Thursday, December 24, 2009

Building the Priesthood of All Believers

From the Collect for the 4th Sunday of Advent:
"Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself..."

Fifty years ago tomorrow, a then-young man named Nicholas Phelps was ordained a priest in Christ’s holy catholic Church.

That last phrase is Prayer Book language describing our belief that to ordain someone a priest is to take action in the name of Jesus, symbolized by the stole that yokes each priest to the Gospel of Christ, and to ordain someone a priest is to take action on behalf of the holy catholic Church. Not just in the name of the particular congregation that priest is to serve, not just in the name of his or her diocese, and not just in the name of the Episcopal Church (which we seldom call “the holy catholic Church”), but in the name of, well, the whole enchilada, the universal Church, the Body of Christ in the world, the Church beyond walls and beyond tribal claims and beyond definitions that exclude people. The Church whose unity we don’t yet see, except when we look at the cross. The Church whose one voice we do not yet hear, except when we recite our creeds and sing certain great hymns. The Church whose behavior and integrity we long for, but too seldom contribute to, though we think we know that integrity when we see it.

That was a long preamble, wasn’t it? It was almost a pre-ramble, but I needed you to catch how part of a priest’s calling is, well, imprecise, unmeasurable, even deeply unrealistic . Not confined to being pastor to a local community, or taking part in the councils of a diocese, or representing the one particular tradition of Anglican Christianity, but trying to serve the movement of the Spirit of Christ recognizable in the world, the Spirit that is bonded to the human race, bound to free and reconcile and heal the whole created order. The first three of those roles (in parish, diocese, tradition) are one thing, but that last one is so idealistic and imprecise that few priests find it expected in their letters of agreement. But there it is, in the Book of Common Prayer. Utterly unrealistic—unless, of course, you believe that the Holy Spirit is the Church’s only essential reality.

And, while I don’t know Nicholas Phelps well enough to say, I’m going to guess that he does believe that. To have reached his 50th anniversary of ordination, I’d judge that he must.

Yes, back to Fr. Phelps. A 1956 graduate of Williams, he returned to Williamstown after seminary, and from 1959 to 1962 he was Curate here and Vicar of St. Andrew’s, Blackinton. Which means that, in all likelihood, fifty years ago tomorrow it was here in this place that he was ordained a priest.

He and I have only corresponded, never met, and I’m thinking it was either in our centennial year (1995) or during our capital campaign in 2005 that our correspondence started. When the invitation to attend his 50th anniversary arrived, earlier this month, I knew we had to have a hand in it. (I also knew that wouldn’t be by me attending, since it’s happening right now, at this moment, in St. Mark’s Church in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. If the snowstorm hasn’t shut them down.

And we’re there, indirectly. The service leaflet somewhere will say,
“The flowers at the altar are from the people of St. John's Parish, Williamstown, MA, and the people of St. Andrew's Church in Blackinton, MA, at whose altars The Rev. Nicholas Phelps first celebrated the Holy Eucharist, in thanksgiving for his faithful ministry in many places throughout fifty years.”

And we’ll be there in another way. When I saw that the parish Fr. Phelps assists at in his retirement is in Philadelphia, I went fishing for an ambassador to represent us. My first choice was Lindi Von Mutius, a 2003 Williams grad who was very much part of us here throughout her college years. She married recently, and is an attorney in Philadelphia.

I emailed her, described the situation, inquired how out of the way might it be for her to give us a Sunday morning by attending St. Mark’s, Rittenhouse Square. I knew she was worshiping somewhere, but hoped she could free herself to be our ambassador today.

“St. Mark’s is the church I go to!” she wrote back. And it’s partly because of Fr. Phelps, I gather, that Lindi worships there. So Lindi took charge of arranging for those flowers, and the last I heard she was aiming for purple thistles, the purple, I’m sure, for Advent… or is it for Williams?

And what became of Fr. Phelps after he left here? He became Assistant Chaplain at UCLA for two or three years, then Chaplain until 1970. Counting his time here, that was eleven years working with the Episcopal Society for Ministry in Higher Education. Then he served as Rector of Trinity Church in Buckingham, PA, for ten years, and from 1981 until his retirement in 1998, Rector of St. James Church, Bristol, outside Philadelphia, where he continues to live.

St. John’s has been privileged to help God incubate many candidates for ordination. This fall, I heard from another member of the Class of 2003 at Williams, Grey Maggiano, who is seeking ordination in the Diocese of Virginia. He says of St. John’s that we taught him that the Church can be more than just a protector of traditions, that we showed him how a church can be welcoming to a wide variety of people while still retaining its Anglican roots.

Doesn’t that sound as if St. John’s is acting like a priest? That would be the priesthood of all believers, the community’s ministry that a priest is called to nurture and promote.

We’re every bit as privileged when we help God raise up bright and gifted lay leaders like Lindi. She and her new husband Chris are laying hands on a mission congregation of St. Mark’s. It’s named St. James’, and it’s located in an old neighborhood, ethnically and socially diverse, not wealthy or thriving. Lindi says that for her the real action is there, where members are learning to reach out into their community to serve it where and how it needs. Youth groups come from neighboring parishes to clean and maintain the place, and Lindi meets them with cupcakes, hundreds of cupcakes. She’s the Cupcake Lady.

That’s pretty realistic ministry, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why God apportions vocations sparingly: Priests account for some tiny percentage way below 1% of the Episcopal Church’s membership. The other 99+% of the Church, working in and moving about in the world, may be better positioned than the clergy for recognizing the movement of the Spirit beyond the walls of the local church.

