A New Scene Begins
13 October 2019
Installation of the Rev. Eric Koenig
Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
I will never forget the day that Eric returned from a youth conference and gushed: “Mark Lomax is a great preacher!” After he said that several times, my poker face must have failed me, because he quickly added, “But Dad, you are OK, too.”
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lomax is pastor of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia. Professor of homiletics and worship at the Interdenominational Theological Center. He is a friend. A faithful follower of Jesus. A superb preacher. But he is somewhere else today. And I am here. And that’s OK.
We gather today for the installation of an associate pastor. Remember our context as we do. Presbyterians believe that all who follow Jesus are called to serve Jesus. We witness to Christ in all we do and say wherever we may be. God requires that corporately, and individually, we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
Jesus summons each of us and all of us. Jesus invites us to live as he lived as well as we are able and to trust in God’s grace when we fall short. Jesus calls us to love as he loved and to establish the justice which, as Dr. Cornell West reminds us, is love in public. “Will you – singular you and plural you – will you come and follow me?”
Presbyterians further believe that from the midst of God’s people, some are called to ordered ministries. These are roles within the Church that allow the ministry of the whole people of God to flourish. We ordain the people who fill those roles. We do so not because they are superior followers of Jesus but to recognize the specific role they play in the life of God’s people.
Of ordered ministries in the Presbyterian Church there are three. Three are the number of ordered ministries. Deacon. Elder. And … to be honest, we have had some question about the language to use for the third ordered ministy. We have used “ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” We have used “teaching elders.” The Book of Order has a passage that covers all the bases: “teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament).”
By whatever name, the church ordains people to the role. Ordained individuals are then installed to specific positions and tasks.
In response to the Holy Spirit and discernment by Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of New Castle, and Eric, with significant input from Essie, we gather today to install Eric as associate pastor.
As we do, I offer some insights I have gleaned through the years about ministry. In the words of those classic theogians the Beatles, I so with a little help from my friends. Ginger, Babs, Mac, Bunty, Fowler, Nick and Fetcher.
Well they could be friends. If we had met. If they were real.
They are castmembers of a movie called Chicken Run – a claymation movie involving chickens, rats, dogs, and some humans.
Chicken Run is set in 1950s Great Britain on the Tweedy’s chicken farm. The chickens live ringed by barbed wire fences and guarded by large, nasty dogs.
The chickens are there to make money for the Tweedys by laying eggs. Hens that fail to lay eggs soon make their final appearance. On the Tweedy’s dinner table.
The chickens, led by a hen named Ginger, become fed up with this life. Ginger knows that the chickens deserve better – a life free from the demand to produce eggs, free from the threat of death, and free from the farm. She shares her vision with the other chickens and convinces them to begin living out the vision in the only way possible – escape.
They devise a plan for escape and put it into operation. And they fail. Again. And again. And again. Every attempt fails and the chickens are caught. And every time they are caught the chickens attempt another escape.
Two events break this cycle. A rooster from the United States named Rocky arrives. He brashly promises to teach the chickens to fly across the fence that traps them. At the same time, Mrs. Tweedy decides that eggs are not profitable enough. The farm will produce chicken pies. This makes escape essential. As one chicken profoundly says, “I don’t want to end up as a pie. I don’t even like gravy.”
I will tell no more of the story so as not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it. But what does it say about ministry?
The Tweedys said the chickens’ role was to live on their farm in the conditions they established and produce wealth for the Tweedys. Led by the prophet Ginger, the chickens had an alternative vision. They envisioned a world with no barbed wire, no dogs, no huts, and no quotas. Instead there would be freedom and abundance and sunshine and sharing.
Jesus proclaimed and lived an alternative vision. In the face of the domination of empire and the division of the human family along lines of class and gender and sexual identity and age and nationality, Jesus taught a vision of radical inclusion, expansive love, and unfailing justice. He envisioned a world turned upside down. And he calls us as his followers to live in that world.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Whether we use the traditional translation of “blessed” or whether we ride with the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer’s translation of “greatly honored,” the Beatitudes proclaim a radical disruption of the status quo. They contain an alternative vision for reality. Jesus lived and died and was raised for that vision. He summons us to live in it. We are invited to work together to bring that vision into reality. And we are freed to know that we will fall short and when we do, we can seek and accept forgiveness, and pick ourselves back up and trying anew. Vision is where we start.
Part of that vision involves recognizing who we are and whose we are. The chickens refused to accept the way in which they were assigned worth by the dominant culture. To the Tweedys, the chickens had worth only as means of production. Once they ceased to be productive they had no value and they were disposed of. The chickens knew that they were more than that. They knew they had value simply because they existed. We are talking some profoundly self aware chickens here.
Ministry involves accepting our own value and reminding others of their value. We are repeatedly told that our value comes from externals – skin color, wealth, status, gender or sexual identity, age, ability. The list goes on. Elaborate systems and structures are built upon human differences by the powerful for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing their power.
Ministry is knowing and claiming and living the awareness that I am God’s beloved child. And so are you. And so is everyone we meet. We should be treated as such. We should treat each other as such. We should challenge anyone who says otherwise. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, we move from treating people as others to embracing one another in God’s love. And then we work to dismantle systems that perpetuate privilege and inflict oppression.
The chickens created community. They understood that they were in it together. When one hen had problems laying eggs, others would share theirs. Rocky points out that one or two chickens could easily escape. Ginger replies, “But that’s not the point. Either we all escape or none of us escape.”
Building, expanding, and nurturing community is an essential part of ministry today. Ministry is a corporate practice – a communal art. It is not for the professionals alone. It is for all of us.
The community created in Chicken Run crossed the usual lines. Nick and Fetcher are rats. That’s not a comment on their character. That’s an identification of their species. They aren’t the brightest rats. They spend a good amount of time waiting for the eggs that Rocky, the rooster, has promised to lay for them. Still the rats become part of the community working together toward the goal of freedom and a better life for all.
Ministry involves reaching out to and serving with people from whom we differ. God creates and enjoys an amazing diversity. Our challenge and opportunity is to build a welcoming, including community. God calls us to create a place at the table for everyone born, to paraphrase Shirley Murray’s hymn. God calls us to break down and reshape, remake, and replace as needed. And to make sure that since everyone has a voice, every voice is heard.
Each chicken and rat has unique gifts to use in the effort. They live out the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero. “None of us can do everything. Each of us can do something.” Each chicken and rat contributes to the effort.
Ministry involves discerning the gifts we each have and then putting those gifts to use for the good of the community and the world.
Chicken Run includes a rooster named Fowler who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. “644th Squadron, Poultry Division – we were the mascots.” He fondly tells stories about, “Back in my day…” The time comes when his gifts are needed. When he is asked to help, Fowler begs off. Ginger says, “Fowler you are always talking about back in your day. Well you are here now. And it is now that we need you. This is your day.”
Time has a way of jumbling together. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. We plan and dream into the future. But in the end, today is the only day we have. Today we follow. Today we serve.
Today we begin a new scene in God’s Master Story – a story that began in the act of creation and that will extend until the end of days and the fulfillment of all things. A story of Divine creativity and grace and love in which we are privileged to play a part for a time. It is the story that has brought us to this time and place. It is the story that draws us into the future. We do not know for sure where the story will take us. Members of the Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church who were here at the end of June may remember a long-haired, bearded preacher who referenced advice shared by the hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
We do not know for sure where our part in God’s Master Story will lead us. But of this we may be certain. It will be a story of God’s grace and our response in ministry. And God will be with us. This day. Every day.
Thanks be to God.