This sermon was reprinted in the Festschrift for my teacher and former professor of systematics at Andover Newton Theological School, Gabe Fackre. Dr. Fackre’s systematic is called “The Christian Story” and he and his wife have authored a very useful book for use in parishes called “Christian Basics”
The Ministry And The Center
A Sermon Preached At The Evensong Of The Joint SEAD And Confessing Christ Conference, On November 4, 2000, In St. John’s Episcopal Church, Stamford, Connecticut, by
The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
What is the central task of the church? What is the central task of the church’s ordained ministers?
The official answers to these questions have varied little over centuries: To preach the Gospel, to administer the sacraments, to pronounce blessing and pardon. In practice in the time I have been an ordained servant of the church there have been at least three competitors for the answer to the question what should the clergy do and what should be their central occupation.
One model I would call the pastoral model. The church is seen as a community of healing, a place where people can come to find psychological and spiritual wholeness. The chief work of the clergy is to provide pastoral care. This pastoral care is often thought of in terms of one to one counseling, and the preparation and training is heavily therapeutic in orientation. The ideal pastor is sensitive, sympathetic, a skilled listener, non-judgemental, accepting–a good counselor.
Another model is the prophetic model. Some of the seminaries of my denomination pride themselves on raising up and training a prophetic ministry. The central task of the church is seen as galvanizing Christian people to work together for a more just social order. The clergy are to empower people to overturn oppressive social and political structures and foster in their people “a liberative consciousness and praxis.” The ideal prophet is courageous and forthright, able to speak truth to power, no people pleaser, well trained in social and political analysis, adept in the skills of community organizing.
Lately, a third kind of rhetoric about the church and its ordained servants has been heard, the rhetoric of leadership. Commissions on ministry and seminaries now signal that they are weary of both the introverted and the non-judgmental and the prophetic bull in the parochial china shop, and are now looking for natural leaders who can be given advanced training in aligning the resources of the organization toward a visionary future. The church is seen as an effective provider in the marketplace of religious needs and the pastor is seen as an effective leader who can build a robust and dynamic institution with a shrewd combination of responsiveness to constituencies and the capacity to articulate compelling dreams of future success.
Most of us have been both the beneficiaries and the victims of these models of the church and the work of its ordained ministers. The church as a whole and many individual clergy have been generously blessed by the insights and challenges of each of these models. We have also paid a price. Many churches and many pastors have become exhausted trying to live out these models. There is an unreality behind these models, a problem greater than their tendency to overemphasize one dimension of the church’s mission at the expense of other dimensions. Each one of these models causes the clergy to act as though something were true when it really is not, when something very like its opposite is actually the case. The best of people in such circumstances become very tired and dispirited and some simply break down. The breakdown can be mental, moral or spiritual. (We hear a great deal about such breakdowns in the clergy today. The reports are exaggerated but it is true enough.)
What is the lie–the unreality? All of these models assume that the central problem is to figure out what the church should do. They all assume that the church exists and will continue to exist. The problem is how to take care of a settled Christian people or to challenge a settled Christian people to action or to organizational effectiveness.
In the current circumstances in which most of the Protestant congregations consist of fewer than 100 souls at worship on Sunday morning, in which most congregations are plateaued or declining in membership, in which the mainline churches stand at the end of two decades of membership free fall, (The Episcopal Church has gone from about 8 million members to fewer than 2 million members in this time) when the median age of our congregations and clergy is 50+, it is unreal to take the existence of the church for granted and to take the continuing existence of the church granted(at least in its present institutional form.)
The truth is that we cannot take the continuing existence of the church for granted, certainly we cannot take for granted the continuing existence of our denominations and in many, many, cases not the continuing existence of the very congregation we are serving. The question has changed from “what should the church do and what activities should occupy its ministers?” to “how can there be a church here and now, and how can this church reconstitute itself with a new people in a new generation?”
