Saturday, March 31, 2007

By God's Mercy

This past Thursday was the annual Chrism mass in the Diocese of Bethlehem. At this liturgy, the clergy of the diocese, supported by the laity, renew their ordination vows. Here are excerpts of Bishop Paul Marshall's sermon:

Alone in human history, our Lord Jesus was both priest and victim. The rest of us must decide which to be, and that decision must be made many times.
As to church leadership, two thousand years ago, St. Paul wrote a letter to the church at Corinth and told them some hard truths and some glorious truths. But as often happens when you take any clear stand for either glorious or hard truth, there is resistance and the attacks on Paul became very personal. So in today’s epistle today we read along as he writes to them again, and in Second Corinthians the gloves are off. He answers the charges that were made against him not for his own sake, but for the sake of the gospel he proclaimed. I read this passage as a recipe for courageous ministry, reaffirming what we know and cherish about the calling. Let’s follow the apostle’s thinking.
Those of us who lead in the church have worked very hard to get equipped for our work, and have been screened and tested and interviewed in ways that many people might not believe. All that effort and trial (and the fact that doing ordained ministry effectively is very hard work!) may distract us from basic truth, that the call, the gifts, and guts are graces from a merciful God. But before, during, and after any talk of job or gifts or qualification, like St. Paul, each of us stands here a sinner who takes daily refuge in the forgiveness of a crucified God. That is the primary credential for church leadership, knowing the depth to which one is accepted, forgiven, at peace. It controls how we relate to others.
The next charge St. Paul had to deal with is the one we feel with particular poignancy in our post-post-modern world when not everybody is flocking to church. If Paul’s gospel is so great, his critics ask, why don’t more people believe it?

Ouch. Whether we are paid this way or not, most of us operate spiritually on a “straight commission” basis, allowing ourselves to feel successful in proportion to the numbers we see coming in, minus the numbers who leave, and the national church provides a form to help you think that way in case you weren’t doing it already. St. Paul reminds us that then as now, there surely are competing gods and competing religions out there that offer what seems like more certainty or less work. A less commercially appealing ministry of invitation to join the crucified Messiah will have widely varying results, and Paul had made peace with that reality and lived with it without losing heart.
Burnout does not come from hard work – none of the great advances in civilization were made by people who punched a clock or worked a 35-hour week. Burnout comes from the mistake of willing other people to change, from taking responsibility for how other people’s lives and events turn out. In short, studies show that burnout comes from trying to do what is impossible.

Paul models a ministry here that does its very best, and then lets it go. He can do this for Jesus sake. It is Jesus, not Paul, who is and brings the light, who is both priest and victim. As he always does when he argues, Paul brings the argument to a close by reminding people that it’s about Christ in the last place as surely as it was in the first place. He has seen Christ’s face in so many ways, just as we have, and will
not relinquish that focus, and simply will not lose heart –that’s a choice, too.
Read it all.

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