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November 2, 2019

Signs of Hope and Cracks in the Armor: An Ordination Sermon for a Secular Age

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 10:00 pm
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Preached at the Ordination of Greg and Noel Collins Pfeiffer to the Priesthood

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 145
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 10: 1-9

Angelus

One of the things I enjoy most about having been a seminary professor for awhile is that I get to go through the “entire process” with my students, from beginning to end. Nine years ago, I saw a young couple arrive at Trinity, having recently finished their undergraduate schooling in Chicago, now coming to study together – Greg and Noel Collins Pfeiffer. There are no typical seminary couples these days, but Greg and Noel were not typical even at Trinity. He was a Starbucks barista. Sometimes it seemed like his sense of style was stuck in the 90’s — the 1890’s. She sometimes worked as a swimming lifeguard. They read fantasy literature, especially Tolkien, and they hung around with a group of students who called each other “The Scooby Gang.” They lived with some other students in a kind of intentional community. Both Noel and Greg took courses from me, and while faculty are not supposed to have favorite students, I confess that I developed an especial fondness for Greg and Noel. I had the privilege of directing Noel’s thesis on Gregory of Nyssa. I saw both of them graduate in 2013. Noel’s hair was the same color as her graduation hood that day. In August 2013, Noel used her secret connections to get me invited to give some talks on Reformation Anglicanism for the first CANA West Diocesan Synod in San Antonio, Texas. Among my other jobs, I am on the Commission on Ministry for the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and I was on the committee that interviewed Greg and Noel to enter the ordination process – one week before their son Elian was due to be born. And today I am privileged to preach at their ordination to the priesthood. I am honored and grateful to be part of the end of this journey, as I was at the beginning. It is, of course, a truism, to say that this is really not an end, but another beginning. But while it may be a truism, it is not trite. Noel and Greg will now be exercising the ministries that they first came to Trinity to begin studying for. Noel, Greg, I thank you for this opportunity to speak at your ordination to the priesthood. I have not taught any students of whom I am so happy to see this moment arrive as I am for you.

Greg, Noel, as I speak to you this evening, I can’t help but wonder about the path you have chosen, as I am sure you probably have yourself. To take the path of ordination to the priesthood these days is to set out on a hard road. Why would anyone want to be a priest today? The culture seems to be going through what is called a process of “secularization” that began in the 1960’s, but it finally seems to be reaching its apex. In the last generation, church membership in the United States has plummeted. From 1937 through the 1990s, membership regularly averaged around 70% of the population. From 1998 until now, church membership has dropped to just around 50% of the population. Since the turn of the 21st century, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has doubled, from 8% to 19%. The shift is also generational. Among millennials, those of Noel’s and Greg’s generation, only 42% are members of any church. And, of course, church attendance is lower than church membership. Only about a third of the population attend church weekly, but among those aged 18 to 29, only 17% attend church every week.

Along with the decrease in church membership, respect for clergy as an occupation has also dropped. A recent study found that among those who attend church regularly, 75% view clergy positively. However, among those who attend church only once a month, only 52% think clergy are trustworthy. And if you attend church less than once a month, the chances that you consider clergy to be honest and intelligent is only 27% to 30%. The population as a whole views teachers, doctors, scientists, and members of the military more positively than clergy. Only 42% of average Americans have a positive view of clergy. In terms of trustworthiness, clergy are viewed about the same level as lawyers.

So how should the church respond to this changed situation? Noel, Greg, perhaps this is a time to rethink. You already know how to make coffee and coach swimming. It’s not too late to change your minds. I really don’t want you to change your minds though. If anything, clergy are more needed now than they were a generation ago. There was a time when the local pastor or priest was something like those doctors who used to give house calls. Someone you could depend on, just part of the way things were, but not someone you thought about much until someone got sick. In the current situation, the priest is something more like an emergency medical technician in the midst of a major catastrophe. Clergy are more necessary now, not less. Matthew 9:36 speaks of an event in the life of Jesus: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” When the sheep have lost their way, we need shepherds to find the sheep and bring them back into the fold. There is a passage in the gospel reading this evening that is right on target. Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Greg and Noel, the church has called you to be laborers in the harvest.

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