Sermon for the Consecration and Ordination of the Rt. Rev. Paula Clark, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago

by | Sep 17, 2022

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me. . .
Isaiah 61:1-4

Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; 
serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song.
Psalm 100: 1-4

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:18-39

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. . .
Luke 4:14-20

Loving and gracious God, thank you for the sweet spirit in this place, and for the gift of this day, for which we have long been waiting. In your name, Creator, Christ, and Spirit, Amen.

Primero, permítanme saludar a todos los de habla espanol presentes o participando online. Me alegro que haya traducción simultánea, pero tenía que decir algo en el idioma del cielo, expresando la alegría que todos sentimos hoy. Lo que sigue es una canción de amor y admiración para su nueva obispa.

It is an honor to give voice to our collective joy, and to speak to you, my friend, sister in Christ, and soon-to-be Bishop Paula Clark; and to Paula’s loving family and great circle of friends, the faithful Jesus followers of this great diocese, our Presiding Bishop and colleague bishops; and all those who have gathered from far and wide to be here.

While we are here, there is another gathering of equal joy about to begin in the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, during which one of Paula’s closest friends and colleagues, Phyllis Ann Spiegel, will be consecrated and ordained bishop. Phyllis told me that she was going to watch this service online until the procession in Salt Lake City begins. So will you join me in greeting Bishop-elect Spiegel and expressing our love and support for her and the Diocese of Utah?

It is a good day for our church.

One of the great teachers on the art of preaching, the late Fred Craddock, once made the observation that sometimes a preacher speaks to a congregation and at other times for a congregation. What is on my heart to say is a bit of both, and all of it, I daresay, you already know.

Being in the presence of Paula Clark and watching her in action is like taking a master class in Christian leadership. That was true before all that transpired in the last eighteen months, and it is even more so now. I am reminded of a man I once knew in Minnesota whose name was Rod. As we were leaving for Washington, DC, Paul and I went to say our goodbyes. Rod was dying, and we knew that this would be our last conversation on this side of Jordan. After expressing his delight in my new vocation and all the adventures that were waiting for us, and I told him how much he meant to us, he said, “I am going to live these last days as if everything we say on Sunday is true. Now go and live your life in the same way.”

Paula, you have lived the last eighteen months as if everything we proclaim as followers of Jesus is true, and not merely in an abstract way, but rather one that we can trust and cling to when, as your hero Howard Thurman would say, “our backs are against the wall.” You have shown us that Jesus meant it when he said that the way of the cross is the way of life.

You have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. And by God’s grace, and with the love and support of many, and through your own sweat and tears, you have come out on the other side. So you know, not just in your head, but in your bones that nothing can separate you, or any of us, from the love of God in Jesus. And knowing that, and having made it through the valley with your joy, hope, and love for God, neighbor, and self intact, you are fearless.

When any of us make it through the valley, the first stunning realization is that we’re still here. And that we’re still the same person we were before we entered, but more so, having been refined by fire.

Now Paula would be the first to acknowledge that the valley’s cost is high, and we all know that not everyone makes it, and some that do are a shadow of their former selves through no fault of their own. Even for those who have a resurrection story to tell, the valley of the shadow of death is still death. As for our biblical forebear Jacob, who forever walked with a limp after his long night of wrestling with an angel, going through the valley marks you, physically and emotionally. It’s not an experience you wish on anyone you love, nor would relish going through again.

But Paula, having gone through it, and like Jacob, not letting go until you received its blessing, you are stronger–is that the word?–wiser? more grateful, grounded, attuned? I don’t know if there is one word that captures the change, because as I said, you’re still you, but down to your essence–clearer, maybe.

Perhaps the psalmist said it best–having walked through the valley of the shadow of death, fear no longer has power over you, and certainly not fear of lesser things.

To be clear, for as long as I’ve known Paula, she’s always been fearless, no doubt because this was not her first journey through the valley. I have never known her to be afraid of discomfort–her own or anyone else’s. Because she knows that most things worth pursuing in life–such as spiritual growth, personal maturity, love in action, as Dostoevsky said, as compared to love in dreams, accomplishments that satisfy and delight us, and certainly the pursuit of justice and social transformation–the pursuit of these good things involves at the very least accepting some discomfort, and far more likely, what Dr. King called redemptive suffering.

If you haven’t noticed, Paula Clark has a high tolerance for discomfort and suffering, both for herself and for those she loves–not for suffering’s sake, but in the service of the good, and because she knows that the way of the cross is the way of life.

So should you come to Paula to express your unhappiness or dissatisfaction with something that’s happening in the church, while she will listen to you with a keen and compassionate ear, be quick to make course corrections if that seems best, and acknowledge if she has made a mistake, the fact that you are unhappy, or–God forbid–uncomfortable will not necessarily invoke the response that you want. Because she knows that the cross is the way of life. Our discomfort is part of the journey of transformation.

Now of course you will find in Paula no greater champion against the pain of injustice, the frustrations of bureaucracy, or the petty immaturity and casual meanness of others. But even then, should you feel yourself sinking down into the seductive role of victim, she may not jump to your rescue, because she cannot spare you the cost of taking up the cross that is yours, anymore than those who love her can spare her the cost of taking up hers.

In our years in ministry together, I was in awe of Paula’s ability not to rush in and try to fix things for other people. She was always present, empathetic, the first to to roll up her sleeves and help, but without the kind of anxious energy of a leader, who is, as the Apostle Paul describes, “tossed to and fro by every wind.” Which is one reason why every person on our staff whom Paula supervised will tell you that she was the best boss they had ever had.

Another quality in Paula that has been distilled and refined by illness, the long road of recovery, and grief is her awareness of the relatively short amount of time that she has on this planet. That awareness has the effect of clarifying priorities.

Paula is well aware that she and the Diocese of Chicago have important work to do, and that you don’t have all the time in the world. As she wrote in the beautiful letter that graces the front of our bulletins, Paula is planning on a long episcopate. But even the longest episcopates aren’t that long, and every bishop is tempted to spend inordinate amounts of time on work that may be important, but ultimately not fruitful. That temptation, I believe, is the Evil One’s most successful strategy in keeping The Episcopal Church small and as a result, less effective and impactful than we could be. Which is a shame, and, I daresay, a sin.

Paula has also been a life-long student of leadership, watching leaders around her and learning from their example and their mistakes. Thus she comes into her episcopate seasoned and wise. Which is to say that what the Spirit is about to do in and through the laying on of hands is to bring to even greater fruition and power what has been true of her leadership for some time.

This combination of leadership capacity and awareness of time is crucially important in this moment in our church’s life. For like all who are resident on this planet, for those of us who love The Episcopal Church, and who, despite our church’s many historic and present-day sins, have found a way of following Jesus that has saved us; we who long for our faith communities to be compelling places of Christian life and practice not only for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren–well, suffice to say that we need to be about the work of adaptive change, and time is of the essence.

To complicate this process of transformation, we are a church blessed with a disproportionate number of visionaries and prophets, which is truly one of the most inspiring things about us. The shadow side of all our passion, however, is a woefully inaccurate assessment of our capacity to accomplish the many visions God has given us. Because we long to become the inspiring, visionary, prophetic church of our dreams, we tend to overcommit ourselves, jump from one compelling cause to another, set goals that we cannot accomplish, and then, if we’re not careful, fall into patterns of cynicism and despair that any lasting change in a system as flawed as the church is even possible.

What we need, in addition to the prophets and visionaries, are capacity builders–those invested in the slow, behind-the-scenes, far-from-glamorous work of faith formation, leadership development, community revitalization, and the sound stewardship of precious resources.

