[Given at EDS in Cambridge the week before Barbara Harris was consecrated]
The conditions for priesthood given us in today's readings are radical and written in code:
If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, says God, you shall be holy as I am holy, a kingdom of priests who mirror my self-outpouring life. That is to say, if you speak the truth from your heart, if you have no guile, if you do not heap contempt in scrambling for status, if you do not give merely in hope of gain
These conditions are summed up in the dreadful words, If you lose your life you will find it.
But the promises are radical, too.
There are some who will not taste death until they see God.
A lot of us come to the institution thinking it will crack this code for us. The institution temporizes, teaches us management and liturgical skills, or maybe tells us, there, there, don't let it worry you, it's an eschatological metaphor.
A lot of us go to seminary or to religious orders or to our pastors because we sense there is something in these words vital to life. Sadly, encounters with the churches' teachers mostly give us a foretaste of the kingdom of church politics.
Priesthood is not something you get as a prize for having survived three years of classes and pastoral training, GOE's, curacy and the diaconate. Whatever we do or mean these days by laying on of hands in ordination, it is certainly not recognition of the radical priesthood to which the radical conditions in today's readings point, the priesthood shown us in the humility of Christ, in the wounds of Christ, the priesthood that is bestowed only when we are willing to be transformed and transfigured by grace in our very being. No matter what our romantic or power-oriented theological fantasies tell us, fantasies that make claims on the past that scholarship no longer supports, becoming a member of the clergy club where concerns about status and control are too often uppermost may be the best way to lose authentic priesthood.
Let's look more closely at these scriptural conditions and their implications:
That there are conditions for priesthood at all means first that priesthood is contingent on covenant, contingent on hearing the voice who has heard our cries of despair, contingent on the willing openness that breaks through the closed system we have created from our own thoughts and ways in a desperate struggle for illusory security. Thus the first implication of these conditions is that we must be still and wait on God in the dark so that we may receive the divine wisdom that is given only in unknowing into which we enter when we have the humility to realize the limitations of our own resources, our perceptions and theologizing.
Listening and stillness are not for narcissistic and cosmetic fixing-up of our selves so that we may watch our selves being admired by others, but rather the willingness to be dismembered in prayer, in the silence of God, for the sake of creation, so that we know our wounds as those of the wounded God in resurrection, and that these same wounds are the wounds of those around us.
Thus we cannot speak of my priesthood but must rather speak of priesthood contingent on community, on right relationship between solitude and community, on creating space for the silence of God in community. From this deep listening comes the discernment of right action as opposed to the often heedless and hurtful action we undertake in the name of ministry in order to tell ourselves that we are doing good, and by which we create illusory self-image.
If we are to be priests we must speak the truth of these wounds. It is the priesthood of being we seek -- God does not say, you shall function as priests, but be priests, a reflection of I AM, or, better translated, I WILL BE FOR YOU, of which the function of ministry may or may not be the right action in a particular moment, a discernment we can make only in the silence of God. We must speak the truth of these wounds and never be ashamed of them as we fix our eyes ever more surely away from our selves towards the self-outpouring Love whose life we bear and hunger to manifest, the humble Love whose life pours through our wounds, transfiguring them.
As our gaze becomes focused on the wounded God, we are given self-forgetfulness, a self-forgetfulness that relinquishes all strategies, ignores contempt, gives without counting the cost, gives up life itself -- or what we mistook for life, the self-aggrandizing urges that whisper excitedly to us of the collar, the rep from Whippell's, the vestments, the personally designed liturgy, the people flocking to us in ever-greater numbers. Such fantasies, which all too often we force on others in order to give our lust for control and self-inflation a ghastly pseudo-reality, are not life, they are death, a death that is cursed, for they distract our gaze from the self-outpouring love of God and entice us to worship our own pitiful superegos, which confine us to our illusions and our nightmares.
If we are willing to lose this pseudo-life -- and who wants it? Certainly not the people who are the church, the nation of priests, ordained or not, who hungrily seek the gaze of God -- if we are willing to give up this shadow-world as we dwell in still-prayer, we will be so found in God that self-reflection becomes no longer desirable or even available. In still-prayer we discern the true and humble priesthood that is Christ's, whose life we seek to incarnate, which is the willingness to go to the heart of pain to find new life, hope, joy and love. This priesthood transfigures and anoints, and from it issues the true and humble ministry that enables the communion of all creation in the wounds of the God we continue to ask to be broken for us, so that we might be whole.