A sermon preached by the Rev. Raymond Harbort
at the Eucharist at diocesan Clergy Retreat
on September 28, 2010. (Propers, Ministry III)
As I stand before you, the phrase “preaching to the choir” comes to mind.
You’ve probably heard all this before. It’s not original. But as my tutor back in the Paleolithic at General Seminary remarked as we were fussing over our sermons, “Never mind trying to be original. If it’s original, it’s probably heresy.”
Our passage from First Peter begins “The end of all things is near. therefore…” Then follows a series of exhortations for the church: “discipline yourselves for prayer…..maintain constant love among yourselves……be hospitable without complaining….serve, speak….with the strength that God supplies, that God may be glorified in all things. (I Peter 4:7-11) Exhortations for the church----and so for us who have been called and ordained to serve and to be examples to the flock. These things and all we promised to do at our ordination.
Two Episcopalians were comparing notes. One said, “Our rector’s sermons are like the peace of God. They pass all understanding.” The other said, “Our rector’s sermons are like the grace of God----never-ending.” “The end of all things is near.”
But in parish ministry, the end of all the things you have to do is never near. It is never-ending—like the grace of God that that upholds and enfolds and empowers us.
All we promised to strive to be and become and do at ordination, all the things the people entrusted to our care rightly expect of us: the sacraments, and pre-eminently the Sunday Eucharist, planned and celebrated with care and reverence; the Gospel preached with power, thought, and love; diligent and loving pastoral care, all that comes under the rubric of administration, taking our part in the life and work of the diocese and community…..and lots of things that may seem tangential at best to the work of ministry; like unstopping the toilet in the parish hall or getting out the ladder and changing the flood light over the altar because there’s no one else around to do it and you have a wedding in 45 minutes. (Been there. Done that.) And we all have stories of what we did for love that didn’t appear to be implicit in our ordination vows. Doing daily what needs to be done.
Like the grace of God, it is never-ending. How many of you already have mental or written lists of all the stuff you have to do when you leave here today? There is always more to do….and more you could do if you chose to do it. But should you?
Is it God’s will for us? Or is it our own will, our own ego? Once in a while (not just once a year at the Chrism Mass) it’s good to read over those ordination vows to remind ourselves of what is central to our calling and what is not.
The end of all the things we have to do is never near. Which one of us has not asked ourselves (with St. Paul), “Who is sufficient for these things? Or said to ourselves, “I don’t see how I can get through all this.” Or maybe even, “I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.” And we know the answer: “Not I but the grace of God that is with me.” And which one of us has not known this amazing grace—upholding, enfolding us in the midst of all the things we are called upon to do, some of which are clearly beyond our own ability or strength? Which of us does not know that sometimes when we have nothing more to give (and maybe get out of God’s way) God does amazing things for us and through us? But also that in the midst of the daily round, all our obligations---grace happens?
“The grace of daily obligation”. It is a phrase that has stayed with me and sustained me for many years. It comes from Gail Godwin’s novel, “Father Melancholy’s Daughter.” It’s about an Episcopal priest who is subject to periodic bouts of depression. For him, daily obligation, the duties of ministry are a means of grace and healing. They give him a reason to get up in the morning. They keep him in contact with people—keep him from shriveling up into himself. They open him to the grace of God for his own healing.
“The grace of daily obligation”. The first exhortation in our passage from First Peter is, “Be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.” Or as the RSV has it (and I like better), “Stay sane and sober (literally “in your right mind”) for your prayers.” Which of us has not allowed our lives to get so busy, so crazy that we were more than normally distracted in prayer? Or gave it short measure or omitted it altogether?
But prayer---being rooted and grounded in God, is primary and essential to who and what we are. Someone once said, “Remember, we are human beings not human doings.” Being a priest or deacon (or a bishop) is at least as much about who and what we are (and maybe more) than what we do. It is about being men and women of prayer, rooted and centered in God, non-anxious, mirrors and icons of Christ, examples to the flock, the people of God.
“The grace of Daily Obligation”. There is no canon law, no rubric of the Prayer Book that obligates us to read Morning and Evening Prayer daily as there was in the first English Prayer Book. But the tradition does go back at least to the 6th century.
The Daily Office has been a means of grace for me. In arid times when personal prayer was difficult is not next to impossible---at least I could pray the office. And often I think it “primed the pump” (as it were) so that personal Prayer again became possible.
“The grace of daily obligation”. “Maintain constant love for one another”, says the Letter of Peter, “covering, forgiving a multitude of sins.” It is not easy to always love all the people entrusted to us, is it----those are unloving to others---or to us. It takes patience, prayer, trying to understand the woundedness that makes people do what they do, and an ongoing commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. Love, not feeling but acting in love (no matter what we may feel), loving all alike----and the unloving more because they need it more. It has been said that, after a time, a parish will take on the personality of the pastor. (Now there’s a scary thought!) But it also means that if we persevere in love grace happens.
“The grace of daily obligation”. “Provide hospitality without complaining”.
One commentary says this has to do with “providing lodging for Christian travelers.” But, aren’t we all followers of Jesus and travelers on a journey? Might not hospitality simply mean welcoming people---even if we’re busy and it’s not convenient? (And, I know—sometimes we need to set boundaries.) But, have you ever been in your office, perhaps working to a deadline (the monthly newsletter that feels like it goes out twice a month)? And someone knocks and walks in, perhaps a parishioner who often comes just to chat about little or nothing---maybe because they’re lonely. And you have a strong urge to get rid of them as politely and as quickly as you can. But you don’t—or can’t. And after a few minutes of idle chat they begin sharing something really important about themselves, a sharing leads to healing and new life for them. And you become a “witness of the resurrection”. You come away from it drained and yet strangely filled and blessed. And that’s the way it is in all we have to do. Grace upholds, enfolds, and empowers us. Grace happens.
You come to the end of a long day of counseling, hospital visits, a difficult meeting.
Or you come to the end of a long Sunday morning when so much of the week’s work and so much of you is gathered up and poured out in celebrating and preaching—maybe twice or even three times. And there’s coffee hour and maybe a class or a meeting and perhaps a run to the hospital. And you come to the end of it tired, drained, poured out and nigh unto empty. Empty and yet full---full of a peace, a quiet joy, a soul-satisfied contentment that is of God, that is grace and peace and life. It is as Jesus said, “Those who lose their life—(who let go of it, and give it away, and pour it out) for my sake will find it.”
Blessing and thanks to God who has called us, who upholds, enfolds and empowers us for the life we have been called to live and the work he has given us to do. Amen.