Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I cannot NOT be priest...

I am constantly being aware that even in retirement I am a priest.  I am told that I can’t be a part of a parish calling a new rector.  I would rather not wear my collar but I am challenged by younger clergy to do so.  I thought that I was going to have some respite and yet, and yet….  I don’t think I can NOT be a priest. 

I never have swallowed the theological idea that there is an ontological change with the sacraments.  Yes, I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the blessed bread and wine.  I haven’t the foggiest how it happens.  Perhaps Thomas Aquinus got a word from God, but I just know that that sign makes Christ tactile and real for me through grace.  Yes, I believe in the sign of God’s healing in the laying on of hands.  And yes, I believe through the Sacrament of Reconciliation that something very special happens when we name our sinfulness that leads to transformation.  But I guess I never wanted to be different by being a priest.  I hated the image of the priest being placed upon a pedestal.
Coming from the Roman Catholic tradition, I saw the ‘elevation’ to the ordained ministry used

by both clergy and laity to separate those whose call was to serve.  And consequently the servant minister was often made the one who expected service.  Consequently there was a major disconnect in what the clergy were doing and what the people needed.  Vatican II tried to change that image, but it was rejected by those who wanted to maintain that distance.


And after over thirty years of ordained ministry, I am still grappling with what it means to be priest.  It has certainly changed in those years, and not necessarily for the best.  So I am back to the question what does it
mean to be priest today?  Do we need them?  Should we need them?  What can an ordained person do for society that humanity cannot, with God’s grace, do for
themselves?  I am sure that in different times and different eras, this question has been answered in different ways.  Certainly during the Reformation some of the break away groups opted out of an ordained priesthood raising up those who could pastor without the sacramental signs.  But the Church being what it is, seems to need leaders.  So how does society confirm those leaders without making them priests?
What I am discovering about myself is that by being a priest, with God’s grace, I can no longer NOT be a priest.  I may not celebrate the Mass, or absolve sins, but that doesn’t stop me from being what I have been called to do.  I am not a priest by my own
account, or even the laying on of hands by the bishop.  I am a priest simply because I have been molded by God’s grace into the sign that God has made me.  And I am beginning to understand the sacramentality of the sign.  I don’t think I understood this at first.
I remember when I was first ordained; I wanted to have a day off in the little town where I served.  If I went to the Post Office or the grocery, I would get ‘button holed’ by people (often people I didn’t even know) who had ‘religious’ questions.  If I was working in the garden of my rectory, I would get hailed as the ‘Parson’ even when I was in my jeans and t-shirt.  In small towns you were the priest of the whole community even for the Baptists.  I had to leave town to have any invisibility at all. It was difficult to be “on” all the time.
Now, I have heard psychologists tell people not to confuse their work with who they are.  But that isn’t the case with the sacrament of ordination.  The sacrament does not make us different because we are still the numbskulls after the laying on the hands than before.  But what we have is the grace to evolve into what it means to be a sign of God’s presence in the world.  I don’t want to say that there aren’t those signs in many different things.  But I do believe that the transformation that comes with opening one’s self to the sacrament of ordination changes one forever.  And I believe that even if someone were to renounce their ordination, the sacrament has still changed their lives.
One of my Methodist colleagues wears her collar during Lent (not a Methodist custom)

simply to proclaim that there is a Christian leader in her neighborhood.  In our part of the country, women’s ministry is still relatively rare.  It isn’t uncommon for someone
to ask questions while I eat in a restaurant, or wait for friends at the bus stop.  The Parson is one who becomes the ‘safe person’ in the community to share faith with, whether it is with someone who stops to change your tire, or a mother who wants her child baptized by a woman. 
The signs of Christianity have been eroded over the past 20 years. I am not talking about crosses or little fish on the back of the car.  I am talking about the incarnated signs. When I was first ordained, the ministry was a respected profession with all the accoutrements thereof.  But society has changed.  Church scandals, the hijacking of Jesus by the neo-conservatives, warring denominations over whatever issue have often placed a burden on those who have committed there lives to be signs of Christ’s presence to the world.  For a while after the pedophilic scandals of the 80’s and 90’s I didn’t want to wear a collar in public.  The media and movies have made Christian leadership look either dummer than dirt or satanic.  And some of our ilk have done awful things.  But I daresay that there have always been those few in the Church universal who abused their office for personal gain, but the majority of us do try to live into that transformative grace that comes with the sacrament of ordination.  And by it we are changed each moment by the One who calls us to serve.
The priesthood of all believers acts the same way.  The sacrament of Baptism enriches
us with the grace to be just as much of a sign of Christ’s presence.  My ordination does not separate me from that grace I was given in Baptism.  It is my baptism that is the root of my ordination; therefore I am the same as every other person in the Church.  My ordination calls me to serve differently, but that is all.  It calls me to a different type of servanthood but it does not ‘elevate’.  If anything it makes life more hazardous by its temptation to not be transformed.  Ordination merely defines where that servanthood is lived out.  The authority it gives is only the authority that is conferred by the community that I serve.  And if I fail that community in serving it, that authority means nothing. 
Now, as I am retired from holding authority of the Church, I work with those who are in authority.  I serve at the direction of others.  That’s fine with me.  At least I don’t have to go to all those $%**% meetings anymore.  But I cannot NOT be a sign of Christ’ presence.  It is an indelible sign.  For good or ill, I still am a sign.  And it is that redeeming grace that still calls me to serve to my dying breath. 

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