Tuesday, March 31, 2015

THE PRIEST'S VOW: A Sermon Preached at the Renewal of Clergy Vows of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh

Holy Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lessons: Isaiah 61:1-8; 2 Corinthians 4:1-12; Luke 22:14-22

Let me begin by saying that I am honored to be invited to preach to you this day on the occasion of the renewal of vows. I am not only honored, I am a bit abashed, for I must confess I have been absent these past fifteen years – with a fairly good excuse – as I have been in Uganda for every Easter since 2000, and the bishop did not supply me with travelling money to come back.

There is, however, another reason I find myself feeling a bit awkward. That is because I have always felt ambivalent about the idea of renewal of vows. I know people sometimes have a ceremony renewing their wedding vows – usually at a silver or gold anniversary. But to do so every year might raise questions about the vow itself. Clearly we don’t think of the renewal of our wedding vows or ordination vows as we do the renewal of auto insurance. I suppose I am being a bit flippant here, but my serious point is this: when one takes a vow at ordination, they are for life, and just as our Yes should be Yes in marriage, so our ordination vows do not come with an escape clause.

With that mild caveat, let me now see if I can speak well of what we do today. I am taking as my text a single verse from the Gospel: Luke 22:23: As they sit at table at the Last Supper, Jesus suddenly warns the disciples that one of the partakers was going to betray Him. And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this. What an amazing and troubling response! Judas spoke directly to Jesus and said “Is it I, Lord?” (Matt 26:25), but apparently the other disciples asked much the same question further down the table.

How could they even consider the idea of betraying Jesus? Hadn’t they been personally called by Him? Hadn’t they walked with Him, prayed with Him, seen His mighty works, and yes, broken bread with Him? What could possibly cause them to have such doubts concerning their loyalty to Jesus? Well, we get a glimpse in the scenes that follow.

How about ambition? James and John and others with them move seamlessly in this passage to ask Jesus if they can have the chief seats in His coming kingdom. They are the godfathers of the prosperity gospel, but there is a dark underside of such a gospel: if you let us down, they may be suggesting, we shall let you down, Jesus. Jesus gently reminds them, in the words of the Holy Week collect that one cannot enter his glory but first he bears the cross.

How about idealism? Peter, it appears, sees a glorious role for himself as the first and greatest martyr: "Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death." Jesus takes this as temptation by Satan and promises Peter that he will indeed confess Jesus but only after denying him.

What about the simple weakness of the flesh? Could they have guessed that after all the events of the day, the meal, and the trek over the Gethsemane, they might simply fall asleep? But of course, what else do students do but doze in class. I sometimes said about students in seminary that it was hard to find the ideal time to teach them: they were still waking up for the early morning class; for the late morning class they were beginning to think of lunch; and in the early afternoon class they were still digesting their food. “Could you not wait one hour?” Jesus asked. The answer was Z-Z-Z.

We may smile over the simple foibles of the disciples. This all happened before Pentecost after all. But what about us? Maybe we don’t doubt Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, but we do doubt our call to ministry. Maybe we misheard His voice. Maybe we were called as seasonal workers in the vineyard. Haven’t we dug and fertilized that olive tree at St. Startup long enough? Well, maybe these are some of the reasons we come together once a year for the renewal of vows.

It is one thing to question one’s work of ministry. Ministries, like businesses – and I tried the latter recently – fail. It is another to doubt the call, or more accurately to question that that call is for keeps. To address this matter, let me mention a small book by Dr. George Sumner, the Principal of Wycliffe College in Toronto, titled Being Salt: A Theology of an Ordered Church. Dr. Sumner’s book addresses one simple question: why ordination for life? To put the question another way: why does the church provide an elaborate ceremony for a person who has not yet done one lick of work? Would it bother with such a ceremony if the person were signing up with a five-year contract, complete with a buy-out option? The urgency of this question, as Sumner points out, is related to the fact that fewer and fewer clergy have the luxury of settling into a “living,” complete with parsonage, patronage and public esteem. More common to the life of today’s clergy are strained finances, loneliness, and stress leading to burn-out. So, why ordination for life?

Sumner’s argument for the Church’s tradition has to do with the “iconic” character of the priesthood. [Note for bishops and deacons.] Sumner is not claiming that the priest becomes an icon by transmission of sacramental power, nor is he exactly recalling the Lutheran or Anglican idea of discrete “offices” or estates, but rather what he calls a “semiotic, a.k.a. sign-bearing, understanding of the priesthood,” which he describes under three main images.

The first image is “the priest as counter-symbol,” standing in the place of Christ but at the same time pointing away from himself to Christ who is the true and only Priest. In this capacity the priest is the primordial “martyr.” This role is necessary in both Word and Sacrament. Preaching is not lecturing: the priest is bound to expound the Scripture and proclaim the Passion of Christ, not his or her own ideas and passions. Likewise when he celebrates Communion, he speaks not his own words but the words of the Church and of Christ Himself at the Supper. Why does this role have to be for life to be true to itself? Sumner states:

Priesthood can only symbolize this state of receiving who we are as a gift if the identity is not lodged in our wills, our career plans or own efforts. The priest can only evacuate attention from his or her own accomplishments and efforts if the symbolic role is, by contrast, permanent.

