Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Homily: Lauren McDonald Priesthood Ordination, Toano VA 8/23/08

In 1990 my wife Kathy and I went to see a Tom Hanks movie called Joe Versus the Volcano, and while I have forgotten the picture itself I remember two things about the experience. First, and most painfully, this was the first time in my life I was issued a senior ticket by the teenage vendor without being asked. I was 41 years old. The second thing I remember about Joe Versus the Volcano is this line screamed several times into a telephone by the actor Dan Hedaya: “I know he can GET the job but can he DO the job?” I don’t remember the plot, the situation, the context, or anything else about Joe Versus the Volcano. But I do remember the line, “I know he can GET the job but can he DO the job?” It has become a catch phrase in our family.
Now that’s an odd way of beginning an ordination sermon, especially for someone as able and accomplished as Lauren McDonald—a recent seminary graduate who actually HAS a job. I am not asking, “I know she can GET the job but can she DO the job?” about Lauren. Having known her as a student and seminary leader for three years, I’m convinced that there is not a job on the planet that Lauren McDonald can’t do. At the risk of turning this into a testimonial dinner oration, Lauren is smart, organized, compassionate, and deeply grounded in the faith. So I don’t ask that question about her. But I do ask it about some of the people who feel called to ordained ministry in the 21st century. It seems to me that many folks who present themselves for ordination these days are more concerned with BEING a priest than with DOING what the church needs them to do. And that is one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about Lauren: though she may have left the theater behind, she is still deeply in touch with her internal stage manager. If you’ve ever seen Lauren in the midst of a project, surrounded by the people today’s Gospel calls “harassed and helpless”, striding purposefully and carrying a clipboard, you know the kind of organizational expertise I’m talking about. And, as much as she may have succeeded in developing other aspects of her personality, it is that particular “stage-manager” gift which is so needed by the church today. As William Sloane Coffin once said to me, “Anybody can preach. Blessed are those who can organize!”
Lauren can preach. She can also think, teach, preside, and pray. She’s the kind of person I would call up in a crisis or want to visit my sickbed. Her ministry is a gift to the church, and I’m grateful to her for answering God’s persistent nagging call to living the ordained life. Our ordination process is so obsessed with roadblocks that often we forget simply to say, “Thanks.” Thank you, Lauren, for offering yourself to a life of this work.
Now all of this comes to mind because of the readings Lauren has chosen for today. From the sixth chapter of Isaiah, God asks “‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” And Isaiah answers, ‘Here am I; send me!’” From the ninth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” But especially from the fourth chapter of Ephesians (my personal favorite book of the Bible), the writer of that letter says this:

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. [Ephesians 4.7, 11-13]

The New English Bible puts it this way: Christ has given each believer “his due portion of Christ’s bounty.” And what that means is this twofold truth: the gifts that Christ gives us make us the unique people we are. And those gifts bind us together into one body. What the New English Bible calls “Christ’s bounty” therefore makes us both individually different and spiritually united. And if I understand priesthood at all, the author of Ephesians is asking that we think about all priests, and especially Lauren whom God is setting apart today, as stewards of that bounty. “I know she can GET the job but can she DO the job?” We know that God has called Lauren both to BEING a priest and to DOING the work of a priest. But as one final scriptural nudge before we seal the deal, let’s think together about what it means, for a priest, to be a steward of Christ’s bounty, to be a shepherd of unity and difference.

