preached by the Rev. Dr. John H.Heidt, SSC
Alumni Day • May 2005
From the words of St. John the Baptist: "He must increase; I must decrease." John 3:30
In nomine patris...
I must confess that I enter this pulpit with a certain amount of fear and anxiety. First of all my mind goes to all those great men who have preceded me - Jackson Kemper, James Lloyd Breck and Blessed James DeKoven - or in more recent times, Walter Klein and Michael Ramsey and others, some of whom are with us this morning. Yet, it is not them that I fear, for I am sure that their graceful charity will overlook my failings and pardon my offenses.
No, it is not these I fear, but a senior student back in the days of Dean Nutter – Imagine a seminary actually appointing a nutter for a dean! Anyway, they did.
And in those days seniors had to preach once a term before the Dean and their classmates. A daunting experience for many! But there was one young man who ascended the steps of this pulpit with complete confidence, having practiced his sermon several times before his bedroom mirror the night before. As he warmed to his subject he became more and more dramatic, until finally, arriving at its climactic moment, he raised his hand, took a step backwards - and fell out of the pulpit.
As the din died down, the Dean’s voice was heard to rise above the clatter: "Where did the big boob go?"
This morning I am not afraid that I am going to fall out of the pulpit - I can too easily grab hold of its sides for that to happen. And I doubt very much that the present dean is likely to wonder about my whereabouts. No! My fear is that, like that young man, I may take myself too seriously. I may become more interested in how well I am preaching than in who I am preaching about. Or become so concerned to be a good and loving priest that I start to draw all men to myself instead of to Him.
The only way to avoid the peril is by learning to laugh at ourselves, a trait that is perhaps not quite as evident among us as it might be. We are the laughing stock of creation, little creatures not near as important as we are dressed up or often made out to be. We priests are God’s joke to His church - a joke that sometimes turns sour and one that sometimes becomes stale, but a joke nonetheless.
When I was about five or six years old my mother took me to the circus, and there, Ringling Brothers’ famous clown, Emmet Kelly, shook my hand. From that moment I thought I wanted to be clown when I grew up. Looking back now, I think perhaps it was the first sign of my vocation to the priesthood.
We priests are the clowns of Christ’s, ham actors in a divine comedy acted out every time we go to the altar. Let us play the act well, my brothers, by all means. But let us always remember that what we do is only an act because the real actor is Jesus Christ - and Him alone. We are merely His icons, windows through whom we pray that His people may see Him more clearly.
And this will only happen if we live our lives in a spirit of obedience. I’m not just talking about obeying the godly admonitions of our bishops. I know that many of you, not being near as blessed as I am, may have a hard time discerning which of your bishop’s admonitions are really godly. No! I am talking about something much more profound than that - I am talking about living our lives in obedience to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I am talking about recalling the church to its origins rather than letting it wallow about in the pretence of its own originality. What went wrong with so much modern theology was that theologians thought they had to decide what the faith of the faithful ought to be rather than trying to understand what the faith of the faithful had always been - and enhancing and encouraging it.
I know that to say such things is not very fashionable these days. It makes us stand out from the crowd, it turns us into marked men. But that is nothing new.
When I was first deciding where to go to seminary, Nashotah or General, I was told that if I went to Nashotah I would be a marked man. And now that I am a Canon to the Bishop of Fort Worth I am still told that I am a marked man. And that’s right. I am a marked man. We are all marked men. But it is up to us to remember that that mark is nothing other than the sign of the cross implanted on our foreheads in baptism for the well being of all God’s people, and heightened, strengthened, intensified and focused by our ordination to the greater glory of God in worship and the well being of the particular people He commits to our charge.
Nashotah is not unique in having alumni who are marked men. All priests are marked men. But it is unique in having a tradition of thinking that it is a good thing to be a marked man. And it is our task as alumni to see that this House maintains that tradition and continues to form marked men - men who stand out from the crowd - men who know they have the sign of the cross on their foreheads - men who desire to be sacrificing priests rather than ambitious ones. And yet, my brothers, let us make sure that we fulfill this responsibility by example rather than criticism or complaint. We Anglo-Catholics have torn down so much of what our forefathers in the faith built up, simply by tearing each other apart. And now the whole church is paying the price.
