Sunday, February 5, 2017

That Wonderful and Sacred Mystery

O God our Father, source of strength to all your saints, you brought the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of the cross to the joys of life eternal: Grant that we, being encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith we profess, even to death itself; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
On this day in 1597, six Franciscan friars and twenty of their followers were executed in Nagasaki, Japan for their faith. You can read their story here.  The Gospel Reading appointed for this feast day is Mark 8:34-38. One might argue that the whole of the Gospel is in these few verses: we who claim the name of Christian are not called to sit around talking about Jesus but to follow him, and even to risk all for his sake, if that is what is necessary in the time and place where we find ourselves. We are part of the Jesus Movement, and at the center of our life in Christ is the Cross. Yes, we are an Easter people. But there is no secret passageway to the empty tomb that does not go through Golgatha, the place of the skull. This is simply who we are. Jesus died once for all but as the second-century Church Father, Tertullian, put it: "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

Three hundred and ninety-seven years after this event in Nagasaki, the Rt. Rev. Clarence Coleridge, thirteenth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, ordained me to the priesthood at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport. It was a joyous occasion and no one died that night, although some who were with us then have since joined the saints triumphant. For me it was the next step in my faith journey, a journey that began when my parents took me to St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Hawley, Pennsylvania to be baptized by water and sealed by the Holy Spirit. There I died to sin, in order to live for Christ. There (and later at Elm Park United Methodist, and Hawley United Methodist, and Demarest United Methodist, and Grace Episcopal in Madison, and St. Mark's Episcopal Church in New Britain) I was blessed to find congregations that kept helping to raise me into the full stature of Christ. Nothing that has happened since my Baptism can top that, including my three ordinations. (I was ordained a United Methodist pastor in June 1988, and then a (transitional) deacon in The Episcopal Church at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford five years later, leading up that February evening in Westport twenty-three years ago.)

Next month, I'll turn fifty-four. I've now spent almost twenty-nine of those years wearing a collar: as a campus minister, parish priest, and for the past four years in diocesan ministry. The Church has sometimes surprised me and sometimes disappointed me over these years, but mostly it's been good to me and I have no complaints or regrets about the path that I've been on. I've had lots of support along the way, none more important than the support I've received at home from Hathy, Graham, and James.

On this day I find myself remembering the vows that I made to Bishop Coleridge and the gathered assembly that night and also the promises the congregation made to me, on behalf of the wider Church, that they would "uphold [me] in this ministry." I am grateful especially for the committee at Christ and Holy Trinity that supported me as a "baby priest" and to those wise wardens at St. Francis, Holden who taught me everything I didn't learn in seminary about how to be a rector. You all know who you are...

There is a prayer that is prayed at ordinations in The Episcopal Church that is one of my very favorites. Some parts of the Body of Christ prefer extemporaneous prayer; they feel it comes "from the heart." But I was drawn to The Episcopal Church and remain "loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them" because of prayers like this one and many others in The Book of Common Prayer that connect head to heart and get heard in new ways every time I attend an ordination, and in my current role I attend even more than I used to. It goes like this:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

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