April 21, 2013

Childlike Maturity

April 20 2013 • St John’s Tuckahoe
for the Rev. Kristin Kopren’s Institution
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine... +

We are gathered here today to celebrate and recognize a ministry that is already under way. My classmate and colleague Kristin has been ministering here at Saint John’s for a while now, so today’s celebration has to seen as a continuation rather than an inauguration. And this is good, as it reminds us that ministry is not a one-shot deal, but a work for the long term.

It is also a reminder that the inauguration of a ministry, like ordination itself, does not instantly equip a priest with all of the skills and talents that will be called upon for ministry — would that it did! Those skills and talents have to be developed over the years, and that process begins even before entering into the concentrated work in seminary, and continues in ministry afterwards. I am happy to have shared three years with Kristin in the hothouse seed-bed of the General Theological Seminary, as well as numerous breakfasts at the local diner with other classmates as we debriefed from our class in systematic theology. I know that all of us learned a great deal while in seminary, though less about plumbing and boilers and masonry work than we would be called upon to employ! I have long thought that the General Ordination Examination ought to include at least one question such as: “A Vestry meeting has just adjourned, when the Senior Warden informs you that the cistern on the commode in the women’s lavatory won’t stop running, even though she has jiggled the lever three times. In an essay of at least 500 words, discuss this incident in relation to the canonical duties of clergy and lay leaders respectively, in relation to the portrayal of the priestly office in the Epistle to the Hebrews, particularly as to calling the plumber.”

Graduation and ordination do not suddenly equip a minister with all that will be needed to carry out that ministry. One learns a great deal in relatively short order — not only the harsh realities of building maintenance, but the challenges of pastoral care. It is not only a plentiful harvest into which the Lord sends these laborers, but one that will require some very hard and intensive work, the proper tools, and above all cooperation and support from many co-workers, including the bishop, the other clergy, and most importantly the leaders and members of the parish — who are far from harassed and helpless, nor to be regarded as sheep, but as members of the body that builds itself up in cooperative and loving work. And it is through this process of loving one another and working together that all will hope to grow into the full stature of Christ, to full maturity, no longer children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.

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I cannot help but note, however, that there is some tension between Saint Paul’s urging the Ephesians to get with the program and grow up, and that powerful story of the young Samuel in our first reading. For in that account it is not the mature, indeed the decrepit, Eli who hears and understands the voice of God. It is the child, the child who hears and responds to the Lord each time he is called, and by his persistence finally gets old Eli to understand, as a former president once said, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation.”

This moving passage should remind us, the Epistle to the Ephesians notwithstanding, that the Scripture often testifies to the consistent favor God shows to, and the responsibility God places upon, the younger as opposed to the elder: from Cain and Abel, through Esau and Jacob, to David the youngest of Jesse’s passel of sons, to John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus— he who put the message in no uncertain terms when he reminded us that any who wish to come to the kingdom of heaven must do so as a child, and as John’s Gospel has it, as one born again, from above.

I will echo Nicodemus and ask, How does one grow to maturity while maintaining the childlike attitude of those born anew? I need perhaps not note the difference between being childish and being childlike. The important thing seems to be maintaining the child’s openness to possibilities even as one grows to maturity. We can take old Eli as a sad example of what happens when one forsakes childlike delight in what is always new, for false and self-satisfied maturity, the complacency of having arrived. While tolerating the wickedness of his sons who cheat the people of their sacrifices, Eli has grown physically blind and fat, and spiritually hard of hearing. The word of God was rare in those days — not for want of God speaking, but for want of ears to hear. How many times has the Lord’s voice spoken in the stillness of the night and Eli has ignored it, dismissing it, as others would later do when God spoke in distant thunder: Eli, Eli, why have you forsaken me?

No, we who minister — and that includes all of us, not just the clergy, deacon, priest or bishop, not even just the members of the vestry — but each and every member of the body of the church in this place, and every place, called and empowered to be knit together into a fabric that will endure the blusters of the age of anxiety, and the hard winds of tragedy, loss, and pain — the stresses which all of us must from time to time endure, but which we endure because we are united — knit together — rather than scattered and alone.

And what is more, my friends, I say to you that we will endure those hard times best if we approach them with the trust and open-mindedness of a child. With open minds and hearts and ears we will be able to hear the voice of God because we have abandoned any preconceptions or prejudices about who is an appropriate bearer of God’s message, have set aside any expectations that the message must conform to our own devices and desires rather than to the challenges with which God wishes to help us to grow into the likeness of Christ.

For growing into maturity is in fact the work of childhood; it is what childhood is for. It is growth that, by the grace of God, continues, rather than ending with some ratification, some arrival at a destination, some graduation, even some institution. Eli no longer heard the voice of God precisely because he stopped, thinking that as high priest he had arrived. Samuel knew better, even in his innocence, and was ready to respond each of the three times God called, with the same eagerness, present and accounted for, and ready to serve, to get up and go where God would send him, and to do as God asked. And so may it be for us. We are all pilgrims, my friends — and child pilgrims at that.

And so my prayer for Kristin, and for all of you here, and for all of God’s people in every place where we gather, is that all of us may preserve and foster the intensity, earnestness, innocence, and openness of children. This will help us always to be truthful and fair with each other. No one detects falsehood in others or unfairness in a situation as effectively as a child — and who can face the eyes of a child full of that judgment, “You have let me down” or the sentence that rings as solemnly as that of a high court justice: “But that’s not fair.”

This will also help us to listen to one another, with the open ears of a young Samuel — to listen for the strains of God’s truth even in the midst of sometimes confusing or even contradictory dialogue, or amidst the crackle and rumble of the world’s blowhards trying to sell us their bill of goods.

And this will help us to focus our work — for who are as intense and focused as children when doing something they really care about. Where else do you see the tips of tiny tongues emerging from the sides of the mouths, but where the crayon glides across the page, and the image takes form under the intense attention and the skillful hand of the master-craft-child, ready proudly to be exhibited upon the wall or the refrigerator?

With all of this God is well pleased, the God who, as we forget to our peril, came among us as a child, and called the children to him — not only those who are children by the count of an actuary, but the children who are young in heart and newborn from above, and in the spirit, with open ears and busy hands to hear God’s word and then to do the work of God. This place, this, God’s factory, where the fabric of God’s kingdom is knit and woven together, this is the only place in which child labor is not only allowed but mandatory. No one can do the work of God in the kingdom of God but as a child, and with the maturity of children, the maturity that grows because it knows it has not arrived.

May all of us be blessed with the childlikeness that shows the true maturity of Christ, celebrating the gifts and building up the body of the church, for the good and the salvation of the world for which Christ came among us as a child, grew to maturity and faced his death and burial, but rose triumphant over all the limitations of the grave — the place were all things stop — but where death itself was defeated and cast down. Christ did that work, and he is working still, through you who love and serve in his name and in his strength. Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

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