On May 8, 2010, I had the privilege of preaching at the ordination of Jennifer Claire Leider to the Sacred Order of Priests. The lessons chosen by the ordinand were Isaiah 52:7-10; Ephesians 4:11-16; and Matthew 28:16-20. This is what I said:
We have heard three lessons from Scripture today. First, Isaiah’s radiant and joyful oracle: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace …..” (Isa. 52:7) The prophet reminds us here that we are all called to become those beautiful, swift-footed messengers who bring good news and announce salvation even as we go about our daily life.
Then Paul’s reminder that every one of us is gifted in some way to accomplish that mission, that each of us is given gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12) And finally, the Great Commission: Christ’s injunction that we as a church are to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus has] commanded [us].” (Matt 28:19-20a)
These are not lessons usually read at ordinations, nor are they the lessons set out for the Feast of Dame Julian of Norwich, which today happens to be. They are lessons chosen by Jennifer because they speak particularly to her. But they are lessons which speak not so much to the office of the sacramental priesthood but to the ministry of the whole church, to the calling of the priesthood of all believers to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be disciples who make disciples, to invite the rest of the world into Jesus’s fellowship, to build up this wonderful and sacred mystery we call “The Church.”
Whenever I read or hear the words of Paul addressed to the Church in Ephesus that were read for us this morning, those wonderful words about the variety of gifts given to God’s People, I am reminded of my experience as rector of a congregation which grew rapidly and thus needed to construct a new building. That parish chose a phrase derived from Paul’s letter to Ephesus as its fundraising slogan: “Gifts for the Building Up of the Church.” (Not, I admit, the best bit of exegesis every done!)
Of course, one of the things that congregation needed to do, like any congregation in a building program, was to hire an architect, which we did as if we were calling a new pastor. We reviewed written submissions; we interviewed; we narrowed the field to four designers with church-related experience… and then we started visiting churches they had designed. We must have visited 50 or more religious buildings over the course of several weeks.
As we did so, we began to notice certain commonalities and similarities, and also certain distinctions between religious traditions. We noted, for example, that in ever church there was a room set aside for the use of the clergy in preparing to preside and preach, a room where they could adjust their vestments, review their sermon notes, and meditate with God before leading God’s People in worship. And we found that in that room there was always a sort of devotional focus object, an image, an icon, a statue on which the clergy could focus as they prayed. We discovered that we could predict what that object would be based on the denominational tradition of the church building, or conversely that we could pretty accurately guess what denomination’s church we were in by what that object was.
For example, in Lutheran churches one nearly always finds either that cross-within-a-heart-within-a-rose emblem that was Luther’s personal seal, or a picture of Martin himself. In Methodist churches, we always found a copy of that famous painting of Jesus holding a lighted lantern knocking at an ivy covered garden door. In Baptist churches, without fail the devotional focus image was Salman’s famous “Head of Jesus”. In Roman Catholic churches, of course, the clergy would pray before a statue or icon of the Blessed Virgin. And in Episcopal churches, there is always … a full length mirror…
So let us take a moment this morning and look into that mirror to see what is reflected back to us about this thing we call “priest”, this office of ministry into which the Bishop and the College of Presbyters will ordain Jennifer Claire Leider this morning.
Let us first of all see if Isaiah is correct about the feet of those ordained to announce the reign of God: “How beautiful,” Isaiah tells us … “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger ….” (Isa. 52:7) That may be, but as we look into our mirror please note, and let me assure you, that there is perhaps only one in a thousand, maybe only one in a million of the ordained who has beautiful feet like Daniel saw in his vision, “feet like in colour to polished brass” .. a body like beryl, a face as the appearance of lightning, eyes like lamps of fire, and a voice the voice of a multitude. (Daniel 10:6, KJV) One in a million, maybe… but as our mirror should show us most of us priests have feet of clay! We are as prone to stumbling, as prone to making missteps and mistakes, as prone to wander from the straight path of the Lord we love as any other member of the church.
