(A sermon for the Ordination of William M. Walsh, Jr. — December 10, 2011 — Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 17:22-29)
Last week I attended the Conference’s Clergy Advent Retreat. One of the first things we learned was how to find the restrooms. The new pastor of the host church said, “I need to tell you the light switches are on the outside of the doors, so you won’t be groping in the dark.”
If only life were always so uncomplicated, instructions always so clear!
If only God would always tell us, clearly, where to turn on the light.
But it’s the way of things that we put our hands out into the dark and run them up and down the wall, trying our best to find what is not in the place we are looking for it. We grope.
The world doesn’t seem to know us, sometimes cannot even say where in town to find our buildings. We have so many audiences to reach, and we engage in this groping struggle not only for God but for our purpose in our particular contexts. And we do it on the downside of what was an incredibly up market for Christianity only half a century ago. The church of my childhood, the church of which my grandmothers were pillars, did not have to try very hard to fill pews. Now we shake our heads at the number of conflicts people have with our regularly scheduled events. I don’t know about your church, but we’ve been worshipping at 9:30 on Sundays in North Yarmouth since approximately 1806. When did the world’s priorities change?
We can grope our way around that question all day long, but it’s simply the truth of our time and place that the God we love and seek is still largely unknown to the crowds we meet on the Mars Hills of our lives, at the town meeting or the Presidential caucus or the big box store or the coffee shop or the diner. And it’s the truth that people find their way to us, when they come, for different reasons now, not to be part of a thriving, mainstream institution, but questioning, seeking, groping for a sense of purpose and meaning.
When they do come, when death or loss or rejection or dissatisfaction or even a joyful event bring people through our doors who don’t know us well already, how do we welcome them? It’s one thing to be friendly; please be friendly! But we have to recognize that the things we do and the ways we do them can look very strange and unaccustomed. A Presbyterian pastor wrote recently that her son brought his girlfriend to a worship service, and when the choir came in wearing robes, she asked, “Are all the singers in the National Honor Society?” (Thank you, Jan Edmiston!)
And if our practices are mysterious, our stories sound quaint and arcane, and not in a good way.
Imagine stepping into one of our churches and hearing the story of the valley of dry bones, with no context.
You good church people, you’re tempted to chuckle. Surely everyone has heard the song about the ankle bone connecting to the – pause – leg bone. You can find it on YouTube, performed by the Delta Rhythm Boys in smooth harmony, or Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians with great percussion, or the Lennon Sisters in skeleton leotards, or even Herman Munster accompanying himself on guitar. But forget all that, if you remember it, because it is in black-and-white and dates us all to the time when everybody went to church and there were three channels on TV.
Forget all that, because to the contemporary person who isn’t both well-churched and biblically literate, this sounds like a story about zombies. We live in a zombie-loving age, in which the Centers for Disease Control created a web page to prepare us for a Zombie Apocalypse. When a new listener tries to locate herself in the story, she’s not thinking about the condition of Israel’s relationship with God in the time of Ezekiel. She’s hearing the story of a zombie army rising up to fight again.
I don’t think that’s what we want to be, is it? We don’t want to be a zombie church, stretching our arms out and saying, instead of “brains,” “pledges!”
When finding the light switch requires a theological dictionary or a lectionary resource, and cannot be found in the words we speak to one another or the actions we perform, we’re doing something wrong. We’re not providing the directions that can help turn on the light for the person who is groping.
And really, we all are. Individuals grope, seeking God, seeking some sense that there is more to life than we can see, something beyond the materially obvious, some quality of hope and love that will make the difference even in the dark.
In that groping, we make gods of other things. Some of them are easy to diagnose as dangerous, like addiction to drugs or alcohol or gambling or sex or overusing our credit cards. We make a god of success, worshiping our rock stars and our sports heroes, giving the benefit of the doubt to anyone who makes a lot of money. And we also make gods of things that might otherwise be good, naming purity and virtue and family as ideals, at the same moment we shut certain people out of those categories simply because of who they love.
These small “g” gods are not so good. But here is some good news (small g and n). Grope enough and you will surely find something. Even the zombie movie fans are looking for what we have: a hope that death is not the end and love never dies.
We are people who believe in the Capital Letter Good News of Jesus Christ, that all people are loved by God, no matter where they are on life’s journey. We grope and we find. We find there is a church, collective, groping for God as a communal act.
We grope and we find. We find there is a church, particular, compelled, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by the gifts of the one we will ordain today, a faithful groper after God whose own journey gives him insight into the greater human struggle.
We grope and we find. We find there is a God, immanent, whose breath gives life no matter how dead we may feel, no matter how dry and rattling we may sound, no matter how out-of-date we may seem.
We grope and we find. We find there is a God, known, whose love moves us into new life together, not as a zombie army, but as a church, united.
We grope and we find. We find there is a God, luminous, whose light shines even as the world gropes aimlessly in the darkness. Sometimes we faithful church people are simply part of that groping. And sometimes, like today, we manage to find the switch, and, by the grace of God, turn on the light.
In the name of the One whose breath blows through all of us. Amen.