The Narrative Arc of Creation
This sermon was given by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue at St. Paul the Apostle Episcopal Church, in Savannah, Georgia for the ordination to the priesthood of Michael Chaney on January 3, 2014.
The Narrative Arc of Creation
A sermon for the Ordination of Michael Jackson Chaney, Jr.
Isaiah 6:1-8 and Ephesians 4:7,11-16
Professor Chaney. Just one question. Didn’t you have enough to do already? At one level, I get it. Jesus has worked in the movies for a long time. From Pathé’s 1902 hand-colored Life and Passion of Jesus to Passolini’s gay, marxist interpretation in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew or from the agnostic Jesus Christ Superstar to the challenging Jesus of Montreal and the Last Temptation of Christ, the Gospels and film, any of us can understand, but Chaney, honestly, why priesthood? Is Chaney time—driven by breathlessly running to get to the next thing—not challenging enough for you? Do you really want to take the teetering jumble of sometimes conflicting demands of your life and add the sacramental role of priest to the mix?
My dear congregation, I have gotten ahead of myself. I have tried to jump to the end of the second act. What am I thinking? How can we possibly appreciate the rising action that has our hero dealing with one plot twist after another as obstacle after obstacle rises to prevent him from achieving his dramatic need? We have yet to dive into the first act? We haven’t had near enough exposition to set up the character arc. Let us begin again.
Michael Jackson Chaney, Jr. hit the jackpot in the lottery at birth by being born white, heterosexual and male in the Deep South. To complete the picture of social privilege, he was initiated into the Christian faith before he even knew what it was or what it could mean for him—baptized in the Episcopal church in a small Mississippi town. Michael grew up in the center of the known universe. His social location rested securely at the top of the heap.
Like most all children, Michael saw readily the interconnectedness of all things. Through his eyes of innocence, he remained in “in constant amazement of nonstop encounters with new stimuli” as he connected, empathized and shared “in the wonder, love and tragedy”[i] he encountered. The very first inklings of a calling as artist emerged as he drew on the back of church bulletins on Sunday mornings.
Once in Junior High, Michael attended youth retreats at the Episcopal camp and there he found “girls who were interested in creative and iconoclastic boys” like him. That was enough to galvanize his interest, but fortunately for our story, he also discovered what he would “later come to recognize as God’s grace” and “felt accepted for who [he] was becoming as a person and [he] felt encouraged to grow and foster his artistic talents as an expression of the spirit.”
Drawn to this new supportive community, Michael attended youth retreats several times a year in junior high and high school, became active in his church’s youth group, served on the council for youth in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, volunteered as a summer camp counselor, attended Happening and served on Happening staff and in all of this enjoyed a “nurturing place of acceptance.” But even within this community, Michael was a maverick, always openly challenging authority, including church authority, and he was quick to challenge adults he perceived as guilty of hypocrisy.
As if the social privilege he was born to were not enough, Michael went off to college at Mississippi State University and joined a fraternity. Though he studied studio art, Michael fully “embraced the conformity [he] had so vehemently disdained. The reversal came when the iconoclast turned conformist moved to southern California following his sophomore year to attend art school in Pasadena. There he attended All Saints Episcopal Church where he saw a homosexual community struggling with the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic being nurtured and cared for by Christians who loved these men “unconditionally in a spirit of connectedness through God’s grace that was unlike anything [Michael] had experienced.” In Pasadena was introduced to homelessness, a greater sense of diversity, and a broader understanding of social and economic injustice. The Holy Spirit took the bigotry, racism and hypocrisy too deeply rooted in his being for him to see and slammed them into a wall of love and grace and acceptance.
On graduation, Michael was fortunate enough to get a job in the industry. Unfortunately the job making for-profit educational films was “demeaning and unfulfilling.” He went on to a Master of Fine Arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Tufts University and found it a “period of artistic, academic and spiritual growth.” This MFA led to two years working in New York City as a packaging designer, illustrator, video producer, production assistant and sound engineer for film and television.
The next plot twist came as Michael surprised himself in returning to the South and discovered a real vocation as an educator. No mere job, teaching was and remains a true vocation. To this vocation, Michael added husband when he married Nicole. He had enrolled in Sewanee’s Education for Ministry Program offered at St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church at Washington and Waters in the Ardsley Park section of midtown Savannah. He found a spiritual home in a diverse environment. He married Nicole there and alongside the fellow sojourners at St. Michael’s he “met Jesus again.” Since then, he and Nicole have been blessed with three sons—Ronan, Desmond and Maddox. And in the midst of this full life, the tug to live more fully into the Christian faith has grown stronger in Michael.
Here the challenge arose to pull together some seemingly unresolvable differences. What do you do when you readily agree with your artistic friends, colleagues and students who see religion as a psychological insurance policy against the fear of eternal damnation or a social panacea for middle age guilt and regret, while you also agree with the multi-cultural and racially diverse members of St. Michael’s (both progressive and conservative) who saw that there was something more going on with Jesus than we have been led to believe. How do you make sense out of knowing the church to be “both oppressive as an institution of conformity and liberating as a community of celebration”?
Michael embraced that paradox by creating a weekly Bible study he led for three years with non-religious friends, mostly artists, who “were interested in studying scripture, its history and its interpretation” in a safe space to question and challenge and think for one’s self. He started a summer spiritual film series at the Sentient Bean, a coffee shop on Forsyth Park, and more.
