Monday, March 23, 2009
in which the Rambler preaches an ordination.
This is approximately what I preached yesterday afternoon over our three new ordinands...
May no word but truth…
Presently, this afternoon, Bishop Xena will ask you a whole series of searching questions, in response to which you will make extravagant promises, rather like those we hear made at weddings, inaugurations, and such auspicious occasions.
But I want to get in first with my question, which is NOT one of the ones you will be asked presently.
And it is just this: Are you happy? Right now, right this minute? And if you’re too hot and anxious at this moment to answer that, what about when you first became aware of your calling? What about when you knew you had an ordination date? At some point, along the way, have you been happy about what you are entering this evening? I really do want to know!
I hope so…in general terms, on your behalf; and in more specific terms, on behalf of the church. It was Anthony Trollope, I think, in one of the Barchester novels, who remarked that it is most unwise ever to ordain an unhappy man. The unwisdom of ordaining an unhappy woman was not yet imaginable, at the time.
So I hope for your sakes and for our sakes that you are happy.
And I encourage you to sit still in that sensation, and enjoy it and linger in it, and learn it by heart, let it soak into the marrow of your bones, because you will need it later. You will want to be able to recapture it, to draw upon it, throughout your ministry.
And I hope you are happy also because the Gospel reading this afternoon justifies and endorses that happiness , and models it into the bargain. By the way, I congratulate you on being ordained on a festival – a slightly-transferred festival, it’s true – but on a festival that has inspired so many glorious pictorial representations over the ages—have you a favorite picture of the Annunciation? I’m partial to the ones where the Virgin is represented as reading – and often the painter makes it plain that it is actually Isaiah 7 that she is reading – thereby inviting us to re-imagine the form that the Annunciation may actually have taken. Sometimes I have heard that image of the Virgin described as a prototype of ministry, and you may find it so…no sooner do you get settled down to read something that you need to read, when somebody is bound to come rushing in with his hair on fire and demand that you pay attention to him THIS VERY MINUTE. In that connection I enjoy the way the Virgin often has marked her place in her book with her finger…a woman planning to get back to her reading the moment she’s left in peace! (and she’ll maybe keep reading long enough to find out what all that chat about curds and honey signifies, with any luck!)
But what the Annunciation announces, is great happiness!
Of course we’ve varnished it over with successive translations until the happiness is hardly visible under all the accrued solemnity, but what that angel says is something like, “Well, hello there, you lucky thing…” -- Publishers Clearing House on the doorstep! And all the content of what he says is reason to be happy – and then after her initial bemusement, the Virgin’s response, in the Magnificat, is one great expanding whoop of joy… and I suggest to you that it is the model for the midset that we are invited to bring to ministry.
Now it could be argued that the Virgin Mary is such an extraordinary human being, however or however far you wish to define that, that she can’t really serve as an exemplar or model for the rest of us.
But then, I think we are also called to be extraordinary, all of us, …not just in light of ordination but in light of our baptism… there’s a trenchant statement of that insight in an old Western novel – once very famous, now almost forgotten (the source for at least two classic Western movies)…a novel called The Virginian (Owen Wister). Also memorable because it contains two “Great Lines.” The first one is… “When you call me that, SMILE!”
The second line has a bit more to do with ministry. The ranch has been visited by a travelling revivalist, and his visit has not gone well, so there is some discussion, in the aftermath, of qualifications for ministry. (Happy for an Anglican to note that the bishop of Wyoming comes off well in the discussion). But the hero gets off this great speech……"As for parsons "--the gesture of his arm was a disclaiming one--"I reckon some parsons have a right to tell yu' to be good. The bishop of this hyeh Territory has a right. But I'll tell yu' this: a middlin' doctor is a pore thing, and a middlin' lawyer is a pore thing; but keep me from a middlin' man of God."
So we are not to be “middlin’” – “mediocre” – but extraordinary…not in the ways that our society likes to measure human exceptionality, necessarily, at all. Not necessarily in intellect, or in physical strength, or in artistic talent, or in business acumen or in personal charm – none of which is to be despised, mark you;
But I do think that the one thing in which we must be extraordinary, is precisely in this quality of happiness, happiness in spite of all the reasons that we may have, and that our people have, NOT to feel happy…happy in that good news announced by the angel to Mary, glad tidings announced that shall be to ALL people.
And that is our privilege…to show to ALL people what ALL people are called to be…in spite of everything…to be hopeful, and faithful, and loving, and the greatest impetus to those good things is the happiness that comes from absolutely knowing God’s lovingkindness toward us. We carry that happiness, and in it we carry to the world Jesus Christ, just as his mother did.
Now when “the bishop of this hyeh territory” has asked you all her hard questions, in a few minutes, she will pray on your behalf… “May the Lord by his grace uphold you in the service to which you are called.” [because she is a good bishop, and a good woman, she won't roll her eyes heavenward when she does so]…now our Lutheran bros. and sisters put it a bit differently…”The Lord who has called you to his service, will uphold you by his grace.” And I give you permission to hear those words too.
May you be upheld in all your doings, in all your goings out and your comings in, by that grace which is the source of all our happiness and our very life.
And God bless you.