Monday, November 19, 2018


As a rookie priest, 
            I was in a support group
            with veteran clergy.
Way back when one of those veterans 
        was a rookie his support group 
         included a retired old guy 
         who never said a word. 
He just whittled – whittled away in silence
            week after week, year after year.

Then one day, without looking up 
             from his whittling, he said,
            “Ya know, it would have been 
            a pretty good life
            if they’d let me kill just one a year.”

There are warm, wonderful moments in ministry
that feed our souls,
but there is also frustration built into it. 
What to do about the frustration?

In the 70s, clergy quit and became therapists.
Now we go to conferences 
            where they tell us to follow our bliss,
            but then we go back to work
            and it’s the same job,
            the same people, and the same headaches.
They won’t let you kill even one a year.
So, the best thing I know to tell you, Phil, is 
           to take up whittling. 

The frustration won’t go away,
            but if we dig into it, 
            we might learn something to help us 
            serve God with a bit more wisdom 
            and compassion.

Half the frustration lies in the distance           
            between what we expect the Church to be
            and what it actually is. 
These are Christians, right?
We expect better behavior in the Church 
            than in the World;
            but that doesn’t happen.
People do and say things in Church
            they could never get away with 
            at work or at home.

The other half lies in the difference
            between who we expect ourselves to be 
            and who we really are. 
This one is tricky because we get distracted
            by our reflection in people’s eyes
            and they see us in most peculiar ways.
Many will think you are considerably better 
            than you are.
Others will think you are considerably worse.

That’s ok because it keeps us from thinking
            this is a popularity contest.
The problem is it hooks our own confusion 
           about who we are.
Sometimes we pretend to holiness 
             and even fool ourselves.
Other times, we feel like imposters 
             calling ourselves clergy
            when we know ourselves to be 
             at least as sinful as the rest.

As we think about the Church which 
        – God help us –
we are called to serve, and the Church which 
– God help it – includes us, 
 our best guide is blessed Augustine.
He defended the Church from attack 
            by secessionists who, 
             like today’s secessionists,
            would only deign to belong to a Church 
            as pure, as holy,  and as spiritual 
             as they were. 
The real Church was not good enough for them.

Augustine replied with Jesus’ parable 
       about the field 
in which the wheat weeds were growing. 
The workers wanted to go pull the weeds. 
But the owner said, 
           “No, if you do that, you’ll pull up wheat too.
            Wait until the harvest. 
              We’ll sort it out then.”

The Church, Augustine says, i
        s a mixed field of wheat and weeds.
Or as the Augustinian theologian 
         Abigail Van Buren said 
          in her Dear Abby column,
            The Church isn’t a museum for saints. 
             It’s a hospital for sinners.

Jesus said, 
       Those who are well have no need 
        of a physician, 
         but those who are sick.
         I did not come to call the righteous 
         but the sinners to repentance.

So, a congregation isn’t the beloved community 
               – not yet.
It’s a motley crew of the good, the bad, 
             and the ugly. 
But, it’s really even messier than that 
because each member of the congregation 
is actually a mixed field of wheat and weeds  
            unto himself or herself.

The Carmelite abbot and theologian, 
          William McNamara, was once pressed 
           into teaching religion to second graders.
He asked the class,
            If all the good people were red 
            and the bad people were blue,
            what color would you be?
One little girl shot up her hand and answered,
            I’d be stripy. 
That kid had read her Augustine. 

A congregation is a mixed bag.
Each member is a mixed bag.
And you, Reverend Sir, are a mixed bag too. 

You may not like that.
You’re not supposed to like it.
But you have to recognize it 
and work with it because that’s how it is. 
Your job is to mediate God's love to these folks 
in their moral and spiritual complexity
            and to accept God's love for yourself 
             as the same moral mongrel they are. 

Such unconditional love of the congregation
            and of yourself may not be easy 
             but it’s simple.
The job, however, has a disconcerting part 2 
               that complicates things.
You are in the congregation to share God’s love,
            and, as the saying goes,
            God loves us the way we are 
            – but because God loves us,
            God doesn’t leave us that way. 

When Jesus was criticized 
            for hanging out with sinners, 
            he said, 
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to
wait for it –  repentance. 
Repentance. He wasn’t condoning their sin.
He was connecting with them, 
          so he could call them to repentance. 

Quote: Preaching that makes sinners feel good
                   . . . betrays the gospel. 
That wasn’t Franklin Graham talking. 
It was Blessed Oscar Romero.
If we aren’t in the repentance business, 
                  we might as well go home. 

Repentancedoesn’t mean groveling in guilt.
It means change. Turning the will around. 
Doing a new thing. 
A clergy person is a change agent. 
 That, my friend, is tricky business.
To start with, it makes you a target, 
           so don’t be reckless.
General rules: Take your time and use your head.
But here are the two specific points 
                about being a change agent.

First, don’t be trivial.
This isn’t about changing it 
             from the way they like it 
            to the way you like it 
             or what was cool in seminary. 
It’s about coaxing them into the Kingdom Mission
            of good news to the poor, 
            release to the captive,
            and letting the oppressed go free. 

We coax them into the Kingdom Mission 
            because that’s where they come 
            face to face with Jesus
            so his grace can blow apart the prisons 
            of their personal agendas
 and lead them out into the amazing adventure 
             called real life.
Don’t move the furniture. 
Move their hearts. 

Second, you can be the change agent, 
            the catalyst,
            only if you are open to be changed 
            along with them. 
You know some things they don’t 
            but knowing things is only a piece of it.

This isn’t about what we know. 
It’s about who we are. 
The process of becoming a new creation 
            is a group project.
We change each other. 
Ideas don’t change people. 
Programs don’t change people. 
People change people. 
You cannot be a change agent
            unless you are willing 
            to be changed yourself.

 So I leave you with this blessing from the late John O’Donohue:
May the Spirit of God lead you 
             onto the wilderness road.
May she send you chasing after chariots
            beyond all reason and propriety. 
May she bring you to dark-skinned eunuchs 
             and Samaritan women
            and young ones who dream wild dreams.

May they receive you into their homes . . .,
            so that you may teach and convert 
           one another. 
May you enter the waters of baptism together
            to die and rise in Christ together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son 
            and of the Holy Spirit.