Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Fall and the Call

(A Deacon Ordination sermon based on John 21:15-19 for Sunday, June 23, 2013)

“Fall and call go together” [Christopher Bamford, “The Gift of the Call,” Parabola, Fall 2004, in Philip Zaleski, ed., The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 4].

That’s why we don’t expect you to be perfect.

That’s why we do expect you to be you.

So what do we get in getting you? We get sinners, that’s what we get.

There’s no point in denying it or dancing around it; we’re ordaining sinners and installing sinners as deacons today.

The rest of us are sinners, too, so what we really have here are sinners ordaining sinners.

And that’s good news.

It’s good news because it means that we are all in this together; we are a bunch of sinners who have stumbled into the grace of God and who are by that grace trying to follow Jesus and trying to serve a broken world.

Simon Peter can serve as a role model for us. I can’t help but wonder if, as happy as he must have been to find that Jesus had been resurrected, he was also anxious about seeing Jesus again, given that the last time he has seen him it was just as he denied knowing his teacher and friend. Have you ever hurt someone but comforted yourself with the assumption that you would never have to see them again, only to have them turn up unexpectedly? That’s what happened to Peter.

I imagine Peter on the beach that morning, chewing on his piece of fish while hovering around the edge of the group, simultaneously trying to and trying not to catch Jesus’ eye. Then Jesus called his name: “Simon, son of John!” and Peter’s heart leapt into his throat while his stomach hit his feet. I see Peter walking slowly over to Jesus, perhaps bracing himself for a reprimand (he never forgot the time that Jesus called him “Satan”) or an absolution. But he got neither.

Instead, he got a three-fold question and commission; three times he heard “Do you love me?” and three times he heard “Feed my sheep.” And he spent the rest of his life loving Jesus and feeding his sheep.

You have not been called to be a deacon because you are perfect or because you are even particularly good. You have been called because you are a human being who has been saved by the grace of God and thus have the capability of loving Jesus and of feeding his sheep.

We need you to be who you are in all your broken gloriousness. It is as the songwriter Leonard Cohen put it:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.


Besides, when you heard your name, you responded. You will continue to hear your name called and you will continue to respond. I think it is good that now, when someone around here calls “Mike,” all three of us will look up [note: both deacons being ordained are named "Mike," as am I]. That is as it should be. We are all in this together. We are all servants together. We may not know which one of us they are calling so let’s just assume it is all three of us.

I said that we don’t expect you to be perfect—and I meant it. Still, there is one way in which we do expect you to be becoming perfect. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What does that mean? Kathleen Norris gets it right when she observes that “Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others” [Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead, 1998), p. 57]. It means growing in love so that you think of others before thinking of yourself and become willing to give yourself up for others.

Perhaps it is only when you fall down that you can appropriately look up; perhaps it is only when you know that you don’t deserve to hear his call that you are ready to hear his call; perhaps it is only when you know how imperfect you are that you are ready to be perfect.

We need you to be imperfect and perfect. We need you to help us to be aware of who we are and of who we are becoming. We need you to show us how to fall down and then to get up and keep on serving …

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