[Berkeley Associate Dean Cathy George preached this sermon at Groton School last week, for the ordination of their Chaplain, Christopher Whiteman]
I met Christopher where many lasting friendships begin; in the kitchen - the kitchen of St. Anne’s in the Field’s Episcopal church in Lincoln. Christopher was a warden of St. Mary’s Church in Dorchester, or wait …was he the treasurer? Or a vestry member? Or the organist? or all three?
This man got to know what he was in for before God propelled him to seminary. His fellow warden Winnie, with us today, without whom Christopher might not be with us today, brought a group from their parish to visit ours, just as we had come to visit them in the city; to eat together and pray together and get to know each other. We wanted to bridge the gulf of difference that was extended beyond the 20 miles between our parishes.
Tall, lanky, friendly Christopher and I stepped into the kitchen away from the coffee hour noise - he was leaning against the double door refrigerator in a brightly colored plaid shirt, untucked, wearing his thick black rimmed glasses telling me what he wanted for his church, what he hoped we could build together as parishes. Despite our differences, we wanted to learn what it meant to be brothers and sisters in the family of God - not by virtue of our bloodlines, but our faith lines.
Monday morning there was a voice mail message for me, reiterating what he’d said in the kitchen and ending with a question: would you consider being our rector at St. Mary’s? Me? Are you kidding? What a foolish idea - I couldn’t do that, I wasn’t the right person. I’d have to leave Lincoln and move to Dorchester? “The message of the cross is foolishness - - -but to those who are being saved” as Paul wrote to the Corinthians…”it is the power of God“. Christopher planted a seed that God watered. A few years later, I moved from Lincoln to Dorchester, to serve St. Mary’s and St. Mark’s.
Jesus withdrew to Galilee in the Gospel lesson - it is what his mother did during her first trimester. She withdrew to the hill country, peaceful Galilee where the rolling hills meet the shore of Lake Tiberias. Jesus withdrew, as a grown man, because his BFF John the Baptist , this holy monk of a man had been arrested, incarcerated, put in prison. Jesus and John were close, they were cousins, the same age, meeting in utero when Mary flees the city, and comes to her pregnant cousin, John’s mother Elizabeth, and John leaps in his mother’s womb to greet them.
John’s and Jesus’ mothers breathed the same fresh country air as they grew in their wombs, they swam in the lake together, when losing gravity is a balm to the weight of carrying a child. They ate grilled fish and bread, they talked and prayed together. Now, their sons are grown men, players in the political and spiritual affairs of their day. John the ascetic contemplative who wore camel’s hair, ate locust and wild honey, and brilliant Jesus, the compassionate healer, the political firebrand who taught in the marketplace, drank wine and ate meals with prostitutes and wealthy lawyers. Jesus hears John is arrested, and he flees to the country to ponder these things and there in Galilee is where he listens to God, as his mother did, where he receives strength and clarity from God to move more deeply into his call. And the first thing God makes clear to him is that he will not do this alone.
Jesus started right there, at the shore, where he was that day. He walked by the Sea of Galilee, and two brothers were casting a net into the sea. They were not seminarians, and Jesus was not a priest. He spoke to them and they listened and said yes. Christopher was called by God from the jewelry counter at Saks. You might be called to stay right where you are to further Jesus’ love in the world. Or you might be called to do something you never imagined doing. But know this, and know it at this ordination: every one of us is called to do the work of God wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we do to make a living.
Don’t hold onto Christopher’s robes and go along with him; God is calling you to be you for the glory of God and for our world which needs every single one of us to belong to the purpose that God has for us. All of us, not some of us, not a few of us. The priest at the altar is no holier or more significant to the heart of God than what you wake up to do tomorrow. Jesus said to those men at the shore, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” They left those nets in a New York minute and followed him. Today isn’t just about Christopher’s call, it is about each one of us, listening… to the plea in the words of the Psalm in morning prayer: O, that today you would harken to my voice… to the voice of the one who calls us to the state house, to the kitchen, the courtroom, boardroom and classroom, and a few of us to the altar.
