A Sermon at the Priesting of Michele Simmons
Church of the Good Shepherd Lookout Mountain, TN
July 1, 2020 (Pauli Murray)
For the last several years, decades even now, those of us who serve and live inside of the Christian story as a gathered people have spoken about change. We have spoken about how the world is changing. We have spoken about how the Church is changing, or should be changing, in order to meet the needs and speak to the world as it is now.
With all that talk about change, however, not much had really changed. Mostly what changed was that we knew we were supposed to talk about change. We knew it was not proper to resist change, because look, the world is changing and the Church is changing, so get with it and change.
But what should change? Well, it turns out the things I really love and value and treasure, those things should not change. Jesus invented those things.
The things I do not really care for or have much affinity for or have less connection to, those are the things that should change. Those are outdated. If I say they are outdated before you can say how valuable they are, then I win the competitive Church game of what is essential and what is incidental.
Then, a modern-day plague occurs named COVID 19. And we all end up changing and being changed, whether we wanted to or not. It is all up in the air, both the world and the Church, the things that will fall away and the things that will endure.
So, in such a season, what do we do?
We have decided to do something essential.
We have decided to make Michele a priest.
Regardless of the changes and the chances of this world, this world and this Church will always need priests. So, today, we all have met on a holy mountain and we are about to do something old and something new. With an old liturgy, we will make a new priest. We are not changing, even as we change.
I am so heartened today that we have heard a lesson from Philippians. Philippians is my favorite book in the New Testament. Paul, a prisoner, someone who is not free, is still, somehow, joyous and free in his soul. He is writing to a church community that he loves. This letter does not have the bite of Galatians. In many ways, to the believers in Philippi, the apostle is writing a love letter.
He is writing a love letter, however, that acknowledges there is conflict. Euodia and Synteche are not getting along. They used to get along and have done great work together, but now, they are not of the same mind.
Michele, no matter how the Church and the world rise to meet this moment, we will never change our way out of conflict. In your priesthood, as you work in Christian community, no matter how healthy or mature they are, you will meet Euodia and Synteche. You will meet great people who have done great things. However, those very good people will not be of the same mind.
While they are not of the same mind, somehow, the Christ holds them both together. While they are not of the same mind, somehow, you are called to be a priest to them both.
In serving with people who are in conflict, Michele, remember that those external conflicts can often teach you, as a priest, about the internal conflict in you. This Paul who writes and asks Euodia and Synteche to find common ground is the same Paul who does the things he does not want to do and does not do the things he wants to do. Inside of him, the apostle, there is conflict.
Inside of you, as a priest, there will be conflict. Do not run from it, do not deny it, do not create a schism of your soul. Pray, instead, for wisdom. Meditate on this Philippian letter.
Rejoice in the Lord, who is so near to you, closer than your breath. Do not worry, but instead allow your prayers to open you up to God, who can heal every division, particularly the divisions inside of one person. Keep on doing the things you have learned from the wisdom of the Church that does not change in order to be the priest you are called to be now, who will continue to change and grow in a world that will always need priests.
You are being ordained today at a parish church named the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, we hear that Jesus saw the crowds and saw sheep without a shepherd. He saw many people in need, who were ill, afraid, helpless, harassed, uniformed as to the Good News that Jesus was bringing into the world. So, he went everywhere and sought to do everything to help.
Then, he turns to his disciples. Then, he turns to us. Then, Michele, he turns to you and says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” In other words, there is always more work to do than there are workers.
This does not mean that you will spend the rest of your active priesthood attempting to recruit more people to join Altar Guild. Though, as a parish priest, you will always be looking for more Altar Guild members.
Rather, Jesus is saying something to us about what will change and what will not change. There will always be more Gospel work to do than there will be workers able to serve. In the economy of God, the demand will always be above the supply.
I do not say that in order to make you weary or overcome or fearful that you will burn out before you even get started.
I say this in order to repeat eternal wisdom from the Christ that there is always room for someone else to join us in the work. Jesus is not saying you must do it all. Jesus is saying do not try to do it all because you cannot.
You can, however, in your priesthood, practice a kind of ministry that invites all others to practice theirs. You can pray for more laborers and pay attention in the Church and in the world when those gifted for the labor appear in our midst.
They do show up, those who are able to join us in being and doing the Gospel, but too often we do not see them, because we are too busy believing all the work depends on you and me to get it done.
So, always keep enough margin in your priesthood that is not simply the work in the field. Set aside an equal portion that is the work at the prayer desk and the work that does not look like work, when you are simply looking around and seeing who is showing up and who is missing. When you begin to develop the art of seeing those who others miss and knowing who is missing in the Body, then you will be a priest able to make change in a changeless Church.
It should also be noted that today is July 1st. Recently, the Episcopal Church has seen fit to celebrate the witness and work of The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray on this day, her death day in 1985. The Rev. Dr. Murray was a civil rights activist, writer of nonfiction, memoir and poetry, a lawyer, and a labor organizer. Her grandmother was born into slavery and today, a residential hall at Yale University bears Pauli Murray’s name.
The Rev. Dr. Murray was present at the beginning of numerous efforts in the mid-20th century for civil rights and women’s rights. Her senior thesis at Howard University provided some of the legal argument used for the Brown vs. Board of Education case which led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 ruling which overturned separate but equal. In her 60’s, she became the first African-American female priest in the Episcopal Church.
The life of The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray is a life of change that called this country and this Church to return to the root of what it is we say we believe and value and proclaim. In calling us to return to the root, Murray exposed the great gap between our values and our actions. That gap is sin, communal sin, generational sin. As a priest, Murray preached against that sin and pointed towards the means for healing. Even today, we still need to return to the root, acknowledge the gap and offer ourselves and our Church for a reconciliation that moves us towards true amendment of life and real healing.
Michele, you becoming a priest is a kind of change. The Episcopal Church is not simply adding one more priest to the ranks. We are adding you. Your voice, your gifts, your heart and mind and body and soul. You, as a priest, will change us. You, as a priest, will also serve in the life of the Church that proclaims the Risen and Reconciled Christ who does not change.
As a priest today, you enter a field where the harvest is great, where the helpless and the harassed are great in number. You will be one priest. Only one. But, thank God, you are joining us. You, a priest, in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith. You have arrived just in time for what is next. AMEN.
By Pauli Murray
We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air–
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.
But the slowly wrought words of love
and the thunderous words of heartbreak–
Those we hoard.