I met Rick and Jeanne Smallwood one Sunday morning in 2009 at coffee hour. Two people I had never seen before asked me if I were the aspirant at the parish. I was a bit surprised, but realized that it wasn’t too hard to figure it out since I had been serving at the altar that morning. The guy then said to me (still wearing his Stetson cowboy hat), my name is Rick and I want to be a priest too. And then the story started to come out.
Rick had felt his calling from God many years ago in the late 1960s, but like many who are on another path, he felt that it was not quite real. That God couldn’t be calling him, that he was somehow not worthy. And life, as is does, tended to get in the way. So he hit the snooze button. And then he hit it again. And again and again. Each time he felt the stirring of the call, he hit the button and focused on other things.
Make no mistake, despite an active Navy career that involved postings all over the country and the world, Rick was always involved in the church in one fashion or another. He was living out his Christian ministry, but there was always that quiet call in the background. Sometimes it was very loud, other times only a whisper. But it was always there. And it was always put on hold.
Jesus tells us that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. So when the Bishop in his diocese sent out word that they were short on priests, the alarm clock started ringing very loudly. And this time, the snooze button just wouldn’t work. For at last, Rick’s time and God’s time had come together and there was no longer any way to deny the reality of God’s call. 40 years after the first stirrings of his calling, Rick entered the discernment process and started on a path toward this day.
Having been in the process for a while, an unexpected roadblock materialized. A roadblock that would likely have stopped him in the past, but not this time. For by now Rick was absolutely convinced of his call, and he would not let it go. That determination led him to a conversation with Bishop Dan in the unknown wilds of Nevada. The bishop had not told him he would be ordained, merely that he would be allowed to pursue the process. With no more assurance than that, off they went.
I was fascinated by this story and asked when they had arrived in Nevada. Last night, they said. Where are you living? Don’t know yet. Where are your things? In the car outside. You mean you just packed up everything, left your life behind and drove to Nevada with no planning and only a promise that you could at least attempt the discernment process? Yes, was the answer. I have to tell you that I was deeply moved by this. To do this was a significant leap of faith, one that I am not certain that I could have made. I was impressed by Rick, but I have to tell you, I was even more impressed by Jeanne. Picture for a minute this conversation over the dinner table. “Honey, I want to pull up stakes and move to Nevada because that is what God is calling me to do.” And her answer was not, “have you lost your mind”, it was, “OK, when do we leave?” Wow. Think about that for a moment. Each of them demonstrated a great deal of faith, in God and in each other.
The path Rick embarked upon is not an easy one. The discernment process is a bit like the yellow brick road. Lest you think you heard me wrong, yes, I am going to preach on the Wizard of Oz. Sometimes the path runs through a beautiful happy place like munchkin land full of sunshine and smiling people. Other times it runs through a dark forbidding forest and the path is hard to follow and seems to go in circles where you wander aimlessly making no progress whatsoever. When you are on the path, it can be difficult to understand why it is so complex and always changing. When you are in the middle of something it can be hard to have a sense of perspective and appreciate it for what it is. But when you look back over the journey, you can see that every part of it, the good and the bad, the easy and the difficult was put there for a reason.
It is very tempting in the good times to think that you are doing it all on your own, that you are completely equipped for the journey and are ready to go. But it is the dark times, the times when you are lost or feel overwhelmed or totally inadequate; those are the times that you are reminded that the journey is not about you, but about God. Only by falling back into the arms of God can you find your way through the hard times, and that also helps you to see that it was God, not you, who was acting in the good times as well. For this call to the priesthood is not about you, but about God and we are called to be servants of all in His name.
It has been my privilege to walk alongside Rick for some of his journey on this path. I have seen him in the good times and in the bad and I know that he has learned well the lessons of the path. Rick, hold fast to those lessons. Always remember that it is God who equips you to face the journey, for today you begin on a new path. I am sorry to be the one to tell you this, but everything you have done so far is merely prologue to the journey you undertake right now. When I was ordained, a couple of wise priests told me that I would find serving as a priest in a congregation very different from what I had experienced before. There would be a new level of expectation from people and I would be called upon to serve in ways that I had not yet imagined. I listened politely and was sure they were wrong. They were not.
Starting today you are on a new path, a lifelong journey as a priest in God’s church. You will never be the same again. You will be called upon in new and different ways and you will most certainly be stretched outside your comfort zone. Yes, there will be munchkin land time, but you have some time in the dark forest ahead as well. When that happens, remember the lessons you leaned on this path, for they will serve you well. Trust in God to be with you and equip you in the good times and the bad and He will always lead you through.
Now, it would be easy for everyone here to think that I am speaking only to Rick. And you would be wrong, for each of us is called by God to ministry. Each of us is given special skills and talents from God and we are all called to use them to serve God’s purpose and build the kingdom. Rick may be called to ordained ministry but that is no more or less valid than the ministry to which all of us are called. Matthew tells us that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, and that is a challenge to each of us. For each of us is called to labor for the Lord and each of us is given the skills necessary to carry out that ministry, And like Rick, each of us will spend time in munchkin land, and each of us will spend time in the dark forest. And like Rick, if each of us can put our trust in God rather than ourselves, God will most certainly lead us through.
Now, Rick, you are about to complete a journey that is more than 45 years in the making. I know that there were times that it seemed to you that this day would never arrive; that your time in the dark forest would never end. Today, you complete the first phase of the journey and commence the more daunting journey as a priest in Gods holy church. You will be challenged in ways you have never been before, but you have been prepared for this in ways you have never been as well. The work you undertake today is both sacred and necessary. For the world we live in is in desperate need of the gospel and people are in greater need of God than ever before. Your brothers and sisters in the priesthood have been waiting patiently for you, for we have need of your skills and abilities in the work that we share. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Today you recommit yourself to our shared labor and there is much labor to be done. We celebrate your accomplishment, rejoice with you in the successful completion of your journey, and welcome you to the sacred work you now begin.