Clergy and laity came together to renew their vows at three diocesan-wide Holy Week services in 2018. Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe preached at all three services; above is a recording of her sermon preached at the service at St. David’s Episcopal Church in DeWitt on Tuesday, March 27th.
A transcript of the sermon follows.
Come Holy Spirit. Speak to us. Give us courageous hearts to respond. Amen.
Now I have a feeling that I know what some of you may be thinking. Why are we having another service in this week? Aren’t there already enough of them? I mean how many times can you gather and worship, really? Why do it this week?
I think there’s a very important reason that we come together and renew our vows this week. And especially at the beginning of the week. We’ve heard of the Passion of Jesus; it’s something we really hear parts of and bits of each Sunday but this past Sunday we heard it in its entirety. The lamentation, the suffering. And in this moment before the rest of Holy Week continues I think we need to stop and we need to remember that our lives are not our own. We need to remember that we’ve been called to something and are part of something and have made vows to something that matters more than what’s in it for us, our fatigue, or any other concern.
I’ve really been thinking a lot about how the shape of Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection is the shape of all of life. We’re on a journey together and we’re going along, and then there’s that moment. Where we lament and we ask God, can’t we do it any other way? Please don’t make me do this! Why do I have to do this? Can’t we get somebody else? Can we make a deal? I’ll do whatever it takes just not that.
And some of us thought that before we went in for ordination! [laughter] Some of us thought, you know–You know that there’s those characteristics, there’s the Moses people–“But they’re so much better!”–And then there’s the other people–“But I don’t want to…”
In our faith there’s two ways that we come to understand truth. The “apophatic” and the “kataphatic.” I love these words and this is a day that I get to use my big words. Because I really do try to speak to people in a language…but I get to do that now, so I’m excited…there’s “ontology,” “kataphatic,” “apophatic”and “soteriology” so just to give you a heads up, those are coming…But anyway…
We Episcopalians love apophatic ways of describing God. Meaning in the negative. “God is greater than all.” “Jesus is Love.” We don’t really narrow it down, we sort of say things that… “God is beyond that which we can understand.” It’s a way of describing God by saying that we can’t really grasp it all. And there’s a good piece of that, which is the humility of it. Which sometimes is a false humility, because really we just don’t want to take responsibility for what we want to say. “Well, I don’t really know, but I always thought that God was like…” It’s a way of dismissing our responsibility. A way of not being like some people we don’t want to be like. Kataphatic, on the other hand, is to say something with certitude. “God is love.” “Jesus saves.” We get uncomfortable around some of those things. “But I don’t really know… It’s not like a formula for God…”
I was in the airport recently and a woman…I was reading a book and I wasn’t all dressed up…I was sitting there reading a book and she said, “Are you a Christian?” And I was very aware of my immediate response being one of contextualizing. “Well, you know, what do you mean by Christian?” [laughter] And, you know, people I didn’t want to associate myself with, you know, I’m not like those people… And I was very aware of that and I felt rather than doing that, which we often do, or we feel embarrassed, or we want to sort of justify everything… I said, “Yes I am, because I really believe that Jesus calls us to love all people.”
Because for me, that’s my primary, is Jesus calls us to be. He calls us to be. Ontologically I believe, and in an ontology of our being (next big word), that our being is changed when we take these vows.
When God…when hands are laid on our head whether at our Confirmation or at our Ordination, that something in us is changed. Our very being is moved. And we become less our own possession and give ourselves into the hand of God.
And so with that movement of the Passion, we go on this journey, we get to that dark night of the soul where we’re in the Garden with Jesus and this is when we often judge ourselves. “Well, if I just had more faith, I wouldn’t be wondering about this.” Except Jesus said exactly the same things. “Lord, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” “Is there any other way?” “Why can’t you stay awake?” “Is there any way to do this?”
We do that and that is a part of our holy journey that we need. We need that moment of understanding that what we are about to do is not because we want to do it, it’s because God has called us to do it. And now we need to lay our life down in order that the Holy Spirit and God’s gonna raise our life up.
We will never be part of something greater than ourselves until we allow ourselves to lay our life down. We will never be part of something bigger than ourselves until we allow ourselves to be, “Not my will, but thine, be done.”
And these vows we are about to take mean that. And in ways that we don’t always like. We’re humans! We like being right! A lot! Right now each person in this room has someone with whom we’re having a disagreement. Because you’re a human being. And outside these walls fear has taken over. And if you’re not afraid inside these walls there’s plenty of people outside these walls who want to tell you why to be terrified. We’re afraid of our neighbors… People are so afraid, get this, they’re so afraid, they’re threatening the lives of young people who’ve already been shot at! Who’ve already given CPR to their classmates! They’re so afraid of loss. And as I said on Saturday to the TV camera, this isn’t about politics. This is about our morality. This is about who we say we are when we take these vows. Because we take vows that mean something. And that mean we can have our opinions, yes, but our opinions need to be seen through the filter of these vows.
