On Monday, May 21, I preached Mary Mackin’s ordination to the diaconate. The homily gave me an opportunity to reflect on the nature of Holy Orders and what it means to be set apart (not above) as a deacon or priest. The homily text is below. (The photo is of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis, where I was ordained to both the diaconate and priesthood.)
There is a custom in which a Roman Catholic ordinand places a stone in the shoe he wears to his ordination. Have you ever had a stone in your shoe? Have you ever had a stone in your shoe on an occasion when you couldn’t stop to untie the shoe, take it off, and shake out the stone?
An ordination is a heady thing. The Bishop is here. Members of the college of clergy are present. We are engaged in a rite as old as the Christian Church. Bishop Powell will examine Mary Mackin in front of all those here gathered; he will lay his hands upon her; he will utter the ancient formulary; and then we will affirm that God has made Mary something different from before. Frankly, it’s awesome.
But then there’s that stone. The stone serves, in the Roman Catholic context, to remind the ordinand through every step of the rite that there’s also something uncomfortable about what we are doing and about the very calling Mary is to pursue. There’s something unsettling…something worrisome. What might that be?
Perhaps we should turn to our Protestant friend John Calvin for the answer. Calvin says, “None are more exposed to slanders and insults than ministers; wicked men find many occasions to blame them; they never avoid a thousand criticisms; as soon as any charge is made against ministers of the word it is believed as surely and firmly as if it had already been proved. God’s servants can only tremble and suffer great anguish, all the more since they must swallow many things in silence for the peace of the churches.”[i]
Well, sure, there’s that. And it’s not a bad idea for one about to enter Holy Orders to take note of that. There are a great many things that are indeed said to and about clergy that must be received and absorbed in silence. It can feel like a stone in the shoe.
But as is so often the case, Mr. Calvin tells only one half of the story. It is my experience that the ordained life is primarily one of deep and abiding joy. For every calumny, there are ten blessings. Or, more colloquially put, in the life of the Church for every jerk there are ten angels!
What then is the stone? In just a few moments, Bishop Powell will say to Mary, “As a deacon in the Church…you are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
That’s the stone. And in response to the persistent irritation that neither we nor anyone else is up to that task, we respond the same today as the Prophet Jeremiah responded with incredulity to God’s call almost three thousand years ago: “What me, God? I don’t know how. I’m only a child.”
True. True of Mary. True of me. True of the Bishop, and these assembled clergy, and anyone ever ordained. If the life of one set apart to be an iconic witness, in a particular way, for the redemptive love of Jesus Christ depended upon our maturity, know-how, and adept skill, the Church would have died in its first generation. We depend not upon ourselves. St. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, “It is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.”
And so we see that the stone, upon which our foot presses with each and every step, reminds us by whose mercy we walk. It reminds us that never do we proclaim ourselves, for we have nothing worth proclaiming. We proclaim Jesus. Only Jesus. Always Jesus.
But why does it matter? Why not simply let this blue marble of a world spin, practicing our faith privately and never proclaiming publicly and aloud with our words, actions and example Jesus Christ as Lord?
I think the best answer to that question was recently provided by a Harvard student who contributed to last year’s essay eulogizing the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes in the Christian Century. Harvard is no bastion of Christian commitment, conviction, or piety. And yet, every week Peter Gomes ascended the pulpit in Harvard Memorial Church and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord. The Harvard student said in the essay:
“I never believed, never wanted to believe, until I heard Professor Gomes speak. His wit and old-fashioned eloquence coaxed me into the faith I didn’t desire until he [had] told me about it in a sermon.”[ii]
His wit and old-fashioned eloquence coaxed me into the faith I didn’t desire until he had told me about it in a sermon.
We do this thing—we put on these collars, and preach this Word, and anoint the sick, and love the poor—in order to coax the world into a faith it doesn’t desire unless we share it.
So there it is. Mary, you are set apart for a special purpose. It is awesome; it is holy; it is necessary; it is good. The world depends upon it. And you have a stone in your shoe.
On the twenty-eighth of June, 2003, I was ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons. On that occasion, a parishioner in my sponsoring parish presented me with a quote from the great 20th Century Roman Catholic priest and theologian Karl Rahner. The quote is matted and framed, and it hangs just next to the door in my office. I cannot leave my office without glancing at it, and glance at it I do—daily—as a reminder of who we are called to be as clergy. No doubt, Karl Rahner arrived at his own ordination in 1932 with a stone in his shoe. Please permit my slight adjustment of his language to account for the Episcopal Church’s embrace of female clergy. Of the deacon or priest, Rahner says this:
“She is not an angel sent from heaven. She is a human being chosen from among human beings, a member of the church, a Christian. Remaining human and Christian, she begins to speak to you the Word of God.
This Word is not her own. No, she comes to you because God has told her to proclaim God’s Word.
Perhaps she has not entirely understood it herself. Perhaps she adulterates it. But she believes, and despite her fears she knows that she must communicate God’s Word to you.
For must not some one of us say something about God, about eternal life, about the majesty of grace in our sanctified being; must not some one of us speak of sin, the judgment and mercy of God?
So my dear friends, pray for her, carry her so that she might be able to sustain others by bringing to them the mystery of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.” Amen.
[i] McDermott, Gerald R. The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide, pg. 99.
[ii] Christian Century, April 5, 2011, pg. 11.