Make us new: Holy Tuesday sermon preached by Bishop Alan M. Gates

Following is the text of the sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts, on Tuesday in Holy Week, March 31, 2015, at the Service of Holy Eucharist with Renewal of Ordination Vows and Blessing of Holy Oil at Emmanuel Church in Boston.

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

~ John Donne, Holy Sonnets, 10

Week in and week out, our three-person’d God of grace comes to us:  God the Creator, gently knocking, divine omnipresence around us;  God the Spirit, gently breathing, divine movement within us;  God the Son, gently shining, divine love showing through us.

But comes the day, surely comes the day, when these gentle movements of our three-person’d God – knocking, breathing, shining – cannot abate the breadth of our brokenness, cannot ease the entirety of our exhaustion, cannot dismiss the depth of our despondency.   Knocking, breathing, shining – in these, says the poet, does God seek to mend.  But how, when there is too much to mend?  When, like a bone that must be re-broken properly to heal, when like an illusion that must be shattered to be dispelled, when like a stony heart that must be cracked open for love to get in – what then?  Then with the poet do we call upon the searing love of God: “that I may rise and stand, bend your divine power to break my very brokenness, blow upon my fading embers, and make me new.”  Make me new.  Make me new.

The poet and priest John Donne, who died on this day in 1631, once suggested that the preacher might do well to put the sermon’s climax at the beginning of the sermon – in case either preacher or listener should die before its completion. (The man really was fixated on death!)  So now that I’ve opened with the climax of this sermon, let me back up and commence with a less dramatic confession.

For over twenty years I bitterly resented these Holy Week clergy vow renewal services.  They seemed to me the epitome of diocesan staff cluelessness about the rhythms of parish ministry.  Sure, I’d love to gather with my colleagues, ritually re-up for another year, and share some lunch.  But who in their right mind thought that carving out most of a day in Holy Week was the right time to do that? Did the planners have any idea what life is like out in the trenches this week?

Apparently this general feeling about the rigors of Holy Week is shared, not only by clergy but also by our church music colleagues and others who make Holy Week observances happen.  Facebook posts this week identify the clergy mantra as, “Don’t get sick, don’t get sick, don’t get sick, ….”  Staff members report lighting candles to the copy machine gods.  And one cleric asserts that “when Christ climbs out of his tomb, we climb into ours.” 

Such were the sentiments which dictated that, for a couple of decades, the Vow Renewal service was not on my calendar.  Especially when I was serving at some distance from the diocesan center, it just seemed like a colossal imposition.  With a note of passive aggression and a veritable symphony of works-righteousness, I stayed away from these gatherings.

And then, a few years ago, I found the time to show up.  Probably I wanted the oils and there was nobody to bring me back some.  Maybe it was that.  Or maybe it was because after twenty years I had come to realize that not everything was going to get done even if I did boycott the service.  Maybe it was that I had come to recognize that, for all my increasingly experienced, more mature years in the priesthood, writing the Easter sermon (and all the others that week) was getting harder each year, not easier.  Maybe it was that I knew, more and more with each passing year, that I was not going to get through Holy Week merely on the strength of my own wit and talent and grit and sheer bloody-mindedness. 

I did pretty well, frankly, making it happen just that way for a long time.  But eventually I was driven to acknowledge that I could not keep this up; driven to acknowledge that somehow, somewhere – from my friends, from my colleagues, from my bishop, from my God – I would have to find a way for all my self-sufficiency and works-righteousness to be cracked open and let some grace pour in. 

It would be too great a claim to suggest that one event such as this one could provide all the grace and inspiration needed to carry any of us through Holy Week and into the year beyond.  But it has become one such vehicle for me.  I hope it will be so for you.

Which leads us back to John Donne, and the brokenness of our human condition which only God can cure.  Donne works out in his sonnet the conviction that so far in his life God’s spirit has moved gently to “knock, breathe, and shine” within him.  But now, that he may fully rise and stand, the poet pleads with God for a more passionate encounter: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God, and bend your force to break me, that I might be made new.”

It is for the passionate, searing love of God that we pray.  And it is in this week, this holy week of weeks, that we know most fully the cost demanded by such love.  Jesus calls, Jesus teaches, Jesus feeds, Jesus heals, Jesus prays.  But this week, in the face of a world too broken simply to mend, Jesus dies.  Only then is he victorious.  Crucified, he rises.  Dying, he lives.  Broken, he is made new.  And with him, all of humankind.

With Christ we labor, you and I.  With Christ the church teaches, with Christ the church feeds and heals and prays.  Yet still does poverty grind; yet still does racism blind; yet still does genocide remind us that, of our own strength, we are too broken simply to mend.  So we, too, cry:  “Batter our hearts, three-person’d God, and bend your force to break us, and make us new!”

We enter this week with such a cry.  Acknowledging our utter dependence upon God, seeking the support of one another, we cry out for God’s grace: Make us new; make us new; O, three-person’d God, make us new.

One final word for the clergy.  In January, after the ordination of new priests, several experienced clergy told me they had heard in certain words that day an affirmation and renewal of their own vocation.  And so I conclude with words offered then as a charge to those seven new priests, and offered now as a thanksgiving and blessing for you all.

There will be days when you will hear that your sermon three months earlier actually helped someone make a tough decision – and you will be altogether fulfilled. 

And there will be days when you fill out another mundane parochial report with attendance averages and obscurely calculated budgetary figures – and you will be altogether confused. 

And there will be days when you sit with a man whose wife has just died from leukemia – and you will be altogether speechless.  

And there will be days when the Vestry agenda, the pre-baptismal session, the hospital call, and the newsletter column must all must be done before bedtime, and they won’t be – and you will be altogether exhausted. 

And there will be days when you administer the eucharist across a hospital tray from the wisest old woman you’ve ever met, and you will feel certain that you are blessed to share in the most privileged calling in Christendom – and you will be altogether grateful. 

My dear sisters and brothers in holy orders: I hope that you love what you do.  I hope that you know how much God loves you for what you do.  I hope that you will find, in renewing your vows this day, a renewed measure of determination and grace.

In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.