Makin' It Plain
I was honored last month to be invited by Megan Snell to preach at her (celebration of) ordination last month. First Church was very fortunate that we were able to scrounge up some loose change so that we could pay Megan to be our student minister in the 2014-2015 academic year. We all learned a lot from each other! And hosting her ordination (celebration) was an exciting moment for the church. I think the whole congregation was feeling proud and emboldened by witnessing Megan's journey of faithfulness and commitment. I tried to capture a bit of that in my first ever ordination sermon. I offer it here:
Scripture and manuscript are below.
Habbakuk 2: 1-3 (NRSV)
I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Ephesians 4:11-16 (NRSV)
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Show a hands - how many of you good people here are attending your very first ordination this afternoon? Amen. Amen. That’s good news. Here’s another question: How many people here don’t completely understand why Megan Snell has dedicated her life to pursuing this particular path - ordination, Christian ordination, church leadership, ministry, discipleship to Jesus Christ. It’s OK to be honest. Show a hands - don’t really get it. That’s OK. I don’t get it completely either.
What we’re here to do today calls for a certain lack of certitude, actually - a certain lack of acceptance of the world as it is. And it needs a certain degree of … for now let’s call it - imagination: a leap and a plunge into a vision. A vision that is bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than Megan. A vision that touches the beginning and looks out all the way to the end, but which we can only experience right here and right now.
Let’s be honest with one another - an encounter with God takes a good deal of imagination. That’s not to say in some derogatory way that God is imaginary. But planting your feet on Holy Ground and saying “here I am” - that takes heart. Laying your hands on someone you love and summoning the audacity to bless them - that takes real SOUL. Asking the questions, “Who am I? Why am I here? What goodness in this world have I been called to do?” that takes a certain existential courage. And living in the mindbending reality in which the response to our calling comes from inside of us and totally beyond us takes a humble sort of imaginative boldness.
Working with Megan last year I got to experience firsthand her humble-bold preparedness for her call to ministry. Undoubtedly you are sitting here today because you too have experienced Megan’s presence and her activity in your life. She is calm but engaged, relaxed but effective, cautious at times but consistently courageous, serious and hilarious. She plays church music and punk music. She is youthful and unsettlingly wise. She has ministered to the dying and to the birthing and a little bit of each. She has ministered to soldiers and to activists and a little bit of each. Faith, hope, and love - the virtues that Megan has developed and the experiences they have led her to - could not exist, could not be known or felt, could not ever be acted upon without a healthy dose of creative, eros-filled, bodily, foot-tapping, soulful imagination.
The calling upon Megan’s life that we are here to lay our hands upon, to touch, to begin to see, to affirm and bless and participate in with Megan requires more than what is - this calling requires an animating dream of what could be. So, whatever else you’ve brought to this ordination as a gift for Megan, what we need most is your imagination.
So, I ask you - are you feeling imaginative today? What? Are you feeling ready to imagine the greatest call in your life, your deepest purpose, your heart’s desire, your life’s ultimate meaning? Oh man I thought this was all about Megan. Oh no no no. You too have to be willing. Are you ready to go there, to touch that deep place inside of you and call upon it to bless Megan’s path into the vision that God is calling her to? Are you feeling that imaginative today?
Imagination can get us into trouble sometimes. In 2004 I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail - a 2,000 mile walk up and down mountains from Georgia to Maine. It was right before I started seminary and I imagined it as a sort of spiritual journey preparing me for what was to come - ministry. I imagined long stretches of empty forest. I would become like an itinerant hermit moving silently and prayerfully from one woodland shelter to the next. Along the way, songbirds would land on my shoulder and chirp joyfully as they pecked the crumbs of trail mix from my beard. Deer would emerge from the trees and wait for me on the path. I would lay my hands upon their sleek flanks and they would close their doey eyes in communion with a spirit like their own. The bears and I would poop in the woods together side by side, growling our deference to one another. That’s what I imagined, anyway. Peace and beauty and stuff. But that ain’t ministry.
What I got instead was hundreds and hundreds of miles full of dirty, smelly hikers. A sea of humanity. ALL KINDS. Some of whom were wonderful. Many of whom were hmmm annoying. I imagine that per capita there are more annoying people in say Somerville than on the AT, but Somerville is four miles long and a whole mile wide. The AT is 2,000 miles long and - I dunno - on average two feet wide. It’s hard to give the people you don’t like a wide berth in the woods because, well, we’re all on the same damn path.
The Apostle Paul tells us as much in our reading this morning. He puts it a little more nicely. But basically - we’re all walking to a common end and that means in some sense that we’re all walking on a common path. We all need to recognize one another’s gifts, get in step, and refuse to be blown apart. We all have a job to do on the journey, we each have gifts that will enrich the trip to the end.
