Friday, April 24, 2009

Priest Sermon # 2

Ordination.09.St. George’s, Austin
As we ordain Darla today,
we clothe her with the church’s authority
to offer a special kind of ministry;
and we invoke the Holy Spirit upon her
empowering her to do that ministry.
But what is it? What is this ministry she is to do?

There is an expression we still sometimes hear.
It’s a relic from the old days of Canon 9.
We sometimes say this priest is a “mere sacramentalist.”
That language has now been repudiated in Total Ministry circles.
It’s been repudiated because experience taught us
that isn’t really what happens.

There are two ways the Church has tried to make “mere sacramentalists.”
One is in big city Roman Catholic parishes.
A priest shows up early on Sunday morning and says Mass
for a congregation, but he does not know their names.
He doesn’t know their stories or what is happening
in the lives of their parents and children.
He says Mass then leaves without shaking their hands,
and rushes off to the next place to do it again.

That is a mere sacramentalist, but it is an impoverished sacrament.
It lacks something.
It lacks the human connection of the priest with the people.

We have also tried to create mere sacramentalists
in towns where the priest lives among her people,
knows her people, and shares their lives.
There something quite different happens.

Let me tell you the story of one such priest.
Jean-Baptiste Vianney was a young man in 19th Century France.
His career prospects were not promising, because – to be frank –
Jean-Baptiste was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

His family was at a loss for what to do with him,
but they had a card to play.
The Vianney family and the Bishop were old friends.
So they said to bishop,
“We have this boy who isn’t good at much.
Could you make a priest out of him?”
“Sure, no problem,” the Bishop said. “We are old friends.”

So off they sent Jean-Baptiste to seminary.
After two unsuccessful runs at that,
the professors wrote a letter to the bishop.
“Your grace,” they wrote, “we have tried,
and we have tried, and we have tried
with this young man.

But it is no use.
There is too much empty space between his ears.
We cannot educate him for priesthood.”

And the Bishop said,
“Ok, I am not surprised.
But his family and I go back a long way.
Here’s what we’ll do.
Just teach him how to say one mass.
Just show him how to hold his hands.
I’ll ordain him, but don’t worry.
I’ll send him to some remote village
where he cannot do much harm.”

And that’s what they did.
He was sent to the village of Ars to be a mere sacramentalist.
But it did not go according to plan.

He celebrated his one basic Mass with such deep reverence
- he listened to his people with such genuine concern
- -- he spoke with such simple, humble honesty
- that the villagers experienced him as holy.

Although it was quite a way to the next village, word spread.
People began coming from the countryside to visit him.
Then they began to come from all over France
to tell him their stories and to hear his words.

Now about his words, I have read them.
I have read his sermons.
They are – ok. They are a C+.
But he meant what he said and that’s what counted.

Once a pilgrim travelled from the farthest corner of France
to visit Ars and when he got back home,

What did you get out of it?”
He answered, “I saw God in the face of a man.”

So the Church tried to create a mere sacramentalist
who would not do much harm.
Instead, they got the Cure d’Ars,
Blessed Jean-Baptiste Vianney,
the patron saint of parish priests.

Nevada has had some of that experience.
The folks we ordained under Canon 9 were more gifted than Vianney.
That’s not the similarity.
What is similar is that we ordained them to be mere sacramentalists.
But the people in the pews saw through that non-sense.

The people in the pews recognized the sanctity
of Jean Orr, Judson Calhoun, Estelle Shanks, and the rest.
Any priest who stands at this altar like Elijah at Mt. Carmel,
to call down the fire of the Holy Spirit upon our offering,
will herself be scorched with holiness.

And with that holiness, comes a certain authority.
It will not do to pretend it is not there.
If we pretend it is not there, the flock
will be without a shepherd.
And it is likely that the authority will creep in unconsciously,
indirectly, and do actual harm.

I hope for Darla what I hope for all of our priests
-- that she will accept and wisely use the authority
of her office and her vocation
for the good of God’s people here in Austin.
I hope she will be a servant leader.

A servant leader doesn’t do all the work.
A servant leader doesn’t rule, doesn’t make all the decisions.
A servant leader listens, nurtures, and encourages others
to do God’s mission.
A servant leader helps other people to become servant leaders.

Someone said, “A servant leader is a person of character
who puts people first.”
She does not dominate. She inspires and encourages.
She does not exercise power. She empowers others.

The priesthood carries an inescapable authority.
But it is not the authority to give orders.
It is the authority to give permission to those
who cannot give it to themselves.
It is the authority to call forth worship leaders, eucharistic visitors,
teachers, healers, evangelists, and church gardeners.

The church is the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
We build up the Church by building up the people.
That’s the authority of the priest – the authority to build up.
Paul said it to the Thessalonians,
“Encourage one another and build each other up.”

That is the ministry we entrust to Darla today,
to gather the scattered,
to bring out the best in God’s people here,
to make them stronger, freer lovers of God
and of each other.
In that ministry, God is truly glorified.