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Fourteen years with Bishop Paul

Sermon at Ordination of Brian Pavlac

Ordination of the Rev. Brian Pavlac to the Priesthood
Sermon by Bishop Paul V. Marshall
Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, 2010
Ezekiel 34:11-6; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19
Voluntary: Enigma Variation IX. Nimrod. Edward Elgar

Brian and I thank all of you for your participation this evening, and I especially thank the rector, staff and parish of St. Stephen’s for making people from across the diocese feel so much at home so often in this wonderful space.

Indeed, how we make ourselves at home is part of the package tonight. As Christians found themselves more and more at home in the ancient Roman world, they began to do some redecorating. The example we all know best was the placement of a celebration of Christ’s birth during the Roman solstice holidays in December.

Another switch was their focusing on Peter and Paul, rather than Romulus and Remus, in celebrating the foundations of the eternal city. Rather than the twin brothers who drew in lupine instincts with their nurses’ milk, Peter and Paul are remembered with more or less accuracy as not killing each other, as trying to understand each other and to work things out, and then both giving up their lives in testimony to Jesus Christ. By Christ’s power working within them, the crude fisherman and the nervous tent-maker were able to transcend themselves sufficiently to become foundation stones of the city God as well this piece of Italian real estate. Switching the founding fathers announced a new set of values.

So as days for ordination go, this feast of Peter and Paul is a powerful one indeed. Along with the invocation of the leading apostles, we hear with Ezekiel words, God’s deep longing that his people be gathered and tended, that they be nurtured and protected.

The text also tantalizes the reader: nobody knows quite how to translate the last part of the passage, the bit about the fat and strong—it’s a good reminder that God is always up to more than we can neatly perceive, even in retrospect.

Brian, you have offered yourself, and the church has called you to a special place in God’s ordered yet not entirely defined ministry of tending Christ’s flock in all kinds of pasture. So you stand here tonight in line with thousands and thousands of scholar-priests who have through the centuries fed the minds, hearts and spirits of the God’s people, keeping the simple truths of faith in tension with age-old challenges to human understanding. It has taken a while to get to this day, Brian, and we all rejoice with you, Liz, and your family, and we all join you in a moment of delight.

But there is more—or should I say, less? Both our epistle and gospel readings come with challenges. Paul speaks of his duty and ours to proclaim the gospel against the cultural grain, persistently and patiently. Peter hears three times the command to express his emotional attachment to Jesus, not with sentiment but with practical devotion to caring for the flock, as it is and where it is, knowing whose it is. Well, fair enough. I for one, think you are more than competent at both tasks. Each passage, however, goes on to address what can’t be gotten at quite so easily: self-emptying, the part of this job that bureaucracy cannot quite ever appreciate and our hyper-egalitarian world anxiously denies.

A part of you will be consumed if you are to be a priest. There just aren’t two ways about it, at least not if you do it right. The sacrifices take many forms, and some are salutary. Others are not. Paul speaks of himself as being poured out, the way drink offerings were poured on graves or altars. An act of adoration, but also the experience of being expended, never to be put back in the bottle. Peter hears that he won’t always energetically and decisively tuck in his belt and get to work: when his older others will take that belt and tie his hands with it, tugging him to an end not of his choosing.

I hope these observations seem neither maudlin nor dramatic, but sober and realistic. For those who share the priestly calling, the privileges we have are inexpressible: we get to stand with people in their most personal and holy moments, in their greatest joys and in the times of when their souls are at their thinnest. Yet we do so under orders. The church has committed to our care its most precious gifts to strengthen and direct the people of God for discipleship. Is the priest “another Christ?” That question is only for the contentious these days, but who can doubt that where but two people are together in his name, Christ is present and effective? Who could ask for anything more?

In not too many minutes you will stretch out your hands in this place. Instead of being tied up, though, your hands will be anointed, caressed with holy chrism, explicating the sacred work they are being given to do. I hope you can feel that moment as double-edged. It is clearly meant to be a moment of great privilege and trust, and yet with those words “know what you are doing and imitate the mysteries at which you preside,” it is inescapably a time of commitment to emptying self for the sake of Christ’s people. Other categories aside, it is surely in the intentional emptying of self that each Christian becomes another Christ.

For priests, the day comes over and over when in simple acts of ministry, perhaps entirely inconvenient ministry, strengthen, fulfill, and reveal to us just a glimpse of crown of righteousness which is laid up for all who long for Christ’s appearing. It takes a certain discipline to treasure them as such.

So far the lessons. Because we have known each other so long on this journey I have struggled more than I usually do to find that personal word of encouragement customarily shared in this publicly intimate moment, where our predecessors used to have something they called a “charge” to conclude the sermon.

The liturgy does that hortatory task these days, so let me turn to our right brains, where I find hovering that shadowy type, Nimrod, whose musical incarnation may be made to speak to the joy and the strain of any vocation. Canon Laubach has selected this very wonderfully introverted ninth of fourteen variations to play after you have stood at the altar as priest for the first time. It’s an instructive and inspiring act on his part.

The longest of the original Enigma variations, the Nimrod movement is not coded with someone’s initials, but marked with that Biblical moniker. Genesis merely says that “Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord,” but the ancient traditions assign him everything from keeping Adam’s original loincloth to ruling Babylon and/or Ninevah (“that great city”).

This variety invites much wonderful speculation, all of which could be profitable in other contexts, but in Elgar, Nimrod slyly and simply stands for one August Jaeger, a man from Duesseldorf whose name just happens to mean Hunter, and I mean to invoke Jaeger’s presence tonight. More than his music editor, Jaeger was, for Elgar, both a comfort and source of courage. Each of the Enigma variations is meant to describe both a character and an incident, and in Nimrod we begin sadly, with echoes of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. For there was indeed more than one day when Elgar was in low spirits. Once he was so low that Jaeger had taken him out for a walk to remind him of Beethoven’s personal struggles and doubts, all which were overcome by strength of character and devotion to vocation.

What happens to the music after that initial sad encounter is thrilling—in a measured way, and reminds us academics that mere words seldom have the last word. Without erasing the sadness, the music steadily builds in hope, confidence, and fullness (even with tympani in the orchestral version)…but it never reaches the anticipated Edwardian boisterousness, triumphalism, or any oblivion to the pain that went before. In fact, just when the peaking crescendo could explode into another Elgar hit like Land of Hope and Glory, the music fades rapidly to a centered and calmer version of its somewhat despondent beginning. Then it stops, without further explanation. As must sermons.

Let Nimrod remind the part of you that is too deep for words that everything can be for something. Along with your many more obvious gifts and talents, it is, I think, the quiet confidence that comes from understanding our common suffering, the strength that comes from having persisted, that equips you or anyone for effective long-term priesthood for Christ’s people, and I hope you will hear that in the music, cherish it in the liturgy, and confidently hum it in your every act of ministry.

 

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