Sunday, February 14, 2010

Priest Sermon.5.Holy Incongruity, Batman!

Holy Inconcruity, Batman!
We used to say that ordination was an “ontological change”
meaning that there was a basic shift
in who someone was.
The ordinary humanity was extracted
and something extraordinary replaced it.

I don’t know if that ever made much sense.
It certainly doesn’t now.
But there is a change – a real change.
The nature of it though is largely beyond our understanding.

Today, I want to describe a piece of it.
Kim, when you look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow,
you’ll see the same person you were yesterday.
In your heart, you will feel the same feelings.
In your mind, you will think the same thoughts.
But before long, you will notice that other people
look at you differently.

They will attribute to you ideas that you do not hold,
beliefs you do not believe, pieties that you do not feel.
Some will see you as considerably better than you are.
Others will see you as considerably worse.
It is disconcerting.
It makes you keep looking in the mirror
to see if you are still yourself.
When you see that you are in fact the person you always were,
you will try to say to others,
“No, no, you have made a mistake.
I am me.”

But they will not believe you.
Your efforts to deny their projections will only irritate them
and cause them to all the more suspicious of you.
“Why,” they will wonder, “is she trying to pull a hoax on us,
pretending to be a person when we know full well,
she is a priest.”

Ordination is a division of things.
It separates who you are in your own eyes
from what you represent to the world.
Kim, we are about to impress upon you a symbolic meaning
that will often be different from your experience of yourself
– as far from your experience of yourself
as the Christ is from a piece of bread.

But having two perspectives on one reality
can be quite helpful.
It takes the vision of two eyes to give depth perception.

Seeing things in a simple one-eyed way
keeps them flat.
Seeing them with two-eyed complexity
adds depth.
It is the very incongruity of priestly vocation
that gives it depth.

Like Beethoven called upon to make music
even when he was deaf,
you will be called upon to preach the gospel
even when you cannot hear it.
If you do, you will feel like a hypocrite.
If you don’t, you will feel like an apostate.
There is no way out but through,
no way through but to serve faithfully
out of your vows and not the fleeting feelings of the moment.

No priest is ever so good or so bad
as people think.
But the complexity of a human person
undertaking a holy role
creates depth.
The tension between your call
to a devout and holy life on the one hand,
and your natural human existence on the other,
the tension between them is charged and challenging.
That’s where the growth happens.

A parallel tension happens in the principal sacrament
at which the priest presides.
In the Holy Communion there are two compelling ways
to see what is going on.

One of them is a family meal.
By coming together, singing together, praying together,
finally eating and drinking together,
we form and celebrate our human bonds.
“Blest be the tie that binds.”
That is the horizontal level of communion.
It is people joining hands in their shared humanity.

That is part of it.
Last week, I heard a seminary professor say that was all of it.
Last month, I heard a neighboring bishop say
he would not ordain anyone who thought
that was all of it
-- because the horizontal communion alone
has no depth.

Something cosmic is afoot.
When we gather as a community,
we surrender some of our ego to the community.
We surrender enough of our individualism
to sing the same song, to say the same prayer,
to affirm the same Creed.

Then at the offertory, the community gives itself to God.
The alms, the bread, and the wine represent the people.
We place our lives on the altar.
As one of our prayers puts it,
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord,
our selves, our souls, and bodies . . . .”

But this is more even than our own group spiritual practice.
In the Eucharist, we act on behalf of the whole creation.
We put the cosmos on the altar.
We give back to God the whole Reality God has given us.
We give it back to be blessed, broken, and shared again.

The Eucharist is the cosmic gift exchange,
in which God gives everything,
which we give back in gratitude,
that God may give anew in grace.
That is the vertical dimension of communion,
the bond of earth and heaven, human and divine,
the temporal realm with eternity.

Yet, the Eucharist is also our family meal,
our ritual of caring for one another.
The Eucharist is our relationships, however flawed they may be.
W. H. Auden called our fumbling attempts
at love “all the failed caresses.”
That is communion too.
The great cosmic communion is absolutely bogus
unless it arises out of the family meal.

So you see there is a parallel between the Eucharist and the priest,
a fitting parallel.
For each, there is division between the direct experience
and a vastly more profound meaning
– a meaning rooted in faith.

That is the way it is with all sacraments, including ordination.
For years, I tried to live into my vocation as a priest
by vigorously employing the things I knew.
They taught me things in the course of my formation.
I knew them. I still know them. And I thought that must be
what I am for – to be the go to guy, the one who knows.

After 20 years, I am gradually coming to accept
that nobody much cares what I know,
that my knowledge won’t heal broken relationships,
broken bodies, or broken hearts.
Being a priest isn’t about what you know.
It has something to do with who you are.
It has something to do with what you represent.
It has mostly to do with the tension between the two.

The first wrong way is to forget who you are
and identify with being a priest.
The second wrong way is to deny your priesthood
and try to persuade people to you are just yourself.
You are not just yourself. You are yourself in holy orders.
The incongruity is intolerable without a mountain of faith,
a well of hope, and treasure trove of love.

Now just a word for the congregation
on your part in the care and feeding of priests.
You will sometimes see through their meaning
to their true humanity.
That is an occasion for connection.
Connection is good.

But mostly we see priests
as better or worse than they are.
That is fine. It is part of the process.

But whenever your priest seems gilded in glory,
wise, compassionate, and holy,
remember what you are seeing
is actually a reflection of your own soul.
That’s the good news.

The bad news is that when your priest seems
monstrous, controlling, oppressive, hypocritical,
spiritually lax or fanatical,
these images too are reflections.

Good priests can serve us well if we remember to own the goodness.
Bad priests can serve us well if we remember to own the badness.
Always the challenge and the opportunity is to see each other
through the eyes of faith.

When we look at each other through worldly eyes,
we see two dimensional cartoon heroes and villains.
But through the eyes of faith, we see depth.
We see children of God, beautiful and broken,
saints and sinners by turns and all at once.
We see mixtures of dust and light, divine in origin and destiny,
all too human in process.

Thomas Merton said that the saints are not saints
by virtue of their own sanctity but by their capacity
to appreciate the sanctity of others.
May God sanctify us all with the grace of appreciation,
the grace to see each other in our depth,
the grace to live in the tension between
who we are and what we mean and are meant to be.