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Uganda RPCV Virginia D. Brown delivers sermon on the 25th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church
Uganda RPCV Virginia D. Brown delivers sermon on the 25th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church
The Rivendell Community
The 25th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church was celebrated in the Diocese of West Missouri on Saturday, January 26, 2002 at Christ Church, Springfield. This sermon was delivered by Virginia the following Sunday.
Text: Matthew 4: 12-23
My predecessor as rector of St.Thomas a Becket, Roswell, NM, moved from New Mexico to Massachusetts, where the Suffragan Bishop was the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church. At her visitation to his new parish, he told me, Bishop Harris was wonderful with the children, showing them her cope and mitre, and talking with them about the work of bishops. One six year old boy was apparently greatly impressed with Bishop Harris, and on the way home he asked his father, "Dad, can little boys grow up to be bishops, too?"
What we think of as possible has changed a good deal over the last decades, hasn't it? Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, I was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church - something which was impossible, something I couldn't even have imagined, when I was growing up. I'm thankful beyond words for all that has been; there is nothing I would rather have done with my life - and yet the whole thing astonishes me.
"Personal testimony" is not a common form of public discourse in the Episcopal Church today. It feels rather presumptuous to tell my story in the hope of your overhearing in it something of the gracious work of God in it; and yet, otherwise what business would I have preaching the Gospel at all? In each Christian life, the Gospel is re-presented and enfleshed, embodied in our own unique personhood and concrete circumstances. For instance, today's Gospel is not simply a historical reminiscence about four Galilean fishermen; it presents us with the mystery of vocation which shapes our own lives, as well. We read, Jesus said, Follow me, and they left their nets and followed himů while in the Collect we pray, "Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christů"
So today I'd like to share with you a little of my own story of vocation, my call. My hope is, though, that this, too, will be more than a historical reminiscence, either about me personally or about a crucial time in the life of our Church; that maybe my particular experience of the mystery of vocation will strike some chords somewhere in your experience. Like all our stories, when we listen to them deeply enough, it's not only about me, but above all about the faithfulness of God with whom all things are possible - even an impossible vocation.
I realized it was impossible when I was only about five or six, and the rector talked with us kids about the work of priests. (We probably don't do this enough these days. How do we expect anyone to hear such a vocation if we never mention the possibility?) As he talked, I got excited: Wow! I thought. I want to do that! I'd learned to write my name; if someone had handed me a dotted line, I'd have signed then and there. Then he concluded, "And some of you little boys might want to be priests when you grow up." I was disappointed, but not offended; in those days we all knew there were some things that boys did and other things that were for girls; I just felt rather foolish for not knowing. In those days, kindergarten chapel was the last place girls were still allowed to light the candles; we grew up not even being able to imagine or think about a vocation to ordained ministry.
Yet I had a child's intuitive sense of the Holy, and loved it. God always mattered to me intensely, even, as I reached high school and college, during my intellectually agnostic period. It was in college that I came to know and love God again, not as intellectual proposition, but as forgiver and lover of my soul; and by the time graduation from college approached, I had become powerfully aware of a sense of vocation - that is, of a call I couldn't understand or articulate and an urgent desire to respond, a kind of divine pull or drawing of my life toward something I couldn't see. I wanted to give my life to God; I wanted to serve somehow within the Church. But how? What does one do? I didn't know.
Awkward, shy, but hopeful, I went to talk with the priest at the nearby parish. He was kind - but what could he tell me? The year was 1968. There were no containers available, no forms into which to pour my amorphous longing to give myself away in God's service. He suggested I might try social work. Which, actually, I did on his advice; but I was frustrated, because often I could see, I thought, that what my clients were asking for was God, and that wasn't what I was supposed to be talking about.
Now, actually, I did have one mental reservation. Yes, I had been praying, Here am I; send me; just let me see what you want me to do and where you want me to go, and I'll do it. However, being deeply attached to beloved family and friends, I also prayed in spiritual parentheses, Send me, as long as it's not too far away. I don't want to leave the country. One day I went to a weekday celebration of the Eucharist, and somehow, at the end of it, I knew I was supposed to apply for the Peace Corps and had resolved to do so. To my amazement, and continuing amusement, when I got home an application for the Peace Corps had mysteriously appeared on my bed. (Though instinctively I looked up to see if there was a hole in the ceiling through which it might have fallen, it turned out my mother had been sorting through stacks of old mail that had been sitting in the study for months.) Okay, I thought; maybe it's just the willingness to apply, to let go of my reservation, that's called for, and I won't actually be asked to go. I left for Uganda four months later!
I mention this because, looking back I realize that over and over again, I've had some reservation or other, something I was holding back, or thought was impossible for me - like, Here am I; send me (as long as it's west of the Mississippi). And over and over, I've discovered that it is precisely in my surrendering these conditions that the grace of God has been most active. What has looked like death has turned out to be the doorway to life. If you are considering a vocational question this morning, or are torn over some reservation that might hold you back, my advice is, Take the short cut. Go for it. Trust God and follow that call, no matter what it may cost. Looking back, I have never ever regretted anything I've let go or left behind in order to follow Christ. I've only regretted "playing it safe" or holding back something I could have done or given.
