The Nearly Sacramental Ministry of the Mysterious “Who knows?”
Ordination of Jim Stover
September 25, 2011
Esther 4:9-14; 1 Cor. 3:18-4:1
9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All
the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. 4:1 Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
The Nearly Sacramental Ministry of the Mysterious “Who knows?”
Today in 2011 we gather to perform and to witness the ordination of Jim Stover to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. What are we doing? According to John Calvin (who must be cited in the first paragraph of a Presbyterian ordination sermon) ordination has all the characteristics of a sacrament, since it is as he says, “a faithful token of spiritual grace.” The only thing that keeps the laying on of hands from being counted as the third sacrament, according to Calvin, is that it is not common to all believers, but is “a special rite for a particular office” (Institutes 4.19.28).
What we do today is serious and significant for the ministry that lies before Jim. What will that ministry entail? To what end this nearly sacramental ceremony? The answer I take from the words of Mordecai in the book of Esther: “Who knows?” Why the quandary? Mordecai says, because of “such a time as this.”
Those two phrases, “Who knows?” and “such a time as this” have never been more descriptive of the times than today.
“Such a time as this” has never happened before in America. In what respect? In two respects. First, according to church historian and author Diana Butler Bass,
“Recent data makes one thing perfectly, undeniably clear: American religion has changed in remarkable ways in the last decade, revealing an erosion of belief, practice, and identity in nearly every denomination, almost all congregations, and most every religious institution or organization.” (her blog post on 9/21/11) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dianabutlerbass/2011/09/20/spiritual-but-not-religious-listening-to-their-absence/
This is huge change, and it is no longer merely a “mainline” denomination problem.
The number of people who say that they are “spiritual but not religious” is growing exponentially. Already it comprises 20 to 30% of Americans, depending on how the survey question is phrased (see the same Butler Bass blog page). This is part one of the world that has never happened in America before.
Rummage Sale Every 500 Years
Here comes the second way in which this has never happened before; we are now in the time of the Great Emergence, a fundamental change in Christianity. Jim will walk out of this place today, ordained for ministry of Word and Sacrament in to a world where “who knows” what is next? This is not the first time the church has experienced major upheavals; in fact it follows a pattern.
Imagine being ordained in the 6th Century, 500 years after Jesus’ physical days on earth. Gregory the Great was pope. The last vestiges of the Roman empire were in ruins. Illiteracy, poverty and lawlessness in Rome were the rule, not the exception, after successive barbarian invasions brought trade and civic life to a standstill. Europe was about to enter centuries of “Dark Ages.” Gregory the Great is credited with laying the foundations of a reconfigured monasticism that would see Christianity through those coming centuries. Who could have anticipated that direction?
Imagine being ordained 500 years later. The Great Schism of 1054 occurred and Christianity split between Rome and Constantinople, Latin and Greek, the Catholic and the Orthodox each following their own leader and condemning each other as heretics. Which way would you take? Which led to the “Next” church of the future? How would you decide? And yet, you would have had to choose.
Imagine being ordained 500 years later, perhaps by John Calvin himself, in Geneva in the days of the Great Reformation. Popes and councils of the church were no longer considered error-free. Authority for faith and practice came from “sola scriptura” the scriptures alone. Protestantism was born.
Now, here we are, a scant six years away from the 500th anniversary of 1517, the year Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the traditionally given date for the start of the Great Reformation.
Perhaps you have noticed the regularity of these 500 year “great” people and events. The rhythm is uncanny.
Continuing the adjective “great,” Phyllis Tickle, in her recent book, The Great Emergence, tells us that it has been observed that
‘about every five hundred years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale’ and that ‘about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable [hardened shell] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.’ … we are living in and through one of those five hundred year sales.” (Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, Baker Books, 2008, p. 16).
In our day, Christianity itself is changing. One of the leading lights of this Emerging Church movement, Brian McLaren, is writing books with titles like “A New Kind of Christianity,” and It comes down to two questions that have now become unsettled: One, what is human consciousness, and two, what is the relation of all religions to one another? (Great Emergence, p. 73). Filtered through insights we have from Darwin and Freud to Einstein and Heisenberg, the question, “who gets to say what is true?” is now urgent in a new way.
In this context, the new Christianity which Tickle calls the “Great Emergence” is really, in essence, a conversation being conducted by people from diverse cultures, points of reference, and widely divergent backgrounds (Great Emergence, p. 104). In this new conversation, the hierarchies we inherited from the Reformation are now alien and suspect, if not abhorrent. Networking and crowd-sourcing have replaced structures of centralized control.
How do you prepare to be a leader in such a time as this, when the best way to describe what you are leading is a non-hierarchical, relational, globalized, democratized “conversation”? “Who knows?”