Blessed are you, Diocese of Chicago, for Paula Clark is both a visionary and a capacity builder–she always has been. She has a keen sense of priority, which means that she may say no to things more often than you would like, not because they aren’t important, but because they aren’t, in her estimation, or that of the collectively discerned understanding of the diocese, the most important things to focus her energies on at that time. But when she says yes, watch out world, for her yes will be robust and passionate, clear and focused. She will stay on course on the realization of the vision God has placed in your hearts, holding everyone around her accountable to the highest of gospel standards, as she holds herself.

Paula will also love and support you in ways that bring out your best. Because she is not afraid to try things and fail, and to learn from failure, she is quick to forgive and to encourage those of us around her when we fail. Trust me on this one, for I have failed spectacularly in Paula’s orbit, and she was always the first in line to help me get back up, learn what I needed to learn, and move on.

One final thing I’d like to say about you, Paula, which, again, I realize is obvious, but important to note given how long it has been since your election and all that you have gone through to get here, and that is you are called by God to this work, in this diocese.

In full disclosure, I did everything in my power to persuade Paula that remaining as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Washington would be more fun than being a bishop. It was selfish, I know, but surely you can understand why we didn’t want to lose her. Yet as the process unfolded, the call was so clear–from both an inward sense of what the Holy Spirit was stirring within her and what you, as the Diocese of Chicago, felt were the essential qualities you needed in your next bishop

Then when Paula got sick and faced such a long road of recovery, some of us wanted her to know that she didn’t have to do this, that she could gracefully step away, and everyone would understand. But no. Then when her husband Andrew’s cancer came to light and he died, we wondered if grief, at last, would cause her to step away. How much can one heart hold? But Paula never wavered, not once. Paula knows how to let go when she knows that’s what’s best, and she never let go of you, Diocese of Chicago, and of the call God placed on her heart.

There are two sides to this call. On behalf of the wider church, I would like to express our collective thanks and admiration for the leaders of the Diocese of Chicago. Your faithfulness, sacrificial effort, and clarity that Paula was, in fact, going to be consecrated as your bishop was an inspiration to us. Thanks, too, to colleagues from neighboring dioceses who were quick to step in and offer help; to the Presiding Bishop and members of his team for their guidance and support; and a special word of appreciation for Bishop Chilton Knudsen. We didn’t want to see you leave the Diocese of Washington either, but you were also clear that this was God’s call, a chance to serve your home diocese, and in support of Paula, whose leadership qualities you long championed and supported.

Friends, you hold in your hands a worship bulletin that, alongside the gifted liturgists and musicians leading us, Paula has crafted from beginning to end. Every prayer, each Scripture passage, the musical selections reveal something of her heart, the intimacy of her prayer life, and her commitment to Jesus’ way of love and justice in this world. Keep your bulletins close. Put them near the place where you pray, not only as a memento of this day, but as a source of solace and inspiration.

For through its pages shines another spiritual quality that Paula brings to everything she does, that is also true of this diocese and will surely be an abiding feature of your years of ministry together–and that quality is joy.

Paula and I would sometimes touch base after our respective Sunday visitations across the diocese and reflect on what we called “the joy quotient.” How high was the sense of joy in worship? It became a critical diagnostic for us in working with clergy and congregations, for the relative presence or absence of joy revealed so much of what was or wasn’t possible in that place, far more so than size or budget or sophistication of programming. It is a telling diagnostic for all of us in our Christian life and witness.

My last word is both an exhortation and a prayer: shield your joy. Protect, cherish, and nurture joy in one another. Make space for it. Where it is lacking, pray for the gift to be given you, so that it might continue to be, or become once again, a defining characteristic of your ministry. Without it, the church is a dreary place, and life itself becomes a routine of daily obligations. But Jesus came–he lived, died, and rose from the dead–so that our joy may be complete.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, Paula Clark.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, Diocese of Chicago.
Live as if everything we’re saying here in the service is true, because it is.
Nothing can separate you from the love of God revealed to us in Jesus.
The One who has called you is faithful, and praise God, so are you.