At the Ordination of Priests
A Sermon Preached at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in the City of New York
September 18, 2021
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favourably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
What I remember most clearly about my ordination at the hands of the late Marvel Thomas Shaw, then Bishop of Massachusetts, were, literally, the hands of Marvel Thomas Shaw. As he prayed, “fill him with grace and power, and make him a priest in your Church” he gripped my head so powerfully and so tightly that I still felt it that evening at dinner, and into the next day. Sometimes, when I think about it, I feel it still, marking me indelibly. What I experienced must have been only a shade of what Isaiah felt when that seraphim, “having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar ... touched [his] mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’”
The blister from a burning coal on the tongue, the vice-like grip of the Bishop upon your head, these are merely two of the outward signs, the physical marks, not only of being called, but of being changed by that call into something new. Ordination changes us. Your diaconal ordination – which you shall also forever retain – set you on the threshold between the church and the world. You became an incarnation of a ministry of service, “just as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve,” to assist at the Eucharistic feast and make known and minister to the needs of the sick, the suffering, the hungry and homeless, and those on the margins of society.
As a priest, you cross that threshold, and you are no longer a liminal figure, but, body and soul, the Church’s very person. Burnt by that coal, touched by your bishop and fellow priests, with all that you are and all that you have you will now work, as the Prayer Book Ordinal puts it, paraphrasing Ephesians, to build up the body of Christ and equip the saints for the work of ministry in and through your labour of teaching, preaching, and the celebration of the sacraments.
Today’s Gospel and its setting in Matthew’s text, teach us more about what this priestly vocation, and our new identity, look like in action, but not, perhaps in the way we might at first think. Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” God sees that there is lots of work to do and that there are not a lot of people around who are interested in doing that work, so we need to find good workers. Similarly, there is lots of work for the Church to be doing and today three people are being made priests. Needs met. (Or at least we are moving in the right direction.) Seems simple enough. The problem with this interpretation is that the harvest of which Jesus speaks is not the day-to-day work of the Church as we know it. The harvest is, in fact, the unfolding Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus and continuing to work itself out even unto our own day. This harvest is the seismic shift that will see the priorities of the world, of self-interest and greed, overtaken by those of God, the movement in and through which death is defeated by Love. I don’t think, therefore, that those of us who serve and do the specialised work of the Church as priests are necessarily the labourers Jesus is talking about. We are to locate ourselves elsewhere in this story.
Jesus has been travelling around the country, and wherever he goes he recognises that the people, the crowds, the multitude are looking for something that they have not yet found, something of which they have not yet even conceived. He sees them “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” and “he has compassion for them.” The Kingdom of God is at hand and the people hardly notice. They are consumed by their own lives and, in this state, incapable of joining in as labourers in harvest of the Kingdom of God. They need to be taken out of themselves and they need help getting there, help from that shepherd who knows and loves the sheep, who will go after even one who is lost.
So what does Jesus do to help the people, and find those labourers? Well, we learn from what Jesus says next that he makes more shepherds. He calls the twelve disciples and commissions them to show the people what really matters, what life in relationship with the God of Israel is really like. They are to inspire the people to join in the work of the harvest. Today the whole world, including our City and State of New York, is still filled with the harassed and the helpless, people in need of being pointed in a Godward direction, of being invited into the work of the Kingdom of God, into work that engages them in the larger life of God.
This is our vocation. That is what our preaching, teaching, and celebration of the sacraments are all about. We gather the people, help them make meaning of their lives, understand that truly Cosmic forces are at work all around us all the time. First through baptism, and then in the continued celebration of the Eucharist, we incorporate them into the life of the Body of Christ, and inspire them to go out into the world and undertake the works of justice and love that make up the labour of the harvest, of the Kingdom of God.
I could just leave it there with the charge to cooperate with God in seeking labourers for, and sending them into the harvest, commending you for your willingness to cry, like Isaiah, “Here am I! Send me;” but I wouldn’t be giving you the whole picture. It would only be a hint at the life and ministry that lies before you and before each of us who enters into this vocation. In a funny way, it is analogous to hearing God tell Jesus that he is God’s chosen, God’s beloved son, and letting that suffice. Sounds good, but when you remember what happens to those whom God chooses, it becomes more nuanced. Today’s passage from Matthew, we must recall, is but an introduction to a lengthy discourse addressed by Jesus to the newly appointed disciples on how they are to carry out their ministry, and who and what they are likely to encounter along the way.
In this speech, which takes up the whole of the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus first sketches the basics of what they are to do: “preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” As if that were not hard enough, Jesus warns them that they face untold dangers in undertaking this project, advising them how they will need to conduct themselves: “Behold,” he says, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake.” What Jesus tells them next makes it seem as if he had, up to this point, been sugar coating his message: “I have not come to bring peace,” Jesus says, “but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.... He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; ... and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Seeking labourers for the harvest, therefore, is inherently perilous. It is in this way that we walk the way of the Cross, showing the world that there are still those willing to follow in Jesus’ steps and risk everything to guide people towards the Kingdom of God. We shall, like Jesus, come into direct conflict with those in authority. We shall encounter people whose values and whose purpose are the opposite of God’s and who seek to do us harm. In order for us to effectively do this work, Jesus advises us to act with love and kindness towards those we meet, but, at the same time, not to be naive. We are to watch out for those “wolves,” try to see the world and the people we meet as they are, not as we would have them be. With our eyes wide open, “speaking the truth in love,” we are to use all that is at our disposal, even all our wiles, to engage everyone we meet, help them see with new eyes both the present manifestations of the Kingdom of God and the promise of that which is to come.
In undertaking this vocation, in taking up the Cross, gathering up the Body of Christ, celebrating the sacraments, and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God, therefore, we are truly conforming our lives with Christ. Jesus says, the one “who receives you receives me, and [whosoever] receives me receives [the one] who sent me.... And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because [they are] a disciple, truly, I say to you, that person shall not lose [their] reward.” You will go out from this place today and be feted, most deservedly, by the communities that have supported you and sent you this day. At the same time, entering new places, meeting new people, and even encountering old friends, you take on the risk of rejection simply because you wear that collar, bringing the Body of Christ wherever you go. Jesus reminds us, however, that this vocation, this life, is essential to the proper functioning of the whole Body of Christ, and a integral part of the purposeful unfolding of the Kingdom of God.
So today is just the beginning. Today – Mary, Megan, and Heather – you are forever changed and made new, made priests, with all its responsibilities and rewards, along with all its dangers. Like that blister from the burning coal, or those fingers digging into my head (and hopefully yours), there are lasting consequences to your ordination in which your call is made real, made an outward and visible sign of God’s presence into the world. In just a few minutes you will be changed, and become a sacrament: immanent and active walking, talking, tangible proof that God’s transcendent Love surrounds us here and now. I can think of no better charge for you in this moment than Paul’s words to the Church at Philippi we heard a little earlier:
Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.
And so to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Constance and her Companions, 9 September 2021
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume