A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Easter is a festive season. It’s THE festive season. During these 50 days of Easter, We are celebrating the resurrection of the Good Shepherd, we are rejoicing that we now live in hope, the hope of our collective resurrections. We live in gratitude and the hope of being reunited with the Good Shepherd.
In the joyful spirit of that hope, I’ve been reflecting on my ministry as the shepherd here at St. Paul’s.
Nearly 9 months ago, I arrived in Dayton, Ohio and at St. Paul’s in Oakwood. I still remember fondly the day several men in the parish came here to help me unload my books and office materials from my U-Haul truck and trailer.
Folks in the parish have asked me, more than once, why I would choose to leave the East Coast, Williamsburg, Virginia, Bruton Parish, and the Chaplaincy at William & Mary for Dayton and St. Paul’s.
It’s a good question, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on and try to answer it.
The fact of the matter is that it wasn’t a choice. I didn’t prefer to leave the Chaplaincy. It was a period of ministry for which I’m immensely grateful. I grew so much as a priest because of those experiences, growth that I know God will use in my time here at St. Paul’s. And perhaps the committee of parishioners that ultimately referred the Diocese of S. Ohio to call me here saw it too.
I didn’t prefer to leave the East Coast. I had lived in the Mid-Atlantic for nearly 20 years. My best friends lived there, and all my favorite cultural outlets are there.
And while both my parents are from the mid-west (Michigan & Illinois), I wasn’t necessarily looking to move to the mid-west or to Ohio.
And yet, it’s April 2021, and I’ve been here since Sept. 5, 2020. So that leads me to ask, “What’s going on?”
The only answer to that question is calling. God called me here. God called me through a committee of faithful Christians here at St. Paul’s, and through the office of the Bishop of S. Ohio. God called me, a priest in God’s Church, to parochial ministry, and worship, and service in Oakwood and Dayton, rooted in the community St. Paul’s Parish.
Each of us as Christians are called; yes, in different ways, but we all have callings. For all of us, we’re called to discipleship and worship; we’re all called by the Holy God to holiness.
And we owe God the love of God and neighbor. Central to the love of God is worship. For Anglicans, worship has always been a matter of prayer. That’s why our book of worship is called the Book of Common Prayer. Virtually everything we do, with a few notable exceptions usually about clergy, is outlined in that book, from the words we say to when we stand or kneel to when we sing. But the bottom line is that it’s all prayer. Even our baptismal rite takes place within the context of prayer.
Why is this? Well, for one, what is prayer other than coming into God’s presence, coming as close as we can to being face to face with God’s holiness, God’s power, and God’s loving kindness? In prayer, we receive forgiveness for sins. In prayer, we become God’s adopted children. In prayer, we are fed with the body and blood of Christ. And, in prayer, we are sent into the world as ministers of that same power, presence, loving kindness, and holiness. As St. Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
For me, as your priest, it’s about prayer. In fact, one of my priestly vows is daily prayer. I simply can’t imagine myself doing the work that I do as a priest without the daily experience of God in prayer. I have no business visiting the sick and dying, the lonely and the outcast, the bewildered and beleaguered, without first coming into God’s presence in the morning, asking for strength and guidance, and then coming into God’s presence at the end of the day asking for mercy and rest.
Perhaps that helps us to make sense of why we now pray together in the Chapel each morning at 9:30. Prayer isn’t just for me; it’s how I understand my calling as a priest amongst you; it’s how I understand your primary calling to be Christ’s disciples.
Likewise, calling informs how we proceed Monday through Friday here in the office. I’m not a CEO or Manager of a non-profit. Rather, as a priest, as someone who is trying to be Christ in the world for the sake of the Church, I know that I’m called to oversee the daily work of the Church as Christ has called me to do. Prayer isn’t simply an addition to the rhythm and work of the Church. Rather, prayer is the work of the Church. Daily prayer helps to structure my work with the staff, the kind of time I keep and the activities I engage in, and my availability to people in need. I’m asked to keep one thing central to my work and central to St. Paul’s, and prayer helps me see that one thing—Christ and him Crucified.
I recently read something by Bishop Scott Benhase, who is, in his retirement, now serves a parish. Bp. Benhase said, “Parish clergy aren’t social directors, community service providers, or music impresarios. We got one thing and one thing only: God’s grace in Jesus. We’re stewards of the Great Narrative of Redemption. When we busy ourselves with other tasks, we’ll lead, but it won’t be missional leadership.” If you have a chance, and you’re on facebook, check out the whole post (April 15, 2021) from which this came. It’s an amazing read.
Worship of the holy God who gave himself to us without reserve in Jesus Christ is all I have. My calling, if I could boil it down to one sentence, is to lead parishes, this parish in that worship with all the tools and resources I have, to bring people with the help of the Holy Spirit into that presence, to invite them to invite others into that worship, and to then help them understand how they can take the presence of God in Christ Jesus into the world.
And everything I do here at St. Paul’s, with the help of the Spirit, is motivated by that calling, from the way we worship and sing and use incense and conduct vestry meetings and hire and, yes, fire. I am the priest that I am because of that calling.
None of it is my preference, any more than I am a priest because it was my preference, or I moved my family half-way across the country because it was my preference. I pray that only one preference matters at the end of the day, and that is the burning, insatiable desire of each one of our hearts for intimacy and union with Christ.
A brief note about incense. Some have recently shared that incense is a matter of the priest’s preference and isn’t rooted in anything deeper than that. I respectfully disagree. The use of incense, simply put, is part of our ancient heritage that we receive from the people of Abraham. We read in the book of the prophet Malachi that, “From the farthest east to the farthest west, my name is honored among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering too, since my name is honored among the nations” (Malachi 1:11). Using incense, just like praying the Psalms, is part of being grafted onto that vine. In fact, in the Revelation of John, incense is identified with the prayer of Christians. “Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne. And the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev. 8:3-4). Following the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, Christians have used incense since the earliest days, just as we’ve had baptism for repentance and ordained leaders since the beginning. That’s not to say we should elevate it to the level of sacrament. But in fact, like singing hymns, burning incense is a constitutive practice of those who worship the God of Israel. And by constitutive, I mean to connect these things to our callings. I could not understand myself as a worshipping Christian without singing hymns, and likewise I could not understand myself as a worshipping Christian without, in the words of Psalm 142, setting “my prayer before you like incense, [with] the lifting up of my hands … like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 142).
I get it. Incense and praying the Daily Office are both new additions to the liturgical life of the community at St. Paul’s. I also understand that incense and the Daily Office are simply not for everyone (although we consistently have plenty of people at the 11am service who tell me they approve of the incense, and some of my most meaningful corporate prayer during the week is on weekday mornings). Still, in order to oblige as many parishioners as possibly, we only use incense at one service. And we will continue to offer the Daily Office every morning and as many evenings we can, although none are required to attend. But we’ll offer these things because that is how I understand my calling to be a priest here; not because I prefer daily prayer or incense, but because I feel called to lead people in worship of the Holy God of Israel who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.
My prayer for St. Paul’s is not that our community would reflect my preferences, but that we together would reflect in our practices, our habits, our relationships, and above all our prayer the Body of Christ that transcends time and space. This will take time, but I couldn’t be happier to be here as your priest and one of your shepherds. Thanks be to God who draws us all together as a Good Shepherd and calls us into relationship with him.