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Speak, Lord, for Your Servants Are Listening
Bishop Waynick wanted to share this sermon from a recent confirmation as an example of the fine preaching our clergy provide for these celebrations. With thanks to the The Rev. Whitney Rice for sharing her text with us, here is her sermon.
19 May 2012
The Rev. Whitney Rice
St. David’s Church, Bean Blossom
Southeast Deanery Confirmation
Micah 6:1, 4, 6-9
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
Today is a day of new beginnings in ministry, as we gather to support these our brothers and sisters who are to be confirmed, received and reaffirmed in Christ’s one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It reminds me of one of my own new beginnings in ministry: my first day of seminary. I remember showing up at the registration table the first morning of orientation and seeing all these extremely well put together people and thinking, um, I’m not sure I belong here. I wonder if McDonald’s is still hiring.
Intimidated though I was as I looked around at my new classmates, I got my name tag and folder and tromped determinedly upstairs to the very crowded Common Room. The tables were all full of these important looking people and I lost my nerve a little bit. So I went over and sat in a chair next to the wall, thinking here’s a nice inconspicuous place where I’ll only have to talk to one or two terrifyingly overqualified people at a time, not a whole table full. Not too long afterward, a petite brunette woman in a red suit came and sat next to me. Her name tag read, “Anna Ramirez, Dean of Admissions.” I thought, “How nice of her to come and mingle with the students during breakfast.”
Well, the room got more and more crowded and the chairs around me in the row next to the wall started filling up. I noticed that everyone sitting around me was wearing a suit and seemed somewhat older than I was, but I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t think much of it, that is, until someone set up a lectern and a microphone two seats away from me. What I had thought was a discreet row of chairs next to the wall was actually the speakers’ panel. By this time I was literally hemmed in on all sides by deans of various kinds and someone was tapping a water glass to signal for quiet. There was absolutely no way to escape without creating a huge scene and tromping all over people.
The speeches started and I stared in a daze out across the faces of my new peers, hoping and praying the microphone would not be passed to me. What would I say? Hi, I’m Whitney Rice, the Dean of People Who Regularly Get Themselves Into Ridiculous Situations. I just sat there with a stricken look on my face and wondered why I ever thought this new ministry was a good idea.
And this reminds me rather of Our Lord Jesus in our gospel today, which is essentially his first day of ministry. When Jesus walked into the synagogue that he had attended since childhood, did he know that was the particular day he would stand up and proclaim himself the heir to the prophecy of Isaiah? Had he wanted to do it many times before but had lost his nerve? What was his first day of ministry like? Was he plagued with self-doubt and fear or did he plunge in with utter confidence and resolve?
I suspect that it may be a combination of the two, perhaps as many of us are feeling today as we get ready to proclaim and inherit our own ministry here together in the House of God. It took a lot of courage for Jesus to stand up and say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In the same way you have had to forge your path to this confirmation day with new courage each day for many years, and every one of us must continually summon the bravery to answer the call of God in our lives.
God asks us directly to stand up with courage to answer the call. The Lord says in our passage from Micah, “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.” This is God’s way of saying, “I hate to break it to you, but what you thought was a safe chair by the wall is actually a chair on the speaker’s panel.” We’re all on the speaker’s panel, and sooner or later the microphone is going to get handed to us. Who knows when it will happen? It could be when a natural disaster strikes and we hear the call to go do relief work. It could be when a new year of Sunday School or Adult Education comes around and we hear the call to teach. It could be when a homeless person looks into our eyes and we hear the call to give. We will know our epiphany when it comes, and every time we say yes to God, we will move further and further away from ever wanting to say no.
In our gospel for today, I want to draw your attention to one verse, Luke 4:21: “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Notice that it doesn’t say, “Then he said to them.” It says, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” He started saying it, he began saying it—it infuses the moment with a magnificent possibility and potential. Jesus has begun to fulfill the scripture in our hearing, but it is still happening today, with new opportunities for redemption and grace springing up fresh and bright around us and within us.
That little word, began, is what gives us the right to say that the scripture of God’s requirement, that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God, is beginning to be fulfilled on this day. We don’t have to shrink back and take what we think is an inconspicuous seat because we’re afraid we can’t fulfill the high calling of justice and kindness and humility. We can step out boldly and say, yes, today in our hearing, we say again and say anew, we begin to fulfill this scripture here before God.
The other great thing about Jesus saying that we begin to fulfill the scripture today is that it is an active moment. It is not static, frozen in the past, that Jesus fulfilled the scripture at one time and in one place, and if we didn’t seize our moment to fulfill the scripture, then too bad, it’s over and gone. We are beginning with Jesus always to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. And this scripture that he is asking us to fulfill is active as well. We’re not meant to ponder justice, think kindness is a good idea, and ruminate humbly with our God. We’re meant to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And so we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to do, to love, to walk as the Lord requires of us? Let’s go back to our scripture to find out.
Jesus tells us exactly what he has been anointed to do, and we as his disciples are to follow after him. Jesus quotes from Isaiah to lay out his plan to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God: he will bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. I think the next thing each of us then has to ask, is what do these missions look like in my life?
Am I going to literally walk out into the streets of Bean Blossom, Jeffersonville, Indianapolis, find a poor and homeless person, and say, I have good news for you about Jesus Christ? Maybe . Am I going to work in the correctional system with community reentry and proclaim release to the captives? Maybe. Am I going to be an ophthalmologist who helps the blind recover sight? Maybe. Am I going to go overseas and help those persecuted by dictators and corrupt regimes so that I may let the oppressed go free? Maybe. These are all worthy ministries.
