Eight years ago today on a blizzardy Sunday, I was ordained as a priest and my son was baptized. I had the good fortune to ask a great friend to preach on that occasion, and he smashed it out of the park. So here’s to Rich Simpson, a fantastic friend and priest, whose sermon I dust off every year on this date to remind me of my call to serve God’s people and to share the good news of Christ.
The Ordination of Philip Noah LaBelle to the Sacred Order of Priests and the Baptism of Noah James LaBelle
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Philippians 4:4-9
What does it mean for us today that Noah James LaBelle will be baptized in the context of this afternoon’s Eucharist—before Philip Noah LaBelle is ordained to the priesthood? I realize that there are of course practical considerations—family and friends are all in town and so forth. But sometimes profound theology grows out of practical considerations—and maybe it’s even a truism that it’s the primary way Anglicans are prone to do theology.
I propose that we are put in mind today of the fact that before anyone utters the words “Father LaBelle” Noah has made you a “daddy.” And that prior to your priestly ministry you, too, have been “sealed and marked and claimed as Christ’s own beloved”—forever. You, too, have been called to live your life as a response to that love through the Baptismal Covenant. With Melissa you have shared a life together in both marriage and ministry among God’s people long before today. Nothing we are gathered here to do today undoes—or “trumps” that call that came to you and to each of us in Holy Baptism.
We talk a lot about lay ministry in the Church today. And yet it’s thirteen years since Verna Dozier published “The Dream of God”—about a Church where all the baptized understand themselves as called to share in the work of ministry. We aren’t there yet. But the ordination liturgy for a priest in our Church does (as I read it) call upon us to remember that dream and to live into it—and the fact that Noah is baptized today only heightens our awareness of that reality. Priestly ministry is meaningless until we have some understanding of what baptism really means.
But if all the people are ministers, then what exactly is priestly ministry about? I want to insist that it is far more than a black shirt and a collar! The catechism suggests that all of God’s people are called to “represent Christ and his Church”—and that what distinguishes priestly ministry from the other three orders is that we do this by proclaiming the gospel; administering the sacraments; and blessing and declaring pardon in the name of God. The Examination that the Bishop will give expands on these three but it is at its heart exactly the same—so if you listen closely you are sure to “ace” that exam!
First: you are called to preach the gospel. There are many in the Church today—on all sides of the theological debates we are engaged in—who are so desperate and so scared that we are in danger of suffering from a kind of spiritual amnesia about what that true calling is all about. As preachers we are not called to defend an ideology (either on the right or on the left) but to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
Do so with courage and conviction, trusting that it really is the path toward abundant life. Too many preachers are afraid to trust the gospel because it will upset the status quo. Fear is the greatest enemy of the gospel: fear of lost pledges, fear of empty pews, fear of disappointing the bishop. Don’t be afraid to trust the good news, and know that the true measure of your “success” will not be found by how full or empty the pews are or how well the annual pledge drive goes or what your colleagues say about you.
Consider Isaiah of Jerusalem and today’s Old Testament reading. Remember that for all of his enthusiasm and skill, his preaching and ministry fell on deaf ears. “Here I am, Lord,” we heard him say. “Send me!” But Isaiah’s skill and his commitment to God could not compensate for the hardness of heart and the deafness of the people of his day, as we discover if only we read just a few verses beyond where we stopped this afternoon. We didn’t hear that part because the lectionary committee (in their infinite wisdom) only gave us the nice part (as they are wont to do.) But I would urge you as a preacher not to get caught in the trap of reading lectionary pericopes. Keep reading the Bible…and pay extra attention to the verses that tend to get omitted as well as the books of the Bible that tend to get shortchanged. (I think of Lamentations, and all the post-exilic stuff—Ezra, Nehemiah, Ruth, Jonah; texts that could be essential resources to a post-Constantinian church and yet we largely ignore them.) There are no easy answers—but they could help us to ask better questions. So keep reading the Bible—and encourage those among whom you serve to do the same.
Judged by the standards of this world—and even dare I say sometimes the standards of the institutional Church—Isaiah of Jerusalem was a failure. People did not have eyes to see or ears to hear what he had to say, and the exile did come, and Jerusalem ended up as a city in waste and without inhabitant. The temple was destroyed and the people were in danger of forgetting to sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land. Isaiah of Jerusalem reminds the Church in every generation that we are called to be faithful, not successful, and that is especially true for those of us who are called to be preachers. It is so tempting to be cute or funny or relevant or passive-aggressive. But our work as preachers—as priests—is to preach the gospel, and leave the rest to God.
