CJ Dec. 12, 2010
Sermon at the Church of the Epiphany, Rumson RI
and the first Mass celebrated by the Rev. Edmund I. Harris
December 12, 2010
by the Rev. Constance Jones
Assoc. Rector, Grace Church, Yorktown VA
As I attended Edmund’s ordination yesterday evening,
I think I was overwhelmed with awe.
First of all because it is always a high honor to present someone for the priesthood,
and I was privileged to do this on behalf of Grace Church in Yorktown, Virginia,
the parish in which Edmund grew up,
and where I suspect God first whispered in his ear about becoming a priest.
Ordinations are always awe-inspiring anyway –
the bishop presides, a flock of clergy show up wearing red,
and there’s solemnity and ceremony and celebration.
But I think what took my breath away especially last night
was that a brilliant, talented young man I’ve come to care about deeply,
a fellow under 30 years of age no less,
would love God so much that he would make those promises,
and believe that planning to work for a lifetime in and for the church is,
well, a good idea.
Me, I didn’t take the leap until I passed fifty,
and then when I had a modest retirement income to count on.
To be a priest is to take on a very risky life, actually,
and I don’t mean just in employment security, which you have none of.
Or that, as Edmund and I both know, the church can bump you around a good bit.
So why is it risky?
Well, for one thing every day you’re called on to do new and hard things
that stretch you, or that you’ve never done before......
things that you’re really sure you don’t have the power to accomplish
unless God’s Holy Spirit shows up.
Now, the Holy Spirit does show up,
but you know with total certainty that every time
it’s only because the Spirit feels like showing up –
never by our command or on our schedule.
Then there’s another serious risk in priesthood,
because you’re called on to deal with people’s hearts –
their secrets, their deepest hope or grief or fear –
and never to harm them.
There’s a risk too in handling holy things, and speaking on behalf of Christ,
because you know, there are instances in the Bible
of people who handled holy things wrongly and got, well, incinerated for it.
But I also think that answering a call to the priesthood
is just plain scary for a young person
because the church is in such a time of transition,
in a world that’s changing so much, so fast –
when all manner of dangers beset us,
dangers that are material, political, economic, spiritual, and much more.
There are plenty of self-proclaimed experts who’ll tell us,
often for a big fee,
how the church needs to change in order to survive.
But two things seem clear –
1) doing the same-old same-old is a prescription for the church’s demise, and
2) if “to survive” is the church’s chief objective,
then it probably doesn’t deserve to.
Which brings me by a very roundabout road to today’s Gospel.
John the Baptist, that locust-eating wild man
who berated sinners into repentance
and proclaimed the coming of the anointed One,
had certain expectations.
He knew Jesus was coming and that he would change the world.
He knew that he, John, was an annunciator and not the Christ.
But it’s what John expected Jesus to be that slid off-target.
The winnowing fork, the fire of judgment, the punishment and triumph
did not turn out to be what Jesus was actually doing,
and evidently from his jail cell,
John began to be plagued with doubts.
Probably knowing he was going to die,
John just had to know if he’d been wrong all along.
He sent to ask Jesus, are you really The One?
Jesus answered, look! See what I do.
The blind see, the lame walk,
the prophecy of the shalom of God proclaimed from of old
is being fulfilled in front of your eyes.
(And no, he didn’t say, look!
I have founded an institution, and look at this excellent church architecture.)
It seems to me that John represented the old regime,
the old institutions and expectations.
Tradition holds that John was conceived as the old year was dying,
and born to an old woman who had been barren.
Jesus, though, was conceived in the spring of the year,
and born to a young virgin.
Perhaps John, prophet though he was,
nevertheless stood for a barren hope –
that the Messiah would be an earthly king to vanquish all Israel’s enemies.
Jesus initiated a new reign of God all right –
but it was way, way more radical than what John envisioned.
The church of Jesus Christ in 2010,
including this beloved and traditional slice of Christendom we call The Episcopal Church, and every one of us, lay or ordained, by virtue of our Baptism,
is called to follow that radical Jesus, not John.
We are partners with God, and we have a profound responsibility.
And that is the scariest thing of all.
But it is also exhilarating, and freeing,
and the highest possible calling.
The church doesn’t exist in order to survive.
It exists to “body forth”
the radical in-breaking of the realm of God and the love of Christ,
in a hurting world.
To follow Christ is to be taken on a very wild ride,
with little in the way of security, material comfort, or certitude to hold onto.
But by God, the lame will walk and the blind will see.
If you put on Christ, you will experience life in fullness and authenticity,
and nothing will separate you from the love of God.
Yes, there is always what I think of as the “middle part.”
The circumstances and tasks we have right now, call them point A.
We yearn for the realm of God, that’s point C.
But it’s figuring out, with God’s help, what the middle part, B, is –
how to live our lives specifically and concretely – that’s hard.
Well, welcome to Advent, the in-between time
when the light seems filtered through an awful lot of darkness and ambiguity.
That time in between the already-ness of Christ who has come,
and the not-yet-ness of Christ to come again.
All these responsibilities are in our hands,
and seldom do we feel we have all the equipment we need in hand.
But comfort ye, comfort ye my people God says through his prophet.
God speaks and acts in this world, and we are never asked to do this alone.
I wonder if those of you who attended the ordination yesterday
noticed the promises Edmund made –
I have a list of some of them!
to be a pastor and a teacher,
to share in the councils of the church,
to lead a model life,
to proclaim the gospel,
to care for, nourish, and strengthen the people,
preach, forgive, and preside at the sacraments,
to obey the bishop and study Holy Scripture,
to abide by the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal church,
to make Christ’s love known and keep praying,
and (I always love this one) “to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.”
This list of promises is enough to take your breath away.
And to each one Edmund said “I will.” I heard him.
For myself, I remember my profound relief and gratitude
when the last thing my bishop said before she laid hands on my head was,
“May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things
give you the grace and power to perform them.”
My “Amen” to that was louder than anybody else’s.
So Edmund, this is my prayer for you,
for your sake and Michael’s,
for the sake of The Episcopal Church and all with whom you minister,
and for the sake of nothing less than the coming of the realm of God –
May the Lord who has given you the will to do these things
give you the grace and power to perform them.
I think you all should join me in a resounding Amen.