Chrism Mass with Delaware Clergy

April 7, 2009

I was in Quincy this weekend for their reorganizing convention.  I did a lot of question and answer work like what we’ve done here this morning.  The questions were fascinating, and somewhat different than the ones I hear in dioceses that are closer to the mainstream in TEC.  Sunday afternoon, someone asked me, “if it’s OK for New Hampshire to elect the person they elected, why isn’t it right for the church to accept a bishop who believes that women shouldn’t be ordained?”  We started with the canons, and the expectation that dioceses are expected to provide access to the discernment process for women, even if the bishop is unwilling to ordain them himself.  That led us into a conversation about discernment for ordained ministry, and the mutuality of discernment between an individual and the wider community.  It’s clear that not everyone should be ordained, but it should be equally clear that every baptized person is meant to be involved in ministry.  If we asked vocational questions of all the faithful, and did the discernment work as carefully there with all our members, we would have fewer questions and fights over discernment to ordained ministry.

You and I know that ordination means limitation.  I can’t do things as PB that I did as Bp of Nevada, and I couldn’t do things as Bp of Nevada that I did as a priest in Oregon, and I couldn’t do things as a priest in Oregon that I did as a lay person.  An example:  I visited the Diocese of Vermont shortly after the House of Bishops met in New Orleans and offered its clarification of B033, that most of them understood that candidates whose manner of life offered a challenge to the wider communion included partnered gay and lesbian persons.  The clergy in Vermont were livid, and finally I said to them, you know, when I was Bp of Nevada my responsibility was to a different group of people than it is now.  I’m supposed to be pastor to the whole church, and that includes people who are certain that Gene Robinson is in the right place and people who are certain he shouldn’t have been ordained.  I may not agree with all of them, but my task is to provide pastoral care, or see that it is provided, for all the people in this church.

Each time we say yes to this service, it involves a diminishment, a lessening of some kinds of freedom.  Think about the focus of your own ministry – where does most of it take place?  Baptismal ministry takes place mostly out there in daily life, in the world.  Deacons have much greater access to the wider community than most parish priests do.  Deacons’ primary responsibility is the community beyond the church walls, and most priests’ responsibility is primarily within the congregational community.  Bishops are in the awkward place of pastoring the clergy as well as accepting a pastoral responsibility for the community beyond the church, in a less hands-on and more systemic way than most deacons do.

That kind of limitation is at least part of what the collect we heard is pointing toward when it says, “grant us so to glory in the cross that we gladly suffer shame and loss.”  We have accepted a loss and limitation for the sake of the gospel.  Part of that loss has to be a willingness to surrender the ministry of leadership to others in the community.  The much-distressed dioceses of this church where former leaders have voted to leave have given us clear examples of how possessive leadership leads to dysfunction.  Ordained leadership is supposed to be kenotic – the kind of self-emptying that God did in becoming human – and so is the ministry of the baptized.  We’re all supposed to give ministry away, build it up in others, and get ourselves off center stage.  That does look shameful in the world’s eyes.

That kind of shame and loss is what Jesus is talking about when he says you have to die to bear fruit, and you have to lose your life in order to save it, and hate it to keep it for eternity.  We’re asked to be servants, at the service of the hungry and needy – but servants who work for transformation, not servants who coddle dysfunction and dependence.  When those Greeks come to Philip saying they want to see Jesus, that’s what he shows them – somebody who serves; feeds and heals; teaches, equips, and challenges others; someone who gives power away – and who at the last surrenders even life itself.

And in that surrender is the abundance of life for which we were created and redeemed.  The freedom to discover that our territory is the whole world, and we don’t need to possess it, for God has given us that garden as a field ready for harvest.

Think about the way in which we specify those losses and shames, those ordered spheres of ministry, when we examine a candidate baptism or for ordained ministry.

The deacon is challenged to “serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely” and “seek not your glory but the glory of the Lord Christ.”

The priest is challenged to “love and serve the people among whom you work” and “offer all your labors to God.”

The bishop is reminded to “encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries,” “to be merciful to all, show compassion to poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper,” and “to follow him who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

All of these are rooted in “will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, persevere in resisting evil, seek and serve Christ in all persons, proclaim good news by word and example, and strive for justice among all people?”

The challenge comes in this reaffirmation of ordination vows, which could have been written with any of us in mind:  “dear friends, the ministry we share is none other than the sacrificial ministry of Christ.”

What have been the shames and losses in your journey?  How have they let you see Jesus?  Where has been the blessing?

My adult spiritual journey began in the death of a childhood friend.  It led me back to a church community to wrestle with the loss.  My inability to continue as an oceanographer in my early 30s was a profound shame – suddenly I had lost my identity and the dream I’d worked toward for many years.  Beginning the journey toward ordination was an acknowledgement that that dream was finally dead.  When I graduated from seminary, I had 3 part-time offers, 2 of them 90 miles away from my family.  I chose the one in the community that had nurtured my priestly vocation.  Before long, I had to attend the institution of a friend and classmate as rector.  For a while, I felt shamed, that I hadn’t lived up to that standard somebody else had set.  But I began to discover that part-time ministry in the parish gave me at once the opportunity to learn the discipline of managing time, the ability to say yes to other ministries like teaching at the university and being a hospice chaplain, and the ability to challenge the workaholic rector.  He used to say that he was the most responsible person he knew.  I’m still trying to find the balance between servanthood and overfunctioning – one is grace and blessing, the other sin and selfishness – and indeed the opposite of kenotic leadership.

What loss and shame has shown you the glory of servanthood?