Sunday, January 15, 2017
The gospel this morning from John depicts the early events in the ministry of Jesus. The primary figure during this early period was John the Baptist. You may remember John from the season of Advent, and, then again, you may not. John was a radical prophet who left society to live in the wilderness. People flocked to hear John preach and to receive the cleansing powers of baptism in the river Jordan. His primary message was repentance of sin as he heralded the coming of God in new and powerful ways.
Like thousands of others, Jesus sought out John for his wisdom and the powers of his baptism. Jesus had a teacher. Jesus had a mentor. It’s easy to miss this fact, but it’s right there in John’s gospel. There is no biblical record of the influence of his father Joseph on the spiritual development of Jesus. Here in St. Joseph’s chapel, we have a dedication of this chapel in the entrance to Joseph as the “foster father” of Jesus. I love that. We do know that Jesus was a carpenter, and he probably worked closely with his father in their trade. But John is really the spiritual father of Jesus in the biblical record. We often think of Jesus as having a static power before God—that he knew everything as the Son of God before he started his ministry that changed the world. The gospel suggests otherwise as John’s witness pushed Jesus forward and inspired him as the messiah. Here is John’s testimony that Jesus is the Son of God.
“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
As I thought about John as a mentor to Jesus, I was reminded of a quotation from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman in his work Leaves of Grass. It’s about how our mentors push us to go further because of their teaching.
“I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher…
I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”
This morning I’d like to share with you the story of my own John the Baptist, the one who came before me and set me on my spiritual path. There are some people about whom you can say: Without this individual, I would not be here right now. For me that person was my only mentor, The Very Reverend William Power Clancey. He was a cathedral dean—a priest of the church--in San Jose, California, and he shepherded me through the process towards ordination in the church. It’s actually a politically difficult process at times, and Bill got me through the ecclesiastical maze. Bill Clancey—Father Clancey--was all about service: service to his country first as a marine, and later to the church as a priest. Bill was a father figure to me when I desperately needed one. He was also once a criminal lawyer for the Justice Department, along with being an Episcopal priest. Powerful abilities and identities could be combined in a single individual; I learned that from Bill. That was one of the many interesting things about him. He had significant talents that were employed full time in helping others. As a priest, he printed his pager number in the Yellow Pages. Does anybody know what a pager is? Probably not. But it was high tech at the time. Bill was nearly always on duty, ready to help a person in need. The joke was that he would always beat the ambulance to the hospital. But it was no joke to Bill. Semper fi –always faithful--was a way of life for him as a former marine. Former Marine: I love that term. Some would say that there is no such thing as “former marine.” You’re always a marine. Despite his service in the church, he was also never a former attorney. He was always a lawyer. My understanding of my own calling as a priest, teacher, and writer didn’t seem so strange when I watched Bill in action.
Help is the ordinary and extraordinary offering of the public servant; that your skills are to be used for the common good, not simply, or exclusively, for self-gratification and making money. Jesus and John both practiced this vocation as a form of sacrificial love. Bill was a lawyer and a marine and a priest all rolled into one, and he brought all of those experiences and abilities to the table. He certainly gave away lots of free legal advice—hundreds of thousands of dollars of free legal advice. He was a walking Legal Aid Society with a priest’s collar. As a marine, he fought in two wars. He was an enlisted man, fighting in the Pacific at the end of World War II. He came back as a captain in the Korean War, and he actually volunteered for Korea. He felt it was his duty. After the first war, Bill excelled as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. He called Berkeley “The People’s Republic of Berkeley.” Even though he was a lifelong Republican, he always loved Berkeley, California: the largest open air mental health facility in the world, he called it. Bill collected three UC Berkeley degrees, including a JD from Boalt Law School, and then another degree in divinity from the local seminary, where I also graduated. Four degrees in Berkeley. He worked for the Justice Department in Washington, and then as Assistant District Attorney of San Francisco. Bill had mad skills, and he even had a cameo in the movie Milk when a real interview with him was placed in the documentary footage of the movie starring Sean Penn. Bill once argued a case before the United States Supreme Court. Of course he did this case pro bono. That was his style, and he had plenty of it. When you looked into the face of this tough, wiry Irishman, you could see the swift turnings of a highly intelligent and playful mind. But you could also see the psychological scars of someone who had served in combat for years--and also the prosecutor who had sent people to prison, sometimes for life.
Six years ago, at the beginning of 2011, just about now in January, I was aware that something was wrong, in my world. There was some subtle change in the universe, like a change in the earth’s axis. Yes, sure enough, my mentor had reached the end of his life—Bill had died. He had “crossed the Jordan,” as Bill loved to say about the end of the journey for all of us. He lived eighty-five years, and nearly all of that time was in public service: both military and religious. Bill was an active e-mail guy, but he never made it to Facebook. He was one of the lucky ones.
Bill was born in 1926. He was initially the golden boy of his Irish family. However, a blot on his early record came when he was expelled from Milton Academy. The expulsion charge was initially kidnapping. Because the local bishop’s son had gone missing, the police had been alerted of a missing person--the bishop’s son was nowhere to be found. Bill and the boy had just gone into Boston for an afternoon away from campus; they were playing hooky. No one seemed worried about Bill being missing. After all, he was just another Irish kid among the Blue Bloods of Boston. When the boys were located back on campus that evening, kidnapping was dropped to mere truancy. But it was enough to send Bill packing, and out to New Mexico to finish high school. Throughout his life, he took pride in being the black sheep in his family. But for Bill, all adversity was just grist for the mill; it could and should make you stronger, wiser, a better human being. My theory is that it was at this moment of his development that Bill decided to be a lawyer. He did not believe he had been treated fairly. And he could prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt in a real trial and not some prep school farce. Bill loved a good legal battle all his life. The man could cut through red tape like a flame thrower, and I believe he preferred defending to prosecuting (though he was equally adept at both), especially if he thought someone powerful had abused his authority. Which happens often. I don’t particularly like conflict, but Bill didn’t give a damn about ruffling feathers. The world is full of injustice and mendacity. If you want to do something about it, powerful people will not like you. “Deal with it,” Bill would have said.
As mentioned, I know that I would not be here today without his expertise and constant stream of advice and wisdom, sometimes more than I wanted to hear, usually right on the mark. He knew I was a screw-up, but he brought something better out of my character, and for that I will always be thankful. I literally would not be standing here in this pulpit, or working on this campus, without Father Clancey. Bill was the person who taught me that you better have opinions, and you better be able to express them. There is nothing noble in pretending to be wiser than you are; or just hiding, being aloof, hanging around, playing the game, and acting a part without intelligent engagement and conviction. Bill would catch me, call me out, and challenge me to do better.
His one liners still echo in my mind. For a marine, he could be hilarious. He was a man of ready, constantly streaming wit. People who serve and protect this country include every kind of personality you can imagine. Father Clancey taught me that our duty in life is to make a difference; to make a difference to each other.
Our teachers and mentors make us reflect on the past, but John’s gospel is not about the past. It’s not about the future either. It’s about the sacred now, the golden present. My mentor is gone, but I carry him forward in my own life. Is my advice for each of you to find a mentor among your teachers and coaches? Yes, that’s part of my message. But the other is to make the best use of your talents for the good of others, the betterment of our society and this world. In the second half of the gospel, Jesus the student is now the inspired teacher, and disciples are flocking to him, as they once did to John. They ask Jesus, “where are you staying?” Jesus invites them with the words “come and see.” Bill Clancey taught me about what to do with my life, but he did more than that by his example. He showed me that my life is better understood as our one life together. How is your future unfolding in the present? What will you do with your time on this planet? In the words of Jesus: Come and see.