And so apophatically, we can live into the unknown of God. But the fear that’s in this world and especially for those of you who preach…people need some kataphatic statements. They need us to say things that have some bite to it, that say, “This is where Jesus would be. This is what Jesus would be about.” They need to know that safety and security and goodness and groundedness and peace come from God. Come from God. Not from anywhere else. The ground of our being is God. Our ontology, our being… and God is calling us to be that for the world. And the world is desperate to hear this message.
We get this idea in church, that people don’t want to…that they aren’t interested. Because they don’t come to church. So they’re not really interested in what we do. And we forget, in our insecurity… They’re not coming to church because they don’t know what we do. They’re not coming to church because they haven’t heard the Good News. Because what they’re heard from Christianity isn’t good news.
They don’t know because who’s told them? We’re so busy trying to be apophatic or trying to…Who’s told them they’re loved? Who’s told them that Jesus cares for them? Who’s told them, “You’re a beautiful child of God. As you are! Your being is God’s beauty.”
And these vows we’re about to take, look at them. Because I’ll tell you, they’re a little bit daunting. The baptismal vows. Yes, we’re going to say what we believe about God. But on the next page, page eight: Will you persevere in resisting evil? And we say, Yes! Until we think about it for a minute…and then we realize, we’re actually kind of keen on evil. We kind of like it! “My way or the highway.” “Well, if they just understood they’d know I was right.” And these conflicts we’re in with each other… If I gave you a chart and a graph you could show me exactly how you’re right and they’re wrong. And “those people” who don’t get it and are kind of slightly dumber than anyone else, they don’t get how right we are. That is the seeds of evil creeping into us. When we make fun of people, when we put them down, when we see them as kind of sub-level to us, evil is creeping in. And we like it! Because that’s why we do so much of it…if you’ve been on Facebook lately, we do a lot of it.
So we’re going to repent of that which means we’re going to turn around and change our minds, we’re going to start again which is why we’re here this week to do this. So we can start again at the beginning of the week where we’re going to walk with a man who’s going to be beaten and scourged, who’s going to be nailed to a tree naked and humiliated for the world because he did nothing wrong, except love you. And love me. And love this broken, fearful, terrified world, who has no idea he did that. And if they do have an idea about it, it may not start with the word love. It may start with the word requirement.
And then we’re going to say that we’re going to proclaim by word and example… Our words. Our example. That person that we’re afraid of…we’ve got to be nice to. Jesus does not understand how rotten our neighbors are, I’m telling you right now! I get it! I’ve had some neighbors that have been a little bit of a challenge for me. I look at people in this world and there are people I want to say, “You are so wrong!” And I have to tell you with all good conscience, I think people who threaten teenagers are wrong. I think that’s a moral issue. But I also think that deep within us we know that what we’re about to do is where the answer is. Kataphatically.
That God saves us because God loves us.
And that when we love God with all that we are and we turn it all over and we turn the TV off and all those things that distract us and keep us from living for Jesus…we turn it all off and we focus on Jesus: We’re better. And when we reach out to our neighbor, sacrificially, and put their needs and their well-being ahead of our own, the world is better.
Your vows are needed by this world. And they’re especially needed by you. Because your life is a calling. Your life is an offering to God and to this world. To build up the kingdom of God.
Sometimes we get very caught up in us. And we forget that Jesus was always talking about building up, that the kingdom of God has come near. That the kingdom of God…each of you a thread, each of you a part of the kingdom of God being brought into fruition. You being exactly who you are, ontologically, you being exactly who you are, sacrificially, you dying to yourself so the Resurrection can be a reality.
We will only have resurrection through that death.
Resurrection is on the other side of everything we fear most: loss of power, embarrassment, vulnerability, being wrong. Resurrection is on the other side. And until we lay it down we’ll never be raised up. And don’t we want peace and resurrection? And life? Abundant life! It isn’t held by this world, it goes beyond this world. Eternal life.
And so we are here this week with all the other things we have going on because there’s nothing more important than this moment for you and for I to be together. For us to lay down so God can raise up. And we can remember who we are and really more importantly whose we are.
Live for Jesus.
Live kataphatically (and apophatically) but live for Jesus.
And the gospel is right. It’s an emergency. It’s an emergency.