A sermon by the Rev. Brian D. Ellison
at the ordination and installation of the Rev. Daniel Vigilante
as Pastor, Grace Trinity Community Church, Minneapolis, and
Associate Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis
by the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area
at Westminster Presbyterian Church, August 25, 2013
Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-21, 26-27; Jeremiah 1:4-10
Perhaps you’ve heard of Atul Gawande. He’s a respected surgeon, a professor at Harvard Medical School; he won a Macarthur Genius Grant a few years ago. Although still early in his career, he’s considered an expert on helping doctors and hospitals reduce mistakes in surgical procedures, saving many dollars and many lives. But if you know of Atul Gawande, it’s probably for his writing, especially in The New Yorker, which he began more than a decade ago when he was still a surgical resident. One of those essays, first published in 1999 was called “Whose Body Is It, Anyway?”; it was later made part of his first book, Complications.
The essay’s about a landmark change in medical ethics, one that has occurred just within the last generation. Many of you will recall a time when physicians would examine a patient, run their tests, and simply decide what treatment a patient would receive. There was a pretty radical shift in the ’80s and ’90s—a rethinking of some basic tenets—when it become conventional instead to present all the facts to the patient and let them decide for themselves what they wanted, what risks to take, shaping what kind of life they might have, or might not have any more, as a result.
Now this seems like a positive development. But Gawande points out that there’s a problem. Sometimes—usually even—the doctor really does know best. Patients routinely “make bad decisions.” Decisions against their own interests, decisions not in accord with their own stated values for quality of life or risk tolerance or cost consciousness. He writes about a patient who wants nothing more than to die peacefully and with dignity and who instead chooses a risky procedure with little chance of success that ends up only prolonging his suffering. Gawande writes: “Sometimes, of course, the difference between one option and another isn’t especially significant. But when you see your patient making a grave mistake, should you simply do what the patient wants? The current medical orthodoxy says yes. After all, whose body is it, anyway?”
That is the question, isn’t it?
To whom does the body belong?
It is, of course, a different kind of body we’ve heard about this afternoon in the first letter to the Corinthians. A familiar image for those of us who gather at an ordination—verses, indeed, deemed so critical to our understanding of the church and of mission and ministry that some of them are embedded there in the ordination rite in the Book of Common Worship. There are many gifts, one Spirit. All have gifts, and all are part of something larger than themselves. The church, we know, is like a body, with many parts. Hand and foot and eye and ear, each one essential in its own way, none more important than another.
On a day like this, the day when one person’s gifts are being duly, and quite appropriately, celebrated and named as exceptional, we also reaffirm that his gifts aren’t the only ones. In fact, it is the very ordinariness of what we do here today that makes it so exciting. We are only naming gifts that people have seen in Daniel for decades now. We are giving him a robe and stole that signify his place among people who have been getting this prayer-and-laying-on-of-hands routine for centuries now.
And preaching on these verses—verses Daniel chose for today, by the way—we say once and for all that even Daniel Vigilante’s gifts aren’t all that special. … Or rather, they are exquisitely perfectly wonderfully special, just like yours and yours and yours and mine. They are all different, these gifts of ours, and in that diversity of gifts is their gloriousness. Each part of the body is different, and each one matters.
But let’s not stop there. It was would be easy to fail to see the fullness of what this image has to offer, what this text has to say. That is, we might focus so much on the glory of the fact that we all are a part of the body, that we forget that we are all part of one body. The one body into whose ministry our brother Dan will be ordained this day is a body that sometimes—often—suffers, and much of that pain comes from its brain acting against the best interests of its stomach or heart. From its left hand and right hand acting in disregard or even distaste for the other. We see the patient making bad decisions, if you will—the body not taking care of itself. And at such times, it is easy to fail to ask and answer that question Gawande does: “Whose body is it, anyway?”
Now we’ve got complications. It’s as complicated as ministry gets.
Didn’t God’s call to ministry used to seem so simple?
Look at Jeremiah’s call, the one we heard about earlier. Here is a preparation for ministry process that required no process. Jeremiah’s presbytery didn’t just waive the six-month membership requirement and the two-year inquirer/candidate period; Jeremiah was approved before he was born! He was added to the pulpit supply list even though he was underage, “only a boy.” He was approved to an unusually responsible position for a first call, “prophet to the nations.”
But even if this call to ministry was not, in fact, mediated through a community of faith in the way our Reformed tradition and Presbyterian polity would demand, note that there is much here that is not so different.
Then, as now, God’s call preceded its recognition by others or the one being called.
Then, as now, God’s call might be met with resistance, perhaps from the one hearing it, and almost certainly by others he would encounter in the service of God’s mission.
Then, as now, it was a call that came with almost no earthly power, a leader without an enforcement arm, words without weapons.
No, then as now, all the call came with was authority. Fragile tenderly held authority. … But it was enough. Because then, as now, the authority it came with was from God. The truth to be spoken was and is God’s truth. The work to be done was and is God’s work.
When Jeremiah is given authority over nations and kingdoms, the purpose was not to pump up a young prophet with pride, but rather with humility.
When the one who is called is told she will be able to destroy or plant, it should not make her heart race with ambition, but rather cause her to draw in her breath.
When he learns he can build or overthrow, it should cause him not to strap on his helmet and grab a hammer, but rather to say a prayer before taking another step.
Because, really, whose nation, whose kingdom, whose vineyard, whose church, whose body is it anyway?
You are the body … of Christ.
“You are the body of Christ and individually” – each of us, not just Daniel – “members of it.” Each of us is called—not from our ordination, even before our baptism, from that prenatal consecration, from that divine knowing of us in utero. Each of us is given the ability—in our own way and place—to be a prophet, a truth-teller, a speaker for the Savior on matters of love and justice and life. Each of us can use this not-at-all newly bestowed vocational directive for calling out gifts, for honoring each member, for hearing or seeing or smelling as we are able, the same God activating all of it in all of us for the common good … the good of the body.
Whose body is it, anyway? It’s the body of Christ.
And it is in that spirit that we come to this day – a day for celebrating gifts, and for celebrating ministry:
We come triumphant, because this presbytery, this congregation, has standing before it in Dan a powerful symbol of success, of justice triumphing over long injustice, of faith and hope justified and patience and gentleness rewarded.
We come grateful, grateful for those who bore burdens before us, those who served openly and bravely in the face of prejudice and at risk of their livelihood.
We come mindful, knowing that there are others called and others serving, who still can not stand in halls of celebration like this one revealing their full selves.
We come motivated to keep on working for a church that is, if I may use a phrase I’ve heard once or twice before, “as generous and just as God’s grace,” powerfully aware of how much work there is to do in our denomination and our own congregations and our own hearts.
We come committed to advancing the essential mission of Christ’s church, including displaying the oneness that is God’s gift to us, oneness even with those who are not in fact celebrating what we do here this day, for they too have been called, every part essential to the body.
But most of all, we come humbly. Even on this day. Especially on this day. Because of whose body it is.
There will be complications. But by God’s grace, and by relying on God’s faithfulness, and by seeing each ear, each foot, each hand as Christ’s own, all will one day together rejoice. In your ministry, Daniel Vigilante, and in all our ministries, may it be so. Amen.