Monday, January 5, 2009

Thirty-Five Years a Priest

The propers for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas include Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; and Matthew 2:1-12.

Thirty-five years ago tomorrow, I was ordained to the priesthood. This happened in St. Andrew’s Church in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where by then I’d served for six months as Assistant to the Rector. I was soon to be twenty-seven years old, had long dark hair, and was two waist sizes leaner. I was engaged to be married that summer to my college sweetheart, Diana, then a school teacher in southern Virginia, and with me that evening as I disappeared under a canopy of priests and bishops leaning in to lay-on hands in the apostolic gesture by which we believe God the Holy Spirit likes to move in blessing and in power.

Conrad Gesner, retired Bishop of South Dakota and resident in that parish, officiated. This tall and holy man would lay his hands on your head in blessing and knead you as if you were a lump of dough. Just before that moment of holy huddle when many hands brought to bear the divine pressure of gravitas and grace, a door was heard to open and a rustling of vestments getting adjusted, as Alexander Stewart, Bishop of Western Massachusetts, slid into home plate, returning from another commitment. It meant a lot to me, and I believe to him, that his were among those hands, for he had helped me form faith from my childhood. I had served as one of his acolytes at the altar of St. Mark’s Church in Riverside, Rhode Island. There wasn’t a moment in my young life when I was not certain of his care for me and his confidence in me… at times possessing more of that than I did. Like the time when he was recuperating from surgery, couldn’t drive for a week, and determined that that week (I was on spring break from college) was the week he would teach me to drive a standard transmission so he could make some of his appointed rounds. I learned a good deal about conversion of life that week. As we tackled College Hill on the east side of Providence, a city bus in front and another right behind, we both discovered new dimensions of grace.

I have no doubt that he played a major role in my sensing a tidal pull towards becoming a priest, as he did for many young people, counting it every bit as much of a success when what they became was teacher, dancer, engineer, homemaker— while also keenly committed to being part of the priesthood of all believers. It was all a seamless robe to him, the garment of gladness and righteousness with which Jesus Christ vests his Church.

And there were other men and women whose witness, whose practice of faith and leadership, caused me to admire, and want, and sense a pathway of service in and through the Church. This sensing survived, even thrived during, my years in college… almost didn’t survive my first two years in seminary, was revived during an internship in the Berkshires (when I served for fifteen months as youth minister at St. Stephen’s, Pittsfield) and renewed in a final year of seminary.

I’ve told this story before. On a retreat at a monastery just before I was ordained a deacon in 1973, I told my confessor that I was feeling unworthy to be ordained. I’d jumped through all the hoops expected by my seminary and my diocese, but I was flunking confidence. “Unworthy, you say,” he responded. “Did it ever occur to you that ordination is not about God or the Church needing you, but about you needing this pathway of service for your soul’s health?”

I’m not sure that my confessor would have been successful defending that approach with either the theologians at my seminary or the diocesan psychologist. But no, I hadn’t let myself taste grace that deeply, and he amazed me by his answer. It was just the ju-jitsu I needed to help open me to what God might be up to, just the corrective to invest confidence in God, not in myself.

I hear each of our four portions of scripture today offering an answer to the twin questions, What is a priest? What does a priest do in God’s service?

Jeremiah has a vision of the reign of God in the midst of a renewed people. The first step is God’s gathering of his scattered people, and the climax is God’s converting Israel’s mourning into joy, as if God were a gardener watering dry dust and seeds into lush growth, or as if a dancer delighting an audience and drawing them into the dance, giving them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah helps me see how priesthood requires recognizing that God is the gatherer and the converter. The priest serves that gathering, but it is God who gathers, God who calls each and all to take their place at the table of new life. The priest serves that converting and transforming, often by pastoral care for people as they grieve their losses. But it is God who gives conversion of life.

I notice that God promises to give the priests their fill of fatness. My last 35 years, at one table but in four different locations (Longmeadow, Easthampton, Worcester, and Williamstown) have fed me with rich relationships, uncountable privilege in accompanying people in their rites of passage, adventure in liturgy, support and challenge in preaching, and responsibilities I never wanted (landlording, fundraising, furnace-tending) but, in a religion of Incarnation, even these have opened pathways for the Spirit.

Psalm 84 sings a love song that any priest knows by heart, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” The laity, the whole people of God, know this deep delight in the beauty of holiness, I know. It isn’t just the priest, it’s also the organist, the altar guild member, the forever parishioner and the newest visitor who rightly feel like sparrows finding their house and swallows a nest by the side of God’s altar. It is the whole priesthood of believers who happily dwell in God’s house. The priest’s role is not to make them happy, but to lead people to where true joy is to be found, by truthful ministry of Word, sacrament, and community. And it is to lead that community in making sure their house of prayer is also a house of hospitality.

The apostle writing to the Ephesians describes that knowing of God that every priest in apostolic orders wants for her or his people and so teaches them to see with the eyes of the heart enlightened, that they may know what is the hope to which God has called them, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for all who believe.

Matthew’s story of the adoration of the magi reminds me that it takes a diversity of gifts brought to Jesus to effectively serve the world. What might those three gifts mean to a priest? Gold, to raise up brave stewardship of our resources, material and mystical, for the work of God in the world. Incense, to represent prayer without which there is no sustained ministry in the world. Myrrh, that in the midst of life there is death and at the edge of death is life, that at the heart of everything for the Christian is the pulsing of two mysteries, Christmas incarnation and Easter resurrection.

And while the gifts matter, the bearers of gifts matter more. That there are three seekers at the stable recommends teamwork and partnership as the hallmark of wise ministry. In Anglican governance, a parish priest leads only in tandem with a Vestry, and at the core of that team is a smaller one, its Steering Committee, and at the core of that is a yet smaller partnership of wardens and rector. In the Anglican way, a priest works partnered with his or her Bishop—the vows of ordination include a vow of obedience to one’s Bishop.

In all these partnerings and all this teamwork, we’re simply lining up behind the magi, and alongside the apostles, wise ones who model for us the miracle that in God’s service individuals who love God are united and transformed into the living Body of Christ.

A priest gets to witness this wonder, and play a part in this conversion of life which is the common pathway of the priesthood of all believers, whose one ministry in the world is the ongoing priestly work of Jesus Christ, the reconciliation of all people to God and to one another in him.

I am grateful to God for the privilege and responsibility of being a priest. I am grateful for you and for the hundreds of other people over these thirty-five years who have helped God form a priest, have helped me become one, and have encouraged me to keep on keeping the vows I made on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, 1974.