It is a bit daunting to speak at the installation of Cathedral canons on the eve of All Saints Day. We are, after all, installing these people only as canons. Their sainthood will have to be decided by a higher authority. Nevertheless, I quail in the face of a reading, from the Wisdom of Solomon, that speaks of the souls of the righteous in these words:
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.
Anyone who knows Washington National Cathedral well knows that the workload here can be heavy and life can be stressful. Still, it is hard for me to think of my colleagues as gold for smelting or lambs being led to the slaughter. In nominating Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty to the bishop and chapter, that isn’t precisely what I had in mind.
One of the drawbacks of having a dean who used to teach Anglican theology and polity is that every once in a while folks around here have to listen to a mini learned disquisition on the finer points of ecclesiology. (See me afterward for a translation of that sentence into plain English.) So indulge me for a minute while I talk about canons and what they signify.
Our English word canon comes from the Greek word kanon, which literally means “reed.” In the ancient Mediterranean world, Greeks and Romans used reeds for measuring sticks. So the Greek word kanon came to be applied figuratively as a standard of measurement. We talk to this day of the “canon of scripture.” When the Bible was put together, the earliest Christians understood the texts in the Old and New Testaments to be the canon, the measuring stick, by which we would gauge the inspiration and orthodoxy of other texts.
Now when cathedral churches developed, the word canon became applied to the clergy who served there. And the reason that word became the title of cathedral clergy was the same reason it was applied to the texts of Holy Scripture: just as the books of the Bible were seen as the standard for the measuring of inspired writing, so the clergy of a bishop’s cathedral were held up as the standards, the measuring sticks, for ministerial practice. In the intervening centuries, the title canon has come to be applied to clergy and now lay people serving on a diocesan or cathedral staff. And the lexical intention behind that title is this: it suggests that those people called canon are held up to the church and the world as exemplary. They are the standards of ministerial excellence.
Now I say this realizing that my four colleagues might at this moment begin to get swelled heads when I call them exemplary measurements by which the rest of us might take our bearings. We live in a culture that applies all kinds of standards and metrics from business and academia and even sports to human performance. Those standards and metrics have their place. But they are our standards and metrics, not God’s.
When I say that my four colleagues are exemplary, I do not mean to suggest that they are hyper-competent in worldly terms, though I know for a fact that they are very good at what they do. Rather, when I call them exemplary I mean that they represent, they exemplify something in the way they do their work and live their lives that can serve as standard for us all. In the terms of this Cathedral and its life, that something is a kind of worldly holiness. They know a hawk from a handsaw, as Hamlet says. And they know something else.
What Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty know is expressed a little farther on in that passage from the Wisdom of Solomon:
Those who trust in [God] will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with [God] in love,
because grace and mercy are upon [God’s] holy ones,
and [God] watches over [the] elect.
Like all human labor, work in a church can be challenging. The hours are long, the pay is modest, and ministry is as often as not greeted with resistance as it is with gratitude. But unlike much of the rest of the working world, those of us who work in the church get to come in here day after day and spend our time carrying out tasks that serve to advance our deepest values. Most people don’t get to do that. If you stop to think about it, the ability to spend your working life in the service of the Gospel is an enormous privilege, and the people I know for whom ministry is a joy are the ones who have been able to ground themselves in gratitude for that privilege. They understand that, when all is said and done, they are serving some One who is faithful, loving, and merciful, a God who watches over each one of us and the world.
As of tonight we have six members of our Cathedral staff who are canons of this Cathedral: Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty now take their place with Jan and Michael in the leadership of this place and their service as Cathedral ministers who set a standard for us all. That standard reflects not only their worldly competence but something more: that standard reflects the way they have internalized and so live out what the Wisdom of Solomon calls their continual abiding in God’s love. Tonight’s reading from Revelation 19:1-10 gives us a picture of the moment to which all our work and prayer and ministry is leading, that day at the end of things when all of us will stand around God’s throne to give thanks that God’s work of love and reconciliation and justice has been finished, and all can cry, “Hallelujah!, Amen!” That is the day to which all of us move forward together in hope. And it is in the ongoing service of God’s mission to bring that day about that all of us who serve the church live and work together in hope.
And so tonight: Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty. Tonight you take your place as canons of this Cathedral along with Jan and Mike. We look to you now as signs and standards of our own participation in the mighty work that God is doing in and through us all. My prayer for you and for us this evening is that you will continue to love and serve God and God’s church in joyous, liberating, and transforming ways and so help us all, when everything is finally said and done, to measure up. Amen.