In other words, dear friends, as I said before, priests in this church of ours are human beings! Whatever else we priests may be, whatever else we may be making of our sister Jennifer, she is and will remain as frail and fallible a human being as any of us. We have this treasure, as Paul reminded us, this light shining in our hearts, this poor and partial witness to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, in earthen vessels, in clay jars prone to crack and break if we over-use and over-burden them. (2 Cor. 4:7) So let us remember that, above all else: The priest in this church is just a human being!
We have a tendency to forget that, that our priests are human beings. Almost since its beginning we Christians have struggled with two images of the church and thus of the clergy, and this is especially so at times like this when we ordain and empower leadership for the church: Is the church the Virgin Mother, pure, unsullied, and unstained? Or is she an Earth Mother gathering her wayward children to her skirts?
In the Virgin-Mother church, no eye is pure enough to see God, no tongue clean enough to speak God’s name. This church is vigilant in covering her children’s ears and eyes, trying to keep them from seeing or touching the world’s impurity. Her clergy are paragons of virtue, models to the flock in perfection and holiness, in morality and goodness.
In the Earth-Mother church, however, the dirty hands and unwashed faces of her children are a delight. “I am come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that you might have it abundantly.” This church’s children gather to her like Ma Kettle’s kids coming in from the barnyard, frogs in their pockets and grass stains on their jeans. What they lack in cleanliness they more than make up in liveliness and in joy. Her clergy are real people with real flaws, earthen vessels prone to breakage.
Of course, we Anglicans are “both/and” sorts of people and live with the tension between the clergy expectations of the Virgin-Mother church and the clergy reality of the Earth-Mother church. So, as we gaze into our full-length Episcopal mirror, let us be especially cognizant of that fact: let us acknowledge that the expectations we hang on the framework of a simple human being are phrased in the terms of that purer Virgin-Mother church.
In our liturgy, we will say today of Jennifer that we expect:
that she will exalt God in the midst of God’s people,
that she will offer acceptable spiritual sacrifices,
that she will boldly proclaim the gospel,
that she will rightly administer the sacraments of the New Covenant,
that she will be a faithful pastor,
that she will be a patient teacher,
that she will be a wise councilor.
And, finally, that in doing all these things, she will do so without reproach.
And let us admit that it is audacious of us to do so, to expect all of that from a frail and fallible human being. It’s not only audacious; it’s outrageous! Outrageously audacious! Or rather that it would be if we did not also believe and trust in Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew’s Gospel to be with us always, to stand with the human beings we entrust with the church’s ministry, to fill them with the power of the Holy Spirit. Still, it’s a lot to ask of an earthen vessel – to be acceptable and bold and right and faithful and patient and wise and pure and good and holy!
So, Jennifer, why do you want to be a priest? I know you have already answered that question because I asked it of you almost two years ago, and I know that others have asked it of you many times over the past five or so years, but it bears repeating: “Why do you want to be a priest?”
We don’t expect you to answer it again today, because we know the answer. All of us presbyters have been asked it and we have answered it. We may have phrased the answer differently, but for each of us it is the same. It’s not that the person called to priesthood wants to be a priest; it’s that that person must be a priest!
Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buchner spoke for us all when he answered that question in his book, The Alphabet of Grace:
“I hear you are entering the ministry,” the woman said down the long table meaning no real harm. “Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?” And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else’s. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring of the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and if I could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death. (Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, pp. 109-110)
Buechner’s last sentence describing this call to priesthood is mind-blowing: “I will condemn you to death.” It is terrifying and it is terrific! We follow the Christ who leads us through death to life. Death to selfishness, death to ego, and life to the truest self within. We die to self to uncover what the Quakers call, “that of God within” or the “inner Teacher” … the True Self. Your call, Jennifer … our call is to continue dying to self and, as a result, to continue becoming truly alive, to continue growing in boldness and righteousness, in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and, yes, even holiness.