Sumner’s second image is that of “the priest as the sign of the vow.” He points out the close analogy in Ephesians 5:22ff. between the marriage vow and the “mystery” of Christ and the church. I believe this analogy is at the heart of our Lord’s own insistence that marriage is unbreakable, a teaching that seemed to contradict the teaching of Mosaic Law (Mark 10:1-10). Jesus is taking marriage to a higher level to be a “sacrament” of His love for the Church and the Church’s faithfulness to her Husband. Another vow is taken at baptism, which cannot be repeated, only renewed. The ordination vows have the same quality of once-for-allness as the vows in marriage and baptism. In particular, the priest, according to Sumner, “represents the avowed nature of all the Body’s symbols as well as the depth and duration of Christ’s prior pledge to it.” In this sense, the priest is “married” to the Church and to his or her parish, however problematic such an idea might be.

Sumner’s third image is of “the priest as church in miniature.” Whereas it is common in catholic circles to see the priest at the Table as representing Christ to the Church, Sumner argues that “the priest exists to show to the Church something about itself.” In particular, he sees the tension between the priest as “elder” and as “apostle” reflecting back to the church the “interaction between its orthodox structures and its movements of renewal.” This was a lesson I learned very early in my first parish, which was in the midst of charismatic renewal threatening to fly out of control. As clergy, our challenge was to encourage personal spiritual renewal of members while directing them to live within the structures and ministries of the parish. It is also part of the interesting history of Bishop Tucker Theological College in Uganda, where the East African Revival found a place after considerable tension and turmoil through the wise guidance of its Principal John V. Taylor. “To be a priest for a season,” Sumner argues, “would relieve the very dramatic tension which the priest must display and under which he or she must prove faithful.”

Thinking of icons of priesthood, I am led naturally to think of George Herbert, the Anglican priest and poet who was part of my own conversion testimony. George Herbert, you may know, came from a prominent family and was a brilliant young scholar who became orator of Cambridge University at the age of 30 and Member of Parliament, only to give it all up to become a priest in Bemerton, a village church outside Salisbury. He is known from Walton’s Lives and his manual “The Country Parson” as “the holy Mr. Herbert.” But from reading his poems, it is clear that holiness was no primrose path for him.

One revealing poem is titled “The Collar,” which includes a word-play on the clergy collar, the ox’s yoke, and the choler, i.e., anger, expressed by the subject. “I struck the board, and cried, No more. I will abroad.” The primary image here is probably of a man getting up abruptly from the dinner table, but behind that image is that of the Lord’s table. He launches into 32 lines of uninterrupted rant. “Shall I still be in suit?” he asks, with another double entendre for his clergy garb and his empty pleas for God’s help. He speaks of a fruitless harvest, of work with no “garlands gay,” no credit. He speaks of “cold dispute of what is fit or not” and the rope of sands which petty thoughts have made. One can imagine the kind of little issues that would trouble a parish priest with simple country folk. One can imagine it because they are the same issues that arise with modern educated folk in our parishes. Then in the poem’s denouement, something happens:

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wilde
                              At every word,
          I thought I heard one calling, Childe:
                    And I replied, My Lord.

The word “child” reminds us of the boy Samuel in the Temple. It also reminds us of our primary calling to be followers of Jesus. And in the final word-play on the title, we learn that He is our caller, whose yoke is light and who will give rest to our souls (Matt 11:29).

The vow, you see, is the daughter of the vocation. This is why the ordination service places so much anticipatory weight on calling: “Do you believe that you have been called to this office and ministry?” “I do, with God’s help.” And this particular vow, like baptism and marriage, lasts “until we are parted by death.” What an awesome commitment, with awesome consequences if we throw it off, as Cranmer’s ordinal makes clear.

Another favorite of mine is Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. In one scene Thomas More’s family visits him in prison to urge him to recant his opposition to the King’s marriage. His daughter Margaret pleads: “Say the words of the oath to the Succession and in your heart say otherwise.” 

More replies: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self [soul] in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again.”

His daughter tries again: “But haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” To which More replies: “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reasons; finally, it’s a matter of love.”

A matter of love. Let’s return to the disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus has just shared His Body and Blood with them in the broken break and wine. But they don’t get it. He offers them a seat at His heavenly banquet and they miss the point, not surprisingly, given our stubborn and sinful heart. But Jesus is not through with them.

On the evening of Easter Day, Jesus was again at table with his disciples and once again “they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.” Like the host rather than a guest, Jesus gently chides them: "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” This time they do not doubt. Having opened the Scriptures to them and promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus departs from them into heaven “and they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

George Herbert knew the heart of the caller, the host at table, to be the heart of Love, as is clear from his most sublime poem by that name.


Brothers and sisters, we come today to renew our commitment to the labor of love to which we have been called. It is not an easy work: it never has been, but we face special tests at this particular point in our church and cultural history. One other thing has not changed, never will: the One who calls is faithful and He is Love through and through. And for that reason, “We love because He first loved us.”

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