In some sense, the job of ministry is helping other people believe that we can, in fact, get there together. Ministry is living and leading with an imagination so big that it invites everyone in. It discards no one. It avoids no one. And when we begin to live in a way that truly considers others and hopes for a future where we are all knit together like a body in love, our imaginations might just be turned on enough to start to dream of where we want to get to.
The prophet Habakkuk has a dream like that. He asks God for an answer and receives a vision - a vision that speaks of THE END. Writing mentor and Hollywood screenwriter John August often fields questions from struggling creative types on his podcast Scriptnotes. “Which of my five hundred awesome movie ideas should I actually bother sitting down to write?” aspiring screenwriters query. August advises, “Always write the movie with the best ending.”
It’s not always easy to get to a good ending. In the case of a screenplay, there are 100 pages or so of writing to do before you get to writing the ending. The Second Act of any writing project is notorious for being the most difficult to get through. So John August sometimes begins by writing the first act and then skips to the end of the third act, and then goes back to work on the middle - to figure out how to get from the story’s inception to the story’s finale.
The trouble for us - part of the human condition, in fact - is that we are perpetually stuck in the middle. We can look back to what came before now. We can look ahead to what we hope or dread might come after now. But you and I, we’re stuck in the here and now - forever. Forever writing the endless second act. Forever reaching for a grand finale that will give the whole project some glorious conclusion. But we don’t have the power to SKIP AROUND to write the beginning or the end. Instead, our lot is to continually try to tie existence together into something worthwhile and meaningful from the dreaded middle.
Well, Megan is no different than anyone else - she’s a pastor trudging through the second act with the rest of us. Megan comes before us today, here in the middle, to simply say that she has heard a voice calling to her. And she has glimpsed an ending in the sound of that call. Just a bit of it. And it’s a real good ending. You can ask Megan about the ending she will spend her life writing towards. She might even be able to describe it to you a bit - maybe she’ll write you a sermon about it, she’s good at that sort of thing. But don’t think it will be easy on her. Or that because it is a good vision that this must mean it is a safe vision.
Ask Jesus about pursuing the vision. Jesus went around telling stories about the world that could be if only we had the imagination to truly love one another and act upon that love in this world. And the Roman Empire crucified him for it. As a Christian and as a pastor Megan has dedicated herself to a vision and an imagination that have led many to the cross. I’m not saying that a cross is the best ending I can think of, but the truth is that imagination is dangerous and sometimes dreaming of a better ending than the one that has been prescribed to us by the powers of this world will get us into deadly trouble with those who claim to represent Righteousness and the Law.
To drive this point home in some Christian traditions the ordinand lies down prostrate on the floor, their arms stretched out to their sides, cruciform - not because crucifixion is a good ending, but because the Christian minister must be unintimidated by the brutal lack of imagination of those who would crucify our dreams – both from outside and inside of the church. And that kind of courage comes from having the imagination to KNOW that the brutalizers will not always be in control and that even the crucified can be victorious. Are you feeling imaginative today? Because what we have come here to do is not imaginary or trifling. It is life and death and the future. And we’re going to put it into your hands.
The Prophet Habakkuk is standing at his watchpost, up on the ramparts, waiting for a vision from God because he is wounded to the very bone by the world as it is. He sees injustices. He witnesses violence. He suffers oppression and loss and death. And his soul aches with it. Aches for his people. And he’s not interested in the old it’s-all-a-part-of-God’s-plan excuses. He thinks it’s a bad plan and he tells God that he thinks it’s a raw deal.
And God shows him a vision. She affirms to Habakkuk that when the powerful plunder the weak, horde wealth, and build their lives and cities on the oppression and degradation of others, they are indeed unable to recognize the true God. And then She reveals to him an even greater vision of a new work - a vision so powerful Habakkuk can only describe it by metaphors and similes describing the forces of nature. Bright like the sun, powerful like torrents of water, shaking the foundations of the Earth!
It’s a vision of a future and a justice so powerful that Habakkuk feels like he can carry on with a mission and a hope through the middle.
I’d like to offer a gift like that to Megan right now. Something to help her carry on. Something to get this place shakin’ up! SO, we’re gonna make it rain and storm and flood in here together. As Greg and I come by your pew, you do what we do. And pour your imagination into the blessing waters we create.
An ordination is not a beginning and it is not an end. This thing we are doing today exists entirely in the second act doldrums. And if it’s going to be meaningful, if it’s going to be true, it will require your best imagination. What is your greatest hope for this moment? What is your greatest hope for this world? If you can allow that hope to touch this moment, if you can allow that dream to enter into this space, if you can be bold enough to begin to make the vision plain, then you are more than prepared to bless Megan today and her calling to the leadership of the church of Jesus Christ.
And when you come forward to lay your hands on her, as Christ laid his hands upon the disciples, and as you close your eyes in solemn acknowledgment of the consequence of that moment and what you are doing for her - write the vision in your heart, make it plain, and let it run through your blessing hands. Don’t be afraid to say HERE I AM LORD, today we’re sending Megan, now send me!
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations