Note: Last month I marked nine years of ordained ministry. I preached this sermon on September 20, 2009, the day after my ordination, at Wicker Park Lutheran Church.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
St. Augustine writes this direct address to God in his Confessions: “My soul is like a house, small for you to enter, but I pray you to enlarge it. It is in ruins, but I ask you to restore it. It contains much that you will not be pleased to see: this I know and do not hide.”
Augustine says he has confessed his sins and been forgiven, and that “in trusting I find words to utter.”
I returned to St. Augustine this week for a very specific reason. Today, for the first time, I stand before a congregation as a pastor in the eyes of the church. I owe you an account of how that came to be, I think. So I will do something I will never do again at Wicker Park: I will talk today about my vocation to Christian life and the ministry.
It is a story that begins with St. Augustine. I didn’t grow up in a very religious family, though I was baptized at some point and we paid respectful visits to the old family parish in Wisconsin. Civil War battlefields were our sites of pilgrimage. Abraham Lincoln was our sacred martyr. The Democratic Party was our church. My father, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather all spent time in electoral politics. My weekend devotions took place going door to door for a parade of doomed liberal candidates.
God is generous. God spreads wisdom and moral insight all over, without much regard for whether people go to church or not. You can learn good values and you can care about the right things without having faith. My family was like that. I was a very earnest, very idealistic young man. Then I went to college and I read St. Augustine and all of that changed.
You can learn about being a good person most anywhere, but God tugs at people from a deeper place. Augustine didn’t make me into a Christian. He just got me thinking differently. Is the human condition more dire than I had thought? Did my cozy secular worldview have room for truth? For hope? For guilt? For beauty? Or are these things, deep down, doorways to God? Do they call our minds to something vast and never-ending?
Like a lot of people, my idea of God back then was kind of blob-like. God was mysterious, something at the limit or edge of our human experience. God was a bodiless transcendent abstraction. I was suspicious of the Trinity and of Jesus as God in human flesh. I didn’t know the Bible well at all. Something was stirring in me, but it didn’t lead me to church.
I was a pretty unhappy person in those days. I was not living as if I expected or even wanted to be happy. There was nothing special about this. If you get to the age of 23 without going through at least one soul-crushing existential calamity, you’ve really missed out on something. What’s important is that in the midst of this very difficult time I started going to church and even reading the Bible. Desperate people will do most anything. But now it started to make sense. Here was Jesus: a picture of God not as the awesome majesty enthroned over the heavens, but as a fragile, haunted, lonely man. Here was a broken and abandoned man who saved humanity. Here were his apostles, mostly unlearned and of no account, who conquered the world in the name of Christ. Here was power made perfect in weakness. Here was the poor church that makes the world rich in grace. Here was a faith that spoke directly to the lost and desperate.
On Ash Wednesday, 2001, I went to Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago and I had the ashes imposed for the first time. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This I knew. And this was all supposed to lead us to the mystery of God’s love in Christ Jesus. The next year I was confirmed at the age of 23, kneeling on the Augustana chancel with the eighth graders–just one humbling moment among many for any who would serve the church.
Since then I have made it my life’s work to tell the Christian story over and over again. It’s the story of lost, lonely people living in a broken world, and of a God who bends all the way down to them for their comfort and salvation. And every time I tell it, the story changes, because the people change, and because I change. But God abides. God breathes new life into this old, old story every time a faithful heart undertakes to tell it. I have been in some deep valleys, alone and accompanying others. And I have been on some very high peaks. Everywhere, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is there at the center: Christ suffering, Christ blessing, Christ comforting, Christ judging, Christ forgiving. The God I believe in and the God I preach to you is not an absent God or a God at the margin of life. God is always right in the thick of things, maybe mysterious, maybe hidden from our view, but always, always there.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” I haven’t come to the end of any exploring, any more than any of you have. But I think I know what he’s talking about. There is an irony in the process of becoming a pastor. You start out with a heart full of simple faith, and you learn that most of what you think you know about the Bible or Christianity is different, or even just plain wrong. You start out wishing only to glorify God, and yet you learn gradually to take pride in your own gifts. Maybe you hardly thought about that sermon, but someone told you it was exactly what she needed to hear. Maybe it was a merely dutiful hospital visit to you, but you said something that made the old man weep tears of relief. You set out to be the least and the servant of all, and yet you end up comparing yourself with your colleagues, or demeaning the simple faith that brought you there.
Somehow we all need to come full circle, to see the place we started for the first time. I think Jesus is being very serious when he points to the child. And it meant something different back then, too. Children were not fussed over and treasured obsessively as we do now. There were no ‘Mommy and Me’ yoga classes. There were no SUV-style tandem strollers. Children were not of much account. And this, Jesus says, is what you must love and welcome and embrace if you want to know God. Maybe you’ve advanced far in your vocation. Maybe you write or teach or draft or design. Maybe you are eminent in your field. Maybe you are successful in your practice.
Maybe you have battled the devil heroically for many years. Maybe you are advanced in faith. Maybe your seminary professors love your papers. Maybe your church put on a huge ordination service for you. Maybe you have served faithfully in the Lord’s yoke for a lifetime. Maybe you are a true Christian. Maybe you are even a true pastor.
Underneath it all, though, we are what we always were: a sinner in need of grace, a cramped soul in need of expansion, a ruin in need of restoration, a child of God in need of a welcome.
I am thirty years old. I have been an ordained minister of the Gospel for one day. But I know and will testify to this: God sheds grace abundantly. God does additions and renovations. God welcomes his own as if they had never left. Amen.