A Call to Joy

04.24.24 | Homepage | by The Rev. David Houk

    A Homily for Presbyteral Ordination of the Rev’d Lous H.D. Harris
    Fr. David Houk. St. John’s Episcopal Church. April 20, 2024        

    A few weeks back, on Tuesday of Holy Week, the clergy of our diocese heard a very good sermon at our annual renewal of vows. It was a poignant sermon, delivered by Bishop Greg Brewer. And I say it was poignant in that it touched me, put a finger on a lot of the ways the call to ministry is a call to a kind of death.

    I think that resonated with a room full of priests and deacons: a word from a pastor to pastors about how hard and lonely this vocation can be. Especially if you do it right: if you forsake careerism for ministry; if you just love people without needing them to love you back.

    In many ways the call to ordination is a call to suffering, a call to participate in the sufferings of Christ—and you know what the religious folks did to him, right? And it’s true. If you’re going to be a priest, you’re going to judged, or misunderstood, or absorb the projections and unhealed aggressions of imperfect people. It’s in the job description: “Other duties as assigned.”

    At our clergy conference this past week, Mother Tish Harrison Warren was our preacher. In one of her sermons—again, pastor to pastors—she reminded us of the recent Barna polls about clergy burnout. In 2022, 42% of clergy surveyed said they had seriously considered giving up ministry. Stress, isolation, and the adverse effects on one’s family topped the reasons for this desperation.

    So, one version of a thoughtful ordination sermon might go like this: Louis Harris, are you sure you know what you’re getting into? Have you counted the cost? “When Christ calls a man he bids him, ‘Come and die.’” Or I could go full Dante on you: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

    But as I’ve gotten to know Louis, I actually think he has a pretty good idea about what he is getting into. He’s the son of a priest. He has had a front row seat to the life of ordained ministry. He knows the stress of the job. Also, I think he is relatively free of the mixed motives that sometimes attend a person’s pursuit of Holy Orders. Do you know that some people want to be a priest because they think it is a vocation where others will love them, admire them, respect them; where people will do what they say! How funny is that?

    So instead of a “call to suffering” sermon, how about this? A call to Joy. Louis Harris, you are called to a vocation of Joy.

    In the Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Father Zosima, as he lay dying, points out to young Alyosha the supreme importance of joy. The chapter is called “Cana of Galilee.”

    “Ah, that sweet miracle!” cries Zosima, “It was not men’s grief, but their joy Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness.” That is, before Jesus ever healed the sick, or cast out a devil, or raised a child from the dead, he met people in their joy: turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. That was Zosima’s point.

    And all the Gospels bear witness to the joy of Jesus. You might say that our Lord was the incarnation of Joy. He frequented parties. He partied with all the wrong people. “The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30)

    To be sure, Jesus’s call to the kingdom was a call to repentance, but only because it was also a call to joy. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and reburied; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)

    There are many moments where Christ broke out in a kind of ecstatic exultation. “At that very hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants!’” (Luke 10:21)

    And let’s be clear. Even our Lord’s suffering was not suffering for suffering’s sake. It was “for the sake of the joy that was set before him [that Christ] endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrew 12:12)

    It was for the joy set before him!

    Our Lord was a glutton for joy. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard,’” (Matthew 11:19) Jesus was so full of God’s goodness, so sure of it, that the joyless couldn’t handle it. And even though they did their worst to him on that Friday afternoon, Joy was the word on Easter Sunday.

    In terms of parties, Louis—you know this, already—at St. John’s, the clergy get invited to a lot of parties. But these aren’t the only occasions for joy in a priestly vocation. The call to Joy runs through the whole life cycle of ministry, caring for souls from cradle to grave, “hatching, matching, and dispatching,” they say.

    You will have these privileged moments with people at the most important times in their lives. A child is born at Baylor, and you will visit the hospital to rejoice with the family and give thanks that a new life has come into the world.

    You will have moments preparing a couple for marriage—giddy with infatuation, of course—and you’ll be busy trying to connect the dots to that greater Love of which the union of husband and wife is but a snapshot. And sometimes it happens—the opening: the way the Gospel gets through and the groom or the bride-to-be understand their little lives in light of something bigger and better and much more glorious.

    You’ll experience the wonder of seeing a person’s spiritual growth—yes, always through struggle and suffering. But I’ve had this moment of secret joy well up on an average Sunday morning, looking around the church and marveling that maybe the holiest person in the room is someone unrecognized and uncelebrated, but for whom the Lord has done a mighty work of grace. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants!”

    And yes, in extremis. Sitting with a person near death’s door. Telling them that they really can trust the Lord, can trust the Lord with everything—the care of their loved ones, the care of their own souls. And then you get to seem them let go, hand over their lives, in trust, in faith, in love.

    Louis H.D. Harris, you are called to be a priest in Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. You are not called to suffer! (Well, okay, you are called to suffer; everyone is, we all suffer.) The extraordinary this is that you are called to Joy, to witness to the risen Lord of Life, to endure the cross because of the joy set before you!

    You are called to bring good news to men and women and children, in and through the sufferings of life—to tell them that healing comes after the wound, that forgiveness overwhelms guilt, to tell them, show them, convince them, that the Lord is good, that “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:6, BCP)

    That joy came to us on a Sunday morning when the Lord of Life was raised and redeemed everything—the last the last laugh, the cosmic punchline that made the whole creation new.

    Tell them, Louis. Tell them that the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia, alleluia.