Christopher, the voice of God howled at you behind the counter selling jewelry, where you offered pastoral care to your customers like a priest selling gems for cash sums that will never show up on your church pay checks, even if you are called to be the Presiding Bishop! You listened. Like many of us, you had a fair number of other voices to quiet before you could hear. But you listened and it meant an onerous crawl back to the books, and the classroom, where I think you even surprised yourself with how smahhrt you are - starting with night classes at Harvard Extension school and being admitted from there, as few ever are, to complete your studies as a Harvard undergraduate.
Our Bishop in a few moments will lay hands on Christopher and others will join him. What are we doing? The “apostolic succession” is not a role or office that we are passing on; we are passing on the very love of God from age to age. Apostle means one who is “sent,” and we are sent to advance human history, one giant wave of unearned grace, and you, Christopher are now another wave crashing onto the sands of time, edged forward by the many waves behind you, that great cloud of witnesses, this great could of witnesses gathered here today.
We need each other right now. I’m sure you are feeling it, like I am. We need each other and we need the church to be a prophetic voice. As followers of Jesus we have a way forward when we are embroiled in national conflict, divided one from another. It is deep in our biblical and Anglican tradition to know what to do in conflict. We pray and act.
Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, has written:
“prayer can…ask God to intervene and change the course of history, to change someone’s mind, or his or her heart. When we pray for our enemies, we may find that we are simultaneously emboldened to stand for justice while we are also less able to demonize another human being. Real prayer is contemplative and active…We work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God… I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following the Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love.”
There is a tradition in ordination sermons to close with a charge to the ordinand - a tradition I intend to keep, and one that I want to preface with a charge of gratitude to all of you who are gathered here today. Priests are not called to ordination by some singular lightning bolt from on high, they are called by their human experiences, they are called in communities, they are called by and in the midst of the people of God.
Christopher’s parents, and any other members of his family that are here today, would you please stand and remain standing. Thank you for the seeds you planted in this young man as a child, as a youth in the church and at home, the son of a pastor and devoted mother and brother to his sister.
Christopher’s friends and colleagues from outside the church - now I know he may have brought you into the church and if he hasn’t, he likely has not given up on trying to - but if you met at the jewelry counter at Saks or in a bar or in classes at Harvard, or as friends in the ordination process, please stand and remain standing. Thank you for watering seeds in this man when you met him, thank you for your part in paving his way, in being there for him when he suffered, and having fun together, thank you for your part in helping him recognize his gifts.
Fellow members of Christopher’s churches, his home of St. Mary’s, his friends from St. Mark’s, his friends at his internship site St. Augustine’s and St. Martin’s, his Diocesan colleagues, his Bishop, his commission on ministry and standing committee members, and his discernment committee: please stand. Thank you for listening to Christopher’s questions and answering them with your faith, for showing him who he is, what he can do, revealing to him his weaknesses and his strengths. Your work, and prayer, and your love for God and the church have brought us to this moment with Christopher.
And finally, those of you in the Groton community who have called him here please stand. Thank you for your resounding yes to what we all saw in him, for your yes to his spiritual leadership at this school, as teacher, preacher, priest and pastor, and as faithful companion as follower of Jesus.
Christopher, look at these people, this great cloud of witnesses that surround you. Do not forget that you did not get here on your own. I don’t care how smart you are, how tall you are, how beautiful your voice is, how kind your heart is. You did not get here on your own. These are the people that loved you right into this day - - the people that believe in you and in the power of God to work through you. They stand with you today. Look at them and do not forget to call upon them.
(Please be seated)
Christopher, please stand. Six things and then I’m done, so hear me out.
-Don’t try to be Jesus, Be yourself. That is what we all love.
-Don’t try to do it alone. People will rely on you to help them, and they want you to rely on them in return.
-Take up the prophetic passionate voice of the church, proclaim what has saved you from the housetops; our world needs your voice. Do not keep it under a bushel. Get yourself up on the lampstand.
-Keep a sense of joy in your work, and when you stop having it, get some rest.
-Exercise your imagination given to you so generously by God. Tell the story of Jesus like it has never been told before, like the preacher from Nazareth, like the prophets and poets and preachers that followed him did.
-Be not afraid. God, who has called you to this work means to do it with you. Stay close to Jesus, and to yourself. Hold onto the everlasting, trustworthy hand of God, do not let it go.