Remember that even though the Exile came in spite of Isaiah’s preaching, God was still God—all the way through the Exile. Remember that God had a plan even if it wasn’t yet clear to God’s people—a vision of a highway in the desert that would be left to another “Isaiah” to preach—a “deutero-Isaiah” as they like to say at Yale and Berkeley. In ministry there is always someone who has gone before us and someone to follow us—we don’t have to do it all, we just have to try to be as faithful as we can in doing the work God has given us to do. Remember that the greatest learning of the Exile was that God couldn’t be confined to the Jerusalem temple in the first place—that “God with us” meant (and means) just that—God with us even in the midst of Exile, God with us even in uncharted territory, God with us in the midst of struggle and uncertainty. Remember too that the Holy Scriptures got formed and shaped by the waters of Babylon—not when all was well in Jerusalem, but in Iraq when the future was uncertain. God’s greatest gifts seem to come to God’s people in the midst of what we see initially as finality and great loss. Why? Because God is in the business of doing new things. But after centuries we suffer from amnesia; so it is your job to keep bringing God’s people to remembrance.
Walter Brueggemann says our job as preachers is to “re-script” God’s people away from the script of our consumeristic militaristic unimaginative world (that sees us all as merely “customers”) and toward a new script where we are learning to be disciples of Jesus Christ and witnesses to the Resurrection. He says that is more akin to the work of scribe than anything else—that we are called to be people who are inscribing the text on our own hearts, and then upon the hearts of the people whom we serve. That doesn’t happen overnight. And you and I are called to be preachers in a time of profound Biblical illiteracy. But we begin again at the beginning…and our shared calling as preachers is simply to keep the texts alive in and through God’s people, and when necessary to re-introduce the forgotten ones—because most of us in the Church have a pretty small canon. That should be work enough to keep us busy for some time.
As a preacher, the bishop will soon remind you that you are called also to fashion your life according to the gospel’s precepts. Or as Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco likes to remind preachers: “you are a word about the Word before you ever open your mouth.” Or as the original “San Francisco” (Francis of Assisi) put it: “preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” That is to say, your life—who you are as a person—is meant to be “good news.” If the words you proclaim from the pulpit bear no connection to the way you are living your life then it will be that much harder for the Gospel to be heard through your lips.
But I want to offer this word of caution: there is a fair amount of false piety in the Church masquerading as “good news.” There will be some who have very definite ideas of what a priest is supposed to look like, about how a priest is supposed to behave and so forth. Very often it will have little to do with the Gospel, and less to do with who God has created you to be. It may well be about their own unfinished business with a parent or some other authority figure—or with some former beloved (or despised) priest in their past—or who knows what else.
Fashion your life not in accordance with other people’s projections, but according to the precepts of the Gospel. But to do that—I repeat what I said earlier: keep reading and meditating on God’s holy Word—not just combing it for material that can preach but seeing in it a mirror that nurtures your own soul, and forms you into the priest God intends for you to become.
Priestly ministry is of course about more than the call to preach but it is never about less than that. But we are Episcopalians for a reason. The genius of our liturgy is that connects us with the most ancient practices of the earliest Christian communities—with a global and apostolic faith—that is always inviting us to come to the Table of our Lord. As preachers this is very good news for us and for our congregations because it means that we never get the last word. Always our job is to point people toward the Table—and to invite them to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
As priests we have the great responsibility and privilege of taking ordinary gifts of bread and wine and using them to offer God’s people the bread of life and the cup of salvation—inviting them as St. Augustine said to “be what they see” and to “receive who they already are.” That isn’t about having “magic hands”—it’s about the hard work of calling God’s people to discover the holiness of the ordinary—about continuing to find ways to call attention to the ways that the holy is hidden in the midst of the ordinary. Outward and visible signs are just that—signs of an inward and spiritual grace. You are entrusted with administering the sacraments in order to cultivate a sacramental vision of the world—so that people can find God at work in places where they had previously not thought to look.
In a world where everything is tolerated nothing is forgiven. But the gospel offers us a different vision—an alternative “script” to use Brueggemann’s language. The Biblical narrative suggests that we have not lived up to our calling as people created in God’s own image—that we have fallen short and “missed the mark.” And yet we are forgiven and restored and reconciled through the Cross of Jesus Christ anyway—not by our own merit—but because God’s grace is simply that amazing.
