This past January my mother died. She was 93. She lived a full life. She died in her own bed of a heart attack in the house where she had lived for almost 60 years. Would that we could all be so lucky.
My mother was a hoarder. She never threw anything away if she could help it. In her closet we found 50 purses. Downstairs we found 30 years of National Geographic. My parents were readers and we have catalogued 2400 books. She also saved letters. We have letters I wrote as a child. We have letters she wrote as a child. We have letters her parents wrote. We have lots of letters and some of them are very old.
I am going to read you some excerpts from one that I think is most relevant for today. It is from someone named Jeremiah and it is addressed to:
“all the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon ….
4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare ….
Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord … and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
Now I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking “he didn’t find this letter in his mother’s house. That’s from the Bible!” Well, you’d be wrong and you’d also be right. I did find this letter in my mother’s house. I found many copies of it because it is from the Bible and we found over 20 Bibles in my mother’s house. (My father’s house may have many rooms but my mother’s house has many bibles!)
Now why would this letter be relevant today and why have people been saving this letter for, now, thousands of years. This letter describes a world dominated by empires and a religious community torn by conflict and divided. Sound familiar? When Jeremiah was writing, Jerusalem had been sacked and the people of southern Israel had been deported to Babylon. Some Jewish interpreters consider this to be the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, 2500 years ago. Where is Babylon? Today we call it Iraq and Jewish communities continued living there into the 20th century. That’s a long time to be away from home.
Consider the reading we heard from Isaiah. In that reading (Is. 52:7-10) the prophet offers words of comfort to the Israelites because “Jerusalem is in ruins”. Even in Isaiah’s time, the trauma of the sacking of Jerusalem is close to the surface.
The leaders of the exiled community are writing to the prophet Jeremiah, asking how than shall they live in this strange land. What will be their ministry? Jeremiah writes back and says “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.
Nola, this is the kind of Church & world where you have been called to minister. As today’s events illustrate so clearly, we are a divided church. We are conflicted. The temple has been sacked and the religious authorities have been dis-established. You have been sent away from your home by the authorities. How then will you minister? What will be your guide? “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Our God is a God of surprises. One of God’s surprises for you, Nola, was to call you to the Church of the Holy Trinity for your curacy. (Maybe God is a God of mischief too!) God has also called you to hospital chaplaincy and God will call you to other places too. There is conflict and division in all these places. How then will you be guided? My counsel to you is to return to the letters that our religious ancestors refused to throw out. Turn to Jeremiah and heed his words: “seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent … and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Nola, in the “examination” you are about to undergo, you will be told that you are “to fashion your life in accordance with [the] precepts [of the Gospel]”. Some people have an idea this means you are supposed to be “nice”. I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where it says that. I looked it up in my Concordance and I couldn’t even find the word. I thought it might be a matter of translation so I looked up the word “polite”. You know, I couldn’t find that word either! Instead I found that people of faith should be humble, as in this injunction from the prophet Micah: “What does the lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8)
In the reading you selected from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:11-16) we hear Paul entreating us to “speak the truth in love”. We are to do this not as children but as adults, for “we must grow up in every way”. What does it look like to speak the truth in love, in a grown up way. Sometimes it means speaking out and protesting against discrimination by whatever means is available to you. To speak and act in this way is not to act out. It is to do what is normal when faced with injustice.
Jeremiah was speaking into a situation of deep division. Jesus confronted an empire that crucified its dissidents. The Anglican Church was also born in a time of deep division in the 16th century and that division has continued to today. There was a time in your adult life when this same church would have refused to ordain you just because of your gender. This new possibility of your ordination did not come about because women were nice and polite. It came about because women protested against discrimination and sought to speak the truth in love. They refused to be treated like children and insisted on being treated like adults. Instead of being nice and polite, they followed the injunction of the turn of the century Canadian feminist and Christian, Nellie McClung, who declared: “Never retract, never explain, never apologize; get things done and let them howl.” Even today, I regret to say, there are parts of the Anglican Communion where not only would you be considered ineligible for Episcopal office, but, because of your gender, this ordination will not be recognized.
Protest and objection, complaint and dissent is so common in the history of the church, there is even a place in the service of ordination where such voices are invited to speak. They must be heard, because actually, that’s part of what it means to be Anglican. As long as there is injustice in the world, conflict is normal.
Nola, my mother would have liked you, and you her. She would have been as delighted by this ordination as I am, and delighted by your willingness to accept this call. One of my observations of your ministry here at the Church of the Holy Trinity is that you have indeed been seeking the welfare of this place. Sometimes you challenge us to see ourselves in new ways and that makes us uncomfortable, but even in the planning for this service you have sought your welfare in the welfare of this place, where you have been sent. As my mother would have said: Keep up the good work.
My most fervent prayer is that all people who are qualified, and whose call has been tested and affirmed by the community, could share in the delight you are experiencing today. Amen.
25 April 2010