Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (baptism of Tiblet Naomi Shuler and 20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood): Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Let me tell you about the most important day in my life, although I can’t say much because I really don’t remember it at all. It happened in a little white church in Wallace, a hamlet just north of Avoca in Steuben County. In fact, it was the Wallace United Methodist Church, the church of my grandparents and, in fact, the church of generations of Hopkins’.
In that little church, at the age of 5, I was baptized.
Now when I said I was going to tell you about the most important day in my life, I suspect you thought I was going to talk about my ordination, especially today, on its 20th anniversary.
I have no doubt that on that day twenty years ago I did think it was the most important day in my life. And I thought that for several years. But as I have grown older and gained experience and simply matured as a Christian, I have changed my mind.
The ordination process was long and torturous for me. It involved two different dioceses and two different seminaries. I got halfway through the process in one diocese and was, more or less, forced to withdraw. A year later I started the process in another diocese only to be told at the first step not “yes” or “no” but “maybe.” In all of this I was in the process of coming out as a gay man and dealing with that both on an individual level, but also on the level of the ordination process, which in those days was fundamentally hostile to gay people.
So it is probably no surprise that at my ordination I felt a strong sense of accomplishment. All the blood, sweat and tears had paid off. I had made it.
What I have learned over the years was that I didn’t make anything. At best I was a co-creator. God had done and was doing the making and the source of that was not my ordination but my baptism.
It was at baptism that I was adopted into the household and declared a beloved son of God. It was at baptism that I received the gift of the Holy Spirit and empowered to exercise my gifts for the good of the world and the glory of God. It was at baptism that my redemption was sealed.
While I was fighting in the ordination process I was perilously close to believing that my relationship with God depended on my being ordained, confusing ordination with salvation. It is a testimony to the grace of God that God and the church ordained me anyway, taking a chance, perhaps, that I would learn.
We often think of the ordained as being “closer to God.” We’re not. I did not get closer to God when I was ordained. I could not get any closer than I already was as a baptized person. Of course, we expect that clergy will have a deep relationship with God out of which they exercise their vocation. But don’t we believe that about every Christian? I hope so. If you don’t feel close to God, you just haven’t tapped into the gift that is already there.
My calling as a priest is, among other things, to enable each one of you to be who you already are—God’s beloved daughter or son.
The voice that spoke over Jesus at the River Jordan—You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased—speaks over each one of us, first in our baptism but then at each Eucharist—“the gifts of God for the people of God,” or, as our Orthodox friends put it, “holy things for holy people.”
This child this morning, this is the most important day of her lives. It may take her a long time to recognize it, maybe she never will, but I, for one, hope so. To her today are spoken the equivalent of the powerful words of Isaiah:
Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.