Monday, September 29, 2008

Homily:C.Davies Reed Priesthood Ordination, Indianapolis, IN 9/27/08

C. Davies Reed graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary on Friday, June 1, 2007. For the three years prior to that, Davies had been in residence at the seminary, and in addition to his work in the classroom, field education, and community events, Davies was an extremely faithful chapel-goer. I don’t believe I ever found myself at a Seabury liturgy where Davies was not present, and I too went to chapel a lot.
Now Davies was well known for many things in chapel—he has a beautiful singing voice and an liturgical demeanor. But perhaps his greatest claim to fame was the regularity with which he prayed, aloud, in the daily intercessions for Mitch Daniels, the Governor of your state. There’s a place in the prayers where we pray for the President and all those in authority and leave a space for “the leaders of our several homelands”, and at that point Davies would always boom out the name “Mitch!” As well-intentioned as this practice was, it actually precipitated a spiritual crisis for many of our students. In Illinois we don’t feel quite so cheerful about Rod Blagoavich as you all seem to do about Mitch Daniels—Governor Blagoavich always reminds me of Mayor Quimby on The Simpsons—and the New Yorkers didn’t want to scream out “Eliot!” nor the Californians “Arnold!” every time Davies boomed out the name “Mitch!” So no other governors ever got their names mentioned. But Davies is such a charismatic leader that eventually other students, none of them Hoosiers, began praying for Mitch, too. By the time of Davies’ graduation, we were all praying for your governor on a daily basis. Under the spell of Davies natural authority, we couldn’t help ourselves. At Awards Night, after noting the succeeding triumphs of the Daniels administration during Davies’ tenure in seminary, I bestowed upon Davies the honorary award for “Intercessory Excellence” for the way in which he had almost singlehandedly made the Governor of Indiana’s life a blessing through his own faithfulness in intercessory prayer.
C. Davies Reed graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary on Friday, June 1, 2007. On June 9, 2007—eight days after our chapel closed down for the summer and Davies left Seabury for good—the following story appeared in the Indianapolis Star:
Governor’s hog earns him a bite from farm’s dog
Dogs may not be a governor's best friend -- especially when they're startled by a governor's motorcycle. Gov. Mitch Daniels was bitten on the leg by a dog at a farm just outside Bloomington on Wednesday after the governor unintentionally startled the animal with his Harley-Davidson.

I submit that happened because we stopped praying for him. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that I remain on Davies’ personal prayer list.


We’re here this morning to witness and support God’s setting aside of C. Davies Reed to the priesthood in Christ’s Church. Before we do that, church tradition asks that we think together a bit about what scripture might have to say to us this morning. So listen again to what we just heard Jesus say:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. [John 10.14-15]