There is a danger of course in being marked men. Standing out from the crowd is a lonely vocation. For comfort and consolation we may be tempted to huddle together with the like-minded and ignore everyone else – priests only going to parishes of their own churchmanship, places where, as we used to say, they can enjoy full catholic privileges. And that’s very nice if it should happen, a treat God throws out, a bonus for work well done. But that is not why you and I were ordained - we were not ordained to enjoy full catholic privileges. We were ordained to ensure that month after month and through the years in more and more parishes the laity will come to enjoy full catholic privileges.
We are marked men because we are walking sacraments of the sacrifice of Christ. Oh yes, I know that we are an Easter people, a resurrection community, and alleluia is our song. And that’s great, fantastic, mind-blowing. But you cannot have a resurrection until you have tasted death, and you cannot have Easter without an empty tomb. The ultimate test of every priestly vocation is the willingness to be a human sacrifice - the willingness to taste death and the ability to grieve at the empty tombs in our own souls and in those of others.
Bishops and Commissions on Ministry need to ask themselves if the ordinands before them are willing to sacrifice whatever may be required, or necessity demand, to be a faithful priest: to sacrifice every personal opinion and private prejudice, every individual desire and felt need, every pleasure or personality trait. If they are so willing, ordain them; if not, don’t.
Let us then be examples to a new generation of sacrificing priests, not priests waiting to retire but priests preparing for the day when they drop dead, priests who are more concerned about safeguarding the faith than safeguarding their days off, priests who are more careful to say the office than to keep strict office hours.
By all means let us keep office hours and take our days off and anything else that will help us better fulfill our priestly responsibilities. But when we do so, let us remember that we can never take off our priesthood and put it away in some rectory cupboard after ministering to our people, anymore than we dare take the Blessed Sacrament and put it in the sacristy cupboard after Communion. We do not live our lives in secret cupboards but in a monstrance on a sacrificial altar.
When we are first ordained we are filled with high expectations of future achievements.
We are eager to teach, but then discover that our most basic beliefs are often betrayed by some of our most ardent disciples.
We spend years catholicizing a parish only to have our successors tear it down or else take all the credit for building it up.
We think that some day we may be made a cathedral dean or a cardinal rector, or, if we play our cards right, perhaps a member of one of the Presiding Bishop’s councils. And instead, we end up in some small backwater mission where no-one cares what we do or hears what we say.
We desire above all to be faithful pastors of God’s people, and the people complain - or ignore us all together.
Looking back over the years, we come to realize that, apart from a few highlights here and there, our life and ministry has been mostly a failure. But then, with God’s grace, the light may begin to dawn, and we realize that it was for all this that we were ordained. We were ordained for failure. Now this in no way excuses the failures of the lazy, the indifferent, and the careless. But it is a warning to the industrious, the eager and the caring that though God uses all our abilities and talents, our efforts and energies to further His work, it was not for these that we were ordained.
We were ordained to live our lives on the sacrificial cross of disappointments and frustration, of criticism and contradiction, of exhaustion and personal suffering which we all bear in one way or another - because this is the cross which when high and lifted up will draw all people to Him and away from us - a cross forged by nothing less than the divine love among the persons of the Blessed Trinity worked out in the flesh of our humanity under the pain of our sinfulness. It is in our sinful flesh that the Lord will be high and lifted up – and nowhere else. It is in us that the people of this world will come to know Jesus, if they come to know Him at all.
The truth was driven home to me shortly after I was ordained. I was walking along Milwaukee’s Third Avenue between Wells and Wisconsin, in my brand new black suit and shiny white collar, when two little boys passed by me, street urchins really, and as they passed one looked up and said, "Hello Church." And from that moment I knew who I was and always would be. Wherever I would go, whatever I would do, whatever I would say, for the people of this world I would always be their vision of the church. In me the world would know the church as either aggressive or gracious, arrogant or humble, self-serving or self-effacing, ambitious or sacrificial and simple.
[Hold up Austin Farrer’s cross!]
This simple cross - this machine-made crucifix once hung over the bed of Austin Farrer, one of our great and holy theologians of the last century.
He died under this cross.
Take it to yourself; hold it close to your heart, now and in the hour of your death.
Embrace its simplicity, its lack of sophistication, its lack of human artistry.
And lift it high that all the world may see, and as you lift it up make your very own the vision once given to the Emperor Constantine:
In hoc signo vinces!