Clear Skies, Bright Hopes

Having cleared my writing responsibilities for the short term, I have mostly to go preach at Paula Harris’s ordination this afternoon, then lead a couple of church forums on that movie. The weather is beautiful today, the school year is over (even though I have an ever-increasing number of committee meetings in the weeks to come), and Margaret’s and my wedding anniversary is coming up.

Things are looking better.

(Sermon will be in the extended section after I preach it.)

All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Ordination of Paula Harris to the Diaconate

Sirach 39:1-8/Ps 84/2 Corinthians 4:1-6/Luke 22:24-27
June 4, 2006

No good thing will the LORD withhold
from those who walk with integrity.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – Amen.


Sisters and brothers in the body of Christ, sharers in the ministry of the gospel, Right Reverend Sir, and particularly, this afternoon, my dear sister Paula:

On this most solemn occasion, I am reminded of a quotation from one of the texts that most significantly shaped my childhood. Indulge me for a moment, my friends, and imagine a large animated moose in a cartoon tuxedo standing here beside a flying squirrel. The moose says,

“Hey, Rocky; watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!”
To which the squirrel responds, “But that trick never works.”
And the moose unhesitatingly replies, “This time, for sure!”

For sure? Maybe; maybe not. We know, do we not, that there is nothing in the magician’s silk top hat; we know that yonder lie some ordinary bread and some everyday wine. We know that Paula is fundamentally just another person like all the rest of us, perhaps more friendly and patient, certainly very well-educated, but really just another person And we know that when the psalm says, “No good thing will the LORD withhold from those who walk with integrity” — what? What do we know?

Do we know that the Lord will keep us from all evil, in a precarious economy, when gas prices could leap to $4.00 a gallon in the blink of an eye?

Will the Lord keep us from all evil, when the threat of terror haunts our cities?

Will the Lord keep us from evil, when hundreds of thousands die every day from disease, from gunfire and bombs, from starvation?

Perhaps those questions dance always at the fringes of full-blooded, whole-hearted ministry, sometimes dance close to the very center of ministry, perhaps sometimes the questions pierce your heart as you look in a lonely widower’s faraway eyes. Perhaps that “what do we know?” question addresses anyone who presumes to take the long walk to this pulpit, to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation to busy, hungry people who look to you in trust. Perhaps that question “what?” echoes the voice of an angel — and a demon — who play tag in your study, inviting you to try just a little harder, give even more of yourself, extend yourself just a little further — and maybe that question draws you out onto the thin ice where faith and truth begin to crack.

So let’s pull back, let’s draw that question out into the open, let’s put it on the table. Let’s look that angel and demon straight in the eyes, and ask, flat out, “What do we mean when we say that the LORD will withhold no good thing from those who walk with integrity, in a world where we know full well that ghastly things happen to lovely people?” How can we make so audacious a claim?

We can make that claim because we know that more is going on than meets the eye.

It’s not entirely that simple, of course; we must never glibly say that God is at work through all these things, bringing us through to a safety and a blessedness that we can’t quite bring into focus through the foggy vistas of confusing circumstance. The world rightly doubts our word if we just smile and say, “Not to worry — all’s for the best,” and at our wisest we avoid offering any such facile assurances to heartbroken mourners. But we do say, along with the Apostle Paul, that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” We do say that the sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. We say that the Lord will keep us from all evil. We say, and we insist, that more is going on than meets the eye.

We must say that. We must say and believe that, for we know well, far too well, that God doesn’t vaccinate us against suffering and mortality. We have nursed our loved ones through cancer, through AIDS, through abyssal depression, through Alzheimer’s. We have buried our parents, our children, our dearest friends. We have seen the prosperity of the wicked, who have no pain, whose bodies are sound and sleek, who are not plagued like other people. We know that the righteous suffer, and that oppressors live the high life. What we see day by day reminds us that nothing matters very much out on the streets, not faith or goodness or virtue or hopefulness; so if we don’t remind ourselves that more is going on than meets the eye, we would have to agree with the world, that faith is for the feeble, that religion is a pain-killer for the weak. If we are wrong, then we are counted among those perishing souls whose minds are blinded. If we are wrong, then the jig is up, the bread is just bread and the wine is just wine. Bullwinkle’s top hat is empty. Time to go home, sisters and brothers, we’re closing up shop. Sorry, but you lose. We all lose.

Will you allow us say such a thing, Paula?

I pray that you will not. I pray that the gifts with which God has so amply equipped you will keep the church doors open, keep our eyes sparkling with hope amid tears. I pray that your presence among us will always remind us of God’s power, supple and subtle and sweet and undefeatable, holding the truth up to satisfy our hunger and slake our thirst. Hear me right — I pray that it be the truth that you offer us, not fairy tales, not guesswork, not the flimsy band-aid assurances that televised talking heads and ecclesiastical compromisers pull from their anthology of pompous bombast. Truth is what we need, truth that touches us where it hurts most deeply, not where the the wounds are obvious and shallow. Truth will heal us. Truth will set things right, even when the appearances say that nothing will ever be the same.

