Farewell and Godspeed 2011 Sermon

Farewell and Godspeed - May 20, 2011

The Shaffer-Ashmead Chapel of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

Friday, May 20th 2011
Farewell and Godspeed Service
 Exodus 3: 1 - 12
Acts 6: 8 - 15

A prayer of Catherine of Siena:

O God eternal,

in your light we have seen

how closely you have conformed your creature

to yourself.

We see that you have set us, as it were,

in a circle,

so that wherever we may go

we are still within this circle. Amen.

I would love to know what the face of an angel looks like – no, not the angels that fly around, permanently memorialized in stained glass windows or in famous paintings; not even the angels in white cardboard cut-outs that students used to decorate the stage at a Christmas Carol Service at the United Theological College in Bangalore many years ago when I was a student there. Perhaps the group in charge of the stage decorations thought that the choir members didn’t sing angelically enough, and sought to supplement their sincere but very amateur voices by propping them up with cardboard angels on both sides of the stage. The Principal of the College was the no-nonsense and gruff-voiced Dr Russell Chandran, a pioneer of the mid-20th century ecumenical movement and committed to indigenous expressions of the Christian faith. These stylized angels flew in the face (pun intended) of everything that he stood for in terms of indigenous artistic expression, and when he entered the hall that evening to supervise the preparations for the service next day, he brusquely demanded: “who thought of this? How do you know what angels look like?” It was left to Mrs Vicky Chandran, his wife and herself the Principal of a prominent school in Bangalore, to pacify him saying “Come on Russell, even you don’t know what angels look like – let them use their imagination …” Yes, I would like to use my imagination and know what the face of an angel looks like.  Imagination – using a phrase from a hit 1972 song, “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts, which uses the plaintive phrase “Blowing through the jasmine in my mind.”

There’s no jasmine in our reading from Acts which talks about a very tense moment in the life of Stephen – a turning point; poised on the edge between life and death; on the verge of making the good confession; faced as he was with an angry mob with murder in their hearts, we heard that “all who sat in council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Did this make a difference? Did it move the hardened hearts to try and understand and respond to his testimony by word and deed to a crucified carpenter?

Those early days after the reality of the resurrection was slowly setting in were days filled with excitement, exhilaration, and exuberance on the part of those who sensed that they were part of a movement, a movement that propelled them to move beyond their apprehension, anxiety, and alarm; to recognize that they were part of something greater, something bigger, something beyond themselves. Of course there was something frightening about it – “who am I?” Is it really I?” “How can I?” Do I have the gift and ability?” Will I be heard?” Will I be understood?” and “How will they respond?” There’s also something disconcerting about a movement that is gradually coalescing into an institution, an institution that would have to develop its leadership; formulate rules and regulations; decide who was in and who was out, especially at the meal commemorating that last Thursday supper; assign roles and address the gender issue, especially regarding the leadership of women; deal with relief and rehabilitation; define and in time, vote on Jesus’ relationship with the Father; develop the rubrics for baptism, including the appropriateness of using hot water, or cold water, or still water, or running water, not to say anything about immersion or sprinkling; take into consideration buildings, furnishings, worship orders, music, salaries, assessment, vision and mission; public theology; theological training, Christian education, congregational polity - the list will only grow longer … .

Yet – Stephen, the one who is “full of grace and power”, poised on the brink of making his final, defining speech, an act that will lead those who heard it to “become enraged and grind their teeth” to “drag him out and stone him” – it is his face that is recognized to be “like the face of an angel.”

I suppose it’s an act of hubris to say that I have seen the face of an angel; and I suppose I can be accused of pandering to the crowd to say that I have seen and see these faces here. Angels – messengers – always ready to give an account of the hope that inspires them; willing and eager to proclaim the good news of God; ready to be a companion of Jesus. I see them when I look around at those poised on the brink of a great adventure; trained and ready to begin a journey of faith; waiting to risk Christ for Christ’s sake; starting afresh on a mission, the end of which, not to say anything about next month, is not clear; committed to a venture unknown, which will take most of you far beyond the boundaries and pleasant confines of this seminary … .

You go out

  • at a time when more and more people are moving away from reading and rediscovering the world of faith testified to in the Bible, and depending on self-proclaimed prophets and interpreters of the Bible (don’t forget that just when you got your degree, the world will come to an end – tomorrow, I suppose), most of whom are interested in promoting themselves, their families, or their organizations, their ideologies; you go out at a time when the claim regarding the centrality of the Bible in the life of every person rings hollow, at a time when there is a renewed need to underline that the Bible is there to be read and understood and interpreted, and is not a cult object to be idolized,
  • at a time when religious identity and denominational rootedness is increasingly shaky; when the reality of religious consumerism and shopping around leads to easy compromise and superficial triviality; where “blessing ideology” has minimized the understanding of sin; where corruption in high places is condoned; where the cult of the powerful is fostered; where hero-worship of those in positions of power and authority is encouraged. How does one remind people about the centrality of God in a world of consumerism and underscore that we cannot forget those who will always be with us, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. What does it mean to talk about the gift of forgiveness and welcome, through the self-offering of Jesus; the gift of unconditional love and the promise of unmerited grace through the life and death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus?
  • at a time when people are longing for comfortable words; words of reassurance; words of support and encouragement; for the “Wonderful words of Life” …
  • at a time when there is an increasing need to “talk truth to power”; to use uncomfortable words; challenging words; words that shake our complacency; words that force us out of the careful way in which we have constructed the universe: “this is the way it is” …
  • you go out at a time when we have to come to terms with the work and words of Jesus that not only came into conflict with the religious leaders and guardians of religion; conflict with the political authorities; conflict with the societal structures; conflict with the disciples’ expectations and hopes, but comes into conflict with our desires and outlook; what we want and long for; how we expect God to behave; how we have expect recognition and affirmation for our service …

There’s so much to be done out there – roofs to be fixed; egos to be massaged; people to be consoled; problems to be solved; utility bills to be paid; payroll to be made; not to say anything about baptism and the unity of the church and eucharist and the koinonia of the church! “Who am I?” “What can I do?” “Why me?” The questions asked by Moses continue to be our questions; our queries; our lament; our cries. These are questions that have to be asked – that need to be asked – time and again. But, and this is a big one, but, the good news for us is that we don’t need to answer these questions – the questions will receive an answer – have received an answer: “I will be with you.” Maybe you won’t get the answers you want; it’s possible that you may be led in directions where you didn’t want to go; you may be called to serve people amongst whom you don’t want to be; the challenges may seem overwhelming. But – overarching and undergirding our questions and our quest is that still small voice, which repeats patiently and tirelessly “I will be with you.” In the midst of excitement, exhilaration, and exuberance, and yes, in the midst of apprehension, anxiety, and alarm, our eternal contemporary still comes to us and freely offers us and assures us of the gift of God’s abiding presence “ I will be with you.” As the summer breeze blows through the jasmine in your minds, remember what happened to the one whose face was like the face of an angel and nevertheless, or better, because of what happened to him, go forth in peace; go forth in hope; go forth in joy; go forth in love, embrace your vocation, and go forth on this journey of faith and perhaps even the angry and violent will recognize in you “the face of an angel”; go forth knowing that you are accompanied by the abiding presence of the one who says “my peace I give you” today and beyond the end of our journeys. Amen.