That’s just one, dense, sentence, but it holds within it a whole world of meaning. By comparing himself to a shepherd, Jesus tells us that he is someone who loves, looks out for, cares for those entrusted to his charge. Nothing too startling about that. But then there’s this: Jesus insists that he knows us, just as he and his Father know each other. Now that’s a bit more surprising. How can a shepherd really know the sheep? Jesus seems to be saying that the same kind of intimate connectedness which he and his Father share characterizes the way a shepherd should know his sheep because it is the way Jesus knows each one of us. When we hear this read at an ordination, we cannot escape the implication that there is something in the way a priest relates to God’s people which mirrors, reflects the way the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows us. Jesus is the good shepherd. Priesthood, like all other sacramental signs in the Church, is about relationship. If what we are witnessing today has any claim to be authentically of God and the Jesus who calls us into fellowship with that One, then the kind of intimacy we see in the love of the Father and the Son for each other and of Jesus for us must characterize the way a priest and the people in that priest’s care know and love and look out for one another.
How do you and I make sense of all this “shepherd” and “sheep” language? I for one have never found the comparison a flattering one. I don’t mind thinking of Jesus (or even Davies) as a shepherd, but (as Chris Rock might say) who you callin’ a sheep? Sheep are not the most disciplined nor discerning of creatures. They don’t have the best possible judgment. And they tend to follow leaders whose credentials have not been established. As accurate a description as that might be of us, we don’t inhabit a world with shepherds and sheep in it anymore. Is there another image of the priest that might help us out here?
Earlier this month I went to a reading by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Paul Muldoon, who is (among other things) a Professor at Princeton, the Poetry Editor of The New Yorker and a passable rock and roll musician in his spare time. As much as I loved the reading, I was most powerfully struck by what he said later about the process of writing poetry. Here is what he said about poets: “They’re out to do the very best by the poem that is coming into the world through them.” And then he went on to suggest that the thing a poet wants to do for that poem is “allowing it to become itself through one, to do what it needs to do to be what it has to be in the world.” As I was listening to Muldoon talk, I could not help thinking of the theological language we use in the church about the Virgin Mary. We call her the theotokos, the “God-bearer”. The poet is the person who bears the poem into the world. The theotokos is the one who bears God in the form of Jesus into the world. When Jesus talks about shepherd and sheep, might there be a way for us to think of the priestly shepherd in a new way--as a poet—and to think of us as his poems? Or might we be able to look at a priest and see her as someone giving birth to the divine life of the people entrusted to her care? Like the poet, like the Virgin Mary, the priest is one who helps bear the divine into the world, who does, in Muldoon’s words, “the very best by the [divine life] that is coming into the world through them; who allows, also in his words, each person “to become [himself or herself] through one, to do what [he or she] needs to do to be what [he or she] has to be in the world.” [Radio West, KUER, 9/18/08]
So suspend for a minute your image of the shepherd and the sheep and think instead of the priest as a poet or as a woman in childbirth, someone who is doing the very best by that thing or person coming into the world, someone whose job it is to let that person do what she needs to do to be who she has to be in the world. That, it seems to me, is what a priest really is: in one sense a shepherd, in another more of a poet or better yet a midwife. The job of the priest is to work, with us and with God, to bring to birth what God is doing in and through us. Now what do I mean by that?
What I mean by that is this: to the extent that we make the priest the focal point, the center of attention, of life in the church, then we are looking at the wrong thing. Jesus pointed not to himself but to his Father, to the One whose love and justice are at the center of the universe. In comparing himself to a shepherd, Jesus reminds us that the shepherd’s concern is not with himself or his own reputation, but rather with the sheep who are entrusted to his care. The poet, the midwife—these too are people concerned not so much with themselves but with the ones they are bringing to birth in the world. The priest’s job is not to proclaim himself. The priest’s job is to be a shepherd, a poet, a midwife of those in his charge. Her work is about letting her people become whom God is calling them to be.
Four hundred years ago, our greatest theologian, Richard Hooker, said two great things about the Christian life. First, he said, that the goal of every creature in the universe is to become the authentic, complete person whom God created them to be. Second, he said, that the ministry of every creature in the universe is to assist every other creature in becoming their authentic selves. In other words: as a human being, you have two obligations. One is to become the person God made you to be. The second is to assist other people in becoming themselves, too. So in the language we’ve been using to think about shepherds and sheep and poets and midwives and priests this morning, it is the role of the priest to gather a church community in such a way that the people in that gathered community move more fully into the their own authentic, unique realization as beloved human beings created in God’s image and at the same time learn to love each other and the world in such a way as they too live that sheperdly poetic midwifely vocation of assisting others become themselves, too. It is all of our vocations as human beings to live fully into the image of God in Jesus Christ which is our destiny. It is the vocation of the priest to help us do that.

When we think about things this way, it is easier now to come back to the image Jesus uses in today’s Gospel and get at what it is saying to Davies and to us as he steps forward into the priestly life:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. [John 10.14-15]

Jesus is our good shepherd. He knows us and we know him, just as he and the One he calls his Father know and love each other. Though we have only one good shepherd, Jesus, it is still the case that out of the sheeply likes of you and me we call people, like Davies, to step forward and dare to give their lives to the shepherdly work of knowing and loving us in such a way that we can come to bear what God is doing in each of us into the world. This is not, as you can imagine, easy work. It not only requires that you come to know and love people whom, in another life, you might not be able to stand. It also requires that you become, in a way, transparent. Being a priest is not about you. It is about Jesus and about bringing forth his image in the people entrusted to your care. A friend of mine once compared priesthood to walking around through life with your pockets full of rocks. At times it feels that way, but they’re the rocks that ground us and root us in the work which God and Jesus call us to do. We are not the light, but we are called to bear witness to the light. The light, as John the Baptist said, is coming into the world. And it is born into the world by the sheeply likes of you and me. And it is the priest’s shepherdly, midwifely, poet-like job to bring what God is doing in each and all of us to birth.
And so, Davies: You are, and will continue to be, an impressive person, and not only because your prayer life keeps the governor from falling off his motorcycle. You have great public and private skills. You are smart, you are entrepreneurial, you are compassionate, and you are deeply faithful. Yet as impressive a person as you are, that is not what your priesthood is about. Your call, as is the call of all of us in this order, is to be the vehicle by which your people will live out to completion what God is doing in and through their lives. You are called now to be a poet, a midwife, one who brings to birth the divine thing that God is doing in the world not so much in yourself now but in those entrusted to your care. Jesus is your good shepherd. To the extent that you know that good shepherd and that good shepherd knows you, you now will take your place among the company of those whose true calling is the bearing of God’s divine purposes into this beautiful yet broken world. And if you are as faithful in that as you have been in the journey which has brought you to this place, then God will give you grace to be a good shepherd, too. Amen.