Chris Harris Ordination
10 December 2016
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”
Today we hear of angels and mysteries and the very voice of God. Yet all too often we make of it all something tame and routine. It’s easy, if truth be told, to make of religion something mundane, the opposite, really, of what Isaiah describes. It’s easy to equate religion with good habits, good morals, and, as Episcopalians, good manners, of course. But Isaiah reminds us today that the essence of religion has little, if anything, to do with conventional goodness – and everything to do with beholding reality in a way we normally just don’t. It is about being open to truly unique moments, moments that go beyond the grand and glorious to what can only be described as time-halting, breath-taking – transcendent. That is the kind of moment about which Isaiah writes and, ready or not, which faces us today, a moment of encounter – encounter with the living God.
Today, we are not so much in the center of the moment we seek, though. Our role, rather, is a supporting one. It is to lead someone to it, making sure that he doesn’t faint and he doesn’t flee. In this vein, on our behalf, several good people have just vouched for Chris, assuring Bishop Mathes and us that Chris has weighed his decision very carefully. He is not approaching the moment before him lightly or unadvisedly. The presenters have also assured the bishop and us that all the rules have been followed, the protocols observed, the forms submitted, the approvals received. The “Ordination process,” as the harrowing journey is euphemistically called, is complete. That alone is enough to celebrate.
But let’s be clear: We are not here to cheer someone on as he achieves some elevated institutional status or wins some personal victory. Neither personal development nor congregational development have anything to do with what we are about here today…if we are serious about what we are doing here today.
Take religious background, for instance. It has very little bearing on what is about to happen. The fact is that Episcopal priests come from all sorts of religious upbringings and persuasions: liberal and conservative, fundamentalist and New Age, pious and irreverent, fervent and ambivalent. I grew up a pious Lutheran, for example. The first Episcopal priest I ever met had been a rule-breaking Roman Catholic priest first. Chris here was a lawyer first. God only knows what that foreshadows.
No, religious lineage is not the basis of what draws us here today. And even more surprisingly, perhaps, the day is not the basis for some particular religious role in the future. People who get ordained with a certain kind of work in mind are often quite surprised by what they end up doing. Just consider what our Church holds up as the ideal fulfillment of the priesthood. Among our lesser saints are priests who founded churches in the wilderness, taught school in slums, built cathedrals in open fields, served lepers on remote islands, freed slaves, wrote books, sat in Parliament, typed the Bible with one finger, and took vows of silence. There were also those who talked to animals, slept on slabs of stone (But you don’t sleep, anyway, do you, Chris?), sequestered themselves in solitary confinement, bled from their hands (showing the stigmata), and marched, while singing psalms, to horrifically painful deaths. You just can’t predict what Ordination will eventually bring. I’m just saying.
So, if the moment for which we are gathered is not the culmination of a particular upbringing, or the completion of a certain process, or the inauguration of a specific role, what kind of moment can it possibly be? Again, it is the moment about which the prophet writes. It is the strange, frightening, wondrous moment when time stops and the incessant noise of daily life suddenly fades away…And in that stillness, that utter silence, we cross from the everyday and profane to the timeless, the eternal, the sacred. And, actually, it is even more startling than that. It is not about crossing a threshold at all. It is about a moment when we suddenly see that what surrounds us is sacred – is holy, holy, holy – and has been all along and always will be.
Chris, because you know from your own experience that in seeking there is finding, you now have this notion, this yearning really, this deep desire to guide others to such moments. That is the essence of priesthood. So we say, “Thank God.”
Thank God…because that is our expectation of you. We expect you to help us come to our own moments of which the mystics write yet which no words can adequately explain. We want you to help us seek and find our own moments of encounter with the divine. We want you to do this, Chris. We need you to do this, even if other church business – other forms, other protocols, other processes, need to go unattended as a consequence. That is our notion, our deep yearning, our desire. That is why we have bothered to wait for and prepare for and travel for this moment…for God’s sake!
And for God’s sake, what we don’t need, what we don’t want, what we don’t seek is someone to promote or preserve or reform or reorganize our religion. Frankly, we don’t want you meddling in it. I am reminded of what a seminary professor of mine said about why his family joined the Episcopal Church. He said his grandfather had brought the family into the fold because he knew it would not interfere with either his politics or his religion. And therein was his implied advice to clerics in training. What has anyone ever produced with any of that effort anyway but more anxiety about what might be, or more nostalgia about what once was? F.D. Maurice, a priest and author from the nineteenth century, speaks to the situation today when we wrote, “We have been dosing our people with religion when what they want is the living God.” The mystic, Martin Buber, put it even more succinctly. “All actual life is encounter,” he said.
That is the heart of the matter – encounter, encounter with the living God. It is accurate that the commission you will be given is for the work of a pastor and priest and teacher. The likely occupation you will have going forward will be that of a rector or vicar or chaplain or canon. But what we all after here – you and I and all of us – is not just some palliative or prop to help us cope better with all the profanity of the world – the wars, the disease, the injustice, the traffic on I-5 – but a path to help get us to that ineffable moment when we see and hear and smell and sense nothing but the utter sacredness of the world, which is the very heartbeat of our God.
Chris, custom calls for the preacher to give a charge to the ordinand. So, would you please stand? In my thirty-some years as a priest, I have attempted to be many things on God’s behalf – God’s social worker, God’s publicist, God’s tax man, God’s official representative. And the truth is that God needs none of it.
But people need someone. People need someone who has been there to help them to that time and place where the only words that come to mind are, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Chris, come what may, don’t ever, ever lose sense of the sacred for it is that and only that which we ask you to help us know for ourselves. Amen.