One of the things that make Ephesians such a beautiful book is that it is an extended meditation on Baptism and the church which Baptism creates. Over the past several decades, we have come to a renewed appreciation of Baptism and how it both binds us all together into one body and also gives us each a unique identity. A Baptismal vision would have us see Christian people as those who get our identity both from membership in the larger body of Christ and particularly as creatures precious in and of ourselves made in the image of God and transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now when we think about priesthood, and what a priest DOES, the most important gift a priest can have in the 21st century is the ability to gather community—to be a steward of Christ’s bounty. That’s an essential gift not only because contemporary Western life is so alienating and lonely. Christianity always pushes against every culture it resides in, and the Gospel has some powerfully critical things to say about the way we have let contemporary culture and technology separate us from each other. But the priest needs to be able to gather community not only in response to contemporary society’s maladies. The priest gathers community because, simply, we cannot experience the fullness of God’s desires for us and our world without each other. As Anglicanism’s great theologian Richard Hooker put it, the ministry of every creature in the universe is to help every other creature realize its perfection, the end for which it was created. Christianity is not a cult where the guru takes on disciples who sit at his feet. Christianity is the living Body of Christ in the world. That’s not a metaphor; it’s an actual fact. You and I are Christ’s body in the world, and the priest is a woman or a man who can gather us and lead us into the kind of relationships in which we, as loved creatures, help each other realize our own completion or perfection. We all achieve what Ephesians calls “maturity” only with and through the company of each other. So the priest is not here to dispense ingenious nuggets of wisdom about the Bible. The priest is here to gather us in such a way that we will live and work and pray and study and celebrate together to the end that all of us help each other to live more fully into the image of God made known in Jesus. That is primarily what the priest is here to do. The priest is a steward of Christ’s bounty, a shepherd of our unity. This doesn’t mean that the priest makes us agree with each other about everything. (This is the Episcopal Church we’re talking about.) This means that the priest convenes a community of real human beings in which everyone is afforded place, a voice, and the dignity of service.
But that’s not the whole story. As a steward of Christ’s bounty, the priest is also a shepherd of difference. In the old Prayer Book service, the priest used to say, “Name this child” before the moment of Baptism. And I think that baptismal question gets at the other part of Christian identity. Because if Baptism and life in the church are about being part of a body, so they’re also about becoming the unique person God created you to be. Thomas Merton defined salvation as discovering your authentic self. If we live in a world which separates and alienates us, we also live in a world which continually impels us to adopt a false identity, a mask or persona with which we greet the world and about which we often become confused ourselves. If priesthood is about building community, it is also about aiding individual women and children and men in the process of authentic self-discovery. If we believe, as we say we do, that God made each of us in God’s image, and if we believe, as we say we do, that in the Incarnation God became one of us in Jesus Christ, then that means that each precious human child of God has some truth to tell us and the world that is uniquely hers or his to tell. So part of what we mean when we talk about ministry as “pastoral” I believe has to do with this ongoing discovery of learning and claiming who you are as a creature of God and what God is doing uniquely and unrepeatably in and through your life now. We send priests to seminary not so they’ll learn the company line about what to say or do in every imaginable situation. We send them to seminary so that they can begin a lifelong process of discovering their own authentic selves, their own authentic faith, so that they can know and claim God’s activity in their own lives and so be a trustworthy guide to the rest of us. A priest is a steward of Christ’s bounty, a shepherd of unity and difference. I only have something to tell you if I truly know who I am. And I only have something to learn from you if you truly know who you are.
This process of mutual self-discovery and self-disclosure that we’re in is the work of the church, and it is the most important thing we have to offer each other and the world. It is too important, as a friend of mine used to say, “to politely fool around.” Real Christian communities and real Christian people talk and think and pray about hard and sometimes unpleasant things. God is up to something in us as a people, and God is up to something in each of us as individual human beings. And for some unfathomable but gracious reason, Lauren McDonald has consented to place herself, as an agent of God’s blessing and grace, right in the middle of all that.

These days it’s commonplace for me to get a senior ticket at the movies, even without asking. I’ve been a priest for 30+ years, and I may look older than I am, but it’s a fact that at many of the ordinations I come to, the ordinand is older than I am. Happily, Lauren is part of a reversal of that trend, and she is starting on this priestly journey now with a good stretch of working life before her. I have no idea what the Episcopal Church will look like institutionally 30 or 20, or even 10 years down the road, and I have no idea what kinds of ministries Lauren will be called to live into as the church evolves. Ordination these days is a “passport to adventure.” And it is into the life of this adventure that Lauren has given herself and is being ordained this morning.
And so, Lauren: God has called you to be a priest, a steward of Christ’s bounty, a shepherd of unity and difference. You have answered that call, and now you take your next steps as a shepherd. You’ve seen sheep, and you know that getting them to do anything together is always a challenging assignment. We sheep are not the easiest creatures to work with in groups, and individually we’re not much better. How many sheep can you think of who actually look at their lives in deeply prayerful reflection? Nevertheless, it is into this life and work of stewardship and gathering and of self-discovery and self-disclosure that you have been called. You have the faith, the skill, the intelligence, and most importantly, the compassion to do the work God has called you to do. May you always, surrounded by the harassed and helpless likes of us Christian sheep, continue to display the shepherdly leadership that is deeply ingrained in your spirit. And may you continue that process of self-discovery which will make you a trustworthy guide to the faithful, and which you exemplified when you responded to God’s prompting by saying, “Here am I, send me.” Amen.

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