What has always been the official agenda, the setting forth of Christ–proclamation of the Gospel, administration of the sacraments (In Cranmer’s words, “to set forth thy true and lively Word and rightly and duly administer thy holy sacraments”) becomes the practical agenda in a new way and with a new urgency.
The context has shifted. To a very great degree we do not serve a settled Christian people but a profoundly unsettled Christian people within the churches and an increasingly secularized, yet neo-pagan world, that for all its technological prowess, is more superstitious and idolatrous than the age of the Caesars. We are confronted both without the churches and within with people who have either never heard the Gospel or barely heard the Gospel or misheard the Gospel. To act, though with great skill and sincerity, in such a circumstance as though the existence of the church was secure and then to proceed to develop a pattern of ministry based on that assumption is to be on a collision course with reality and to run the risk of spiritual shipwreck.
The central task of the church practically in our context, at this moment, is to tell the story of God’s saving love made known to us in Jesus Christ, as though for the first time–to those who have never heard it, or barely heard it, or misheard it. (It is more difficult and complex a task and one which requires greater persistence in the face of failure to proclaim the Gospel to those who have barely heard it or misheard it.)
There is a word for this–Evangelism, even first evangelization. This is the central task of the church and its ordained ministers. Embracing this task allows us to acknowledge the reality of the mission upon which we have been sent and the reality of the mission field t which we have been called.
In this present time, that which was assumed must be made explicit. To tell a story for the first time calls for a kind of clarity and simplicity that unmasks any ignorance or lack of conviction hiding behind equivocation or finesse.
The central task now is to tell the story of salvation over and over as though for the first time. I want to say what I believe are the central chapters in that story but first I want to say something about the heart of the pastor and the end to which the story is told. There is a word, an Italian word that helps me a great deal. It comes from the work of a famous teacher of children. This makes sense because work with children is one of the places where the problem of first evangelization, the first telling of the story has been pursued with great discipline in those churches in which otherwise the missionary impulse is fading. Sofia Cavalletti, an Italian religious educator, says that the purpose of sharing religious materials with the child is to make possible by God’s grace, inamoramento, the moment of falling in love with God. The central task of the church and its ordained ministers in this moment is to tell the story as though for the first time–the story of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ, to those who have never heard it or barely heard it or misheard it, in such a way that this moment of inamoramento becomes possible, either for the first time or becomes possible again. What is required of the one called to do this is not so much this or that particular set of skills or virtues but this fundamental posture of adoration and worship, the posture of one who has known him or herself the moment of falling in love with God.
There is a great need now at this present moment for the clergy of the church to recenter their sense of vocation and to refocus their efforts on Christian Basics, on a very fundamental presentation of the Gospel, on telling the story in many cases actually for the first time and always as though for the first time, and in such a way as to by God’s grace make possible this moment of falling in love with God. There is a need to recenter the ordained ministry of churches on what we have always said was the central task, even if our practice has belied it. There is a also a need to recognize that the making of secondary things primary and primary things secondary has resulted in a loss of nerve, a loss of heart. There is a need for a new focus on things central and a need for a new heart to tell the story in a simple way, humbly and clearly, so that people may behold the fair beauty of the Lord and become lost in wonder, awe and praise. This requires a heart that has itself been pierced by the beauty of the persevering, sacrificial love of God that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.
If our central role is to tell a story–the true story of God’s persevering love for us and all creation in such a way as to evoke love, gratitude and praise–a study of the scriptures and the great teachers of the faith which leads us to a greater apprehension of God’s revelation of himself to us in Jesus Christ must be at the heart of our work. Our study must be serious, rigorous, disciplined but it must also be different from other intellectual and scholarly pursuits as it turns toward contemplation and from contemplation toward adoration and devotion.
