"Putting things back": A sermon by Bishop Gates for Holy Tuesday Clergy Vow Renewal Service

Following is the text of the sermon delivered by Bishop Alan M. Gates at the Clergy Vow Renewal Service on Holy Tuesday, April 12, 2022, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. View the livestream recording of the service here.

Put things back the way you found them!

Is that a familiar injunction? "Put things back the way you found them!" is a mantra that has been drilled into many of us for most of our lives. As a child it meant, "Put your toys back on the shelf when you're done playing." As a youth it meant, "Don't leave your clothes on the floor." In the church it is the refrain of property committees and sextons, meaning: "If your group rearranges the tables and chairs, put the darn things back where they were." It is a frequent trop in the movies--just think of the teenaged Tom Cruise frantically putting the house back in order to cover up traces of his risky business. My 98-year-old mom recently complained that the new aide who helps out twice a week is pretty good, except that she leaves things in the wrong places. "I don't know why nobody ever taught her to put things back where she found them!"

Bishop Alan M. Gates preaching Holy Tuesday 2022 sermon Screenshot from livestream

Sometimes we put things back so we will know where to find them. Sometimes we put things back because it provides a sense of familiarity and order. Sometimes we put things back because it's just easier than trying to decide whether there is a better way to organize them.

In two days we will observe Maundy Thursday, at the conclusion of which--in many of our churches--there will be a stripping of the altar. In some places it is a visible act, choreographed ritually at the end of the Maundy Thursday service. In other places it is carried out privately by altar guild or clergy. In either case, the stripped altar and chancel is a dramatic sign of the abandonment of our Lord and the desolation of Good Friday.

This year it seems to me that the stripped altar and chancel is also a kind of icon of our lives in the church for the past two years. Off and on these past 24 months our churches have stood empty. In so many ways we have been stripped of the particular intimacies that mark our life together: the casual warmth of a handshake or hug; the outstretched hand, yearning to lay hold of the chalice; the companionable fellowship of a potluck supper; the full-throated singing in a crowded church; the quiet inclining of one head to another in a whispered word of shared pain or sorrow. We have done all we could to maintain, replicate, or substitute for all these lost intimacies. The liturgical and programmatic lives of our congregations have pivoted, as best we knew how and with heroic devotion, to provide for ongoing connection. And still, and still, like our Maundy Thursday altars, we have been stripped.

Put things back the way you found them.

The injunction echoes as we contemplate the tasks ahead of us. In a typical year on Holy Saturday we know exactly what this means. The frontal goes back. The fair linen goes back. The candlesticks go back. The needlepointed kneelers go back. The reserved sacrament goes back. All of this is clear in its design, comforting in its familiarity, and celebratory in its restoration. Yet in this year's larger picture--in the stripped-altar lives of our pandemic-impaired church--what will it mean for us to "put things back the way we found them?" What goes back? What doesn't go back? What shouldn't go back? How do we restore it? Or better, how do we renew it? There is no Holy Saturday altar guild template for this moment in the life of the church. This "putting back" will entail something different. It will not happen in the blink of an eye. Nor should it, if we are truly reflecting upon how the resurrected intimacies of our life together will best serve ourselves, one another, and the Christ whose Body we yearn to comprise.

Three months ago, in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, a parish priest named Andres Arango was determined by his bishop to have performed countless invalid baptisms by pronouncing the formula using "we" instead of "I." ("We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.") Fr. Andres resigned his cure, and a massive search involving baptismal certificates and family videos has been underway to identify those whose baptisms have been deemed null and void. Commenting on the matter at a recent ordination here in our diocese, Dr. Andrew McGowan opined that "the Church would traditionally have said that, so long as the Trinity was invoked ..., the danger of re-baptism is greater than the danger" of the pronominal substitution. [i]

Dean McGowan suggests, however, that the incident does invite us to reflect on the "I" and the "we" of holy orders. Fr. Andres was attempting to underscore an important feature of Christian theology--though perhaps one more often emphasized by Protestant than Catholic Christians. Fr. Andres's democratizing "we" underscores a New Testament theology of the priesthood of the whole church. Andrew McGowan writes:

The whole of our life before God is a sort of crossing of the border of the holy, ...[a] sacrifice performed on the altar of the streets and the fields and markets, in the public square of justice and the private realm of care. Our Christian identity ... is a way of bringing the needs of the world to God in prayer, and in taking the reconciling love of God to the world. [ii]

"So yes," says Andrew McGowan, "we are all priests." I would add from his description, we are all deacons as well.

And yet, Christian Scripture and theology equally emphasize the importance in Christian community of distinct individual gifts and charisms, gifts to be exercised for the good of the whole. The Body of Christ needs gifts of leadership, teaching, organizing, motivating, convening, representing.  The Body needs every "I" gift to be called out and nurtured and exercised in the service of the "we." No concept of democratized community should negate the need for individual commitment and the distinguishing of varied gifts. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you,'" [iii] said Paul famously. Every one of us as an ordained leader dwells in the tension between these affirmations: the "I" of our particular role and the "we" of our shared embodiment of Christ.

I wonder how this balance has been affected, for you, during the pandemic. Have you found yourself an increasingly isolated "I," separated more than ever from your people and your colleagues? Do you fell a kinship with the mythological Atlas, trapped with the weight of the cosmos on your shoulders, unprepared, in thankless solitude, with no end in sight? Conversely, have you felt the loss of so many familiar expressions of your vocation that you scarcely know what your "I" is anymore? Has the suspension of so many of the church's sacred intimacies--of which you are formed to be a steward and curator--has that stripping left you uncertain about your place in the "we" of this divine Body? And now, is there in fact a way to "put things back the way you found them?" Can you? Should you?

I say again: There is no Holy Saturday altar guild template for this moment in the life of the church. This "putting back" will not happen in the blink of an eye. But for you and for me, as ordained leaders in the church, I trust that this can be a moment for us, in the exercise of our own vocation, thoughtfully to "put things back" in new ways that will affirm both the "I" and the "we" of our ministry as deacon, priest, or bishop.

Dear friends, in this strange, uncharted, challenging, and hopeful time:

Put things back, not just as we found them, but as by God's grace we can begin to envision them.

Put things back, claiming anew the authority given you for courageous exhortation.

Put things back, curating the intimacies of the sacraments and nourishing Christ's people from the riches of God's grace.

Put things back, not as rivals in a world of competing franchise managers, but as colleagues without whose companionship we are sure to be lost.

Put things back, being the priest who equips the priesthood of all believers; being the deacon who equips the servanthood of every disciple of Christ.

Put things back, not by your own brilliance and skill, but by the communal wisdom granted us in the Spirit and by the grace of God.

Put things back, knowing that we are disciples not of Atlas but of Christ, and our destiny with him is not the futility of a crushing burden, but the sure and certain hope of resurrection.

My dear companions and colleagues in holy orders: as ever, I hope that you know how much God loves you for what you do. I hope that you will find, in renewing your vows this day, a renewed measure of strength and grace. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates

[i] Andrew McGowan, sermon for the ordination of Benjamin Crosby at St. Paul's Church, Malden, MA, February 26, 2022; quoted by permission.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] I Corinthians 12:21