These Times Between Times
So, we are now living in “such a time as this” at the nexus between these two unprecedented situations: the massive decline of participation in organized religious activity and the emergence of a radical change in Christianity itself. “Who knows” what kind of ministry we are ordaining Jim for? Who could possibly know?
Larry Rasmussen in his chapter in “Practicing our Faith” calls this moment “one of those proverbial ‘times between times.’” Listen to how he describes, the first century AD, the Hellenized Roman world that Christianity was born in, and how much it sounds like a description of “such a time as this”:
“Ours is a ‘Hellenistic’ era- diverse, cosmopolitan, multilingual, multiracial, multicultural, multi-religious, fragmented, eclectic, riddled by extremes of all kinds, and more than a little violent.”
What happens in times like this? Rasmussen says,
“We often feel dislocated and off-center, just as people did then. In the world of early Christianity, the solidity of empire was giving way, and new configurations were in the making, many of them bedeviled by chaos and confusion. Almost everyone worried about moral degradation. [Some people] sought new, saving communities and ways of life, whereas others simply could not conceive that the Roman Empire would ever come to an end.” (Practicing our Faith, chapt. 9, edited by Dorothy C. Bass, Jossey-Bass, 1997, 2010)
By the way, Jim, the easiest sermons to preach are ones about how bad the world is getting; don’t ever do that.
Wise Leadership in These Times
How do you lead people in such a time as this? Rasmussen crediting Ronald Heifetz, suggests a phrase to describe the kind of leadership that is needed now, and that characterized early Christian leadership is: “creative deviance on the front line.” Why creative deviance on the front line? He says,
“It is deviance because it does not accept standard forms of ordering life as normative, even when they are dominant” [Brueggemann would describe them as “contrived” having the appearance of being “given.”] “It is creative because it seeks a positive alternative form. It is on the front line because it lives in the tension between our own time – what the apostle Paul called ‘this present age’ – and another yet to come.”
The leadership we need at such a time as this is indeed “creative deviance on the front line.”
How can anyone have sufficient wisdom to know what it will mean to lead the Great Emerging church with such “creative deviance on the front line” when we do not know much about what that front line will look like? Well, if Rasmussen is correct to see parallels between the days of the first century and our 21st century, perhaps Paul’s 1st century reflections on leadership in 1 Corinthians 4 are appropriate in a new way to what we are doing in this ordination service here today. Paul says:
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.
Who is wise enough to know the mystery of the future? “Who knows” what shape the “Great Emergent” form of Christianity will take? If there is no way to be wise in “such a time as this” then perhaps wisdom is not the essential prerequisite. Jim, if the question “Who knows?” comes off of your lips more frequently than the statement, “I’ve got it all figured out” then you in good company; you are on the same trajectory that led Calvin to conclude his discussion of theological conundrums with these reflections about the height and the depth of the mystery of God’s ways in the world:
“Now should [someone] come forward to, I say with Paul, that no account of it can be given, because by its magnitude it far surpasses our understanding…. Would we have the power of God so limited as to be unable to do more than our mind can comprehend?”
Calvin says that we would to well to,
“…embrace the counsel of Augustine [whom he quotes as saying], “…Believing ignorance is better than presumptuous knowledge… Peter denies (Christ), a thief (on the cross) believes (in him). O the height! Do you ask the reason? I will tremble at the height. Will you reason? I will wonder; will you dispute? I will believe. I see the height; I cannot sound the depth” (Augus. de Verb. Apost. Serm. 20 in Institutes Book III, chapt. 22 section 5).”
Calvin concludes his theological investigation in sheer awe at the mystery. There are no more logical arguments that will help. He says:
“We shall gain nothing by proceeding farther.” (Institutes Book III, chapt. 22 section 5)
A Servant of the Mysteries
If our turbulent times are analogous to Paul’s 1st century world, then let us allow him to take Mordecai’s question “Who knows?” and stand it on its head by asking instead, “who is known?” Jim, as a “creatively deviant leader on the front line” ordained into “such a time as this” you may not be wise enough to know the unknown future, but you do know to whom you belong. As Paul says,
23 you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Is this anything but a mystery? It is indeed a mystery; and yet this is exactly what you are charged with taking into this unknowable, emergent future world with you. If you want an adequate frame for your ministry “at such a time as this” let it be to imagine yourself the kind of deviant, creative, front line leader that Paul describes:
4:1 Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
To this you are called and to this ministry you are ordained: to be a “servant of Christ,” a steward of God’s mysteries. “Who knows” but that you, Jim, have been called to such a stewardship of mysteries for “such a time as this”?