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Ordination to the Diaconate - May 28, 2022


Homily by Ruth Benedict Mercer

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen

Please be seated.

When Percy asked me if I would consider doing the homily today, my first thought was “No way!” My beloved husband, wise person that he is, encouraged me to say yes. And when the Holy Spirit almost immediately gave me, in no uncertain terms, the theme about which I should speak, I knew that it was the right, if pretty scary, choice.

Initially, as I considered how I wanted to talk to you, and how to “properly” construct a homily, I searched for light-hearted, or clever, or witty openings. I thought about quotes from Kurt Cobain to Kurt Vonnegut, Pink Floyd to Jed Clampett. But nothing I found ever seemed to hit quite the right tone. And as I read and re-read the scriptures, to see how they informed the message that had been laid on my heart, I realized that what I want to talk with about today is so important right now. And after Tuesday’s murders at Robb Elementary in Uvalde TX, it feels more critical than ever. Because I don’t think the church will survive without it. I know I won’t survive without it. My firm belief is that the underlying principle, the foundation from which todays’ scriptures come, the thing I most need to talk to you about today is HOPE. 

Leah, Mo, Robin, Al, Lonny – today I am going to speak directly to you because YOU are the embodiment of my own hopes for the future of the church. If others assembled here today take something away from what I say, that will be wonderful. But my concern is with the five of you.

I am not trained in homiletics; I am not a Biblical scholar; I am just a person who sits in the pew each Sunday. I am the person you will guide, comfort, inspire, rejoice with, and mourn with – I am the person who will place much hope in you.

At our Commission on Ministry retreat in March, during a lunch discussion about all that ails the world, and we all know that is a LONG list these days, the Rev. Rachel Kessler said, “What we’re doing here is building hope.” And she was so right – we, you (candidates), are building hope. So how do we do that, now, in this time, in this world?

In his book The Beauty of Dusk, former NY Times columnist Frank Bruni, calls hope “gnarly and evergreen.” He must have been thinking of the ancient olive trees of Judea when he came up with that metaphor – trees that have been on the earth since the time of Jesus, and before. There is an olive tree just outside of Bethlehem, in Palestinian territory, called the al Badawi tree. Its trunks (yes, it has multiple trunks) are massive and gnarled, its leaves a silvery green all year round. It is truly gnarly and evergreen. It dates to somewhere between 3000 and 8000 years old. No matter how you look at it, that tree was old when Jesus was born in a nearby hill cave. 

Not too long ago, I learned that trees “talk” to one through networks of fungus, mycorrhizae, embedded in their root systems. Through these connected systems, trees help one another. They send distress signals about drought and disease, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages. These networks are essential to the survival of trees.  

That’s a great plant biology lesson, but what does it have to do with hope? Hope that is, as Frank Bruni described it, “gnarly and evergreen”? The olive groves of Judea are, in my mind, like the temple in our psalm today – a holy place, filled with the presence of God. And just as in the psalm, the birds have found a place to nest, a place to lay their young. I see the al Badawi tree as an amazing symbol of hope; the generations of olive farmers who have cared for it, nurtured it, watered it, pruned it, picked its fruit, and hoped that it will bear fruit in another year, year after year after year after year. You need to be like that tree seeking and preserving the water of life in a hot, dry, often drought-stricken climate, talking to the other trees to know where to find what you need to survive. 

Find hope that is long-lasting, hope that is deeply rooted and connected, hope that is always growing, even in the most difficult conditions. 

Author, activist, and emeritus professor of Philosophy at Harvard, Dr. Cornel West says:
“I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope.” I confess I hadn’t ever made a distinction between those two things before; I thought of them as synonymous. Dr. West goes on to define optimism as (and I quote), “a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better.” I’d say that isn’t working too well for us. But he defines hope as, “cutting against the grain, against the evidence.” That is a critical distinction - optimism will keep us on a path, but it does not cause changehope is the motivating force that causes us to act.

Hopeful acts throughout history have changed the course of the world. People who hoped for better from their governments, from their cities and towns, states and countries, from their schools, from their religions, have acted in hopeful and often disruptive ways to upend systems that were failing too many. Whether it’s Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple or Dr. King leading boycotts and strikes, or Jeremiah going out into the world to preach the words God gave him, even in places that may not have wanted to hear them, or the servants in Luke’s Gospel awaiting the master’s return, hope is the driving force. 

You are sent by hope, you act from hope, you wait in hope.

Hope is not passive, it is active. Having hope is not a Pollyanna-ish way of being. It isn’t trivial or easy. It’s powerful and it’s hard work and work that you have chosen, and it is the work of survival. Having hope means that we are motivated to act in ways that foster change. Having hope means that we are rooted in Jesus’s command to serve others. Having hope means that, no matter the conditions of the world, like the olive tree we will grow and help those around us to grow as well. We – you – cannot afford not to act from hope because our poor world is in a desperate place. As I was running this morning, a song called “Hey Brother” by the Swedish artist Avicii came on my Pandora, “Most Thumbed Up Running Songs” (seriously, that’s what it’s called), and once again the Holy Spirit smacked me between the eyes when she gave me this song on my phone as I’m running along the street. It goes:

“Hey brother, do you still believe in one another?
                        Hey Sister, do you still believe in love?”

As what we learn more about the massacre in Uvalde gets worse and worse, it is HARD to hold onto that. Only if we hope do we have any chance of doing it. Even in this mess God has hope for us, Jesus has hope for us, and we  must  have  hope  for  the  future.

Leah, Mo, Robin, Al, Lonny – you will help shape the future church. It will look differently tomorrow than it does today, just as it is different today than it has been at any time in the past. YOU are the hope of the church, and what that looks like, I think, depends on how much and what kind of hope you bring with you as you embark on this journey. Jesus acted in hope every time – hoping that we might see, that we might learn, that we might be the people God has called us to be. How you act in hope, are rooted in hope, are motivated by hope, are connected in hope – that is what will shape your ministries. 

Hope is the ancient olive tree, gnarly and evergreen; it grows despite the chaos, turmoil, and uncertainty of the world. Hope is the thing that keeps us moving forward to create change; and Buffalo and Uvalde remind us yet again that things MUST change. I pray that - no matter the conditions of the world or life or where your call leads you - you will grow deeper roots, find the motivation to act as Jesus calls you to, and always know the love of God. It is through those things you will change the world. Because you will be acting in HOPE.


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