The Ordination of Mary Beth Mills Curran St. John’s Episcopal Church
to the Sacred Order of Priests Cold Spring Harbor, NY
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. December 21, 2019
Staying in Love
2 Corinthians 6:3 – 7:1; Luke 17: 11 – 19
Lord, open our ears to hear your word, and open our hearts to live your word. Amen.
There’s almost nothing quite so joyous in the life of a parish as ordaining a new priest, and then welcoming her to come abide with you. It’s such an abundant, such an overflowing sign of grace and new life that it always leaves me almost breathless.
New life – in the calling of this community to help form a brand new ordinand, as she dives into the deep end of preaching, teaching, pastoring, guiding and being guided in the way of Jesus. Most often, this is a thing of beauty. But other times, you may want to look slightly away… kind of like watching sausage being made.
But not to worry, Mary Beth. Remember, there’s a difference between welcoming a brand new priest into a parish, and installing a rector. When I began as a curate, ordained on this very same feast day – tough readings, whew…, I remember asking my rector, “Tell me, what’s the real difference between a rector and a curate?” He sighed, and said, “When you’re a rector, they just don’t have to love you anymore.”
When Mary Beth sent out the “hold the date” card for today, she wrote, “I will be ordained on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, famous for his initial skepticism about the resurrection, but who went on to spread the faith as far as India. I hope…” she concluded, “… this bodes well for my ministry!” My hope is that you keep her long enough and treat her well enough, that she doesn’t feel she has to flee all the way to India.
You see, when Mary Beth first approached me about an internship at the Episcopal Church at Yale, where I serve as chaplain, we had a long meeting which I thought went exquisitely well. She was obviously more than well – qualified, bright, articulate, thoughtful, experienced, and more. So I contacted her after a few days, and I assumed she’d accept the position. But instead, she asked for a second meeting – to talk more about the chaplaincy, my leadership style, about our respective theologies of ministry. Well, at least it turned out to be another great meeting. So when she called after that, again I presumed to accept, it was actually… to have yet another conversation. Finally, with joy… and more than a little relief on my part, we sealed the deal. School was going to start in a few days and the students were coming!
Now Gideon, I’m not sure whether your own selection process with Mary Beth was as… thorough, but I learned a lot from mine. I discovered it’s not so much that Mary Beth is a doubter or a skeptic like Thomas, but that rather than simply taking someone else’s word for something, she insists on having her own experience of something before she finally accepts it as truth. She has the kind of integrity to make sure that whatever she undertakes, it will be something that matters, that will bear good fruit. Like the prophet Habakkuk, Mary Beth is unafraid to “stand at her watch post, and station herself on the rampart; (and) keep watch to see what God will say, how God will answer.”
I also learned – and this may be some comfort to you Gideon, that it was well worth the wait. Because once she made up her mind, Mary Beth dove in – all the way, and made an incredible difference in our ministry, not just as an intern, but in the next year as Program Director, overseeing all the details of the ministry. She proved to have an amazing ability to help our students embrace leadership in ministry, to open themselves to their own unique experience of God, to motivate them to serve, and to serve faithfully, to make the developmental leap from the second hand religion they’d inherited, to a first hand relationship with God. And in the college years, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
Her careful process of discernment about coming here, seems to have borne abundant fruit already. Over the last few months, I’ve seen what a good fit you’ve made together, St. John’s. Mary Beth has shared the joy of serving in such an incredibly beautiful space, wandering the pond and the Nature Conservancy, marveling at your commitment to God’s creation. Getting to know your children and your young people, helping the Sunday school teachers create a place of nurture and care for them, hearing the children sing, and watching them run all over the place on Family Fridays, has been her pure delight.
And it’s not just the kids – Mary Beth has immersed herself in getting to know the rest of you as well. She’s been blown away by your kindness, your extravagant welcome and hospitality, even helping her furnish that incredibly large house – what clergy get houses like this anymore? Where are we? But thank you for helping her furnish it. Congratulations on such a good, good start.
Mary Beth, would you please stand? For those of ou who haven’t been to many ordiantions, this is the part we call, “The Charge.” I have to be careful here, because if it’s done too forcefully, the ordinands tands to charge out of the church before the Bishop get to lay hands on her.
Mary Beth, as you commit to accompanying the good people of St. John’s, as they claim their part in the Jesus Movement, I want to remind you that you already have everything you need to be a good and faithful priest in this place – you are already more than enough. You’ve got nothing to prove. And that’s not because of your incredible gifts, your intelligence, or even your winning personality. No. It’s because you’ve already learned deeply that all you do that’s worth anything is done only, only through the riches of God’s grace. Never forget that.
So maybe I can share just a few wrods on your way. Let me start by saying how deeply grateful I am that you asked me to preach today. It’s the first and probably the only time I get to tell you what to do, and you can’t talk back! So here’s just little wisdom I’d like to share.
First and foremost, whatever else you do, keep on LOVING. If you hope to be of any use at all to God’s people, keep on loving them, however often you find some are persuasive, some are flattering, som are just plain annoying, orno matter how often you have to forgive or ask for forgiveness, Jesus has it right. “You shall know them by how they love one another.” Keep on loving.
Second, keep on LISTENING. Listen so deeply you’re willing to be changed by what you hear; listen for that small still voice of God planted in each of your people at birth; listening across all the differences, with your heart. Listening in a way that shows those in your care that you always value being in right relationship with them, far more than you value being right. Remember how deeply Jesus always listened to his Abba.
Third, always be LEARNING. As we love and listen, we can’t help but learn a deeper and a wider truth than any of us are able to imagine individually. It’s why we Episcopalians call ourselves a “broad church,” where we need not agree, but where we commit to staying at the table, sharing our diverse truths, knowing this is the only way to discover those common, liberating truths that are worth bringing into a world hungry for meaning and hope. Remember Jesus’ constant invitation to all those in need, “Tell me what you seek.” Keep listening.
And fourth and finally, flowing directly from the first three – loving, listening and learning: Mary Beth, don’t be afraid of LEADING. Not as the world leads, but as a servant, following the way of Jesus, leading each other. Leading by bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ into all your relationships, here at St. John’s, in the surrounding communities, and in the wider world.
You might wonder, why even attempt all of this, being human? Because to embrace the Christian life in this committed way, means you and your people are living out the riches of Jesus’ promise in John’s gospel, “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. Abide in my love.”
Love, listen, learn and lead – and all the rest will be given to you.
Mary Beth, Gideon, and you, the good people of St. John’s, as you go forward into the next chapter of your common life, may the light of God continue shining upon you, and may God, who has given you the will to do all these things, give you the grace and power to perform them.