A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:1-6
Ordination of a Deacon
The Rev. Matthew Teel
preached at Holy Trinity, Charleston, SC
June 23rd, 2005
Sweet, sour, bitter, salty. That's it (unless you count umami, which is the weird, meaty taste associated with MSG and, thence, really, really cheap Chinese take-out.)
Sweet, sour, bitter, salty: every time you stick something in your mouth, one of a combination of these four primary tastes alerts you to vital information about that mouthful of food. If it's sweet, it might have nutrients your body needs to keep running a few more hours. If it's salty, perhaps you can replace some of those vital minerals you just lost by sweating. If it's sour, there's a chance that it's not ripe and will give you a bellyache. If it's bitter, watch out--it could be poisonous, and your next mouthful might be your last.
Nature has equipped us with certain gifts for survival in the world, and one of those gifts, believe it or not, is the sense of taste. Imbedded deep in your system is a desire for foods your body needs, and an aversion to foods that are potentially dangerous to you. That's why you occasionally experience cravings for chocolate or potato chips or steak: it's your body trying to tell you that it needs something in order to continue functioning properly. By the same token, it's also why you probably never crave raw kale, the taste of which, let me tell you, is something akin to salty bleach with a twist of lime.
William Raspberry, however, points out that something terrible has occurred in human development, perhaps the worst thing we humans have ever invented--we learned how to refine sugar. Now salt, salt has always been available. But sugar is another story. It used to be that we humans had to wait until we found honey in a hollowed-out tree, or certain fruits became ripe, in order to enjoy sugar. But now we can fulfill our craving for sweetness any time we want. We don't have to wait anymore. Sugar is available immediately, whenever our body thinks it needs it.
Our craving for sweetness used to be a gift for survival. Now it's a liability. The American Health Association reports that before the turn of the last century, the average American consumed five pounds of sugar per year. Now the average American consumes two to three pounds of sugar per week. Refined sugars like sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup are being processed into breads, breakfast cereals, peanut butters, ketchups, spaghetti sauces, microwave meals. Americans are now literally addicted to sugar. And you know the results: obesity, rotted teeth, depressed immune systems, hyperactivity in children, hypoglycemia, increased risk for diabetes. The list goes on.
Raspberry sees this as a metaphor for the dilemma in our society today. We are able immediately, without effort and far too easily, to fulfill too many of our cravings. We are hooked on refined sugar, which comes to us without effort, and we neglect the more substantial nourishment.
Let me give you an example. In many states right now there is a huge push for legalized gambling. Casinos are being built; state lotteries are taking in millions. But what is this except a public seeking to feed upon the sweet sugar of instant gratification without any long-term effort? We want something for nothing. We dream of receiving the good life without effort. And thus, we gamble away billions of dollars a year in this country, in the earnest hope that we will be one of the lucky ones who will receive money through absolutely no effort on our part.
Refined sugar. Let me give you another example. We regularly elect politicians in this country who tell us that we can have national heath care, provide prescription drug coverage for the elderly, save Social Security for our kids, and lower college tuition, all without raising taxes.
Refined sugar. Here's another. In the late 1980s, Zenith was the last American-owned manufacturer of televisions, and had just developed high-resolution television, which promised the company a bright new future. The management of Zenith, however, decided to sell off this technology and the whole company to Japanese investors. As a result, stockbrokers and higher management made millions of dollars, but thousands of ordinary people lost their jobs. Zenith sought short-term gain without effort. They chose sugar over substance.
Refined sugar. We live in a culture that hopes--desperately hopes--that it might be possible to achieve meaning, salvation, and deliverance without cost. And this dilemma doesn't exist only "out there," in the world. It is increasingly a problem here, in the Church. Those of you who are ordained or in ministry will probably recognize this scene: a few years ago, Gary Trudeau, in one of his cartoons, depicted a hurt Yuppie couple leaving a suburban church after the pastor slipped up and said the word 'sin.' They explain to him as they leave his office, "You see, we're looking for a church that meets our needs."
Refined sugar: the 'user-friendly church,' where anyone can walk in off the sidewalk and feel affirmed, where all is dumbed down to the comprehensible and the comfortable, where no one is required to change, and everybody wins, and everybody gets prizes.
William Willimon, the former chaplain at Duke University, talks about an ad he once saw in a local newspaper. "The ad depicted a mug of hot coffee, and was titled, 'Cappuccino and Christ.' 'Sleep a little later, throw on some jeans, have a hot cup of Joe, listen to some great tunes, and get together for some wonderful fellowship. Trinity Church invites you to join us for a unique service that offers an alternative. No pressures. No commitments. No hassles. All we ask is that you give us 45 minutes of your Sunday.'
"This," he says, "is the user-friendly church. This is the church that is proving to be useful in a grimly optimistic, willfully evasive contemporary world. We use everything we touch for our own devices and desires; why not use the church as well?"
My wife, as David well knows, is the homiletics professor at Sewanee. She listens to upwards of eight sermons a day, prepared and delivered by passionate, eager seminarians. And when she walks into the house after a long day in the classroom, and falls back into her chair, and I pop the cap off a bottle of beer and hand it to her and sit down, I'll ask, "So how was it today?" And she'll take a big swig and then stare off into space and say, "It's all about the love."
We have found that most sermons in the contemporary Episcopal Church make the following four moves:
God is love.
God loves us.
Therefore we ought to love one another.
So why can't we all get along?
Seldom will you hear a word about the saving power of the Cross, or a plain, unapologetic declaration of the divinity of Jesus, or a promise of the Holy Spirit, or an admonition to live lives worthy of the Gospel, or a call to repentance. But you will hear a lot about the love.
It's tempting to dismiss these as 'beginners' sermons.' But frankly, over the years, I've heard the same thing preached over and over again, in churches around the country, which leads me to believe that these seminarians are actually regurgitating the working theology of the Episcopal Church as they have received it. Philip Turner, in an article published last year in First Things magazine, points out that most contemporary Episcopal sermons begin with the assumption that the Incarnation of Christ is a manifestation of God's love for us. God is love, pure and simple. Christ's death doesn't judge us; it affirms us, in all our humanity. From this we can conclude that to be like Jesus is to be accepting and inclusive, with no condemnation and no disapproval. The mission of the Church, therefore, is one of 'radical inclusion,' to see that those who were once rejected are now included, that the circle is drawn wide enough that absolutely no one is left out.
On the whole, actually, that's not a bad sentiment. After all, as I occasionally have to remind myself, orthodox Christians really do believe in things like inclusivity and affirmation, even if we define those terms a bit differently. But, after a while, it does start to taste a bit like refined sugar doled out of the communion cup. It does start to seem, after a while, as though the church has confused the theology of divine redemption with a theology of divine acceptance. There is no room in this sort of church for terms like 'faith,' or 'justification,' or 'repentance,' or 'holiness.' There is no challenge here, only the acceptance of a benign deity. It does start to sounds a bit like 'Cappuccino and Christ,' doesn't it? Sleep a little later, throw on some jeans, come receive Communion (whether you're baptized or not), listen to some great tunes, and get together for some great fellowship. We understand that you're looking for a church that meets your needs. No guilt. No sins. No commitments. No hassles. All we ask is that you give us 45 minutes of your Sunday. ALL we ask ... is that you give us 45 minutes of your Sunday.
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's Word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.
We live in a culture, in a church, that hopes it might be possible to achieve meaning, and salvation, and deliverance, without cost, or risk, or pain. But, my brothers and sisters, that hope is false. Discipleship is a narrow way requiring risk and commitment. All earthly discipleship ends in the cross. Now, there is an Easter after this Good Friday, but the cross is what we know on this side of the veil. Karl Rahner once wrote, "Christianity sees reality as it is. Christianity does not oblige [the Christian] to see the reality of the historical experience of life in an optimistic light. On the contrary, it obliges one to see this existence as dark and bitter and hard, and as an unfathomable risk."
We are gathered here tonight to see David Dubay ordained a deacon in Christ's Holy Catholic Church. But David, we must say this to you clearly: you are being sent out into a world that no longer has a stomach for strong meat. The world you are entering wants only sugar, and will not only refuse stronger food, but will actually crucify the people who try to change its diet.
Furthermore, you are being sent by a church that, unfortunately, seems to have forgotten its destiny to be a community elected by God for the particular purpose of bearing witness to the saving event of Christ's life, death, and resurrection--a church that seems to believe that people have all the answers to their problems right inside themselves, and need only to access their personal resources and then adjust successfully.
I don't need to tell you, David, that their hope is false. And I also don't need to tell you that there is a cost to everything that is important in life, and we do our people a great disservice if we do not warn them to count that cost.
Renounce the user-friendly church. Now I don't mean that hymns shouldn't be singable, or sermons comprehensible, or liturgy accessible. I don't mean that you shouldn't invite people to come to Jesus as they are, rather than as how they think they should be. When we do that, we make people twice as fit for hell as they were before they started coming to church. As a former Baptist, I do console myself with the knowledge that "Just as I am" is in the Episcopal hymnal, even if we never sing it. What I do mean is that we must recognize that people are hungry to give their lives to something more important than themselves, even if they don't know that yet. It is a fact of life, not only that everything costs us something, but that in our better moments, we are willing, even eager, to pay that cost. And part of your job will be to start weaning people off the sweet sugar of the world and start feeding them with the sweetness that is Jesus. "For his mouth is most sweet, yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem."
In my last parish, the Christian Education Director recommended that we not baptize any more children until their parents had been instructed in the basics of the Christian faith. If we are going to continue to baptize babies, she said, then we're going to have to start carefully instructing their parents in the meaning of the Christian life. "We can't assume that people simply know these things because they're born in America. We're going to have to start spending some time training them."
So she drew up a six-week course, something like the catechumenate but tailored to busy parents, and she took this to the vestry. And several of the members were appalled. "You can't make demands like this on people! Our church has always been known as a place where parents could call up during the week and say they wanted to get the baby done on Sunday! We're going to offend people with this!"
But then, one member stood up and said, "When we had our daughter last year, the hospital wouldn't let us sign up for a room until we'd taken a six-week parenting course. If we didn't take the course, we couldn't have the baby there. And it didn't occur to us to say no to that. What we found was that we were grateful that the hospital took our responsibility as parents seriously enough to tell us what we had to know."
And so, based on that testimony, the vestry passed the rule. We would perform no more infant baptisms until we were sure that we had apprised the parents of the obligations of Christian discipleship, until we had helped them to count the cost.
And you know what? The parents didn't hang up on us. They didn't storm out of the office when we told them. They were profoundly grateful that we were taking them seriously as Christian parents. And what was better, we found that the parents grew as disciples, and that they started coming to church and developing their own life with God. Most of the growth in our congregation after that came from young families with children, who were eager to count the cost.
I have come to the conclusion, through that experience, that we in the church have made a grave mistake by offering sugar in the communion cup. Just because everything else in this society is pitched to the lowest common denominator does not mean that the Church has to do that too. Refined sugar may be what the world thinks it wants, but we are called to be a people set apart for another sweetness. "How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea, they are sweeter than honey to my mouth!"
There are some people, David--maybe people sitting in this room tonight--for whom life is so confusing, so perplexing, the questions so unanswerable, that they know in their heart of hearts that, if there is anything that can speak to them, anything that can make a difference to their life, it will not come simply. It will not be three easy steps offered free and without cost. It will not be 'Cappuccino and Christ.' It will require more then 45 minutes on a Sunday. It will not come cheap. It will come with risk and pain. It will be something that demands something. They'll have to give. They'll have to change.
And it will require you to give. It will require you to change. Ministry like that is a huge liability on your part, and it always ends in the cross. There will be Easter after, yes, but on this side, there is unfathomable risk. It will require you to discern which answers are cheap and which answers aren't, to figure out if that sweet taste comes from the refined sugar of the world or sweet honey from the rock. But having this ministry by the mercy of God, do not lose heart.
You have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. You will refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's Word, but by the open statement of the truth, you will commend yourself to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if your Gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. For what you will preach is not yourself, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with yourself as their servant for Jesus' sake.