I left the country on October 4, St. Francis' Day, romantically, if rather naively, feeling as though I were following in Francis' footsteps, leaving everything behind - family, friends, job, safety, comfort and all material possessions except the 44 pound baggage allotment. Apprehensive I was; but rarely have I been so happy. I felt I was doing what I'd always wanted, running lightly and unencumbered in the way God had set before me.
Now of course my life work was not going to be Peace Corps service, or staying with the people of Uganda - although later, when that afflicted country and that courageous church was suffering so terribly at the time of Idi Amin, who seized power while I was there, I felt acutely that that's where I belonged, even after I came home. But, as they say, God writes straight with crooked lines, and I don't see how there could have been a straighter path for me, though I couldn't see it when I was walking in this part. I was profoundly shaped and changed by the courage and faith of the people I had come to serve; teaching at an Anglican mission school, I discovered I could lead worship, preach, and teach new converts.
And when I came back, I had already decided to go to seminary. Oddly enough, I still had no earthly idea why. While I was out of the country the Episcopal Church had made it possible for women to be ordained to the diaconate. I hadn't heard. But two or three days into seminary, I recognized and delightedly accepted that I was called to the diaconate. So - this was what it was about - that sense of call, that drawing of my life into some form I hadn't been able to see!
But, of course, my little personal drama was caught up in a larger drama of those times. The Church was debating ordination of women to the priesthood. Many of my classmates, most of those with whom I was closest, were opposed. Some of them were convinced, not only that women shouldn't be priests, but that they couldn't be. I tended to agree with them. Over Christmas break, I attended the consecration of the new bishop of Rio Grande, a courageous and articulate advocate of the ordination of women, and met with him the day after. I explained clearly and emphatically that I believed myself called to the diaconate, wanted to serve quietly and unobtrusively, wasn't going to give him any problems pressing for the priesthood, and in any case wasn't cut out to be a pioneer. He was very encouraging, and probably didn't believe it for a minute, though I did.
Bishop Trelease took a good many risks, and much flak, as he prodded the Church, and often me, into the new forms of ministry the Holy Spirit seemed to be inviting the Church to dare. Right out of seminary, he assigned me to start a new mission in Albuquerque, which became St. Chad's, and appointed me its first vicar. So there we were; a new mission, with no building, no property, no people, no name, even - only a young deacon, fresh out of seminary - and a woman, at a time when women clergy were highly controversial and women vicars or rectors were almost unheard of.
Acknowledging my call to the diaconate had been easy and joyous, once it was possible. Coming to terms with a call to the priesthood was another matter. I remember praying fervently, Please, if you can fit it into your will, don't let me be called to the priesthood!
Now this seems very strange to me, because I have so loved this ministry. But some of us remember just how controversial and painful the debates over this issue were. I loved the Church; I didn't want to be a cause of division, or for offending others' consciences. And it's easy to forget, now, that in a sense the Church still didn't know if women priests were possible; we only knew by risking the experiment and seeing them. Of course there were women in leadership positions elsewhere in the church, but especially in the more catholic aspect of the Church, in which the sacramental character of priesthood is so central, this was uncharted territory, with a weight of tradition to suggest that there was no such way.
Frankly, I was afraid. I didn't want to take what seemed to me the enormous risk of being terribly, arrogantly, sinfully mistaken. Yet I'm immensely grateful, now, for the interior struggles as well as outward difficulties I experienced, since by them I came to know more fully the power of God's presence and call. And strangely enough, I've never doubted or regretted that vocation a single day of my life since the morning before my ordination. It was impossible. But with God, all things are possible.
We'd be here all day if I starting telling you some of the funny stories, or the heartache, or the acts of charity, courtesy, and mutual deference living through the controversy occasioned, among clergy and others on both sides. Nor can I describe how my priestly vocation has deepened and expanded in the actual experience of 25 years, or how what once seemed so absurd and impossible for me has opened up and shaped my most real, true self, in ways I couldn't have begun to imagine. But I will say this. What is impossible is to outgive God.
What I'd wanted all along was to give myself away, to lose my life in God's service; and so I found it, or have begun to. Jesus is simply telling us the truth; it is this way. Often I wake up in the morning almost weeping for joy, praising God who has done great things for me. Needless to say, I've failed and fallen short again and again; and nevertheless, I've been sustained in faithfulness. May God's mercy continue to sustain me and draw me to answer Christ's call more fully - I'm still hoping to be a priest when I grow up!
I'd like to add just a word to the youth and young adults, and to others who are asking vocational questions: You most certainly are called by God. Have you looked at what you're good at, and at what you want and love to do, and wondered how you might be able to serve God and the world with them? Do you know that it's really okay to want to do something wonderful with your life, to make a difference, to look for and trust God's will and God's call, even if it seems impossible? Have you considered the possibility of ordained ministry, or a religious order, or missionary work, or other particular vocations in the Church? This morning, right now, if you so choose and have the courage, you could quietly, in your own mind and heart, offer your own life to God for God's purposes. That's the first step. And then, pay attention, listen to God through prayer and Scripture and other people and circumstances. Sooner or later, you will have the guidance you need.
And to all of us, whatever our circumstances: remember that at all seasons and in all events of our lives, Christ is calling us, Follow me. There are no circumstances that put us beyond the reach of that call, whether it is expressed in radical change in our lives, or in patience, love, courage and obedience wherever we are. "Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ" - for it is in losing our lives for his sake that we find them, and it is in God's service that we find perfect freedom