June 11, 2014
+ In our Gospel reading for tonight, we hear Jesus say, “I am sending you as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
I can say that scripture has definitely been a prophecy-fulfilled in my ministry. When I heard those words ten years ago tonight, I had an idea of what Jesus meant. Ten year later, I can truly say I KNOW what Jesus meant. I’ve been there, in the midst of those wolves. And if I have had any gift granted to me by Jesus to survive, it has definitely been to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. Well, I don’t know how “innocent” I’ve been. But I’ve tried really hard to be innocent as a dove.
Ten years ago, at this very moment, I was waiting in the vesting room of Gethsemane Cathedral in Fargo. That hot night (and it WAS hot that night) I was impatient. I was biting at the bit. I was straining forward. That ordination couldn’t happen fast enough. And when it did, it was something. It was unique. And it was wonderful. It truly was the Holy Spirit that night.
At moments, it seems like it was just yesterday. And at other moments, it seems like it was 100 years ago.
Ten years of priestly ministry. If we were going to break the numbers down, they would fall into place like this:
1,028 Masses that I’ve celebrated (that does not include concelebrations or other masses I’ve been present at).
That’s 1,010 sermons I have preached.
That’s 53 weddings.
You wonder why I may be tired. You have heard me say it before. I will say it again a hundred times I’m sure.
I love being a priest.
I can say in all honesty that I was meant to be a priest. As sure as a shark is meant to hunt, or a fish to swim, I was meant to be a priest. It was almost like it was programed into me. From that first day, when I heard my calling to be a priest at age 13, back in 1983, I knew this was what I was meant to do.
Now saying that, I’m not saying I have been a perfect priest. I was never called to be a perfect priest. Nor even at times, have I been a particular good priest. I have failed. I have tripped. I have stumbled. I have made many, many mistakes. But even then, even with all the mistakes I’ve made, it’s all right. It’s all good.
Still, it hasn’t been easy. I remember fifteen years ago, when I told the first Episcopal priest I wanted to be an Episcopal priest, he leaned back in his chair, put his fingers to his chin and shook his head.
“It’s never going to happen,” he said.
And I thought then, that was it. All right. And if that priest had had his way, it would’ve ended there. Sadly for him, he did not get his way.
Despite things like that, it has been a glorious ten years. And it has been a difficult ten years of my life. Some priests have been able to fly under the radar. Not me. Which is not always a good thing. Being a priest like me means being a target. A big target. For better or for worse.
Ten years ago, I was prepared for the backbiting, the unwarranted nitpicking, the sometimes steady criticisms, the fact that nothing I could do sometimes would ever be right for some people. I knew those things always existed in the church. I did not go into this as some doe-eyed, naïve PollyAnna. I was prepared for all this vocation would give me—both good and bad. I was prepared for people who were not in ordained ministry who thought they knew more doing ordained ministry than me. I was prepared for those people who thought they could do my job better than I could. And I was prepared for those who were ready to piggyback onto the good works I actually was able to accomplish. I knew and was prepared for all of those things.
Ten years ago I thought I knew what it meant to be “broken.” I know now what it means to be broken. And I have served many broken people.
But I was also prepared for the good things, as much as anyone can be prepared for such things in their lives. In these ten years I’ve known the beauty of grace and friendship. I’ve known what it was to be the priest in a congregation of strong and caring people who truly care for their priest. I’ve known the joys of being part of the celebrations that our church is known for as well—for the baptisms and the weddings and the celebrations of the good things of life. I’ve enjoyed the suppers and the parties and all the other celebrations that go along with being a priest.
And I’ve known the incredible joy of being the priest of a congregation that has grown and expanded by leaps and bounds and to be a part of a place that has amazed everyone. I knew what it was, in those moments, to see God breaking through in wonderful and incredible ways.
I also realized that all that spiritual training I had—clinging to the Holy Eucharist and the discipline of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer—could truly sustain one spiritually when the Devil takes you by throat and shakes you. The Holy Eucharist and the Daily Office have been my buoys. They helped me keep my head above water.
Yes, I am the scarred veteran priest. But I stand before you as priest who can still hold my head up and say, without one qualm, without one doubt, without hesitation: I am so happy to be a priest. I am! I really am!
I’m going to close tonight with the prayer I had printed on my worship booklet back then. It was a prayer I adapted from a prayer by one of my all-time heroes, Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. I can say that this has been a prayer that has been answered in ways I never knew prayers could be answered. This is a prayer that is a very clear warning to everyone: be careful sometimes what you pray for. It might actually be answered.
I close with this prayer I prayed ten years ago tonight. And tonight, I can say that prayer has been answered. And for that, I am truly grateful.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, the years have fallen away—one by one—
only to reveal this one shining moment.
It lies here before me as a precious gift I neither asked for nor deserved.
And yet, here it is. Here it is in its beauty, more precious than any other gift.
Only one thing I ask: take my heart and break it.
Break it not as I would like it to be broken, but as you would.
And because it is you who are breaking it, how can I be afraid,
for your hands are the hands I have felt all my life at my back and on my face, supporting me, comforting me and guiding me
to the places you wanted me to be.
Your hands are safety and in them, I am safe.
Take my heart and where you have broken it, fill it with joy—
not the joy I want for myself, but the joy you want for me.
Fill my heart with a burning joy and let its fire burn away
everything dead or dying within me.
Let my heart burn with a joy I can not imagine
and can only vaguely comprehend.
It’s time, Lord Jesus, and I am ready.See! I am ready to be your priest.