I woke up Saturday morning a little stiff, but well-rested and comfortable. Bobbie, my host, filled me with coffee, banana, and fresh-baked bagels, and I set out bright and early to ride with Rev Ref, Mrs Ref, the Kid, and Rev Ref’s mom, on the two-hour drive from Sheridan to St. Peter’s Cathedral, Helena.
You may say, “A two-hour drive cooped up in a small car?” You may, but you would be overlooking the entertainment value of observing all the towns (read: “wide spots in the road”) we passed through, and the rippling ridges and peaks of the Rockies among which Todd piloted the coupe.
We encountered favorable driving conditions, got to the cathedral on time, and we all helped Todd get ordained.
No one stomped out during my sermon, even though I made fun of the bishop a little, and Todd seemed satisfied that his preacher had done OK. I’ll append the sermon in the extended part of this post. I received from Todd my second new-priest’s-first-blessing (Andrea Mysen blessed me after her ordination, too), so bolstered by their sanctity, I have no excuse for my on-going impiety.
The service was not short, and the festive reception was also leisurely, and the trip back to Sheridan was no shorter than the trip from Sheridan to Helena had been, so we were pretty tired when we got back to the rectory. Todd showed me and his mom around the church in Sheridan (we wouldn’t be worshipping there Sunday, since the furnace has quit; sunday worship in Sheridan took place in the parish hall). Joelene (not “Jolene,” print shop!) fixed an artichoke lasagna that couldn’t be beat while we watched the CNN special about The Two Marys, and Fr. Ed, the Roman Catholic priest who lives next door, stopped in to congratulate Todd. We then staggered off to our various rooms to rest up for a very full day of church on Sunday.
But before I turned in, I went to plug my cell phone into the outlet, and discovered that Bobbie’s cat had chewed through the cord in several places, and had taken a nip out of my computer’s power cord for afters. This left us with a challenge for Sunday. . . .
St. Peter’s Cathedral, Helena, Montana
The Ordination of Todd Young to the Presbyterate
Num 11:16-17, 24-25b/Ps 43/1 Peter 5:1-4/Matt 9:35-38
December 18, 2004
Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We can’t fool God – not for a minute. We can’t persuade God that our solemn faces and outlandish attire make this a moment of dignity and greatness; God knows our foibles and our mortal silliness much too well to see our ceremonies as the grand occasion we pretend them to be. This whole afternoon is a vast joke that we play on ourselves (and on Todd). The glorious hymns, the majestic gestures, the generous hospitality – these are the stage dressing for an elaborate prank at our expense. It’s a little naughty of us, pulling this farce on a new priest, but I reckon it’s a divine mischievousness, a sign to the world of our God’s unfathomable oddity. In other words, this afternoon we hold up a symbol of our peculiarity, embodied in Todd’s ordination to the sacred priesthood as a fool set apart for the joy of serving a broken body to broken hearts in a broken world.
In this, God’s love and humor are revealed to us: we dress up our clergy in funny clothes and we make them sit in a separate part of the church, but God pours out a spirit of priesthood on all people, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the full knowledge of the Son of God. Make no mistake: we all are children of God, and coheirs with Christ, inheritors of a holy kingdom. There’s nothing so special about Mr. Young (I know that after years of working with him at Seabury); not so special as to make him deserve this fancy uniform, at least. The pomp and circumstance of this pageant are all part of a holy giddiness about today’s festival afternoon. Maybe this is even an example of what St. Paul said about the way that the members we think are less honorable get dressed up with greater honor.
At the heart of this elaborate comedy, though, there lies the truth of our thankful celebration as we recognize one more volunteer for the demanding work of serving God’s people, one more laborer for God’s harvest. There’s a sort of vaudevillian excess here, but the extravagance of our liturgy this afternoon signals the joy in heaven that Todd has committed himself, body and soul, to the consuming work of the pastoral ministry. Moreover, we rejoice because we believe in Todd, because we trust that he’ll be among us as a co-worker, an example of Christian life, helping all of the rest of us to live more truly as servants of Jesus, as servants to one another.
Todd’s offering of his life to God’s service gives us ample reason to dress up, to sing and celebrate. As Jesus reminds us in today’s lesson from St. Matthew’s Gospel, the harvest is plenty, but the laborers are few; today, God has answered our prayers for a hard-working laborer by calling Todd to work among us.
So I hope, Todd, that you can see this ordination service with a double vision: on one hand, as a somewhat absurd carnival overstatement of our delight and of your importance, yet also as an understatement of our trust and affection for you. You need to be able to see the absurdity in order to remember that you are, after all, only an earthen vessel, the off-scouring of the earth, the less honorable member dressed up with greater dignity. You are ﬂesh and bone, with all the limitations that ﬂesh imposes, and it is always somewhat absurd to dress up mere ﬂesh in the glorious vestments of heavenly honor.
Nonetheless, we need also to remember the deep justiﬁcation for this ceremony and ritual. We need to remember that, although Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light, yet they are still a yoke and still a burden. We need to remember that the vocation of ministry entails long hours, heart-breaking compassion, soul-wearying negotiation and administration, and the capacity to endure endless tedious jokes about clergy who work only one day a week. We have seen Todd through years of concentrated study and extensive pastoral practice, but after all the years of academic instruction and spiritual formation, Todd, like every minister, is likely to see his heartfelt outreach miscarry, his wisest advice ignored in favor of glib slogans from some internet Nostradamus.
