Monday, February 5, 2024

Thirty years a priest

Thirty years ago, on February 5, 1994, I was ordained a priest at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT. 

That date did not actually mark the beginning of my ordained life, however, as my brother and some of my closest friends never fail to remind me! It was actually the third ordination liturgy that they endured on my behalf. In June of 1993, I had been ordained a deacon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford. And five years before that I’d been ordained in the United Methodist Church in June 1988 at Elm Park Church in Scranton, PA.  There is a small group of folks who made it to all three! (Thank you all!) 

 Even so, this anniversary of my priestly ordination is the one that I remember best and an easy one to remember since it is also my mother's birthday! Thirty years in, it gives me a chance to reflect on where I have been and where I am heading in my vocational life as a priest. And not just me (since it’s not all about me!) but a chance to reflect on God’s mission in the world and how the Church is called to share in that work, always with God’s help.

What I have come to see as the most important thing to say about those martyrs who died for their fidelity to Christ in Japan in the sixteenth century is that by all human accounts they failed. An old write up in Holy Women, Holy Men puts it this way:

…these initial successes were compromised by rivalries among the religious orders, and the interplay of colonial politics, both within Japan and between Japan and the Spanish and Portuguese, aroused suspicion about western intentions of conquest.

Rivalries among Christians? International politics arousing suspicions? Say it ain’t so! We are very often our own worst enemies, are we not? We very often are not all on the same page within Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We really could indeed move mountains if we could ever get two or three on earth to agree about anything, but since we carry this treasure in earthen vessels we don’t always or even mostly get it right. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, we have to learn to deal with the Church we get in all its imperfections, rather than the wish-dream of the Church we idealistically imagine God should have formed. We are a mess. Still, God loves us. 

By all human accounts, the martyrs of Japan failed.
 They fought turf battles and then they suffered and then they were killed. If nothing else it is a reminder that death is not the end, but the way that leads to new life. The Way of the Cross really is the way that leads to new and abundant life. So even at the grave we make our song. The seeds of faith were planted even by their deaths, just as the death of their Lord had done some sixteen hundred years before them.

So, too with us. As one of my my favorite prayers puts it, "our failures and disappointments" can be occasions for us to put our whole trust in God. It is interesting to have such a day on which to reflect on one’s ministry and the wider ministry of the Church, especially since we live at a time when it is such a great a temptation to measure our dignity and worth by our successes. 

What does it mean to have a theology of failure, and of weakness, in a society where winning isn't everything but the only thing? Well, it does take us to the foot of the cross, does it not? 

I take their witness to mean, in this comparatively safe context of our diocese and in the relatively secure contexts in which my ordained life has unfolded that we must learn to measure “success” and “failure” in this work we are called to share as God’s people in very different ways than those used in the corporate world. It is tempting for us to look to some “bottom line” in our congregations: attendance figures, pledge income, enrollment in church school. All of those may well be indicators of health and sustainability. But they cannot tell us about whether or not ministry is happening there. Those measures can be alluring, but we must guard against that allure. We follow a crucified Lord, after all. 

Today’s gospel reading puts it succinctly and also reminds us that while it is the martyrs of Japan that we remember today, their witness and the witness of all the saints who from their labors rest point us to the one they were willing to take up their crosses and follow: Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as the Way and the Truth and the Life. They remind us, as he did, that we only find the life that is worth living when we are willing to lose the secure (but false) lives we are tempted to build for ourselves and hold onto. Almost sixty-one years into my baptismal vows and more than half of those as an ordained person, and now thirty as an Episcopal priest, I know I don’t have that much faith yet. But I pray with that one who said, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

 This vocation is not only for the ordained, of course. It is God’s call to all of us and we are in this together. For us, this work is nearly impossible. But with God, all things are possible. The Holy Spirit is always at work, even in the midst of what we see as our biggest failures, bringing life out of death. I look forward to watching the Spirit continue to do Her thing as we continue, with God’s help, to do the work we have been given to do. And I pray for courage and wisdom in doing the work I've been called to do, with God's help.