Hear What the Spirit is Saying

The Gospel According to Mark 1:4-11

January 7, 2018

Celebration of Amanda March’s Ordination

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw


Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 

Good morning. And it is a gloriously good morning, indeed. As most of you know, our beloved Amanda was ordained to the priesthood on Friday. Several of you were there, and you will notice that her stole has taken a new shape. Amanda is now a priest in the church. And so this morning we will celebrate the birth of this new ministry, this new ministry that comes through years of discernment and formation, and comes with more than a new stole and the permission to celebrate the sacraments. It also comes too with a host of new expectations and accountabilities, weights and measures, perspectives and understandings, and, no doubt, some surprises along the way.

We celebrate this threshold of Amanda’s new ministry of ordination as a priest of the church, but every one of us was born a priest of the people. We are all God’s priests, if the definition of priest includes lifting God in all things. We all have God’s permission, no, God’s strident encouragement to live into that born-in vocation. And so I hope that every one of us will take this opportunity to claim a fresh start to our own priestly ministries, and we all have them. I hope we can all claim a soft start, or re-start to our own divine ordinations in the ministries to which we have been called by our Creator; ministries that are vital to the building of the kindom of love. We are each endowed with a unique constellation of gifts, and every constellation is needed if the galaxy is to shine.

Today’s lectionary gives us a splendid place to start with the renewal of our ministries. First the story of the new beginning of all of creation in Genesis, and then the beginning of the ministry of God as a part; a creature of that creation.

The Gospel this morning is arguably the true start, or kickoff, in the vernacular of this season of football playoffs, of Jesus’ own divinely ordained ministry on earth. It celebrates the baptism of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. It is the moment when Jesus is endowed by God with everything ki will need to choose love; every time; even when it is not popular; even when it conflicts with the advice of friends and family and disciples; even when it requires a sacrifice that might cost this precious life itself.

In this first chapter, Mark wastes no time at all. The real rubber meets the road in the very first line: This is the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God. And within the next ten lines Jesus is aptly armed for the mission ahead, let the games begin. We might say that Jesus, by baptism, has been ordained for the work of God that lies ahead. And everything Jesus needs is in this one pronouncement of God: You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased. That’s all ki’s got. That is the secret sauce. You are God’s beloved, and whatever you do, whatever you risk, whatever you lose – God will always be well pleased with you.

And the mission begins, fittingly, with Jesus’ feet in the muddy Jordan River along with every other ordinary jane and joe and Jehoshaphat in the land. There is no fancy ordination service. No chair for the bishop. No chanting of the litany. No procession or reception. There is only a river of dirty water full of sinners, some of whom are likely suffering mightily, and a holy spirit full of God. That, I imagine, is the description of Jesus’ ordination.

Baptism is the fork in the road, the point at which Jesus ceases to be just a young adult hanging with friends, and at once is inaugurated into the mission of God as God’s own revolutionary…..to hereafter serve as a political thorn in the side of the authorities. This is the passage where Jesus shows up; where Jesus grows up; where Jesus offers his whole self to the mission of the Living God. Fully human. Fully divine. Fully ordained.

This is where heaven and earth first meet in our Jesus story, well, that is, after the birth narratives in those other synoptic Gospels. But in Mark, they meet in the baptism. It is where the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth meets the Spirit of God.  And from now on, the dignity that Jesus insists be shown to every human being, will begin to step on the toes of the elite, begin to challenge the privilege of the political and religious powers……because love always pokes power. And so in short order, the elite authorities are going to begin to see that this Jesus is going to be a very uncomfortable thorn in their side. But make no mistake, the thorn sprouts here, at Jesus’ baptism.

And so here we are, Amanda. On the precipice of your ordination; your brand new ministry. I can’t think of any better scripture for your first celebration of the Eucharist; informed by the Book of Genesis and God’s creation of the world, and then by Mark’s Gospel and the baptism of Jesus to rock that world. I can think of no two better pieces of scripture to load into your ministerial toolbox. For these two readings stretch the imagination to the bounds of God’s world into which you are planting your new ministry.