And in certain respects, I think that’s all for the better. Our neighbors around us tend to make idols of their experts, whether those experts be economists, medical professionals, politicians, or management consultants. We who preach the Word of God can’t afford to be idolized; that kind of uncritical adulation falsiﬁes the very message we proclaim. Better that we be ignored by spiritual consumers who desire only instant painless ﬁxes, than that we hawk a quick & easy gospel to a broader, shallower audience. We are called to an apostolate that pleases God, not mass audiences, and we are called to a ministry that reaches for people’s truest hearts, not their shallowest desires. Instead of polishing a sales pitch calculated to win ever-bigger congregations, we ordain you this afternoon with continuing in the way of Christ, illustrating for eager hearts the certain way of Christ in an uncertain and obscure situation. As St. Matthew described the vocation of discipleship for us today, Todd, we appeal to you to heal the sick, show compassion to those in distress, to preach the gospel of God’s kingdom.
Todd, in the power of the Spirit, heal the sick. Where hearts are broken, offer Christ’s consoling love. Where bodies falter and fail, call forth every spiritual strength that can compensate for, and even overcome, physical weakness. Don’t let laudable humility or frail doubt quench the powerful spirit of renewal and restoration that God is always more ready to offer than we are to exercise. Heal the sick, Todd, for such power is given by the Spirit of grace that your diocese and your congregations discern in you.
In all circumstances, Todd, exercise your ministry with the fullness of compassion. In conﬂict and at ease, among the privileged and the poor, exercise always the holy compassion that your friends have long seen at work in your heart. When a cynical world demands, “What’s in it for me,” we have the precious opportunity to show that working in the name of God’s love for the least of our sisters and brothers is a far greater reward than any material beneﬁt our neighbors can bargain for. Each member of Christ Church and of St. Paul’s, or of the Diocese of Montana, or even the skeptical self-interested scoffer requires from us the kind of loving compassion that our Lord taught us – compassion that stretches us beyond the impulses of mortal expectation toward immortal grace.
Todd, preach the good news of God’s kingdom. No positive report of polls and elections, no promising stock market, no optimistic armistice or legislation may prevail over the news that God’s rule, God’s way is our only path for truth and hope and life. Here we have no city, for our citizenship belongs not in Sheridan or Helena or Washington or Canterbury, but we are citizens of a heavenly city, whose foundations we now see but dimly. With every word, and every deed, Todd, build up our sense of what our heavenly citizenship requires; wherever principalities and powers set themselves over the claims of our Creator, our Savior, or the Spirit of Truth, proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, whom we humans persecuted and who has interceded to save us from our folly, whose name alone God has exalted above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess him to be our Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Make your life transparent to reveal your love for the greatness and the grandeur and the surpassing significance of the gospel.
Day in and day out, your ministry will reﬂect that power and that glory exactly as much as your integrity is manifest to all who know you. In the face of temptations strong and trials ﬁerce, do not ever compromise your integrity. God’s grace is not always obvious in all circumstances; if you sell off your integrity in exchange for some more-or-less commendable purpose, you’ll have to rely on horse-trading, vote-counting, and inﬂuence-peddling just like any common shill. Though the path to God’s light and truth lie through the valley of shadow and gloom, yet with your integrity intact, no storm of controversy can shake your soul, and the God of righteousness and truth will be with you. Only integrity will sustain your ministry over the long haul, through honest mistakes and careless lapses; only integrity will keep alive, will keep brilliantly luminous the radiance of God’s truth within the mortal ﬂesh that veils our holy preaching.
That’s why I propose that it’s ﬁtting that this afternoon’s liturgy take the form of a sober-faced farce: our divine Author structures the plot line of our vocation on earth as a narrative fraught with tragedy and drama, but tending always toward the blessed, grace-ﬁlled ending that makes for comedy. The message of our salvation is good news, and it is good news speciﬁcally to those who are inﬁrm, who are suffering, who are at their wits’ end; therefore we are called to heal, to show compassion, and always to make known in this vale of poverty and distress the powerful Word that wrests joy from sorrow, vigor from disease, victory from suffering. In other words, God’s light and truth come to the world incognito, behind a veil, and it is our obligation – an obligation for all of us, but especially Todd’s duty as a priest of the gospel – to make the radiant light of the good news shine out brilliantly from behind that veil. This world knows the truth only in a disguise, so that our charade this afternoon is precisely the proper way to honor God and to recognize Todd as a chosen steward of God’s mysteries: the foolishness of our parades and our solemnities hints at the unsurpassable glory of God’s way, and marks this, our oddly-dressed brother, as an ambassador of the Lord whom we long to see in glory, but whom we encounter every day in rags.
Todd, my brother in Christ, our friend and our teacher, our servant and our leader: as a presbyter myself and a witness of the sufferings of the Body of Christ, I urge you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge with integrity; heal the sick; comfort those in distress; preach the Gospel. God grant us the clarity of insight always to support and strengthen you in your work; and God grant you the wisdom, the compassion, and the unwavering faith that will shine heaven’s light among all people, a beacon for those who do not yet know the gospel, and a source of warmth and clarity for us who know you from this moment on as a priest in Christ’s church – so that when the chief Shepherd appears, you will bring with you crowd of joyous witnesses, congregants and colleagues, receiving at his hands a crown of glory that never fades away.