It is, as any priest here will tell you, a painful process. To be a priest in Christ’s church is, as Paul made quite clear in his letters to the congregations in Ephesus and Rome, a gift; it is a wonderful, precious, costly, and painful gift. As you, Jennifer, have already learned in your hospital work, it will take you into the deepest intimacy with God’s people, with your people. As you have observed, at times you will be with them in the midst of their worst nightmares – death and divorce, devastating illness and the depths of despair. At times, you will feel put-upon and misused. At times, you will feel left out and neglected. At times, there will be conflict, and it will seem like it is eating you alive. People will hurt you, intentionally and spitefully, but also negligently or simply because they are in pain.
We could, I suppose, shelter you from that pain, but we won’t. Because the source of that pain is also the source of the most exquisite joy, when that same intimacy will privilege you with sharing God’s people’s, your people’s happiest and most blessed moments – when two people commit themselves to one another for life, when their children are born, when they know themselves to be God’s beloved.
But be forewarned…. In the midst of all the pain and joy, in dying to self to find your True Self, it is easy to lose yourself. So, it is a good thing every once in awhile to look into our Episcopal full-length mirror and take stock, to remind ourselves who we are and, more importantly, who stands with us.
It is traditional at this point, as an ordination sermon comes to its end, to ask the one whose life is about to be fundamentally altered to stand to receive a special charge. So now I will do that.
Jennifer, my charge to you is a story and a short list of rules.
The leaders of two nations met for a very important summit meeting. As they were talking, a subordinate of one rushed in … angry and livid. The prime minister responded, “Peter, remember Rule #6.”
“Ah! Yes, sir,” and he bowed out.
Another staff member rushed in, totally stressed, obviously overwhelmed.
“Maria, remember Rule #6.”
“Oh, yes, sir. I almost forgot. Thank you, sir.” She too bowed out.
A third rushed in. Same scenario.
The visiting leader is amazed. “Three people have rushed in, almost out of control. You simply mentioned Rule #6, and they immediately calmed down. I have to know this rule.”
“Oh yes,” responds his host. “Rule #6. It is a very good rule. Rule #6 is this: ‘Don’t take yourself too damned seriously.’”
Here are the other five rules:
Rule #1: Be very clear and committed to God’s Purpose and Mission. Die daily to self that you may continue to become truly alive. Share your people’s good times and bad in all the terrifying pain and terrific joy of it. If you don’t, you destroy your chances of bringing God into in their lives.
Rule #2: Be very clear and committed to your Vision and Principles. You are the messenger announcing peace; you are sent to proclaim the Good News and to baptize all nations. Do whatever it takes to share Jesus with others.
Rule #3: Get out of the church, frequently! There are two reasons for this rule. First, you must meet people where they are. If you are going to reach the nations and teach them, you need to search for them and you won’t find them inside the church building. Second, for your own sanity, find some friends who aren’t members of the Episcopal Church!
Rule #4: Mentor ten people to do ministry at least as well as, and preferably better than, you can. All those gifts Paul mentioned are given to the whole church – find the people who have them and help them learn to use them!
Rule #5: Do not avoid conflict. Conflict is messy and it can be painful, but it is also creative and it can be the door to intimacy. Just learn to not take it personally.
And, of course, Rule #6: Remember what G.K. Chesterton said about angels: “They can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Don’t take yourself too damn seriously. I am tempted to tell you to get a full-length mirror … but I’ve found at least three of them in every Episcopal Church I’ve served in, so I’m sure you’ll find one to use. Over the coming years, every so often, look in that mirror. Remind yourself, you may be a priest … but you are still just a human being! Remember who you are, and remember whose you are; remember who is standing with you. Remember the last sentence of the Great Commission: He is with you always, even to the end of the age! Amen. (Matt. 28:20b)