But the truth is, clergy and laity, the whole 100%, need each other, together form the priesthood of believers, and together need beyond themselves the Spirit of God and all people who are open to being agents of that Spirit in the world. Then we may make headway on that mansion, that livable dwelling-place open to all, sustained by the Spirit, useful to the Spirit, prepared for the Son of God when he comes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Then Should We Do at Christmas?

Luke 3:7-18 is the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday in Advent

Each Christmas, we get spellbound by Luke’s telling the story of our Lord’s birth. He’s the only one of the four Gospel writers to tell the story, I mean the full one, the one we like to hear, complete with shepherds, angels, and assorted barnyard creatures.

What would people think if, on Christmas Eve, we substituted for that second chapter of Luke today’s portion from the third chapter?

Can’t you picture our two churchfuls of people, many of them on annual visitation, hearing those immortal words, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Here we are, on the third Sunday in Advent, when the lighting of the pink candle seems to say, “Lighten up!”--and that’s what we get: “You brood of vipers!” But we’re tough. We can take it. I mean, John the Baptizer’s version of Christmas. But is it the one we want to hear?

Why am I calling this stirring passage John’s version of Christmas? Because he’s preparing the way of the Lord, the Messiah who comes in God’s name. For St. Luke to give us this chapter 3 right on top of his Christmas story in chapter 2, it must be that he’s showing us how John the Baptizer’s confrontational message teaches us why this baby Jesus is born, and what difference it should make in our lives that he has come to us.

As brash and bold as John’s words are, it was with such exhortations that “he proclaimed the good news to the people.” In chapter 2, Luke puts good news in the voice of the angel, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Can’t you hardly wait to hear those quintessentially Christmas words come from the sweet high voice of a child in our Christmas pageant?

Step across into chapter 3 and Luke puts good news in the voice of fearless John who raises everyone’s self-expectation, as well as stirring-up their expectation of God. In chapter 2, we see what God does in Bethlehem of Judea: sheer grace, gift. In chapter 3, the central question is “What then should we do?” What behavior, what ethical choices might be in keeping with such grace, such gift?

What, then, should we do?

General unrestrained merry-making? No, that would be what you do if you’re first-century Romans keeping the December feast of Saturnalia… inspiration for American office Christmas parties…

Run yourself into the ground, sacrificing your own health and happiness to meet the expectations of others? No, that too is based on pagan ideas about it being good to suffer in the flesh in order to meet the demands of the spirit.

Shop until we drop? Assume that more is better, that salvation is a matter of raising our own standard of living? For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone might make the month of December the most expensive, acquisitive, and wasteful extravaganza on the face of the earth?

What then should we do?

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Do we turn the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus into an Olympic competition in retail spending because, when we get right down to it, we are so afraid of the dark? And so afraid of death? Do we surround ourselves with things that have color and radiance and glitter because otherwise December drags us into a dark night of the soul? Do we turn Bethlehem into bedlam because we lack the patience and courage to go deeper with God into our own spiritual journey? Is it easier to change dark December than it is to undergo the change of heart that is invited by the word “repent”? Isn’t the only way to the new light through the darkness?

And that is where John’s Christmas message begins. Perhaps before we can deal with the question, “What then should we do?”, we must ask, “Of what do we have to repent?”

Susan K. Bock offers some answers in a confession litany she has written for Advent. She starts by saying to God, “Emmanuel, we want to believe you are with us dwelling in this and every moment,” then completes the story by the response she gives the people, “But we pine for the past and rush toward the future.”

“We want to be found wide awake, alert with love, as you appear in this and every moment,” she prays again, and has the people answer, “But we slumber through and laze away the miracle of ordinary days.”

“We want to wait for you alone, with desire and hope,”… “But our trust fails, our longing grows cold, and our hope dims.”

“We want to make room in our hearts, a safe and warm place, for you to be born,”… “But we close our hearts, and harden them to you and your people.”

She ends her confession—and it could be ours—by praying, “We confess our failures at love,”…and has the people respond, “We are sorry; we ask your forgiveness.”

In a similar way, John the Baptizer must have brought the people along to recognize their need to prune away some of their own darkness, and to recognize as fruitless some of their own branches (their values, their habits, their priorities): “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” says John rather mystically and confrontationally, as he makes his case for the incarnation of God in Jesus, the birthing of the Messiah in our midst, as being all about the fruitfulness of love.

“Then what must we do?”, we ask.

“Share what you have,” he answers. You have two coats? Do you need them both? Give one to someone who has none. That’s his answer to every one of us, everyman, everywoman, everychild.

Then some special cases step forward. Tax collectors, asking what they should do. “Don’t gouge the public,” he answers.

Soldiers ask the same question. “Don’t bully people into paying you bribes, learn to live within your means.”

They called him Teacher, suggesting how important John would be in preparing the way for Jesus our Teacher.

Put yourself at the feet of either teacher, John or Jesus, and put to him your question about your own special case. What do you hear him say, as…

Teachers and writers come to him, asking, “What should we do?”

Investment bankers come to him, asking the same question.

Medical doctors come to him…what about us?

Lawyers… clergy… artists come to him…and us? What should we do?

Parents, grandparents, children come to him… What about us?

In common among all John’s answers are certain ways of being: Be generous in your sharing. Be fair and just. Be respectful and thoughtful.

And those traits, which we see made flesh perfectly in Jesus our teacher, are among the traits we commit ourselves to when we make and renew our baptismal covenant. No wonder that they could be the right traits of a Christmas celebration that truly honors the Messiah who has come.

Some may be dreaming of a white Christmas. John the Baptizer calls us to a generous Christmas, a fair Christmas, a respectful Christmas. May such be ours, by our own choice, in response to the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.