Monday, June 16, 2008

On a Day of Ordination

The readings for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost include Genesis 18: 1-15; 21:1-7 and Romans 5:1-8 and Matthew 9:35-10:23.

What a rich set of readings for a day when someone we love will be ordained. That is Brooke Pickrell, who from the late summer of 2005 to the early summer of 2007 served as our Youth and Campus Minister, and who today at 4:00 p.m. will be ordained in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. And some of us will be there at First United Presbyterian Church in Troy, to add our joyful amens to the good judgment of that presbytery in approving her ordination. I hear that clergy of other denominations may be invited to join in the laying-on of hands to ordain Brooke, and that will be a first for me.

Ordinations are in the air at this time of year. It’s an expected season for the Episcopal Church to ordain transitional deacons, the first of two separate ordinations that Episcopal priests experience. That happened yesterday to a former parishioner, Grace Pritchard Burson, in Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford. Grace and her husband Josh sang in our choir during their years at Williams. (Ellen Beebe represented us at Grace’s ordination yesterday.)

And some of you know that Ann Clark-Killam, a friend of St. John’s, will be ordained a pastor in the United Church of Christ in late September. At the beginning of July she’ll become Pastor of the Richmond Congregational Church.

What may feel unusual about this set of ordinations is their ecumenical character, yet in common among them is that each woman journeyed with us for a while here at St. John’s. Whatever role we may have played in their vocations, we can thank God for the privilege of having played it, for not having convinced them that seeking ordination was the last thing they ought to do, and for having given them something of us to keep with them in the future.

Thirty-five years ago tomorrow I was ordained a deacon in St. John’s Cathedral in Providence. I was raised in a suburb nearby, and the congregation of St. Mark’s in Riverside played a big role in my growing up. The ladies there laid out a generous spread of sandwiches and desserts on the afternoon of that service in Providence. I suspect that half of them might have been saying, “I always thought he’d make a good clergyman,” while the other half were wondering, “Him? Wasn’t he that chunky kid who used to sing in the junior choir?”

That was 1973. I was one of several young men ordained that day by Bishop Fred Belden, a man who every day wore red sox. He was proud to show his baseball loyalty, and I think he was the kind of man who enjoyed making it difficult for people to take him too seriously.

In 1973, the Episcopal Church ordained to the priesthood only men. Women were enrolled in Episcopal seminaries, several of my classmates among them, including Jeannette Piccard in her late 70’s, noted balloonist and first woman to enter the stratosphere. They would help break that stained-glass ceiling. And when it happened the very next year, 1974, the sound of smashing glass was heard around the Anglican Communion, in part because it happened renegade-style, eleven women strongly qualified for the office (including Jeannette Piccard) were ordained priests by several bishops who were fed up with the foot-dragging of the American Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. The bunch of them resisted resistance to change, and acted with prophetic courage.

You’ll see a photo from this event on your leaflet insert today. Notice that this bishop is no young man. He and his comrades were, I believe, retired and willing to risk their pensions in breaking with tradition—though many urged stronger retribution than that. These were bishops who in the 50’s and 60’s had helped put the L in Liberal, and were convinced that God’s justice and compassion needed to be shown, not just talked about.

If you’ll read the little essay on that insert, you’ll catch another L word, Lambeth Conference. At the end of this month, 800 or more Anglican bishops from all around the globe will gather in England for the once-every-decade conference named for Lambeth Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The two weeks they spend together will not result in legislative action, but, hopefully, in better understanding across cultures and theologies.

The Lambeth Conference of 1968 issued a statement refusing to support the ordination of women. The Lambeth Conference of 1978 showed the bishops (to quote this essay) “that the world had moved on without them. Women had already been ordained in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.” Lambeth 2008 will see the arrival of at least ten female bishops (and their husbands).

While first to be ordained in the American church, the Philadelphia Eleven weren’t first in the Anglican Communion. Florence Li Tim-Oi, resident of Hong Kong, was ordained a deaconess in 1941, just months before the fall of Hong Kong to Japan. The Bishop of Hong Kong decided that new occasions were teaching new duties, and in 1944 ordained Florence a priest. After the war ended, controversy flared over her ordination. She chose not to exercise her priesthood until the Anglican Communion acknowledged it. Her bishop nonetheless made her rector of a parish, and insisted she be called priest. After the Communists came to power in China, Florence tried to work within that system—but was eventually accused of counter-revolutionary activity and was forced to undergo political re-education, working (until 1974, when she retired) in a factory. Five years later the churches reopened, and Florence resumed public ministry. Visiting family members in Canada in 1981, she was licensed as a priest in the Dioceses of Montreal and Toronto, where she finally settled.

Enough history for one morning. How do our readings today help us imagine what will soon be given to, and expected of, Brooke?

Like Abraham, Brooke will be expected to recognize the presence of God when she sees it, even in unexpected strangers who turn out to be angels unawares. Like Abraham, she’ll know that it’s as people eat together that they come to know one another (and, while she may not get away with turning to her spouse to rustle up the meal, as Abraham did with Sarah, she will know when it’s time to encourage her people to make cakes and serve them up).

Like Sarah, she will hear some amazing proposals and may laugh at some—but unlike Sarah, she won’t be listening in from outside the tent. She’ll be inside, and she’ll be facilitating her people in dialogue and discernment as they propose to one another how to fulfill the mission God has given them.

Like St. Paul, Brooke will become more and more familiar with the mystery of faith, that it is the power that unites us to God and to one another, and is somehow made of the messy mix of suffering, endurance, character, hope, and love. Nothing like a congregation to teach you that! And to constantly reinforce the core of the mystery: that at the right time God acts, not waiting for us to get our house in perfect order, but ordering our household through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us—not primarily to the ordained by the Spirit moving in ordination, but primarily to the entire household of faith by the Spirit moving in baptism.

And like the first apostles, Brooke, you will receive the preposterous mandate to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons—and as you try to lift a finger to attempt any of this, the memory of hands laid on you this afternoon will remind you that the preposterous mandate is given to the whole Church, not you alone, or your congregation alone.

Like the first apostles, those who are ordained today are sent out as sheep, meaning that the gifts they bring are in their flesh as well as in their spirit (isn’t a sheep worth its weight in what it produces through its very being, the wool, the meat?), but are also wise enough to know when to be perfectly still and deeply observant, like a snake, and when to just coo and hang around, innocent as a dove.

As rich as these readings are for a day of ordination, I find that the collect today says, clearly and simply, what an ordained pastor does. She helps God keep holy the people of God by consistently turning and returning their common life to the steadfast faith and love of God, so that they are saved from too many lesser pursuits than proclaiming God’s truth with boldness and ministering God’s justice with compassion, the central work and joy of every baptized person.

Collect for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost

"Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."