The Rev. Mark Hearn, PhD, preached this sermon at CDSP’s 2022 Baccalaureate service.
As I think about our graduates from the last three years, and what word I could offer, I am drawn to recent conversations I’ve had with then-prospective, and now, incoming seminarians. In reading their application essays and having a brief, but very meaningful, conversation with them, I noticed common themes – feelings, if you will, that emerged again and again. Excitement. Ready to get started. Wanting to be a part of changing Church. Fear. Apprehension. Doubt.
I can’t help but imagine that you, the graduates we are proud of and celebrate this weekend, were probably in the same place at one time or another before you packed up your bags and moved out here, or before you had to adjust your family lives and those close to you because you took on another significant responsibility in a low-residential or online program.
And now look at you. Some of you, you all got Reverended. Some of you have jobs lined up. Others of you have been in jobs for a few years already and now you’re seasoned, all two and three years of it. And some of you, and don’t try to play this off, some of you, I’m not thinking of anyone, not looking at anyone, but some of you, have had one foot out the door two semesters into your formation here.
Seminary is a difficult time because it’s a microwave over 3, 4, 5 years. On top of the normal intensity that a microwave brings, you lay onto seminary education and formation what has gone on the last several years globally in our world, nationally in our country, and locally in this emerging relationship between Berkeley and New York, and no wonder it’s felt especially intense! Think about this: your formation has been like no other formation in theological and ministerial training. Tonight, I want to encourage you that…
You have been formed in death, so you can minister in resurrection.
There’s no way to gloss this over: you will feel death in this line of work and vocation because what you have embarked on, in your ministerial and vocational journey, attunes you to death and life. In your pursuit to live out the call of God in your life, you’re going to be confronted with your own Lazarus’ and somehow need to pastor people through it: (1) the racially-motivated shooting of 13 people in Buffalo, 11 of whom are Black; (2) the scores of civilians and soldiers who have died in the invasion of Ukraine; (3) the too-many children at the border who have lost any ties with loved ones; or (4) when you have a parishioner sit across from you and confide that they no longer have the fight to live. Friends, these will be your Lazarus’ and it’s going to feel like you’ve been surrounded by death for more than four days.
First Death: Now there will be many kinds of deaths you will feel as a faith and spiritual leader. I want to share some thoughts on two of these. The first kind of death is the death of despair and nihilism. When death has been in the tomb for four days, when you’re confronted with disheartening news and they continue to add up, you might start to feel life getting sucked out of you, and from the ministry God has for you. And if this happens, you may face the temptation to throw your hands up in despair or worse, nihilism, and say, “What does this all matter?”
It’s important as a minister and religious leader to pay attention to this first death, because it can point to the lessening of hope, and when we do not live with hope, we make our way to death, not resurrection. Now hope is not to be confused with optimism; it’s not a fleeting feeling or a surge of created energy. Hope is a deep theological commitment that holds onto the grounding that death does not have the last word, and we minister in the name of a God who has overcome death and brings life. Death does not have the last word; resurrected life does and your commitment to live to this truth is hope.
But for ministers, I’m more concerned with a second kind of death. This is the death of being asleep. Jesus’ disciples read Jesus wrong and thought Lazarus was literally sleeping when word came about his sickness. But Jesus clarifies for them and says, “No, Lazarus is dead.” There’s no questions about it. This is not about sleep; this is about death.
There might be a time in your respective careers where you get really good at what you’re doing. The inexperience, and maybe some insecurity you feel with different aspects in your profession, they might take center stage now and that’s understandable. You might feel like an imposter and that you don’t know as much as people want you to know or fear being found out as an imposter. So, inexperience and fear might keep you overly anxious, while, at the same time, it keeps you vigilant and diligent. But the imposter syndrome isn’t the second kind of death. You’ll get through this as you come into more experience and internal freedom.
The second death, being asleep, is comfortability. Year one becomes year two, and two, three, and three, four, and so on. You start getting it; you get the lay of the land and before you know it, you’re 15-20 years into this. You know how to craft a sermon for your congregation; you know how to perform the different prayers and lead people in spiritual things. We get to this place in our professional lives where the weekly rhythm comes, and we’ve got the routine down. We start to gain a mastery, as we should. We’re good; we’re real good, and the concern is no longer the fear of incompetence or lack of knowledge. The concern now, is that we phone it in because we’re really good. We end up performing the religious forms without the power and the life those forms are intended to give. And somewhere along the line, we put our spiritual lives and our religious leadership in cruise control…because we can.
Now, I want to be careful here. There are some seasons in our vocational lives where we need to rely on our years of experience, our natural gifts, talents, and charisms. We need to be able to downshift a little in ministry work if we’re going to make it for the long haul, especially when we think about the ebbs and flows of who we are as human and social beings and how this affects us as faith leaders.
Right now, navigating multiple pandemics, I’m amazed by how many ministers and faith leaders continue on, even after the collective toil the last two years have taken in leaders’ lives, in their relationships, their health, and their ministries. Sabbath is salvation both for the individual and the community and this has been perhaps no truer in our lifetime than in the last two years. Survival and restoration are not comfortability.
Comfortability is also not to be mistaken as comfort. Part of our hope is that God will comfort us in our seasons of despair, that when we cry out because we’re experiencing the weight of death, and we make our complaints to God, God can, God will, and God does, comfort us. So let us not confuse sacred comfort with comfortability.
This type of comfortability that I’m cautioning against, is the one where you might come to this place further down the road where your life posture says, “I can mail it in. I know this. I can handle death.” Its easiness is attractive, but this sleep is a slow and winding death to complacency because we’re good enough at what we do. Again, we got the forms, the routines, down without life-giving power in our ministry.
So, what are we to do if we come to a place in our lives and ministries where we face either of these deaths?
Students gather around the altar at the 2022 Baccalaureate service.
I know that Jesus and Lazarus are important figures in our gospel narrative but I want to talk a little about Martha. It seems that Martha generally gets a bad rap in our interpretations and memories of her. Whenever we hear about Martha and Mary, the two sisters, it seems like we keep entering Mary’s world. Mary does this, and Mary does that, and Martha you should be like Mary. I have a picture of Jan Brady etched into my mind saying, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.” It’s Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary. But there’s something here we can learn from Martha when we’re faced with death. What does she do? She (1) goes and meets Jesus and (2) says her piece with him (John 11:20).
Now, a few weeks ago, during the fourth Sunday in Lent, I heard a great sermon on the well-known story of the prodigal son by a priest by the name of the Rev. Phil Jackson. The Rev. Jackson offered that the heart of the Gospel is summed up in this short phrase, “And when he was afar off, the father went to meet him.” God comes to us and meets us where we are. Amen and alleluia.
Now we see Martha doing the same back to Jesus. She got up when she heard Jesus was coming and it reads very simply and clearly in the Will Gaffney version, “she…met…him.” She went out and demanded a meeting with Jesus and she spoke her mind: “If you had been here earlier, our brother would have lived.” “If you had been here earlier, my brother, my sister, my sibling, my community, our children, this creation, would live.” There’s something to be said when you know to whom to direct your disappointment and complaint.
Friends, graduates, when you are on the verge of sinking into a death so deep that you cannot get out, go and meet Jesus on whatever road you are, whether that road is the road of nihilism, of despair, of complacency, of cynicism, of privilege, of hate, of disappointment.
Get up, run, walk, crawl if you have to, shout from a distance, whatever it is, follow Martha, go meet Jesus, and have your piece. And when you do, may you find a resurrected God who meets you in your death, and says, “I am the cause of resurrection and life. I am the resurrection and life.” Get up. Come out of the tomb. And live once again!