St. Augustine's Episcopal Parish, 16 November 2014
The Rev'd Br. Chad-Joseph Sundin, OSBCn
Last weekend we attended the annual Fall Festival at our son’s elementary school. With our schedules, we’re not around the school very much aside from drop off and pick up, so we don’t get to visit very often with the other parents we’ve gotten to know over the last decade of our kids’ careers in the Tempe public schools. One such parent I hadn’t spoken to yet this school year greeted me with a hug and a “congratulations!” leading her husband to ask what the congratulations were for. I wasn’t so sure, myself, actually, until she replied, “Well, he’s now officially a member of the clergy (I saw it on Facebook).”
It’s been nearly six months since I was ordained to the deaconate along with eight others at Trinity Cathedral, and it’s just over six months until I’ll be ordained to the priesthood. I am, indeed, an official member of the clergy, literally a card-carrying member (I got a card to put in my wallet on the day of my ordination), although I admit it still feels somewhat odd to say so out loud.
There are many things that feel odd to say out loud about oneself when one is clergy in The Episcopal Church. In fact, the first words out of the ordinand’s mouth in the ordination service for a deacon and for a priest are among the most odd. Turn with me, if you would, in the red Book of Common Prayer in your pew to page 526. When I was ordained to the transitional deaconate, I was one of nine voices speaking these words out loud, but when I’m ordained to the priesthood, I’ll be alone, and I could use your help in practicing. Your role, all of you together, is to be the Bishop, and I ask that you voice the questions just below the middle of the page under the italicized rubric: “The Bishop says to the ordinand,” beginning with the words, “Will you be loyal.” Ready? Go.
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?
I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.
Thank you. It’s helpful to have some practice.
There are several odd aspects of this answer I’ll give to the Bishop, but the one I would like to focus on this morning is the second part, the declaration I will be called upon once again to make in the presence of God and of the Bishop and of all gathered, and this time all by myself, about the Scriptures. I am to declare that I believe “the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” I am supposed to make this declaration just prior to being ordained an Episcopal priest, having just completed a Master of Divinity degree at a progressive mainline seminary. Now, I don’t assume that all of you know what is entailed in completing such a degree, but suffice it to say, when we study the bible at a school like mine we examine the text through lenses such as historical, liberation, and feminist criticism, queer theory, and postcolonial analysis. The lens of “the Word of God” applied to reveal things necessary to salvation isn’t much used when reading the bible in the kinds of schools to which The Episcopal Church sends its seminarians. So why is this the first thing out of our mouths when we come to be ordained to the priesthood? It seems odd, doesn’t it?
This morning I’d like to spend some time exploring this oddity, and to do so, I’ll employ your help via the prayer book once again. Turn, if you would, to page 236, and find the Collect for Proper 28. The beautiful collect we heard this morning from Deacon Dorothy uses some language from this prayer book collect, which is appointed for this particular Sunday in the Church Year. Let’s read it together . . .
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This collect was composed for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and is based on the fourth verse in the fifteenth chapter of the epistle to the Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” The collect also reflects the Reformation period’s emphasis on the Scriptures as the rule for faith and as the property of all Christians, not just the clergy and the institutional hierarchy of the Church. And notice with me how all Christians are encouraged to engage the Scriptures. We are to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” This is not a passive observation of objective truths. It’s a visceral experience. The Scriptures are to move from outside of us and enter through our ears and through our eyes, they are to move our hands, settle into our minds, and churn within our deepest, most inward parts. The Scriptures function like a meal working in our bodies to nourish our life in ways we do not fully comprehend.
And the result of this digestive and nourishing process is the ability to “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” Engaging the Scriptures in this way is a process of self-discovery wherein we experience our true nature as beings that share in the eternal life of God, a life that never dies. When the Scriptures move past our conscious understanding they flow throughout those elements of our identity that aren’t linguistic or cognitive. They are not subjected and are not beholden to critical analysis in that place. Here they convey presence, not ideas. They are the wordless hum of a nursing mother. They are the silent kiss of a lover. And it is here, and only here, that they are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation.
So maybe what seems odd at first glance isn’t really odd at all. I’m not being asked by the Bishop in the service for ordination whether I believe some dictation theory of inspiration about the Holy Scriptures. I’m being asked whether I believe this path, this Christian way, which entails a visceral engagement with the sacred texts we have received, is able to lead people to discover and experience their true identity as the beloved of God and thus be saved from the fears that diminish the human capacity to fully flourish.
As an official, card-carrying member of the clergy and as one who will soon stand alone before the Bishop to say so, I solemnly declare that I do believe this to be true.