Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ministry: Homeless and Ordained

Professor Margaret Farley, 1976
Sermon at the Ordination of Marie M. Fortune

We come together tonight for an ordination to ministry. This is, I think, no ordinary night and no ordinary ordination. If we wish to know its meaning, we must reflect on what Marie Fortune has asked of the Christian community, and what we by being here now affirm in response to her. And we must reflect on what we along with many others have asked of her over long months and years and again tonight, and her response to our call. There is for us, in all of this, an extraordinary opportunity to learn something not only about Marie’s ordination, but in it and through it about the ministry of women today.
There is, after all, an extraordinary word being spoken here tonight. The psalmist asks, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” and speaks of sitting and weeping so far away from home. The poets talk of “not ceasing from an exploration which will only end when we arrive where we started,” and of alienation in a “space which cannot hear,” as if one were a “word which is in a foreign tongue.” And the gospel tells of women who were given a word to speak, but a word that sounded to those who heard it as nonsense. The theme of these readings is surely not an ordinary theme for ordination. It speaks of a strange word, a strange and puzzling song: of the experience of not being at home, of not being understood or recognized or even heard, of being an exile in a strange land, of wandering – not lost, but not yet found.

We might have expected to ponder the meaning of a woman’s ministry by thinking of her as making this world a home for persons, a place where they can be at home, where they can grow into the fullness of freedom and faith and life. Women, after all, have long been understood to have a special role in making persons at home, in making a home; and surely that role is needed in the ministry of the Christian churches.

In fact, however, a large part of the experience of contemporary women in ministry is now characterized by a sense of homelessness, of alienation from so much in the culture and so much in the church and so much in the political life of the nation. New self-understandings have left women feeling estranged from an old order of patterns of relationship—whether in church or society or in their private lives. And when they try to share their new self-understanding they find that their words are like a foreign language to the culture and to the church. If they speak of a new order in which they are called into mutuality with one another and with men, their words are heard as nonsense. Sometimes, like the psalmist, they sing sadly of a new Jerusalem, promised in a gospel which reveals a reality that has not yet been fully understood or achieved.
Not only do women in ministry experience themselves as somehow homeless, or not at home in their world, but they may understand their very ministry as a ministry of making others homeless, of dislocating both women and men from past structures of relationship and past roles in human life and labor. Theirs may be a ministry of fostering radical shifts in human self-understanding and in social opportunities, jarring every order until all persons are accepted as equal and as capable of entering into relationships marked by mutuality and reciprocity.

Whatever meaning this understanding of minister and ministry has for us, it nonetheless is strange as a focus of emphasis on the occasion of an ordination. That is, it may seem strange until it strikes us as reminiscent of the experience of Jesus Christ as minister and as ministering. Jesus, after all, had some reason for observing that foxes have dens and birds of the air their nests, but one sent especially by God might have nowhere to lay his head. And there was not just wistfulness in Jesus’ cry, “We played the pipes for you and you would not dance; we sang dirges and you would not mourn,” nor only regret in his prediction, “You will all desert me.” An identity which entailed a sign of contradiction was inevitably a stumbling block for those who were building temple-homes.

Moreover, the ministry of Jesus was a disruptive ministry, disturbing families and overturning understandings and bringing the sword, not peace, to old categories and patterns and structures. “You have learned how it was said...,” but now there is something more. “I have come to set one member of a family against another,” though all are called from home. It begins to dawn on us that ministry which has homelessness at its center and a disruption of home as its goals is a radical expression of Christian ministry and a radical expression of Christian life.

But, of course, it is not enough to say that ministry is necessarily bound up with homelessness. The whole story says something more than that. Homelessness is, at its heart, paradoxical. The Christian is not at home, but yet is at home. The Christian minister makes persons homeless, but brings them home. Jesus, who had no home, was always at home. “As the Father is in men, I am in you,” and there is no fuller home. “We shall come and make our home in you,” and no one will be homeless. “If you make my word your home, you will indeed by my disciples.”

Though the ministry of Jesus rendered persons homeless, its aim was to make them finally at home. “Jesrusalem, Jerusalem, how I would have gathered…,” and there was scattering only where an alien world would not be transformed. The stone rejected by the builders became, nonetheless, a keystone. Whether in this world or another, there are many rooms in Yahweh’s house, and if there were not “I would have told you.” Even the way to where one may find home is made clear: “Stay with me.”

Marie has told us something of her understanding of herself as minister and her work in ministry. We have some inkling of the choices she has made against the background of the experience of women in the earliest beginnings of the church.
“When the women returned from the tomb they told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joannna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women also told the apostles, but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them.”

We have some inkling of the connection she knows between her experience and theirs as she brings to our memory tonight the psalmist’s lament and hope.

“We had been asked to sing to our captors, to entertain those who had carried us off: ‘Sing’ they said ‘some hymns of Zion.’ How could we sing one of Yahweh’s hymns in a strange country? Jerusalem….May I never speak again if I forget you! If I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of my joys!”

In her choice of these readings Marie helps us to understand better the mystery of her ordination and the place of her ministry and that of many women within the church and the world.

At home, yet not at home, Marie commits herself to stand within the church. She forfeits, as it were, but her ordination, the opportunity to stand outside the church. “This is where I make my home.” However not at home, yet at home; however challenging, yet embracing; “this is where I make my home.”

We who know Marie know, too, that she takes her stand within the world. Hers is a special commitment to the “unchurched.” There are yet more stones of justice to be placed before there is in this world room for all persons. The clarity of Marie’s challenge to a social and political order marked by sexism and racism is such that persons may be scattered before they are gathered, rendered homeless before they can make a home to live in. We may ourselves be among those whom Marie challenges, but tonight we know that in our world, too, “this is where I make my home.” Though never completely at home, never completely departing; “this is where I make my home.”

Finally, those of us who have been close friends and associates of Marie know another way in which both she and we can be at home. That is to say, those who are in some sense homeless can nonetheless make their home in one another’s hearts. The mystery of friendship and shared ministry can include the mystery of putting down one’s roots in the hearts of one’s friends. “Stay with me.” The farther we must go apart, the more alone our journeys in strange lands, the more important it is to know the possibility of being at home in one another. Women in ministry today have found in this a radically new way of being at home in the church and in the world. They have found it in a way which holds them in the home which is the very life of God.

Tonight, then, there is an ordination to ministry so marked by mutuality that we must live with Marie in the paradox of homelessness. She and we must make our home in the Word, and live in one another’s hearts. Our ministry has always something to do with freeing all persons from the possibility of only living in a strange land. Until there is a full and lasting home for all, may Marie find a home in us – a home so anchored in Jesus Christ that she can go forth, never leaving; and she can come, never having been away.