And, as I have the privilege of preaching on this momentous day of your first consecration, I would like to offer you a few more starting tools; a few things that have found their way into my toolbox over the years. Having been a board certified chaplain for many years, you are no doubt familiar with everything I am about to impart. And so I offer them not as news, but as gifts of the spirit from one priest to another.

And as always, I am preaching here first to myself!

1. Never forget that your ordination this glorious weekend, is not by God, it is by the church. You have always been ordained by God….as has everyone in this hallowed space. God’s ordination process is called childbirth. We are each and all uniquely ordained by God for our ministry in this world….in the womb. You have now been ordained by the church, as well; ordered in the ranks of the church to lift God in this world specifically as a part of that/this holy institution.

2. Number two is a corollary to number one: The stole, like the collar, does not belong to God….it belongs to the church. Which is to say, you are not the only one wearing a collar and a stole. Everything you say and do while you are wearing those marks of your ministry, speaks, in one way or another, for and about the church, and everyone else who wears a collar and a stole. Which is to say, if you are wearing your collar (even sans stole), and the fourth rude person cuts you off in rush hour traffic, my advice is to keep all of your fingers tucked safely in your fist….and to wrap that fist safely around the steering wheel! ….and trust that there is justice in heaven! Let no holy birds fly while wearing a collar, or a stole.

3. As you know, and I know, but it never hurts to refresh our mindfulness: we do not offer forgiveness. God does. What we as ordained clergy offer, is a reminder of God’s forgiveness….an assurance of God’s forgiveness, but the substance itself is a gift that comes directly from God. Forgiveness, like roses and rain and all life-giving beauty and substance, come only from God.

4. Jesus is a four letter word. ….and the opposite corollary, as I keep reminding my friend Janet on the golf course, Jesus is not a four letter word. But you, as a priest, are now a walking invitation for all sorts of folks to talk openly about God and Jesus in the wider world. And because Jesus is often very difficult to articulate, when I talk about Jesus to folks who have no experience of Jesus, I almost always talk exclusively about Jesus as love. L-o-v-e. I explain Jesus as nothing more or less than pure love, God’s pure love for humanity and humanity’s charge to show the same pure love to each other. Jesus is a simple four letter word.

5. You are perfect. Absolutely perfect. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Our culture has adopted a very deleterious disclaimer that we apply every time we think we have fallen short of the mark, we say: Nobody’s perfect. And that, I think, is bullroar. You are perfect. You are the perfect constellation of gifts and challenges, you bring the perfect experience of joy and pain, you hold the perfect key to unlock some grace that you alone have been given to share, that you alone carry into every encounter. There is some potential in this world that only you can fulfill. There has never in the history of the world been anyone with that particular potential…nor will there ever be. God has created you and equipped you and consecrated you very particularly for this exact ministry, in this exact place, at this exact time. And so you are the perfect fit for what God needs you to do here and now. Not an angel. But absolutely perfect.

And I don’t remind you of this to swell your head. But I do want to warn you that this ministry is hard. It is a rare day when I do not question myself or my fitness for this wonderful, heartbreaking, handwringing, harrowingly hard, hard work. Like our friend Pam’s answer to the question we are frequently asked: when did you know that you wanted to be a priest? And her answer is: well, yesterday for sure. Not so much the day before. And today….maybe. This vocation in bone-crushingly hard.

And so maybe the most important wisdom I can offer is the reminder, at those moments when you are ready to chuck everything and crawl into an unholy hole where you think you belong, please remember that you are God’s perfect vision, and everything about you is perfect in God’s sight. Or as God assures Jesus this in this morning’s Gospel: You are God’s beloved, and with you God is now and will always be…..well pleased.

6. Never forget why you are doing this. What you are doing and how you are doing it are much less important than why.

And so I tell you this morning on your first celebration what my mentor, The Rev’d. Anne Fowler, told me in response to my fear that I might mess up some part of my first celebration: don’t worry, she said, the liturgy always ends. And it does. But maybe that needs an addendum : The liturgy always ends, but the worship never does. The why we are doing this is much more important than what we are doing or how we are doing it. God is divine. The liturgy is not.

7. This ordained ministry, is a ministry of interruption…..it is a ministry that demands that you pay attention to and embrace the moment in front of you. It is different as a pastor in a parish than as a chaplain in a hospital, where your whole job is to be front and center for the pain before you. But in a parish, there are myriad draws on your time and attention. Many needs to fulfill…and often all at once. It is a ministry that precludes perfection. You may be perfect, but your work never will be. You can make plans if you must, you can try to cover all of the bases, but try not to hold yourself to tightly to any results. The work that needs to be done is not necessarily the work on your to do list for the day. The real work that you are called to do will reveal itself on an as needed basis. In the meantime, you can tend your schedule and your inbox, but that is your work, it is not necessarily God’s.

8. You have been ordained to the priesthood, but never forget that you are still and will be forevermore, a deacon. A servant. And even though you are now ordained to the priesthood, your first order will be that of the deacon….the one who washes the feet of God’s weary people. No matter how dirty, no matter how tired are you or the feet you are washing, it is your calling to kneel down, take the feet of your neighbor in your hands, and restore them with soap and water and tender loving kindness. Servanthood must continue to be your first language. Remember that it is the status of deacon, not priest, that made you a reverend.

9. Hear what the spirit is saying to God’s people. Every day. We say this after reading the scripture, but I think it is said for no one more than the clergy. I think it is our work to hear, not what God is calling us to do, but what God is calling the community to do. Your call has already been well discerned and established. Now, you can stop listening for what God wants you to do, and focus your full attention on what the spirit is saying to God’s people. Because now, God is calling you to and through the community alone.

10. Never, ever, ever love anyone…..unconditionally. We say we want unconditional love…..but that, I think, is a bold faced lie! We do not want to be loved because we exist, we want to be loved for who we are…..particularly…..subjectively….very, very personally. Unconditional love does not lift us above the things that keep us from God. For it is our shame, our guilt, our weakness and our insufficiency that we think make us unlovable. And so only love that takes those things into account, only love that recognizes and embraces those things as part of the whole can lift us out of our own unworthiness. I suspect as a chaplain you know this well.

And so today, Amanda, we celebrate the very special, particular, unique gifts that you have offered this beloved community with such deep generosity, and that will continue to be formed and forged here. And so we give thanks for your spiritual intelligence, your deep love of God, your reverence for this ministry, your wonderful preaching and pastoral care, your sense of humor, your heart for ministry with the most marginalized, your willingness to serve in so many capacities, and a million other attributes that we do not have time to list.

We celebrate our gratitude for all that we have learned from and with you. And we remind you that we love you, not unconditionally, but with eyes wide open for ALL that you are, and ALL that you have been and continue to be for us.

On this weekend of your ordination and the Epiphany, leave you with this gem from Jan Richardson:

For Those Who Have Far to Travel
An Epiphany Blessing

If you could see the journey whole
you might never undertake it;
might never dare the first step
that propels you from the place
you have known toward the place
you know not.

Call it one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it only by stages
as it opens before us,
as it comes into our keeping
step by single step.

There is nothing for it
but to go, and by our going take the vows the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to the next step;
to rely on more than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that attend the path;
to press on beyond distractions
beyond fatigue
beyond what would tempt you
from the way.

There are vows that only you
will know;
the secret promises for your particular path
and the new ones you will need to make
when the road is revealed
by turns you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates the road
that will take you to the place
where at last you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you can give—
before turning to go home by another way.

Alleluia!
Amen.

 

© January, 2018 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

(“For Those Who Have Far to Travel” by Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2011/12/31/epiphany-blessing-for-those-who-have-far-to-travel/)
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