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Function over Feelings

Sermon by Bishop Paul Marshall
Institution of The Rev. Scott Allen
St. Andrew's Allentown/Bethlehem
May 20, 2010


After 30-something years of attending or leading services just like this one, I have concluded that the preacher at such events is very much like the corpse at an old-fashioned wake. You need him to have the party, but nobody expects him to say much.

I think that is true because the service of new ministry is a part of a honeymoon, where the level of infatuation and delight is usually pretty high. Anyone who’s tried to give serious advice to couples who are still batting their eyes at each other knows it’s a waste of time.

But tonight seems different, and I believe that the lessons carry a word from the Lord that can be heard. I believe that because the journey St. Andrew’s has been on for the last fifteen years has intensified your spirituality, challenged you personally and corporately, and left you with very few illusions—a gift very few people are given.

The most common illusion in churches is a belief that all of our difficulties are somebody else’s fault, and if only we could find the right somebody, our church would return to its golden age and we would all get along…again.

St Andrew’s stands out in my mind as THE church in this diocese where the broad lay leadership had the spiritual courage and personal maturity to step away from the illusions that drive so many congregations of every denomination right to extinction. This parish chose to go to work on its own manner of relating. Beyond all of that, St. Andrew’s chose to keep its focus not on how it was feeling, but on how it was functioning as the body of Jesus Christ in mission on Pennsylvania Avenue. By giving your functioning priority over your feeling, you gave God room to bind your wounds, to make you stronger, and to make you a blessing to those whom you serve in increasing numbers. I salute the lay leaders who worked spiritually and physically to make spiritual transformation possible.

In a context marked by spiritual health and robust mission focus, tonight you celebrate a relationship with a full-time rector, the first to serve here in a while. It’s a great moment for Father Allen, for the parish, and your sisters and brothers in the Lehigh Valley because it shows what can happen when Christians focus on serving the world in Jesus’ name.

When we overhear Jesus in tonight’s gospel, it’s at the Last Supper, and he is giving his final instructions to people who will never again relate to him in the usual way. His repeated message is that the way they will deal with his absence is by keeping the love alive, and goes so far as to give a command to love each other. That gives us a big clue about church life. If love is a feeling, as thousands of songs assure us, it cannot be commanded, and Jesus is making no sense. But our ordinary word “love” does not translate the word for love used here.

Liking and feeling good about someone is not love in the sense that the New Testament means. In fact we tend to feel good about people precisely to the level that they collude in our self-deceptions, so that kind of love is often a danger signal.

No, Jesus commands his community to define itself as the fellowship of those who love by act rather than feeling. They define love by laying down their lives as he did. Love, as Jesus commands it, is about emptying self for the sake of others; it is not about the fulfillment of desire. Giving up an hour to help stock the food bank is love. Listening to a lonely person tell the story of their life for the 490th time is love. Simply being quiet in church before the service so that others can pray is love. Each of these small acts involves giving up a bit of self, surrendering what we desire, for the sake of others whom we may not know or have personal feelings about, and each is love.

In our gospel, Jesus further defines the community of love. He makes an odd distinction. He tells those gathered in the upper room that he is no longer calling them his servants, those who simply obey without needing to understand. No, the disciples are now called friends because they are in on the whole thing: their master has shown and told them what is going on.

By collaborating in Jesus’ love for the world and each other, Jesus says he brings joy, complete joy. The joy of seeing and experiencing the working out of God’s plan, the taste of things the way they are coming to be. The relief of knowing this is all real, and that we are connected to God.

St. Paul reminds us that to enact God’s love in the church and to get it working as it should, God gives people many gifts, and each of us has something to lay down on the altar that is the world. Tonight the gift that has our attention is leadership, as we welcome Father Allen to work with St. Andrew’s as their friend and leader. We ask him to keep us focused on our functioning, to preside at worship in such a way that it is Christ whom we meet in the sacraments and in each other. Each of the tokens he will be given in a few minutes expresses as aspect of his ministry, and our prayers for how he will empower ours.

Although each parishioner of St. Andrew’s may at one time or another receive their rector’s ministry in a personal and intimate way, it is death for the parish, it is death for the parish, if any of us becomes his client, dependent on him for emotional chumminess. That is why I conclude with an observation about the first lesson.

The little bit of the story that we read tonight begins with Moses asking God to euthanize him—the demands of leading constantly needy people have become too much, and Moses is beyond burned out. God’s response to is give him a group of seventy colleagues, so that his ministry will never be practiced in isolation and that others may work to bear people’s routine burdens. When we promised to support and uphold Scott in his ministry we promised in part never to give him reason to think that the life and ministry of this parish have been stacked on his desk and that having dumped there we have tiptoed out of the room.

To receive Scott as rector tonight is to promise to work together as friends, all of us in on the Master’s plan, all of us laying down our gifts and our lives for the sake of the others, that our joy may be filled and God’s kingdom come.


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