Friday, April 24, 2009

Priest Sermon #1

Ordination.Priesthood.09 – Reno
We gather today as the Church to make a priest.
We spend years educating and spiritually guiding
a person before we ordain them.
All that preparation is essential,
but no matter how much theology someone knows,
or how wise they have become
or how adept at any priestly skill,
that will not make them a priest.

The seminary can award degrees, but it cannot ordain.
Only the church can do that.

We are rather like artists.
Some artists work in the medium of stone;
others in the medium of paint;
others in the medium of light, or sand, or sound.
We work in symbol and meaning.

We change the meaning and function of a cup
when we consecrate it to serve as a holy chalice.
We change an ordinary building into the house of God
when we consecrate it as a church.
Today we will change Jane’s meaning
– change what she represents, make her a sacred symbol.

What the priest symbolizes for us
is intimately connected to the sacraments.
But it goes beyond that.
There is no such thing as a “mere sacramentalist.”
The person who celebrates the sacraments
stands near a holy fire and is changed by its heat.
People sense the change.

When I was a parish priest,
more than once I was called by strangers
to be present for a death.

I would stand there mute and helpless,
without a clue as to how I might offer comfort,
until the death had occurred.
And the families expressed heartfelt gratitude to me
for being there – just being there.
As a priest, my presence represented something to them.

Ordination is one of the sacraments
because the priest’s simple presence is sacramental.
The ministry of the priest is to be a priest,
to serve as a symbol as surely as this altar does.

But the symbol is expressed in action.
And this is where it is essential for the priest
to do what priests do,
and to do what the other orders of ministry do
only rarely and when it absolutely cannot be avoided.

For example, the voice of prophetic justice
is primarily the province of the deacon.
From time to time, I hear priests waxing prophetic.
It is usually caused by indigestion
and is rarely to the glory of God.

Let the deacon be the deacon,
let the vestry be the vestry,
let the altar guild be the altar guild.
And if these folks are not doing their ministries
to the satisfaction of the priest,
well, the priest probably isn’t doing her ministry
to their satisfaction either.

Dissatisfaction with each other
does not justify overstepping our bounds
because nothing we actually do is as important
as the symbolic meaning of our order//
-- and overstepping bounds blurs the symbol.
So what does the priest do?
The priest gathers.
The priest gathers the flock
and leads them to good pastures.
She preaches, teaches,
and helps the people recognize each other as family.

The priestly ministry is first and foremost
the nurturing of a web of relationships.
And that leads to a very specific admonition.
Within any church community, Jane,
there will be those who love you
and those who hate you.
Your job is not to make them all love you.
Your job is to help them love each other.

So when you are attacked, and you will be,
you must have the courage and moral fiber
to take it and deal with it.
Never ever seek allies in a congregation
to defend you against persecutors
in a congregation.
A pastor does not divide the flock.
Let God be your defender. He’s better at it anyway.

Don’t worry over much about your approval ratings.
People aren’t responding to you
half as much as they are responding
to what you represent anyway.
If you forget about your approval ratings, you will be free
to practice priesthood as a spiritual discipline.
And if you practice this discipline faithfully,
the most remarkable thing happens.

There is a wonderful sentence in the ordination rite.
It says, “You are to love and serve the people
among whom you work, caring alike
for young and old, strong and weak,
rich and poor.”

If you practice priesthood as a spiritual discipline,
over time you will find yourself enjoying and appreciating
your people more than they enjoy and appreciate each other.
Your ministry will be to look at them with God’s eyes.
And then show them to each other.
The priest among the people
does the same thing the priest does at the altar.

You do not magically create the presence of Christ.
You point to the presence of Christ already there by grace.
Just so, the priest does not create the Body of Christ
out of a collection of ordinary people.

You look at the collection of ordinary people,
see Christ in them and say “Just look at each other.
Just look around and see God.
See God loving and serving.
See God lonely and hurting.
See God forgetting himself and falling into despair.
See God playing and laughing.”

Priests, look at your people with eyes of delight.
And tell people what you see.

Finally, I urge you, Jane, to be a priest in the public square.
By any means necessary,
be explicitly a priest wherever you go,
because that is the unique way you spread the gospel.

I don’t preach on street corners,
but people at the counters of diners
in coffee shops and bars, at the gym where I work out,
these strangers want to know about my faith.
They want to know about church.
If they know I am clergy they ask me,
because our culture permits them to ask me questions
that are otherwise taboo subjects.

Please, look at the people in our post-Christian society.
Look at the people here in Nevada
where our suicide rate is twice the national average
and our deaths for alcoholic liver disease
are 1.7 times the national average.

Remember the gospel lesson for ordination.
“When (Jesus) saw the crowds,
he had compassion for them,
because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd.

Then he said to his disciples,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;
therefore ask the Lord of the harvest
to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The people outside our walls
are dying of a spiritual famine.
They are harassed and helpless.
The disciples have prayed
and the Lord has sent laborers into the harvest.

There is no time for modesty or reticence.
If Christ did not bring a unique word of hope and healing,
I don’t know what difference
his life, death, and resurrection have made.
But if he did bring a unique word of hope and healing,
that word has been entrusted to us to share
with the broken world.

Being the bearers of God’s good word
does not make us special or privileged.
It makes us obligated.
So be strong, be of good courage,
dare to speak the truth no matter how beautiful
it may be.