But most of us will not be fulfilling the scripture quite that literally, and thus the first step of walking humbly with our God is one of discernment. Maybe we will proclaim good news to the poor by working in a soup kitchen in our city or town. Maybe we will liberate a captive by beginning a correspondence with an inmate on death row. Maybe we will proclaim sight to the blind by leading a community forum on Christian/Muslim cooperation and joint ministry. Maybe we will set the oppressed free by driving a homebound senior citizen to the grocery store and to church each week.
And perhaps we are also called to begin the mission of Jesus Christ closer to home. Proclaiming good news to the poor can mean offering a listening ear to a friend or colleague going through a divorce. Liberate a captive by pledging support through rehab to your drug-addicted son or daughter. Proclaim sight to the blind by telling your parents that you love them and understand that they did their best by you, no matter the struggles and heartaches that have lain between you these many years. And set the oppressed free by forgiving someone you love, someone you hate, maybe even forgiving yourself.
Looking for that mission of justice, mercy and humility within ourselves is as important as striving after it in the outside world. Underneath our brave words many of us have hearts that are proud and sore, spirits that long for the bone-deep knowledge that we are loved by God. It’s easy to say, oh, I’ll get out and serve the poor and fight for the oppressed, just as soon as I’ve got my own life together. I’m going through so much with the kids and the job and the divorce and the economy, I’m not the right person to be a minister. I don’t have my own act together, how can I help anyone else? I would make too many mistakes, end up looking like an idiot.
Well, I’ve got news for you. Do you know who did make a big fat mistake on his very first day of ministry in front of his own congregation? Jesus Christ. He had come in from the desert, battling the devil for forty days in the wilderness, and had finally screwed up his courage to stand before his community and say, yes, I am called, and yes, I am answering the voice of my God to minister.
I wonder if he was still weak and tired from going without food and water in the desert. Or maybe he was so excited to finally get things moving at the advanced age of thirty that his adrenaline just spiked and he lost his place in the scroll. But when he stood up in the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61, he accidentally missed a verse. Isaiah 61:1 says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”
He skipped right over binding up the brokenhearted! He was so nervous or so excited or whatever that he sped right past it, here in the moment that he declared and proclaimed himself the heir to Isaiah’s prophecy!
I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a lot better to get out there and try ministry. If Jesus himself can get up there and screw up in front of his whole congregation on his first day, I think you and I can feel comfortable walking in his footsteps. I love Our Lord in his human mistake and he gives me courage to pursue my own ministry boldly knowing that mistakes and mess-ups come even to the best of us.
But then I start to wonder. Was it an accident? I think we can be fairly certain that Jesus wasn’t intending to say, I’ll proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, but all you brokenhearted people, tough luck. I’m just so sorry, but you’re on your own.
So maybe it was on purpose. Maybe he meant to leave out binding up the brokenhearted. As we noted before, he did not say that the scripture was fulfilled that day in their hearing. He began to say to us, today this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. He began the ministry, he began the pursuit of justice and mercy and a humble walk with God, but then he was crucified and rose and ascended to heaven, and suddenly there is no one else on earth to carry on the ministry but us.
And so maybe he left out binding up the brokenhearted on purpose to send a message to us. Maybe he’s telling us that we are to make binding up the brokenhearted the centerpiece of our ministry because it is the one thing all of the other categories of people have in common. The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, they each have different trials that weigh them down. But what every single one of us has in common is a heart that aches and yearns for love. Underneath all our surface problems that change and ebb and flow is a deep desire and longing to love God and know God loves us, to love our neighbors and feel them love us. So Jesus is saying to us, I have begun these great ministries of proclaiming good news and freedom, but I am showing you how much I faith I have in you as my heirs, by entrusting to you the greatest ministry of all: to bind up the brokenhearted.
And perhaps that is another way of simplifying the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Those who suffer injustice have broken hearts. Those whohave never known kindness have broken hearts. And the heart of God is broken when our pride and vanity drive us away from the pursuit of holiness. No one can bind our neighbor’s heart but us as we offer ourselves and the presence of Christ. No one can bind our own hearts but Christ himself as we seek to walk humbly with him. And no one can bind up God’s broken heart but us as we offer ourselves totally to become vessels of grace.
What faith, what trust Jesus has in us to give us this ministry of binding up the brokenhearted! And what powerful tools he has given us to accomplish it. We’ll use two of them today: calling down the Holy Spirit to confirm, receive and reaffirm these candidates in their Baptismal Vows, and gathering around the Lord’s Table to receive his Body and Blood. That, our Holy Communion, is perhaps our greatest tool in this ministry Jesus has given us, because when we come to the table, Jesus gives himself to us broken and vulnerable, not powerful and triumphant.
And so we then in turn can only come to him broken and vulnerable, our hearts wide open and trembling as we approach his grace. There is no need for perfection and professionalism in this moment. There is only need of honesty. If we let down the walls and barriers that guard our composure and our confidence and go to Jesus saying, yes, Lord, my heart is broken open and waiting for you, he will not fail us. We will find that the cracks and fractures in our hearts are not marks of unworthiness and failure, but simply openings for our light to shine through onto the world.
Little did I know on that first day of seminary accidentally sitting on the speakers’ panel that I would one day be here speaking to you and rejoicing in seeing you step forward into the next phase of your new ministries. We are truly blessed to share this moment together. So let us celebrate all of our ministries, knowing that when we mess up and read the wrong words or sit in the wrong place we are following Jesus’ example just as much as when everything goes right. We the confused and mixed-up, we the brave and determined, we the brokenhearted, pledge to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Let us begin to say to the world, today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.