Reflections on the ordination of Barbara Anne Fisher to the Priesthood
Trinity Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, Maryland
Dec. 16, 2017
First , thank you Bishop San, Greg and all the people of this beautiful cathedral, and others from the Diocese of Easton for your gracious hospitality, being poured out to those of us from “away.” This is a special day for all of us here! I am delighted to the tips of my toes that we are here today to celebrate Barbara Anne Fisher’s ordination to the priesthood, to lift up in Spirit the tenacity and integrity of her call to serve God in this way. It’s been quite a journey to date for Barbara Anne and her spouse Sandy, herself a strong, feisty, gifted, loving woman! And here we are, dear sisters! Let the people say, Amen!
A few words about the stole I’m wearing this morning. It belonged to Bishop Edward Welles, of the Diocese of W. Missouri, who was one of the bishops who ordained the 11 of us to the priesthood in 1974. Before he died, Bp. Welles passed this lovely stole on to the Rev. Sue Hiatt, one of the women he himself had ordained in 1974; and before her death in 2002, Sue Hiatt gave me this stole. I have cherished it – and I will pass it on to Barbara Anne Fisher before I head home this weekend. The passing on of this stole represents to me that we all stand, pray, work, and love on the shoulders of those countless brothers and sisters who have gone before us…. now and forever more. We are on this journey together, and that is our strength.
A matter of necessity
Back in 1976, a couple of years after my own ordination, I had resumed graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. One of my professors had invited me to her apartment to meet the great German liberation theologian Dorothee Soelle, who had just arrived to take up a post at the Seminary. As it happened, Dorothee had just read A Priest Forever, my book on the Philadelphia Ordination. As soon as we said hello, before we had even sat down, Dorothee Soelle put a question to me: Why on earth would any woman who is committed to helping make justice in the world want to be an Episcopal priest?
This question startled me but I wasn’t put off. I’ve been thinking about it ever since! At the time, my response was something about blooming where you’re planted, about working for justice anywhere, inside/outside the church or any institution, and — most importantly –about the heart of our Christian life together being the ongoing struggle for justice.
Today, four decades later, and having come to know Barbara Anne, I would add another response to Dorothee Soelle’s provocative question: It was not simply that I “wanted” to a priest, though I did at the time “want” to be ordained, it was that – like my sister ordinands in 1974 , and like Barbara Anne today — I was being compelled by the Spirit to respond to God’s call. In order to be faithful to God, I had to be ordained, whether or not I “wanted” to be, This matter was beyond personal “desire” – it was a matter of necessity.
The passage from Isaiah which we heard is, I am sure, the passage most often read at ordinations, the famous call of the prophet Isaiah. The Lord is looking for someone to go forth. So the Lord God asks, “whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah says, “Here am I. Send me.” That’s the part we hear at ordinations. That’s the easy part and it’s where the story ends at an ordination. But that is NOT where the story of Isaiah’s call to ministry ends. It’s where it begins. And we don’t usually hear the rest of the passage, which continues – and here I paraphrase for clarity:
The Lord says : “Isaiah, go and say this to the people: ‘ Look and see what is happening all around you! Don’t you get it? You listen, but you do not seem to comprehend; you look, but you evidently do not understand.’”
And the Lord God continues, “Isaiah, your words will challenge the people with love and truth, but unfortunately, because the people are confused and afraid, their minds will be dull, their ears will not hear, their eyes will not see…. “
And Isaiah , no doubt worried, asks, “how long, O Lord?” And God says, “until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate…”
That’s the hard part of being called by God to serve the people of God. It’s the part we don’t hear at ordinations and it’s the heart of our life together in the Spirit, and certainly the heart of ordained ministry. Who would “want” to be called by God to this task? No one in her right mind. Yet here am I, and here are you, and here is Barbara Anne Fisher, called by God, a woman saying, “Here am I, send me.”
To call forth our better angels – pass it on!
So then, what on earth is a priest like Barbara Anne to do?
Listen to how Matthew describes the crowds surrounding Jesus and his friends two millennia ago in rural Palestine: The crowds were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Pretty much like the folks Isaiah had been surrounded by hundreds of years earlier, people unable to comprehend what was happening to them, people feeling powerless, frightened, and angry. Not unlike the people of Ephesus about whom Paul would warn his followers a generation after Jesus – people being “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine, trickery, craftiness, deceitful scheming…” Then and now, people harassed and helpless, frightened and confused, like sheep without a shepherd. Sound familiar?
This is the world into which we are asking Barbara Anne Fisher to go for us today — bearing the same Spirit that moved the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul and the disciples of Jesus, the same Spirit that infused and empowered Jesus himself, our brother from Nazareth, the one whose Christic power Barbara Anne bears and shares and calls forth among us, to empower us to be disciples and friends of Jesus and, indeed, together to live as the Body of Christ.