But the true confluence of the disparate themes in this story comes in the sacraments. In sacraments—such as communion, baptism or ordination—we see the lines of the profane and the sacred blur. The outward signs like bread and wine or water reveal something of the inward, spiritual grace which is the work of the Holy Spirit—the ordinary, made extraordinary by God’s presence. Take something common like bread and wine and infused with God’s spirit these elements convey the very real presence of Jesus. Take something profane, like say, Michael Chaney, and add God’s unearned love and favor we know as grace and we can, God willing and the people consenting, make him a priest in Christ’s one holy, catholic and apostolic church. And if that is possible, then anything can happen in this sacramental universe that is shot through with the presence of God.
For in the barely organized chaos that is Michael Chaney we see one person who is husband, father, artist, educator and now priest. But if we look wrongly at the picture, we will see the roles and while the role is interesting, we have to look past those to see who Michael is called to be. For priesthood is not something one does and then goes on to something else. Priesthood is not about doing, but being. Priesthood is about who you are, all the time, in everything you do. That is familiar as this is also true in art. Art is about being. One is not an artist when one is painting or creating a movie. You are an artist in your very being and you are always an artist or you are not an artist at all. One is always a husband and always a father and always an educator. If these are not who you are, then you are just playing a role. Playing a role is fine for a film, but in life that approach doesn’t help anyone. In life we are to be who we were created to be.
With this in view, we could begin to decide whether Chaney is fit to be a priest. Fortunately, before we place him on the scales to judge his very being, we have the reading from Isaiah before us to consider. The man who would become the great prophet Isaiah is in the Temple in Jerusalem. The air is heavy with incense. Isaiah sees the Lord on his throne. Seraphs fly about singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” God’s presence is so strong in the place that the about-to-be prophet fears for his life saying, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
Isaiah is gripped by a fear that comes from knowing deep in his bones that he is not worthy to be who God is calling him to be. Having named his lips as unclean, God solves the problem. Isaiah reports that right on cue “one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’” Then he hears the voice of the Lord say “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah answers, “Hear am I, send me.” God’s call is not inherently about worthiness, for God can make clean what is otherwise profane. Exhibit A—one Professor, Michael Chaney.
But here we find the real twist in the story. For the story I have told you so far is not really about Michael Chaney at all. As interesting as his character arc may be with the plots and subplots, the conflict and so on, this story is not about Chaney.
Our reading from Ephesians tells us, “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift” and goes on to say “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” The call to live into one’s own true vocation is not reserved for deacons, priests and bishops. Each of us has been given gifts and each of us is to live into using them as we become more fully who God created us to be. God’s work of creation is ongoing and all of us have our part to play that is rooted in our very being.
Step back a moment and “reevaluate the narrative needs” of this larger production of the ongoing act of creation. The real hero of this story is, wait for it…oh yeah, we are in church, you aren’t actually surprised. You knew at some point the answer would be Jesus, right. The larger arc is that God created all that is, gave us free will and we used our own will to hurt one another, to devalue other people. Blind to our own racism, sexism, and so on, we mar the image of God in ourselves even as we discount it in others. And rather than standing back as judge, God entered into the narrative in the most surprising way, born to poor parents who had been shunned by their own family and community; parents who soon after Jesus’ birth became refugees hiding from the powerful among the lowest of the low. And in this larger narrative, Michael, like you and like me is a stage hand at best, a key grip in the Kingdom of God.
Yet we are here, not because of Michael Chaney. We are here because the love of God as found in Jesus Christ knows no bounds, breaks down all walls, and includes all people. And we are here because the people of the Diocese of Georgia are persuaded that God has called Michael Chaney to minister to the disenfranchised and the counter culturalists. His call is to those who know a deep spiritual longing and also know within their very being that the one place the answer cannot lie is in the Christian church with its patriarchal, misogynistic world view based on fear and bent on shoring up the status quo.
This is the close of the sermon and at this point it is customary to ask the ordinand to stand and to charge the about-to-be-a-priest with words that challenge and inspire. But to ask Michael to stand and to charge him alone is to miss the point. This is not Michael’s story, but God’s and we all have a role. So I ask everyone to stand.
The call to show love to everyone, especially the lost and the left out is no easy call. Fortunately, the call is not Michael’s alone. For he is not sole stage hand in this much larger production. Each of us shares that call. There are all to real walls that divide people. We can all find it easy to judge and to condemn without even noticing we have done so. Yet, he who rightly condemned theft, murder, and adultery also said do not judge. For the narrative arc hard wired into creation by a loving, gracious God bends toward deep justice. Everything is interconnected. We all have a role in rising to the challenge of seeing the spirit of the living God in everyone we meet and living so that they might, however imperfectly, see that same God in us.
Even as we gather to support Michael in his ordination, we should be challenged to consider who God created each of us to be and how might we more fully be that person. For though we are people of unclean lips and we live among people of unclean lips, yet God can use each in working toward the true climax of the story, which is the larger work of redeeming all creation. As you leave this night, I challenge you to see every person as being made in the image of God, and to treat them as you would treat Jesus.
[i] All quotations in this sermon are from letters and papers Michael wrote in his process toward ordination.