January 31, 2010
Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly
See also: [Year C Archive]
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Many newly-ordained pastors can identify with Jeremiah’s response to God’s call to prophetic ministry. “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a young person.” The call of God can seem overwhelming in contrast to the meager resources we see in ourselves, and this is not just an issue for new pastors. There have been many times in my thirty year ministry that I felt unprepared for a funeral or crisis situation and had to open myself to the ever-flowing stream of divine inspiration and companionship, often mediated through the counsel of other pastors, spiritual friends, and my partner for over thirty years in life and ministry, Kate Epperly.
In his classic description of his first years in ministry, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr makes the following confession:
There is something ludicrous about a callow young fool like myself standing
up to preach a sermon to these good folks. I talk wisely about life and know
little about life’s problems. I tell them of the need to sacrifice, although most
of them could tell me something about what that really means.
Still anxious about the roles required of pastors, Niebuhr shares a vignette that many new pastors can relate to as they make their first pastoral calls. “Usually I walked past the house two or three times before I summoned the courage to go in.” A highly competent pastor in one of my new pastors’ Wholeness in Ministry groups recalls her first week as pastor of a Pennsylvania congregation: when she reported to work on Monday, she asked herself, “What do I do now? I had no idea what to do!”
Those of us who seek follow God’s vision for our lives often have moments of utter panic when we realize where God’s lure forward may take us! Just think a moment about your own adventures as a follower of Jesus. They have taken you, I am sure, to places you would have never chosen to go, at least until you said “yes” to the call and all it entails. Over a pastoral career, you will be part of situations involving painful and unredemptive suffering and death, trauma and post-traumatic stress, abuse and violence, and disillusionment over the pettiness and polarization of the church. Secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue are real possibilities for every pastor. As another high functioning pastor in Lancaster Theological Seminary’s Wholeness in Ministry program confesses, “I observed a lot of pain in my previous job, but I never expected to find so much brokenness in the church.” (For more on Lancaster Theological Seminary’s programs for new pastors, pastors in midcareer, and pastors over sixty years of age, see www.lancasterseminary.edu or www.livingtheadventure.org.)
The lure forward is always greater than our perception of our gifts. But, the God who gives us a dream is always present as our companion to bring God’s vision to fullness. “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah experiences God’s faithfulness in terms of the prophetic and public adventure which God has envisaged for his life. From the very beginning, Jeremiah believes that God has been working within his life aiming at a vocation that will transform his nation. When Jeremiah confesses his discovery that God has envisioned his destiny before he was “formed in the womb,” he is making a statement of vocation rather than predestination. God has created a world in which God lures forward children and adults toward purposes they cannot imagine. Perhaps, within the matrix of Jeremiah’s nation, community, and family, God envisaged certain persons, with characteristics similar to those of Jeremiah, answering the call to prophetic leadership. And, so within the complex interdependence of Jeremiah’s family life, culture, political situation, and DNA, God slowly and gracefully called forth Jeremiah’s inclinations toward spiritual and national leadership. Throughout the process, Jeremiah responded freely and creatively to God’s call, but God kept calling within the context of Jeremiah’s unique gifts, talents, and context. God called and Jeremiah responded, thus, beginning a journey that shapes our lives even today.
Jeremiah’s protest of inadequacy is an essential aspect of the Christian vocational journey, whether we are laypersons, pastors, or professors. Humility is essential to healthy theology and justice-seeking. This is the forgotten point of I Corinthians 13; what I call the “agnosticism of love.” Sadly, most readers and listeners to Paul’s hymn of love don’t get past verse 8. But, the highly regarded virtues of love depend on a foundation of humility and agnosticism. “We know only in part…we see in a mirror dimly.” When we claim to know another fully, we objectify that person. They become an “it,” an object knowledge and manipulation, rather than a “thou,” (see Martin Buber’s I and Thou) whose mystery always lies beyond our comprehension. Indeed, we don’t even fully know ourselves. In the space of “not knowing,” adventure and appreciation emerge.
Jesus’ listeners needed a good portion of this “agnosticism of love,” described by Paul in terms of our two-fold affirmation that we have treasures, but that even our treasures (rituals, doctrines, and ways of life) are earthen vessels, or as the Buddhists would say, the finger pointing to the moon, but not the moon itself. Jesus’ hometown crowd thought they knew him (he was Joseph and Mary’s son, from the artisan class, despite his astounding teaching presence). They also thought they fully knew God and the extent of God’s love. When Jesus proclaims God’s care for faithful outsiders, persons whom they routinely looked down upon as spiritual and moral inferiors hardly worthy of divine attention, they become enraged. They believed that God’s ways must be absolutely clear to persons like themselves, and must include them at the center of God’s love.
Jesus’ words beg the question for persons today, “What’s wrong with universalism or plural paths to experiencing God?” Or, to put it slightly more affirmatively, “Why must we begrudge the spiritual gifts and insights of persons of other faiths or no particular faith at all?” Like the first-hired laborers in the vineyard, described in Jesus’ parable, will we become upset when we discover that grace defies our sense of justice, giving us everything we need (and often believe we deserve!), but also giving the “undeserving” the same love that brings wholeness and salvation to us?
Perhaps, our fear of other truths emerges from our anxious uncertainty about our own salvation and God’s faithfulness to us. After all, in a zero-sum, win-lose, understanding of theological and liturgical truth, other truths threaten our truth claims and sense of security. What if reality is an open system in which there is always enough truth and salvation to go around?
Psalm 71, along with the other passages, may be an antidote to both our anxiety about salvation and our need to be “right.” We are in God’s hands, whether we right or wrong. We don’t have to worry about our own orthodoxy, whether progressive or conservative, for “orthodoxy” is not the basis of our salvation; nor do we need to be afraid of multiple visions of truth and pathways to wholeness, or “polydoxy,” as Catherine Keller suggests. God has already taken care of the major details of our lives; God’s promises are sure and God’s possibilities abundant; God will not abandon us but faithfully companion us on every step of our pilgrim way.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy:The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (with Katherine Epperly).
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