A Healing Homily for Clergy
By Teri Daily
My husband Dave was totally unprepared for his first Christmas in the Wooten family. You see, in my husband’s family, gift-giving is simple and straightforward. A gift is given, a thank you is said, and it’s a done deal—the transaction is complete. In my family…not so much.
A box is opened, and five shirts are in it. “Oh, these are great—thanks!” My mother leans over and says, “You can keep two—I’ll take the others back.” Once I received a coat, two sizes too small and a hideous color. The explanation came right away: “I got that off the clearance rack. The salesperson told me a new shipment of those is coming in next week, so we’ll go back and exchange it for one the right size and a better color.” Good thinking—I’ll have access to a variety of colors and sizes, but now at only a fraction of the regular price. And then there’s the gift that you’re not really sure is a gift at all. Like when you receive a pocketbook or a watch, and are told: “I’m not really sure I want you to keep that. I couldn’t find one I liked, so I just got that one.” Now that adds a whole other level of complexity to gift-receiving. At what point do you invoke the “common-law” gift rule, assume it’s yours to use, and take the tags off. Should you wait one month, or six?
But perhaps nothing illustrates the Wooten family concept of gift better than the “couch incident” of 2004. The couch in question was an old brown plaid sleeper sofa from the 1970s. It had spent 10-15 long and good years at my grandparents’ home before coming to rest in my sister’s apartment. When it arrived at my apartment five years later, large areas of fringe had been chewed off courtesy of my sister’s psychotic dog Alex. Well, the couch lived with us another five years, during which time its legs were lost—we don’t exactly remember how that happened, although I miraculously found them in a bag when we moved to Austin. Finally, in the great tradition of hand-me-downs, the couch ended up in my younger brother’s apartment where, after he got married, it was promptly shunted off to a storage room or something.
Then one day the news came that he and my sister-in-law had given the couch away, and to someone not in the family. My sister and I went to work behind the scenes to try to reduce the amount of time the two of them would inevitably spend on the family blacklist. But we couldn’t help asking the question: “What had my brother been thinking?” After 35 years as a participant in the Wooten family economy of gift, when did he ever start to think that once something had been given to him, that was the end of it? Gifts in our family had never been a simple, one-time transaction after which you were completely free to do as you wish. Gifts in my family come with a history—a past, present, and future.
So, frankly, I’ve always had empathy for the Israelites—perpetually stuck as they are between “I give you this land” and “The land is mine, says the Lord.” After all, how can something really be a gift, if it still belongs to the giver? How can God give the Israelites the land, if God then claims to retain ownership?
Well, it seems there are two possible answers to this question. The first: The land isn’t really given to Israel in the way we think of a gift—it’s just on loan. The earth and all of creation belong only to God. We’re to use and care for it, but it’s not given to us. But such an explanation buys into a false dichotomy, it seems to say that either something belongs to God or it belongs to us. And worse, it denies the pure graciousness of God’s gifts to us.
But there’s another way to look at this: Perhaps it’s only because the land belongs to God that it can be given to Israel in the first place—not as a one-time, simple transaction. But as a perpetual gift. Only if the land belongs to God can it be, for Israel, a gift that is given—not once—but each and every second, every minute, every hour, every day, on and on, pure grace without end. For some of us, this is a difficult concept to wrap our minds around—and even more difficult to live into, to keep right in front of us. No doubt it was a difficult thing for Israel grasp as well.
In the passage we just heard from Leviticus, when God gives the promised land to Israel, Israel is to respond in turn by offering up the land every seven years. This seventh year was to be a sabbatical year, a year of rest for both the land and the people. It was supposed to be a time when Israel would have to trust, not in her own work and resources, but in God’s continuing goodness and provision. In fact, the practice of Sabbath in all its forms is a recognition that God’s provision is not a one-time event relegated to the distant past; instead, it’s a gift with a past, present, and future—it’s perpetual.
So, just what would happen if Israel were to fall into the temptation of seeing the gift of land as a one-time transaction? Well, then it would be as if the gift has been given, thank-yous have been said, and now it’s up to Israel to make the most of the gift God has given her. And so she works—at first to honor God, but then so hard that there’s no time to rest. Sabbath practices are the first to go by the wayside. And in a blink of an eye, the work of the Israelites is no longer an offering—it’s a burden. God warns of this in the next chapter of Leviticus, describing what it will be like for Israel if she does not offer the land back up to God as a Sabbath practice: “Your strength shall be spent to no purpose: your land shall not yield its produce, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.”
What the sabbatical year teaches is that the only real response to a gift of pure grace is to offer it back. Because the moment you try to hold onto grace, it ceases to be grace and becomes, instead, a burden.
I think that’s true of all the gifts in our lives, including our call. God’s call on our lives is not a one-time gift, a simple transaction. It comes to us over and over again—in the voice of a child asking about heaven, at the bedside of a parishioner, in the Spirit-filled chaos that inevitably comes on Sunday morning, in a trembling voice over the phone, in the glorious candlelight of a Christmas service. And we respond—in our words from the pulpit, in the prayers that we say, in our love for the people with whom we live and work, and in our service at the table.
But let’s face it, there are times along the way when our work ceases to be an offering and, instead, becomes a burden. Sometimes it happens gradually—the various things that weigh us down coming to us in a myriad of ways. Sometimes it happens quickly, under the magnitude of a single event. Either way, we can usually tell when our work ceases to be an offering: 1) the to-do list we carry around in our mind constantly interrupts every pastoral encounter we have, 2) preschool chapel almost drives us to drink, and 3) our heart is numb at the very times when we would have laughed or cried in the past.
The burdens that weigh us down are not all the same. Some of us may feel burdened by the expectations of the institutional Church. We imagine the average Sunday attendance and the stewardship pledges either smiling at us with congratulations, or shaking their heads at us in disappointment. Appointments we want are given to other people. And we often see our male colleagues secure lead pastorates or desirable placements more easily than we do.
Some of us may feel burdened by interactions with parishioners—the woman who withholds her pledge because she’s unhappy with a decision the pastor has made, the man who confides in you (after asking the Holy Spirit to grant him strength to speak the truth) that the bread is
not as holy when you bless it because you are a woman, or the person who incessantly longs for “the good old days.”
Some of us may feel burdened by comparisons we make with other clergy. I confess that I experienced this coming here today. I asked my husband last night: “What if I lay my soul completely bare and no one else in the room can relate to it? What if I’m the only one who doesn’t have my stuff together?” The truth is that when I am in a room filled with clergy I often wish I were a saintly presence, an efficient administrator, a pastor who has all the time in the world for one sick parishioner. I wish I were cool like Nadia Bolz-Weber, were able to write like Rachel Held Evans, could organize social justice campaigns like a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr., and had the construction knowledge of Chad Gaines from HGTV’s Fixer Upper. I wish I could do it all, and I imagine that my parishioners wish the same thing, whether it’s true or not. As pastors, we are generalists living in a world that values specialists. What a burden it is to expect expertise from ourselves on so very many fronts…
But we do, and too often we respond by working harder and harder to meet those expectations. When this happens, our primary focus slips from the God who calls us to the work we are called to do, and we lapse into thinking of our call as a one-time gift: God gave us this call, what we do with it now is up to us. It’s as if God kicked started it and now we’re on our own, left with the training we got from seminary and the good sense we’ve gleaned along the way. Instead of being about the gifts of God, it becomes about what we have to do and earn. And almost in a blink of an eye, our work is no longer an offering—the response to a gift; instead, it has become a burden.
So how do we regain the sense of gift in our life? A wise, experienced professor of mine in seminary once said: “Remember, God wants you more than the work that you do.” Perhaps that is the grace of the sabbatical year and all forms of Sabbath—the knowledge that God wants us more than the work that we do. The knowledge that any call we have is rooted in a prevenient and deep love that sustains every breath we take, pervades every inch of our being, and is greater than any darkness we will ever face—a love that gives itself to us over and over again.
The truth is that life is Eucharistic at its core, and everywhere is an altar rail. At every second we offer up, not just the work of our lives, but also our hurts and dreams and desires and frustrations, all of who we are—only to receive ourselves back as a gift from God, ever-new and ever-gifted. Therein lies our healing; therein lies our resurrection.
There’s a corny story that I heard growing up… During the closing hymn of a church service, a man came forward to rededicate his life to Christ. And as he came down the aisle, he said loudly: “Lord, fill me with your Spirit.” After prayer, the man returned to his seat. The following Sunday the closing hymn came, and once again the man left his seat and headed down the aisle, crying: “Lord, fill me with your Spirit.” This went on every Sunday until finally one day as the man was coming down the aisle saying, “Lord, fill me with your Spirit”, a person in the congregation yelled out: “Don’t do it, Lord, he’s got a leak.” For me the hero of the story isn’t the person who yells out from the pew. Instead, the hero is the one who trusts in the perpetual gifts of God and who faithfully comes down the aisle week after week, expecting to be filled time and time again.
The call on your life and the gifts you need to fulfill that call will come to you over and over again. And each time they do, offer them up to God in all the complexity and messiness of your life, trusting God to fill you up time and time again. And may the work of your life be, for you, an offering.