Jennifer Wilder's Ordination: Mating in Captivity

November 03, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Jenn, you have everything you need to say yes to the ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ. You have chutzpah. You have ovaries. You speak Spanish. You light up a room. You know how to say yes, and you know how to say no. You have degrees from the the best institutions of the world, a Baptist Church in North Carolina, the contested and violent American border, the Global South, even Union Seminary. You are ready to go.

You also know that we live today in a well-disguised and well-decorated cage, where freedom is a fiction for most of us. You know the time famine as well as you know how to say yes to life. You know the trust famine because you have a highly developed ethic of suspicion. You know what the King said to Esther, when he suggested that she couldn’t get into the inner court except by the right moves – and that maybe she was here for just a failure as this. You know enough to be amused at those big words of St. Paul. I hope you all heard him. He said that he wanted us to have great inner power. That we be “Strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit…so that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what are breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” I am with him all the way until that knowing and comprehension business, when he becomes annoying and confusing. Yes, of course, inner strength is crucial. May those ordained in 2013 live to see the gospel get larger, not smaller, so that the saints not be embarrassed it in a tea cup but instead filling up the oceans with new species of it. I am with St. Paul about inner power being crucial to what Esther and we face in terms of convincing the kings to get off people’s backs. We must save our people from the kings. We must. We must also be astute judges of the moment. Is this time I should get arrested or as Bonus Army would advise, one more day, we waited, one more day. We’ll be glad we waited one more day. So Paul helps me with Esther’s dilemma until he gets to that line about comprehending, but not knowing. You will hear lots of sermons about “if not now, when”, “If not us, who”, you will probably give one or two of them yourself. But mostly you will kick the can down the road; mostly you will wait to get a response to that email so you can respond to the next email. Mostly you will count votes and count energy and resist impatience and build up people who are so ready not to go anywhere with you. And just to give you a nutritional metaphor, before I conclude my fight with St. Paul. If broccoli is 43% less pretentious than kale, and equally nutritious, why not choose broccoli? In other words you will have ample occasions to think that inaction is patience or that delay is humility. Excuses for not rattling the door on the king’s inner court will abound. Better put, in your cage, while you try to mate in captivity, you will have great reasons to sit around and do nothing and great reasons to stand up and do something. So here is my quarrel with St. Paul: he predicts this! How come he is so smart? How did somebody who didn’t even know how to do Google Docs be so wise? Hear this line again from within Google Docs, the time famine and the trust famine: we are “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.”
So we are to know something that surpasses knowledge? Thanks, Paul. Thanks a lot. I was looking for a risk calculator and you give me a puzzle. I was looking for spiritual direction and you confound me. I am to know what can’t be known. I am to know that I can’t know it and thereby to know it. I am to know the love of Jesus that surpasses knowledge so that I may be filled with the fullness of God. Now there is something you can chew on while you mate in captivity, which is my current preferred definition for the ordained ministry.

What do I mean by mate in captivity? That you know you are in a cage and that it is in the cage that you make covenant and connection and relationship. Your job as a pastor is to connect people to Esther’s problem with the King and Paul’s problem with knowing. Nothing more, and surely nothing less. If you become one of those over functioning clergy, infantilizing lay people, believe me there will be no mates for you in captivity. If you become of those clergy who are just a mass of quivering availability, who are not tormented by what the Kings are doing to our people, you will be alone in your cage. Your people will be alone in their cage. There you will long for the courage and fun of mating. You will long for each other. But like the tired Pandas in the D.C. Zoo, you will decide it is too risky or too fatiguing or too strange to try to mate in captivity. People are desperate for clergy to bring them into spiritual maturity, a place where they can mate and even mate their way out of captivity, back into species and hope for species, the kind Esther had for her people.

Permit me to conclude with some astonishing perceptions from Howard Moody’s sermon to Margaret Kornfeld on 3/20/77. May of you know that Howard was minister here at Judson for 35 years, until 1992. Margaret is a pastoral counselor who flourishes people out of their multiple cages. Listen to his language to her, always carefully chosen. I remind you this was 1977. “The shape of our lives is changed by the cataclysms of our time where the patterns of truth are different, the questions have new terms, the doubts have deeper dimensions, the risks have greater cost. It is the kind of world which seems to expose, almost vulgarly, the fragility and vulnerability of our humanity. The public has seeped through all the normal walls of privacy until there is no seclusion left. We see every day the cripples and causalities all about us.” Howard’s antidote for Margaret was a sense of mystery and wonders that is not a covering for ignorance or superstition… but that, which transcends our ability to comprehend or exhaustively know any event or person or thing. A sense of mystery and wonder, that doesn’t say it knows. But says it comprehends. To protect the gospel in this time, when even the United Church of Christ is in a hospice resulting from its refusal to mate in captivity, is to comprehend more than to know. It is to risk connection in captivity. Bill McKibben was asked what we should do as we face calamity and the end of our species and our climate straight in the eye: Find a community. If you can’t find one, make one. We would say, make a covenant. Simply connect.

I was walking down East 18th Street yesterday. I noticed a light blue morning glory not only blooming in the last late dusk of 2013 but blooming in an unusual quite splendid way, twined all the way around a lamppost in a way that looked almost planned, if also casual and on its own terms. I decided to slip into the lot where it originated, even though I was probably trespassing on private property. I wanted to see how the morning glory had the wisdom to climb and twine so beautifully. That was when the parking car attendant slipped in to the little yard with me. He said, “I did that.” “Every day I see that its tendrils are following off the wall, because there is no place left for them to twine. I give them a little boost. I twine them around the lamp pole. And look what happened.” He was so grateful that I had noticed and would have talked all night about his ministry to the morning glory and the light pole.

Friends in the United Church of Christ, now so deeply in hospice, let Jenn be like the parking car garage attendant. Let her twine us around the height and depth and breath of the gospel’s lamp, let her not embarrass the saints, either by what she does know or doesn’t know. And may she lead us to magnificent mating in captivity.

Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens. Remember God has called you to the priesthood because he does not trust you to be a layman.


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