The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 5 June 2016

The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 5 June 2016

Father Michael’s ordination took place in the early 1970s; my own took place in the early 1960s. During the decade between the two of us, some very significant developments took place in the life of the Church: they had been simmering on the back burner for a long time, but during the decade of the 1960s, they came to the surface.

These developments particularly affected what we might call ‘the Liturgical Churches’ — our own Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Roman Catholic Church: this was the decade of the Second Vatican Council, a council which initiated reforms for Roman Catholics, but which also had enormous impact in other Christian Communions. This was an important time ecumenically, when Christians were discovering how much all our churches have in common — for centuries we had emphasized how we were different, and that the important issues which separated us seemed irreconcilable. For all of us, the most obvious fruit of these developments was in the preparation during the 1970s of new liturgical books: the 1979 BCP which we have here in the pews is an example of these developments.
[Since I have been a teacher all of my life, I am always concerned that a sermon should not be a lecture — I always want to avoid that, but today I may be offering you a hybrid.]

This celebration today of Father Michael’s forty-five years of pastoral and sacramental ministry offer me an occasion to look at the changes which emerged during the decade between our two ordinations. I am convinced that those developments affected all members of the Church — and that they marked a recovery of important aspects of the Gospel of Christ. If that is true, as I believe it is, then these developments are very good news.

During the many years that I have taught the theology of the sacraments, I have often used a metaphor to indicate how the process of change works: I call it the metaphor of a mountain climber. (Since I have never climbed a real mountain, I hope that I am being faithful to that experience.) The sense of my metaphor is that developments in our understanding of the sacraments may be compared to a climber beginning a climb on a tall mountain — the climber’s focus is on that goal. But when the climber reaches the peak, and in the exhilaration of that achievement, the climber sees that other mountains have come into view — and one or another of these may turn out to be taller than the one just climbed. But the others could not be seen during the climb. The first mountain turned out to be part of an interrelated chain.

This has been my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues as together we have studied the sacramental life of Christians. In each of the various liturgical traditions, the common first goal was to restore that tradition to its own integrity — and to prune out the accretions which had slipped in over time and which often had undermined how Christians understand what a sacrament is, even while continuing to perform it.

At the time of my ordination, it was common to hear a parent say, “My son has decided to enter the Church.” (At that time, of course, it was “my son.”) We all knew that this meant that their son was going to seminary to prepare for ordination; but this also revealed a very inadequate understanding of the Baptism which all Christians share and which is the true sign of membership in the Body of Christ. During that period, all of the churches began to discover a deeper sense of what Baptism means. The impact of that upon our understanding of the Church was enormous.

It is important for us to see that the call for the Ordination of Women came not only from a renewed understanding of ordination, but also from a renewed understanding of Baptism.

Not that ordination is more important than Baptism, but rather that for those men and women whom the Church calls to ordination, it is the way we are called to live our own baptismal identity. NOT superior to Baptism — but an explicit commitment of our baptismal vocation to the pastoral and sacramental care of the people whom we are called to serve.

As we climbed the baptismal mountain, we learned that our understanding of ordination had to change. This change is still working itself out in the various Christian Communions — and inevitably there is reaction; there is a kind of nostalgia for the former understanding in which clergy had the primary role in the Church’s life.

Several years ago, I wrote an article on the awakening of the laity to their authentic place in the life of the Church. I was shocked by one response in particular: in my article I made the claim that the laity are not second-class to the clergy in the Church. I received a quite angry letter in response in which the writer said, “I prefer to be second-class.” (As many of you know, I am rarely speechless!)
In many parts of the Church the recovery of the meaning of Baptism is still a work in progress — clericalism is not only an issue for the clergy; as I saw in that letter, for many laity as well, it is how they have understood their place in the life of the Church. There is still much work to do.

I believe that we can see another mountain before us. When I was a doctoral student in France, one of my great professors was André Liégé, a Dominican theologian. Fr. Liégé had devoted his academic life to the Christian education of the laity. In a course I took with him, I was one of perhaps 200 students in the class —all the others were Roman Catholic sisters, brothers, and priests. Fr. Liégé had a way of surprising us in class, and one day he asked, “Do you know the cause of atheism in our world?” I could see that the people near me had their pens ready to take down this important fact.

He paused — (he had a flair for the dramatic) — and then he said, “It is caused by Christian educators.” Then he looked out at us in a room filled with Christian educators, and he said, “You have taught about a God who is too small to be believed in.”

The mountain before us now is implied in this statement: our God is an awesome Mystery — we must beware of a domesticated God who has a special interest in religion. Our God is a God in whom “we live, and move, and have our being.” We try in our best words and images — and in songs of praise — to acknowledge this God who is the Source of all that exists — the Holy One who in great humility has lived among us in Jesus Christ.

One of the major theologians of the twentieth-century — the German Jesuit Karl Rahner — has written of this and reminds us that God’s work and Presence extend throughout the whole of Creation:

“The world (he wrote) is permeated by the grace of God … The world is constantly and ceaselessly possessed by grace from its innermost roots, from its innermost personal center …” [1]

This is no small, domesticated God: — this is the Holy One who calls us to faith. It is here that we see the authentic work of the Church, what is often called ‘the mission of the Church’: to proclaim this God who is at once both totally other — “in light inaccessible” — and at the same time present to us in our human experience. Here we see the foundation of the Christian faith in the Incarnation: ‘God is with us’ in Jesus Christ.

I believe it is here that we find the explicit work to which the ordained are called. The signs of human indifference and even brutality are evident in our world. We would need blinders not to see it. We live in a world that longs for “the peace which surpasses all understanding,” but ignores where that peace is to be found.

To Fr. Michael, and to all of us called to ordained ministry, the Church has given the vocation of lifting up the signs of faith in word and sacrament — to remind the whole People of God again and again that they — that YOU — are called to embody God’s transforming Presence in this world.

[1] Karl Rahner, “Considerations on the Active Role of the Person in the Sacramental Event,” in Theological Investigations 14 (NYC: Seabury, 1976), p. 166.