Limping and praising
Noted scholar Richard Hays celebrates his son’s ordination with lessons for ministry from two strange texts at the beginning and the end of the Bible.
April 14, 2009 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. The following is a sermon preached by the Rev. Richard Hays for the ordination of his son, the Rev. Christopher Hays, at La Crescenta Presbyterian Church, La Crescenta, Calif., on March 8, 2009.
I have to admit, I didn’t always see this coming. But having watched Chris grow up, I realize now that I probably should have anticipated this day, because there is a pattern here.
When Chris was five years old, there was that classic pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, the one that ended in a one-game playoff won by the Yankees on Bucky Dent’s home run. Chris watched his longsuffering dad desperately rooting for his beloved Red Sox -- and he decided to become a Yankees fan.
Later, when Chris began to feel the inexorable pull of vocation to the serious academic study of theology, he sized up his father’s career as a New Testament scholar -- and decided to assert his intellectual independence by going into the field of Old Testament studies.
And so, when the time came that Chris felt God’s powerful call to ordained ministry, it was probably inevitable that he would take note of his dad’s service as a United Methodist minister and once again rebel against the paternal example -- by being ordained in the PC(USA). And so we find ourselves here this evening…to celebrate this latest contrarian act of rebellion.
To be fair, I should acknowledge that Chris comes by his Calvinist inclinations with an honest sense of family roots. His proud mother was a cradle Presbyterian and indeed served as an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of New Haven during Chris’s formative adolescent years. And even his Methodist father harbors the secret opinion that Calvin and Barth got a lot of things right.
The truth is, of course, that all of us are here to celebrate this glad occasion with great joy, along with the due sense of awe that always attends any service of ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament in the church of Jesus Christ. We are here to solemnize the particular call that lies on Chris’s life and to confirm publicly the office he now assumes within the church. But at the same time, we are mindful that ministry is first and last the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, and that all of us, as the people of God, are called in one way or another to share in the work of ministry through the diverse gifts and graces which the Spirit distributes broadly among us all. And so, as we reflect together on the Scriptural texts and on the prayers and liturgical actions through which we set Chris apart for this work, each of us here should also prayerfully consider our own calling and renew our own sense of vocation, whatever it may be, within the church’s ministry.
But as we enter that process of prayerful consideration, we have to acknowledge that the Scriptural texts Chris has chosen for this occasion are more than a little daunting. Interestingly, none of them says anything at all about ordination or about ministry as such. The letter to the Colossians is addressed to all “the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae,” (Colossians 1:2) and it speaks to all of them, together, as people who have been “rescued . . . from the power of darkness and transferred . . . into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13) And we get the distinct impression from our other two texts that being transferred into that kingdom is both a cause for joy and -- at the same time -- a strange and fearsome experience, as love always is. I want to reflect with you tonight about these two strange texts from the beginning and end of the canon, from Genesis and Revelation. What do they have to teach us about ministry?
We begin with Jacob. From the day of his birth, he was a trickster and an operator, grabbing and scrambling, figuring the angles to outsmart and outmaneuver his brother Esau -- indeed, cutting a deal to swindle him out of his rightful inheritance -- then later jockeying for economic advantage with his equally devious father-in-law, Laban. You can bet that if the banking business had existed in his day (it was actually forbidden by Old Testament law -- but that’s a topic for another day), Jacob would have been packaging derivatives and collecting sweet executive bonuses. But -- as is always the case -- the day of reckoning was coming. After long absence, Jacob is returning home, preparing to face his estranged brother Esau, whom he had defrauded. And it is under these circumstances that he meets God.
God does not come to him as some sweet, forgiving presence. Rather, under the cloak of darkness, God comes as a mysterious adversary, appearing from nowhere to accost Jacob in a wrestling match. The struggle is lengthy and inconclusive, but Jacob hangs on for dear life, refuses to let go without receiving a blessing. And the blessing he receives includes a new name: Israel -- the one who strives with God. The name Israel recalls a protracted struggle in the dark -- a struggle that leaves Israel lame, permanently limping as a reminder of surviving a strange face-to-face encounter with God.
What does all that have to do with ministry? First, if Jacob/Israel is our precursor as one who first receives and then finally gives blessings (and surely that is not a bad description of what we do in ministry), then we should remember that we don’t deserve what we get or get what we deserve. Why does God choose Jacob as the one through whom the line of promised blessing is to extend? God knows…but it certainly wasn’t because Jacob was more devout or virtuous than others around him. One of the particular charisms you Calvinists bring to the church universal is the gift of depravity. You remind us constantly that we receive God’s grace despite our total unworthiness. That’s not a popular message in an age that prizes self-esteem, but it is, simply put, the gospel. That is what Paul means when he characterizes God as the one who “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). God chose Jacob to become Israel for reasons we cannot begin to fathom. Just before this midnight encounter, you will recall, Jacob had rightly prayed, “I am unworthy of the steadfast love and all the faithfulness you have shown to your servant” (Genesis 32:10). And so it is also with those who are called to ministry -- not just Chris, but all of us here.
Precisely for that reason, the encounter with God as Genesis 32 describes it is a fearsome one. If we unworthy servants are to be transferred from the power of darkness, that means God is going to have to come after us in the dark. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see it couldn’t be any other way. And it also means that ministry has its genesis in a struggle. Those who encounter God in the dark will be not only changed but also marked, left with the wound created by God’s wrenching us out of one life and blessing us with a new one. And this God who wrenches us free may well have a dreadful aspect.