What is this story that we have to tell? It is the story of God’s love. How God made us and all that is and that God’s plan for us was that we should have hearts which reach up to Him in praise, thanksgiving and worship and hearts which reach out to each other in love and service. How we were made to know God and to serve Him by loving and serving each other and cherishing God’s good creation. How we listened to the tempter and fell into sin and evil. How our hearts became hard toward God, and hard toward each other. How since then each one has gone astray and done what is right in his or her own eyes.
I must say something about sin before I move on in this story. There is a great dispute about this chapter of the story now and even attempts to tell the story without this chapter. In the Bible sin is hardness of heart. Sklerocardia is one word the Bible has for sin. Sins are actions which are outer and visible consequences of the primary problem which is a heart condition. There is a dispute in our churches about which sins are the most important sins and about whether some things are really sins at all. This debate is a symptom of the seriousness of the problem of sin, our hardness of heart toward God and toward each other. One of the symptoms of sin is that it is hard to hear and obey God’s Word. There will always be things which we say we do but which we are unwilling to say are sin and things which we are willing to say are sin but which we are unwilling to say we do. The reality of the sin which is absolutely beyond dispute is a crushing weight which every human heart knows, “that memory which is grievous unto us and that burden which is intolerable to us,” as our prayer book says, and from which every human heart looks for deliverance.
Sin is an important part of the story but in spite of some ways in which the story has been told, it is not the beginning of the story or the end of the story. We do not begin in sin and evil and God does not leave us there but sends His son who comes in the fullness of time after great preparation and at great cost to make it possible that the word of the prophets might come true and that we might have new hearts, hearts of flesh, not sklerocardia, hearts of stone. He spreads out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that the whole world might come within the reach of his saving embrace. By the price of the cross and the power of the resurrection and the gift of the spirit he makes it possible that we might have in us the heart that was in Him, the heart we were meant to have in the beginning, the heart the goes up to God and out to others. He has come to give His life for us that He may give His life to us, a life of worship, praise, sacrifice and service, a life which begins now and which the grave cannot hold.
There is an icon that has great meaning for me and which helps me to focus on what is central to the vocation of the ordained. It is an image that is outside the ethos and aesthetic of the Protestant world. It is the icon of the sacred heart of Jesus. it is an image that has fascinated and horrified me most of my life. I remember seeing the image of a heart, sometimes pierced, sometimes encircled with a crown of thorns, sometimes with a flame over it, as a child. It was mysterious and confusing. It is a common image in Roman churches. I was startled when I came to this church and noticed this same heart in the mosaic here, literally under our feet. It is part of a design representing the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Love, of course, abides forever. This heart doesn’t have the thorns or the sword. It does have the flame but as a radiating circle. It is an inflamed heart. Though the design is a little different it is, none the less, the same heart I have been seeing all these years, the sacred heart of Jesus. If you look carefully in our churches and are alert to all the different variations the design can take you will be surprised at how common it actually is.
The meaning of this icon was brought home to me when one of the saints of our parish died. Arthur Cassell was a distinguished Liberian diplomat. He was the ambassador of Liberia to the United Nations. His life was tragically turned upside down by a coup in his country and he lived out his exile in this parish. He was a person of deep faith. His father had been the Dean of the Cathedral in Monrovia. He was one of those people who befriend and encourage the clergy. When he died his wife told me that Arthur had left something for me, something he got on a diplomatic trip to Iran. I could see it was a rug. I thought it was perhaps a Muslim prayer rug. It was instead a tapestry in very vivid colors and a very dramatic, even melodramatic style of Jesus. It was something that was about as far from the restrained and dignified aesthetic of Anglicanism as you can get. Jesus is pointing his finger at me, at you, and looking out with large searching eyes, and with his other hand he is pulling aside his robes, revealing and pointing to his heart, inflamed, circled with the hard thorns of our resistance, but radiating love, this heart, the one heart God has ever meant for you and for me to have, the sacred heart of Jesus, this heart which goes up to the Father and out to us. And Jesus is saying, “I have come that you may have this heart. I send you to give this heart to others.” Make it so. Amen.