What’s the single most important word for a Christian? Yes.
When I first interviewed here back in December, Alec Hamilton asked me an important question. He said: “Are you a good preacher?” I looked at Bob, and I looked at Alec, and I paused for a quick breath, and I went for it: I said, “Yes.” That seems to have been the right answer. Now, a more modest and truthful answer would have been more like, “No, not yet. But I really want to work on it, and hopefully something will come of it one day. But I have a lot to learn.” But I didn’t say that, because I felt like it was a time for bold resolves. I felt like the answer had to be “Yes.”
Of course, in most job interviews, you want to put on your best face. You want to get your foot in the door. So you say what you think you need to—and sometimes you say what you wish were true about yourself.
Now, to give you some background, there are basically two ways that young clergy get placed in parishes these days. Some seminarians have bishops who say, “You’re working for me. And this is what you’ll be doing.” And some are on their own. I am blessed to have been mentored and sponsored by one of the great Bishops in our Church–Leo Frade of Honduras. As many of you know, he is the real deal. He has said “yes” to what seems like an impossible ministry, and he has done so much. But Bishop Frade left it to me to find my own call. Not a job, he said, but a call.
So in my last year of seminary, I spent a lot of time writing resumes, filling out questionnaires, and processing computer deployment forms. I put a sermon on a tape. I made a lot of phone calls. I even put up a web page on the internet–with a hyperlinked resume, some photos of my wife and parents, and a couple of sermons. And of course, Melanie and I had some traveling to do. We went from Connecticut to Arizona. I talked to rectors in California, Washington, and Baltimore. I even had a reservation to go down to Florida. And then in December I got a call from Bob Trache.
So we arranged an interview, and I drove down by myself over Christmas break to spend a day interviewing with Bob and Sue, the vestry and the staff. It was a long day. But I was impressed. So when Bob offered me the position at St. James’s, I had to force my cheek muscles from making the goofiest grin you’ve ever seen on a man. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
I knew it wouldn’t be right to jump up from my chair, offer my hand and say “You got a deal.” I knew it was a call that Melanie and I had to discern together. So I told Bob I had to talk it over with Melanie, and she would have to come down to Richmond, and we would do some serious thinking. But when I got back to my room at the Jefferson, I called Melanie and babbled on for a long while. I called everybody in my family. I read the History of the St. James’s, I read the Epistle of James, … and I started dreaming. I tried to be objective, and reflective, I tried to keep my perspective. But I was excited—I felt the thrill.
When Melanie and I both came down for a visit, she got as excited as I had been. And before we even got to the introductory party at the Jennings’ house, we told Bob and Mary Lou that we wanted to accept the offer. I spent the next few months trying to wipe that grin off of my face.
Well, the week before last, I started here at St. James’s. And I’m so glad to be here. Not just because it’s a great job. But because I have been given a gift, and it is to spend some time here with all of you, in this wonderful parish that I believe the Holy Spirit has taken possession of. Though this church was struck by fire from the sky five years ago–the fire has not been quenched. It’s still goin’. And how so? How does the fire keep burning here?
It started with a spark from above–in this case actual lightning. And it kept burning, because people opened a window to their hearts for the Holy Spirit to blow in and stoke the tongues of flame. They kept the window open by saying “Yes, we will stay here;” “Yes, we will rebuild;” “Yes, we will serve this neighborhood and this city;” “Yes, we will offer programs for little children during the week;” “Yes, we will minister to the hungry, the young, the tired.” By saying “Yes, we will gather together every week in a glorious exaltation of the Lord,” and “We will say Yes with a festal shout.”
Today is a Baptism Sunday. It is a day when we remember the first time we said “Yes” to the power of God, made available to us through Jesus Christ. Today is a day when we remember our own Baptism, and our own ordination into the priesthood of all believers. And this is what the Scriptures appointed for today are talking about. Paul says that in Baptism, we have died to death, so that we might live to life eternal in the love of God. This is what Jesus means when he says, “whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
But in our interview with God—in prayer, in our Baptismal vows, in whatever commitments we make along our journey with Christ—the Holy Spirit doesn’t ask us if we are ” good at what we do.” We don’t need to put on our best face, as if it were a mask, because God loves the real face we already have. We don’t have to try and get our foot in the door, because Jesus has propped it open for us with the hard wood of the cross. And we don’t have to say what we wish were true about ourselves. Because when we say “Yes, Lord,” we enter into that hope-filled reality where God makes our True Self real.
I want to share with you some of my special exper-iences of last Sunday’s service of ordination, because it was such a special night for me. Not only because it was my entrance into a new stage of ministry, but because it was an experience of that truly festal exaltation which the prophet Isaiah and the Psalmist talk about today. It was an experience in which we were all equally present and important, not for our own reasons, but as participants in the heaven-like worship of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The first special experience happened just before the service up in the vesting sacristy. I went up there to pray and read some scripture. I found a Bible and saw that somebody had paper-clipped some pages together. Not one to pass up a gander at what may or may not be intended for my eyes, I looked at the marked passage. It was from Deuteronomy 9–when the Israelites are just about to enter into the promised land. It said, “Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness–for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Not a bad warning for somebody about to be ordained to the priesthood. Especially for someone who, like me, is such a stiff-necked person. Such a stubborn person. For it is not by my own righteousness that I have become a priest. Nor is it by my own power or will. Indeed, if it weren’t for the ministry of my family, I wouldn’t make it. I realize that the Gospel says we mustn’t love parent more than God, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have been able to take up the cross if it weren’t for the witness of determination and strength which my Mom has always shown in taking up her cross. If it weren’t for the ministry of my mother-in-law, and her friendship with Sue, I wouldn’t have heard of this position at St. James’s.
And what of the ministry of my Godfather, who once stood beside me at my Baptism and said, “Yes.” And who once again stood beside me at my ordination and read the epistle lesson, assuming the voice of Peter to counsel me in my new ministry as a priest. And what of the ministry of my dad, who was himself only baptized less than two years ago into the Body of Christ? To hear him assuming the voice of Isaiah, sharing his account of seeing God face to face, telling us what was said in that prophetic interview in heaven, “Here I am Lord, Send me!” – that is powerful stuff.
And what of the ministry of my wife? Right after the Bishop and priests had laid their hands upon my head. When Melanie placed the stole around my neck. It was then, feeling it and hearing the congregation’s response, that I knew what had happened. The priesthood of all believers, the baptized People of God, as repre-sented by my family and all of you, had given me something to hold on to, something to guard. They asked me to say “yes,” and to become a steward and servant of that fuller priesthood which is the Body of Christ.
Today, let us again say “yes” as we affirm our faith together. In the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.