Let me repeat this one hors d’oeuvre of that truth: more is going on than meets the eye. When we sing with the Psalmist, “No good thing will the LORD withhold from those who walk with integrity,” we know full well that bad things are liable to happen, that unpredictable catastrophes overtake God’s people, that rain falls on the just as well as the unjust — but we know also that God’s promise extends beyond what we can see on the surfaces of things, and we love one another with mutual affection to help us sustain that assurance of things hoped for, that conviction of things unseen. When hard times shake us, when affliction clouds our vision, we need the support of our steadfast friends, we need the ministry of our clergy, to help us keep alive our reliance on the Holy Spirit’s ceaseless provision for our well-being, our hope in Christ’s healing love. We need one another to remember that heart-breaking appearances may conceal, but they don’t interrupt, God’s overflowing grace.

God’s grace constantly works at us, transforming us, even when that transformation operates so gradually, so steadily, as to defy observation. But just as this service does not by itself instantly convert Paula Harris from a thoughtful, pleasant woman-in-the-street — hocus-pocus! — into a passionate, gentle, eloquent, patient and peaceable servant of God’s Word, in the same way God operates within and around us all the time, always offering all of us the possibility to recognize grace transforming us, drawing us steadfastly through our highs and sometimes especially our lows, drawing us through the rejoicing of our joyous days as well as the weeping of our heartbroken nights, drawing us beyond the boundary of mortal life itself.

That’s not something I really learned at seminary. (Of course, I went to Berkeley; our midwestern seminaries may have done a better job on this point.) But I wonder whether anyone really learns that theological lesson in a classroom. The deep, transforming lessons in truth come most readily when we don’t have our official guidebook to pastoral response open to the right page, when they catch us off guard, without any academic training to protect us. Our own resources fall away in the face of the awesome challenge of love, and we’re thrown back on the mercy of the Holy Spirit; at times like that, we’re vulnerable to the Spirit. And the action of the Spirit sometimes, often, usually comes under the category of things that don’t meet the eye.

That invisible presence can strain our patience, our hope, our very faith itself; have you been there, Paula? Come there with us, then, meet us there, and I beg you not to scold or reproach us in our time of desperation; rather, weep with us when we weep. Come to us there, love us as we grunt and sweat under a weary life, bless us with your own joy in hope, your patience in suffering, your perseverance in prayer. Trust that as you bear with us, more is going on than meets the eye.

Remind us with fervent proclamation and, even more, with your life’s manifest integrity and dignity, of the power of the Gospel to sustain us through hard times of shock and stress. Show us what it means for us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, rather than simply allowing ourselves to be conformed to this world. Intercede for us, so that even if there be only fifty, or twenty, or even just a few righteous souls with you, we not be found opposing our God. Preach the Gospel in season and out of season, joining your voice with ours when times are good and praise comes readily to our lips, and find words on our behalf when we stammer and fall silent. Show us Christ, and help us believe that more is going on than meets the eye.

Share with us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Nourish our souls with these signs of God’s ever-giving love, with the remembrance that God forgives the sins that we cannot forget; encourage us with the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Help us to taste and see the goodness of God’s providence for us.

And we, in turn, will watch as Bishop Miller lays hands on you and we will pray that the Holy Spirit descend upon you to renew and deepen and invigorate the gifts that we’ve recognized in you, gifts for ministry, for prophecy, for teaching, for leadership, all according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. We will pray that the Spirit speak in your words, that the Spirit touch us in your hands, that the Spirit gladden us in your love for us. And even though, at the end of the afternoon, you will probably look pretty much the same as ever — good, I mean, but generally the same — we will know in our hearts that the Holy Spirit has been at work among us, and that more, much more, inestimably more is going on than meets our eyes.

We know that you have been blessed with every blessing in abundance, so that you may share in every good work. We know that God has been at work among us, has been at work in you, bringing us together this afternoon to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, and to celebrate and solemnize your calling to lead us in our transformation into the image of Christ. We know that a Providence beyond our wisdom has been with us all along, and will indeed preserve our lives, not simply in this world, but much more to the very threshold of eternity itself. We know that this is not simply bread and wine, but a foretaste of the feast we will share with all the elect from every people and language, every tribe and nation, at the hand of Jesus Christ. We know that Bullwinkle’s hat is not empty after all, nor does it conceal only a hapless bunny, but inside it lurks something wilder and more powerful than he or Rocket J. Squirrel or we ourselves can predict. Now is the time for us reach out our hands, lean back cautiously, and watch with joy what God can do in our sister’s life.

“Hey Rocky, watch me pull a deacon out of my hat! Nothing up my sleeve…”
“Not again…”
“This time — for sure.”


1 thought on “Clear Skies, Bright Hopes

  1. Holy wow, AKMA. Once again I am reminded how very much I have to learn before I’ll be able to preach one-tenth as well as you do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *