HomeNewsA sermon at the commissioning of a Uniting Church Minister

A sermon at the commissioning of a Uniting Church Minister

Sermon on the occasion of the Commissioning of the Rev Margie Dahl at Watsonia Uniting Church, July 2012.
Preacher: The Rev Dr Morag Logan
Mark 6: 1-13

It is good to be among you today, and this induction to Gresswell, within the Presbytery of Yarra Yarra. 

I should say how good it is to be back among you, back at home, as I have been a minister in this Presbytery for many years before we needed to make a move to live and work in Europe for 6 years.   It was a wonderful and enriching time. For me, one of the highlights was the opportunity we had to walk the Camino de Santiago – the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello, in Spain.  I guess I had always been inspired by the great pilgrimage hymn.  I had read Bunyan, as a child, and spent many of my adult years in the church hearing how we were a pilgrim people, always on the way to a promised goal.

 So there was a great attraction to me in the idea of a pilgrimage, and in the process of stripping back my life, my priorities, at least for a time.  It was an important and difficult process in preparation – it was important to be realistic about assessing my needs, what was physically possible, what was physically necessary.  It was valuable, to be letting go for a while of all of the things that I thought I needed, simply letting go, reducing, until I had reached a point where what I needed or wanted equaled what I could carry, and we set off to travel as pilgrims – to go forth, I thought, as the disciples were sent, stripped back.

That, of course, was in essence a holiday – but it can feel like an attractive vision for the whole of life, an attractive vision for the whole church.  A vision of poverty, of simplicity, asceticism. It is a vision of a thought-through life – for an individual or a church – a life lived with a clarity of vision, of purpose.  There can be an attractiveness in the stripping back of the trappings of church: financial, structural, comfortable, to be back to the bare essentials.

It has it’s attraction here at this induction today – sometimes the lectionary can serve us very well for the occasions, as well as regular worship!.  It is powerful to read about the disciples sent out to live on the road, going to small towns and villages, welcomed into homes, finding their ministry in these homes, preaching, healing and sharing.  It is a vision, perhaps of what we feel we are calling Margie, and this congregation, this place to.  A call, a chance to think through what it would mean for us in this place to strip back to the essentials, to live independent of structures, on the road, always on the way.

Of course, all the pilgrims we met along our way had chosen to carry a different amount of stuff.  Some were painfully slogging along under heavy loads, struggling to make their distance each day because of all of the things they carried.  Others carried much less that we did, travelling more easily, but choosing to be less comfortable.

The pilgrims we met also didn’t all agree about the essentials – we each carried very different sorts of stuff. Some of the things people carried surprised me enormously – I, for example, had just never considered a hair dryer, or an iron to be an essential to life, to be worth carrying with me.

In my turn, I was given a great deal of grief about the 1kg volume I had insisted on carrying with me.  It was a cultural guide to the Camino – all 900 pages of it, and given the time over I would not have done differently as each afternoon, after we had arrived where we were staying, I read from it.  Often out loud, and collecting quite a group of listeners.  This volume – this dead weight - was surprisingly enriching to a number of people.  Without it, we would not have known why there was a chicken in the church at Saint Domingo, housed above the nave in what is probably the world’s only early gothic chook house.  We would not have paused at roman ruins 50 metres off the road, seen the small Michelangelo pieta tucked away in the back corner of a small country church, lit up when you put your 2 euros in the slot, we would not have known what side trips to take, what were the implications of alternative routes to travel.

This was one of the various lessons of the road – that carrying less was not always better, that the journey was more than the stripping back and the travelling on.  It was greatly enriched by lingering, by a broader vision, by a heavier load.

There was also a different learning on the road. Early in the second week of our month long pilgrimage our wallet disappeared.  The small bag one of us wore around our waist was just not there one morning, when we were packing up. Theft is, of course, another time honoured pilgrim experience, like being held up by bandits, having to pay outrageous tolls at river crossings, being trapped in the snow, being eaten by wolves, fighting giants, being daunted by hobgoblins and fould fiends.  Thankfully, these later experiences were not things we had to struggle with, but we were having enough of a pilgrim experience dealing with this loss.  
We discovered through this that our stripped back independence was a myth.  We were, in fact not independent at all.  We were not always aware of it, but on that morning – without money, credit cards, passports, ID – we were scared, but we were also at the time very painfully aware that we were surrounded by a supportive, loving, caring community, amongst all of those others who had gone through this stripping back to the bare essentials, for themselves and their needs.  People we didn’t know reached into their scanty supply of money, and pressed it on us.  People gave us food, helped us find the police station, encouraged us on, made sure that rooms for the night were held for us.  We walked on.  When we came to the next small refuge town, and for several days afterwards, we were surrounded by people telling us: "you must find Hans.  Hans is looking for you. Hans has got to find you." 

Hans, it turned out, a very nice Dutchman, had picked up our wallet by mistake – two black bags look very alike in the early morning light. 

So our very medieval pilgrimage experience ended well, and we finished.  But from then on I remained very aware that we were not independent pilgrims, travelling alone and self sufficient on our way to our promised goal.  We were not sent out, or sending ourselves forth with the food, the resources we needed for our journey.  Our exercise in renunciation, in stripping back, however important a spiritual exercise it was, was not the greatest point.

The greatest point was that we were not called to independence.  We, as disciples, as ministers, as congregations are not called to independence, and we are not called to a life of the renunciation of unnecessary things as a spiritual exercise. No, we are called beyond that – we are called beyond letting go of our obsession with things, called to go to the point where we must realize that we are not independent, to the point where we realize our true and utter dependence on others. This is how the disciples were sent out.

Stripping back, removing or reducing a dependence on things has a long history – there were patterns of this at the time of the disciples.   Dominic Crossan discusses this as he compares and contrasts the Cynic missionaries of the time, and the Jesus missionaries, the disciples.

The Cynic missionaries followed a pattern, as ascetic of reducing their lives to a minimal dependence on things. The Cynics were to carry "a bag," “a wallet,” although backpack is probably the better translation. Crossan writes: "What it symbolized for the Cynics was their complete self-sufficiency. They carried their homes with them. All they needed could be carried in a simple knapsack slung over their shoulders". In contrast, he writes about Jesus' missionaries.  They were sent out without "a bag": "...they could not and should not dress to declare itinerant self-sufficiency but rather communal dependency".

The disciples are not sent forth with the smallest possible backpack, the 13 kg load you can carry all day, that keeps you feeling safe.  They are called, as we are called, to the dangerous, risky burden of not taking one at all.  To a forced, undeniable reliance on others.  This is the nature of their calling, This is the the nature of the calling of the whole Christian community.  We are inducting an independent, self reliant, journeying pilgrim; into a church of independent, self-reliant pilgrims.  We are inducting a person called to be dependent, a trusting traveler among you, who share this same calling – to dependency and trust.  In this journey, may you find together your own sustenance, and your own healing around the shared table.