The biggest hindrance to full and abundant life in Christ as I perceive it is that people get stuck. And so it is your job—a part of your priestly ministry—not only to administer the sacraments but to pronounce God’s forgiveness and God’s blessing to the people among whom you serve. That is not the same as the work of a therapist. Rather, it is the bold claim that the keys of the kingdom are found in the Church—so that what is “loosed on earth” is “loosed in heaven.”
As we share with all the baptized in a ministry of reconciliation, our peculiar task as priests is this calling to keep uncovering God’s abundant blessings—as a counter-testimony to the culture’s insistence that there isn’t enough to go around, and therefore we have to get what we can and hold onto it. It is our job when things get stuck for individuals and for congregations to proclaim God’s forgiveness as the path through which new life becomes possible.
Even in the midst of our sometimes chaotic confusion, we Episcopalians are deeply rooted in one holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. But always that is an Easter faith. We see the tradition as roots for a living church, not as a relic of some distant past. We trust the living Christ as we strain always toward an ever-unfolding Pentecost and the gifts of the Spirit that help us to be unafraid of change and growth and the new life to which we are called, the new life that the risen Christ brings to our tired lives and to our broken world.
How we sort through all that is never an easy or simple matter. But if we are to stay true to Richard Hooker’s sensibilities—if we keep looking to Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience—then all will be well. It will be messy, but all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. The Spirit will be with us, guiding us into all Truth. As a priest it is your job to keep that vision alive—even when it comes under attack by well-meaning people who want simple answers to difficult questions.
Most of all, “Rejoice!” St. Paul tells the Church in Philippi—and Christians from generation to generation: “rejoice, again, I say, rejoice! He writes those words as you know, from prison. And what I want to say is that if Paul can rejoice in prison, certainly God’s people in Darien can find joy in each day—no matter how bad things may sometimes be.
C.S. Lewis reminded us that joy is neither happiness or pleasure—and that in fact at times it is even experienced as unhappiness or as suffering. That is the great paradox of our faith. But joy goes deeper—to the heart of life and to the mystery of faith. Joy, as Lewis puts it, is not an emotion—but a person—the person of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be one who is able to “rejoice” even from a prison cell. It is to be able to stand with a parishioner at the graveside of their loved one but even there—even at the grave to make a song.
When a parishioner walks through the valley of the shadow of death and they do fear evil, it is our awesome task as pastors to walk with them—powerless almost always to change the circumstances, but to walk nevertheless (with God’s help) as icons of joy. Even where there is unhappiness or suffering, it is to be an instrument of God’s peace and a light in the darkness—bearing witness to the power and love of God in Jesus Christ. That is never easy work but it is incredibly rewarding work that I know you will do with gentleness and faithfulness.
I think of our old friend, Frederick Buechner, who as you know defines “vocation” as that place where one’s “deep gladness” meets “the needs of this world.” Surely that is what we—the Church—have affirmed in you since you first began to hear God’s calling to this ministry. I pray that always for you there will be “deep gladness” in this work, for we are all too aware that the needs of both the Church and the world are very great indeed.
I remember when I was ordained that the saddest moments for me were when these older priests would say, “if I had it to do over again I’d find something else.” I know far too many clergy—and you probably do too—who are depressed and unfulfilled in their work. They are not bad people, but they are sad people with long lists of grievances.
So let me say in closing—as an “old veteran” priest—that there is nothing I would rather be doing with my life than to be a priest in Christ’s Church—and in particular to be an Episcopal priest at this time in our still unfolding history. There is no doubt that the work is at times difficult and challenging, but it comes with its own rewards.
And the joy we share with all God’s people goes deeper still than anything else—leading us beyond the Cross and to the empty tomb and to a person—the One whom we keep meeting on the Road to Emmaus, or the Road to Darien. The One whose voice we hear when our hearts burn, and we encounter the Word of the Lord in Holy Scripture. The One whom we beg to stay with us and eat, for evening is at hand. The One whom we see revealed in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.
So keep your eyes and your ears and your heart wide open! And keep pointing to Jesus—in your work as preacher, pastor, and priest. Keep pointing to Jesus—and all will be well.
St. Luke’s Church, Darien, Connecticut
© Richard M. Simpson, January 23, 2004