to be human is so overwhelming that we rely on lots of little tricks to make it through the daily existential crisis known as Life. One of the ways we cope is by categorizing everything. And by labeling people so we can better understand who they are and what roles they might play.

This can be a good thing. It helps to know who the teacher is when you walk into a room on the first day of class. It helps to recognize who the alpha dog is when you walk onto the court. Churches also benefit from knowing who might play which roles at various times. It seems to me that this whole process of Ordination is one way that we, as the Church, label some people so we might know what to expect of them. It’s helpful.

Of course, this labeling of people can also get a bit complicated. Because what if you walk into the classroom and the teacher is only person who is supposed to know anything? Well, you’re going to miss out on a whole lot of peer-to-peer learning that could have been amazing. And what if everyone on the court only expects the star player to make magic happen? Well, the team’s not going to be very functional and that’s going to be a huge liability.

What happens when, in churches, we expect the pastor to be the “professional Christian” - the one we pay to do all the ministry for us? So we don’t have to? Nothing good happens in that scenario.

Or what happens when we have odd ideas about pastors - like that they are somehow perfect, or somehow otherworldly, immune to human foibles and follies? NOTHING GOOD. In fact, when we believe our pastors are perfect the stage can be set for some really awful scenarios where power is abused, trust is breached, and hearts are broken.

We know all of this. We do. And yet…..we seem to still naturally re-gravitate towards this idea of there being a quick fix or easy answer for all the things that ail us. Like the Israelites, we want a King! A person who will show us the way, make decisions for us. A person who will always know the right answer. A magical person who will fill the church to overflowing with children and young families. A powerful preacher who is also skilled at pastoral care and plays the guitar like an angel. We just want it to be easy.

I get it. I wish life was easy, too.

Except when I don’t. Except when I remember that some of the best lessons I’ve learned in this life have moments of unease. Except when I remember that Jesus never promised easy.

Which brings me back to Jesus. Always back to Jesus.

The Israelites may have clamored for the perceived ease of life-under-a-monarch and Jesus’s first followers channeled their inner Ali-s as they argued over who was the greatest. But Jesus brought them gently back around to a deeper truth. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” is how Ali phrased it.

Those of us who are called to ministry - and that means all of us in one way or another - are called to serve.

Several years ago now I had the opportunity to participate in a daylong workshop with the Rev. Michael Piazza. He shared with us an image that has stuck with me all these years. The image of the apron. (Hang up apron on pulpit.)

Rev. Piazza told a story of a pastor who was shaking people’s hands after a worship service and greeted a couple of guests. They made small talk and the pastor learned that the guests were actually members of another church in town but were looking for other options because they “just weren’t being fed” at their current church. The pastor responded, “Sounds like it’s time for you to put on an apron instead of a bib. Those of us who are followers of Jesus are supposed to serve, not be served.”
This image of followers of Jesus all wearing aprons is a powerful image. What if we really were just going around looking for opportunities to serve others, wash feet, anoint with holy oil, and set tables for everyone we encountered? That would truly be an amazing thing, wouldn't it? And what if each and every congregation was filled with people who showed up on Sunday morning seeking opportunities to serve, rather than just being filled themselves? It would be pretty neat.

The problem, of course, is that we are human.

And we actually can’t meet other people’s needs if our own needs aren’t being met. You know, the whole put the oxygen mask on thing, right? We are hungry humans. We need nutrients, sustenance. We need new knowledge and insights. Fresh experiences of God. And many of us come to church hungrily seeking those connections, that knowledge. Heck, we gather around this table because we know we are hungry and need to be filled.

So...I want to keep Piazza’s image of a bunch of Christians wearing aprons AND I want to add to it. I think we can be Christians who wear aprons AND carry around cups. (Place cup on pulpit.) Sometimes these cups are filled to overflowing. Other times they are running on empty. I would argue that it’s normal to cycle through periods of our life where we have a lot to give and other times where we are very much in need. That’s normal.

Friends, the beauty of the Church is that it is by its very nature a place where we can BOTH wear and apron AND carry a cup.

When I am tired and worn out, I can rest assured that someone else will put on their apron and get to work. During those times, I can focus on receiving God’s good gifts and rejoicing in them. When I am feeling good and ready to go, I can put on that apron, pick up the carafe of coffee, and walk around looking for those who need a refill. And in those moments I get to share in the joy of being Christ’s hands and feet for someone who needs it.

On and on the cycle goes. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing. And we need each other for accountability. Otherwise, it seems there are some of us who are prone to ALWAYS wearing an apron and others of us who need help remembering it’s time for us to step into service again.

I recently had the privilege of hearing an amazing sermon by the Rev. Krista Betz on the story of Elisha and the women with the overflowing jars of oil in 2 Kings. Krista used that text as an opportunity to talk about how the Bible is full of stories about container - the gifts the magi brought, Noah’s ark and the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple itself, those jars of water-into-wine at Cana, the space that Job’s friends held for him in his hour of need, the containers of Elizabeth and Mary’s bodies as they brought new life into the world.

Krista asked us, “What if our lives are the most sacred containers that we have? What if God’s manifestation is not somewhere out there but is somehow in here?” We are not the sacred oil that gives light and love. Instead, we are the containers that hold God’s oil until it is ready to be poured.
Participating in the act of ordination is holy because it reminds us that our entire lives are the most sacred containers we have. Our frail and fragile, foibled and follied, very human lives are what we’ve got. And they are enough. They are more than enough.

God uses our containers - us - to do miraculous things. And it’s not just the people that we “set apart” as special. It’s not just those who are ordained. It’s every single one of us - young and old, rich and poor, broken and whole, sinner and saint, because God knows we are, all of us, both.

The occasion of an ordination is a time to rejoice as we remember that God is calling each of us - into service, into ministry, into bearing the light, into proclaiming deep truth, into prophetic speech and action, into putting on aprons AND holding out cups that need to be filled.

And as we step into that daunting and awe-some call, we do it with some level of fear and trembling. “Who are we, O God, that you are mindful of us? Are you sure about this?”

As soon as we whisper aloud our fears and doubts, God comes with another gift. She forgot to drop this one off earlier with the apron and cup. A napkin. (Place napkin on pulpit.) For all the messes we are going to make.

It is my hope and prayer for each of us gathered here that as we imperfectly follow in the ways of Jesus, who taught us to serve, that we will find companions for the journey who are willing to help us clean up our inevitable messes. Companions who are willing to love us through spilled milk and shame and fear and doubt. Those who hold out to us the possibility of new life and new beginnings, over and over again.

Each and every one of us has the ability to show grace to another and to ourselves.
Each and every one of us is surely going to need it.
Each and every one of us is called to the apron, the cup, and the napkin.

Thanks be to God for the call...and for the companions on the journey. Amen.

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