Saturday, November 22, 2014

Perseverance in Prayer

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 22, 2014

Evensong Celebrating the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Ordination of The Rev. Lauren Ackland to the Priesthood
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 150

Perseverance in Prayer
            A couple of weeks ago I received in the mail the invitation to today’s wonderful celebration in honor of my friend and mentor, someone I love and respect so very much, The Rev. Lauren Ackland.
            As usual, I carefully examined the card, making sure that my name was spelled correctly and noting the size of the font used to identify the name of the preacher.
            And then I noticed that the invitation declared that I would be giving a homily.
            Now, I don’t go to staff meetings at Grace anymore so I wasn’t part of the discussions that led to the use of the word “homily” rather than “sermon,” but I’m going to guess they revolved around how long I was going to preach and the length of the whole service.
            What happens if the service is too long? Will people think this satisfies their church obligation for the weekend? Will they skip church tomorrow? Will they – you - say, “Come on, we just went to church yesterday? Surely that counts!”
            So “they” went with “homily,” implying a short sermon, some brief remarks and then I’m done and we finish up the service, move on to the reception and the rest of our day, and most of us – you - hopefully go to church again tomorrow.
            Well, I’m sorry. But I’ve come all the way from Jersey City and, moreover, I feel that today’s occasion calls for something more than a homily.
            Thirty years – thirty years - of ordained ministry is, with God’s help, a major achievement and worthy of great celebration – and certainly merits a sermon, not just a homily.
            Besides, Lauren preached magnificently at both my own ordination to the priesthood right here at Grace more than seven years ago – and again at my celebration of new ministry at St. Paul’s Jersey City.
            So, now it’s my honor to return the favor.
            Thirty years.
            How many of you were at Lauren’s ordination?
            I know George was there and in fact read that same lesson from Isaiah we just heard. I’m told that, in typical fashion, he threatened to revise the words of the prophet to, “Here am I; send her!”
            He didn’t go through with it.
            But, you know, in a very real sense thirty years ago God sent both Lauren and George together on this adventure in ministry, a journey that took them from Manhattan, from their much-loved General Seminary and Church of the Ascension first to the rather unlikely spot of Oakland/Franklin Lakes where they did such great work building up St. Alban’s and then finally here to Grace Church, where as you know, she is the first woman to serve as rector.
              Through it all, Lauren and George have been a tremendous team.
             “Mr. Lauren Ackland” has been a strong and loyal, if somewhat offbeat, support for Lauren – for her life and work.
            I, of course, wasn’t at Lauren’s ordination. I mean, come on, thirty years ago I was just a child!
            But, thinking about today got me thinking about my own ordinations – both the grand celebration here at Grace and my ordination to the diaconate at our cathedral.
            At my diaconal ordination Bishop Beckwith said something that has stuck with me.
            In his sermon, the bishop said to us about-to-be deacons, “We pay you to pray.”
            “We pay you to pray.”
            I know that sounds a little commercial, kind of transactional – and I’ve never heard the bishop use that expression again - but over the years I’ve heard his words echo in my head especially during those times when I haven’t been as faithful as I should be in my personal prayers.
            “We pay you to pray” has been a reminder to me that prayer needs to be -must be - behind and beneath and above and through all the work I do as an ordained person.
            Just in case we forget the centrality of prayer for clergy, in the priestly ordination service the bishop asks the about-to-be priest, “Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for others, offering all your labors to God, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit?”
            And the ordinand answers, “I will.”
            Now, I could stand up here all afternoon and talk about how amazing Lauren is – she’d hate that - but, let’s name it: she is remarkably hardworking, totally dedicated to the church, patient enough to sit through innumerable interminable meetings, smart – really smart, a gifted preacher and a thoughtful liturgist, a sensitive listener, a wise counselor, a good shepherd indeed, and much more.
            Lauren, how’re you doing over there?
            But, behind and beneath and above and through all of those qualities, Lauren Ackland is a person  - a priest – a rector of prayer.
            She takes her ordination vow to pray with utter seriousness.
            With God’s help, Lauren perseveres in prayer.
            She perseveres in her public prayer, rarely missing any of the daily services offered here at Grace, and she perseveres in her private prayers.
            I think even people who don’t know Lauren well can sense this prayerfulness. It’s a big reason why she is universally respected in the Church.
            Now, I can’t explain how prayer works – Lauren probably can, why don’t you ask her during the reception  – but, I think it has something to do with God wanting to share power and responsibility with us.
            Anyway, all I know is that prayer does work.
            Prayer works. And, if you don’t believe me, just look around.
            I remember when I first interviewed to be curate here at Grace. I was newly ordained and in desperate need of a job, but, as some of you know, this city kid had some misgivings about moving to the suburbs.
            That’s a story for another day, but I remember during the interview being stunned by Lauren’s description of life at Grace – so many vibrant ministries, so many people – including children and even men, so many gifted, generous people – lots and lots of them.
            There were so many services, so many kids and adults in the choirs – all volunteers, thank you very much - and there was even music at the 7:30 service on Sunday mornings – which seemed a little early to me but, um, did I mention I needed a job?
            Now, as someone from a struggling little church in the city, I remember thinking, how can this be? Sitting in her office near the end of the interview, I finally just asked, why? Why was Grace thriving? What made Grace tick?
            Without hesitation, Lauren credited the health of Grace Church to the daily prayer offered here, prayer that bathes this room, prayer that has blessings more powerful and numerous than we can know or imagine.
            Over my two stints at Grace, I recognized that Lauren was right about the importance of daily worship. But I think the answer is a little deeper and more personal than that.
            Grace has thrived and continues to be a great blessing for so many of us because it is led by Lauren Ackland, a person – a priest – a rector of prayer.
            Somehow, I don’t know how exactly, Lauren’s prayers ripple out into all the ministries that happen here.
            Those prayers have touched – touch - all of our lives.
            And, I know for sure that those prayers are heard in places served by those Lauren has mentored, including in a little church in Jersey City.
            So, today we give thanks for thirty years of ordained ministry - a major achievement and worthy of great celebration, surely meriting a sermon more than a homily.
            We give thanks for the amazing partnership, the continuing journey, of Lauren and George.
            We give thanks for thirty years of ordained ministry, for all of that hard work and tireless devotion to duty, but most of all, for all of those prayers that you have offered to God for us all.
            We honor those thirty years with today’s celebration.
            But, it seems to me, that we honor Lauren best first by going to church tomorrow – the sermon wasn’t that long! – and, most of all, we honor Lauren when we follow her example, when we, you and I, all of us, with God’s help, persevere in prayer.