Because if a priest is doing the work of the Spirit, she is sparking the Spirit in others – and helping us see that we are all called to be priests of God. It’s a “pass it on” game – how the Spirit of God works, how Jesus lived, how all of us are called to live in relation to one another and the whole creation. Passing it on, sharing the Jesus power, struggling for justice-love, incarnating God–with-us. Every day becomes a “manger day,” in which God is born again among us. A good priest, like a good teacher (which Barbara Anne has been for much of her adult life), brings out the best in those with whom she ministers, sparking God among others, empowering us “to god” (verb). Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama would say that she calls forth our better angels. That’s the ministry to which Barbara Anne is called – to call forth our better angels even as we the people are often too tired, too confused, or too angry to even believe in angels, spirits who empower us to make justice, show mercy, exercise compassion, and embody courage.
The whispering voice of God”… making us spiritually larger
At the Wild Goose festival in 2016, in a presentation which she called, “Cherry Tree Theology,” Barbara Anne spoke about being a seven year old girl, climbing a tree, and hearing “the whispering voice of God” which assured her she had quite a life ahead – too many places to go and people to meet and things to do to be boxed into any kind of role or script that would shrink her. She was a girl-child seeking to grow spiritually larger and larger, which is what the Spirit of God, Jesus’ Christic power, does in our lives – it makes us spiritually larger.
This is why saints and prophets are always people who see the larger picture – compassionate people who notice those who are being left out, justice-seeking people who notice those who are “different” from the majority, courageous people with inclusive, bold visions of community-building and human rights, people with the audacity to speak the truth in love, people who realize that not only people but all creatures, and all creation, are woven together in and by the Sacred Spirit.
The seven year old girl in the cherry tree didn’t realize that she would grow up to be an Episcopal priest, but she did realize that something, the whispering voice she experienced, was opening her into a life in which, like all real saints and true prophets and good priests, she would be a teacher and preacher of Justice-Love, in which space is always being made for those left-out and in which advocacy is always being voiced for those battered, bullied, and violated – sometimes by the very people who are supposed to protect them; sometimes harassed, hurt, and humiliated by men in the highest places of power. Priests of God are called not to be cowered, or silenced, by blowhards and false prophets who use the Bible or Christian tradition as a weapon to marginalize, violate, and oppress others.
Sacramental life: both pastoral and prophetic
Before I close, I must say something about the false distinction commonly made in organized religion between “pastoral” and ‘prophetic” ministry. Over the years, teaching theology at the Episcopal Divinity School and working with hundreds of prospective deacons, priests, and bishops, I came to see that, in many, perhaps most white and largely middle to upper class parishes in the United States, there is a prevailing assumption that people are ordained not only not to be prophetic but moreover to be anti-prophetic – trying so often to make peace, peace, where there is no peace, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
The essence of the ordained priest in particular has been conditioned over the years by bad theology to be a soft-hearted sacramentalist who must avoid controversy if he or she is to serve the whole people of God.
But this is based in wrong-headed assumptions about both what constitutes the whole people of God and what sacrament actually means.
We are not just individuals, nor even primarily individuals. Not only are we all social beings, born and grown into particular social situations, but also our spiritualities are ever being shaped by the social fabric of our life together . Our “we-ness” shapes my “I-ness” – the community forms the individual. This means that every wise minister – lay and ordained – must pay serious attention to how the the society forms – and deforms and reforms – the shape of church; and how the the church, conversely, forms, de-forms, and re-forms, the shape of the larger society. Moreover, every caring pastor must be attentive to how the larger community – society, family, church, school – is forming and impacting the individuals who come to church, or who need our care in homes, hospitals, schools, prisons, workplaces….
Yes, Barbara Anne will offer God’s blessings. Blessings of people, bread and wine, and water, blessings of many creatures great and small. Indeed, we are ordaining her in the Spirit to be a sacramentalist, but we should remember that a sacramental ministry is a way of life in which the shapes of God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s life are clarified, lifted up, and celebrated. The more deeply sacramental our lives and ministries, the more God reaches through us to touch the world around us.
Through sacramental eyes, we see that nearly all human pain and suffering has social and political roots, contexts, consequences, or implications — and that virtually all political and social movements are peopled by humans with deep and real yearnings, fears, and needs, people who need our attention, our kindness, our presence and our care.
So dear people of God, I charge us all to live sacramental lives – to gather around the table as we will today, to share food for the journey, to tend one another’s hurts and needs, to be present with one another in grief and fear and need and celebrations of many kinds, to pray and meditate, to dance and sing praises to God, and to walk the walk together — advocates for the oppressed and marginalized, welcoming strangers and victims of war and violence; befriending immigrants and religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities; in solidarity with targets of white supremacy; standing with victims of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, poverty and economic injustice, and the systemic plundering of earth, air, water, and earth-creatures of all kinds. My friends, we are being called by the One who sent forth both the prophet Isaiah and our brother Jesus to resist the evil that is rising up in our midst, ripping apart our society and breaking our world into pieces of pain.
God is calling us out — to be pastorally alert and prophetically bold, to listen and hear, to look and see God in each human and creaturely face! She is calling us out — to show compassion, practice kindness, and walk humbly and tenderly together on the earth, and She is calling us out to speak truth to power, morning by morning and day by day. And, in this particular moment, Alleluia! She is calling us out – to say YES to Barbara Anne Fisher, to go forth for us as a Priest!
The Rev. Carter Heyward, PhD