Sermon preached at the Celebration of
The Rev. William Fleener’s 60th Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood
Thank you Bill for the honor of preaching today. You have been a special person in my life for over twenty-five years and so the opportunity to get to say “Thank You, Bill Fleener” comes as gift to me. You were on the Commission on Ministry when I began the ordination process helping take the edges off those first steps and giving me and many others a challenging, but safe and supportive place to land. You served at Grace, Holland for several years as a “sort-of-retired” (what does that even mean, Bill?) Assistant Clergy person when I was beginning as Rector. And you presided at Beth and my blessing over ten years ago, before it was even marginally cool to do so. And so this “Thank You, Bill Fleener” is something that comes from the heart today.
All of our hearts, actually. Safe bet for me to say, everyone? We’re all here because you, Bill, are a part of our stories; we’re here today because of the experiences of family and church and prayer and conversation and justice seeking through which you showed us something of our God and gave us something of ourselves too. And we are grateful.
Now sixty years is a very long time! That’s is one of the deep and profound conclusions at which I arrived this week. Sixty years is a long time, Bill! And Judy! That’s three thousand, one hundred and twenty Sundays, if anyone was curious or simply in need of some hard facts in all of this. Now I’d subtract some of those for the Sundays you took off, Bill, but I’m not sure there have been any! You seem to always be somewhere, Bill Fleener. You are always somewhere preaching about forgiveness, or inclusion, or unconditional love, or life-long learning, or the humanity of Jesus and the love and power of God, or how or how not to read Scripture. (I think I’ve covered at least most of the main themes there.) Recently you were rumored to have asked as an opener to your sermon with the Order of Julian whether or not they still burned heretics at the stake, which indicates to me that even given all of those years, you’re not done yet. So we’ll say three thousand, one hundred twenty . . . and counting.
And we all know that you don’t only work on Sundays, so the numbers of days served are even higher. You have worked tirelessly, Bill, visiting shut-ins, upgrading data bases (thank God there are people who do that!), literally feeding the hungry, granting absolution, marrying and blessing and teaching (mostly non-heretical things,) basically holding on to what is right and standing up for what is wrong in our church and in our lives. And if I had to summarize your ministry, Bill, it would sound something like that. You have helped us hold on to what is good and right, sacramentally, lovingly, and consistently — and you have stood up for what is wrong, passionately, faithfully, stubbornly (in a good way) in our church systems, in this world and in our lives.
You, straight-white-ordained- guy (which is not revealing anything people don’t already know and I’ve actually heard you use that phrase from the pulpit so I know it’s OK) you had options in terms of how much to get involved in the work that is change in the church and in the world. And you knew early on as far as I can tell, that there were sheep of all kinds who were hungry and deserved a place at the table. And you knew early on that there were disciples of all kinds, shapes and sizes and genders and orientations and ages who were called to minister in this church. And so you did the work that was your own work, and then you helped the church do the work that is our work: hours that have added up to weeks and months and years given to congregations, this diocese, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, Cursillo, Total Ministry, Integrity, and more – to local groups and efforts for whom extending a broader reach and embracing a broader flock was priestly, holy work of the people.
I think of it this way: you used your priesthood to make room for ours, Bill, all of our priesthoods lay and ordained together. You have used your priesthood to remind us all that we have one, a baptismal call to holy ministry in service to God and neighbor. And we’re grateful. You have these whole sixty plus years been living into the gospel story we heard proclaimed today.
Does Bill Fleener love, Jesus? I’d say yep –without a doubt. And I say it three times, loudly with exclamation points! Because I’ve been watching you Bill respond with your life. Does Bill Fleener feed the sheep? Yep on that too. Three times again loudly! Or better three thousand one hundred twenty times and perhaps that times about one million.
Now I want to close with a story. Last Wednesday I was telling the Grace folks at our mid-week Eucharist about this service today. This Wednesday gathering is a group of three to five regulars that ranges in ages from forty-something to seventy-something and they are there every week and they have been for years. And so when I told them about this anniversary celebration, one of them said without hesitation, “I think of Bill every Wednesday when we say the AMEN.”
Now I had no idea what she was talking about but she explained that when Bill was at Grace on Wednesdays he would hold a place of silence at the great AMEN in the Eucharistic prayer because he refused to say it by himself, or even to lead in that moment of proclamation. And so he’d wait for the people, that beautiful little flock, to jump in and claim that moment as theirs, as all or ours. And because we’re a pretty quick learn down there at Grace, it was very soon that the AMEN was loud and proud and it was theirs.
And so, Bill Fleener, to close, I will say that our “AMEN!” is stronger because of you. Our Amen is more humble, more honest, more real, more broadly, inclusively proclaimed because of you. And we are grateful. Thank you for holding on and for standing up. Thank you for feeding the sheep with all that you are.