Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ordination Sermon

[Following is the text of the sermon preached at my ordination to the priesthood on Saturday, January 6, 2007 at St. John's Episcopal Church, Los Angeles.]

Epiphany Ordinations 2007 – Diocese of Los Angeles
Sermon by Bishop Michael Ingham (Diocese of New Westminster)

What an awesome day to become a priest! Epiphany: the manifestation of Christ to the world. This is the day Jesus became known beyond his immediate family and people: the day you become his servants and apostles to continue that work.

And priesthood is an awesome calling. Despite all the negative publicity of the last few years, priests today still enjoy an extraordinary level of public respect. Priests have access to people's lives, to their homes, to their stories and confidences, in a way no one else in our society does. You will meet and get to know people at every level of your communities, from the poor to the rich, from the marginalized to the powerful, people of every language, race and nation. We are the profession that still makes house calls. We are welcome at births and deaths, marriages and times of sickness. We help people through deep moments of sorrow and high moments of joy.

This access to people's lives is not given because of us. It is given because of Christ. A priest is the servant of Christ, and when people invite us into their homes and lives it is Christ they are expecting to receive. Along with the office of a priest comes an authority we have not earned. It's an authority given to us by the people themselves because Christ has entrusted us with his ministry. An ordained person is therefore to be an icon of Christ, and this is a very sacred trust indeed, a trust being given to you today by the Church, a trust you must honour and preserve with dilligence. For when we fail in our office, as some of us do, it is Christ himself who suffers as well as those who have placed their trust in us in his name.

A priest is given authority upon ordination, but earns respect through being part of a local community. As you work among people, as you become involved in their lives, as you become the holders and keepers of their sacred stories, you will see the power of God come alive in new and astonishing ways in your community. The greatest reward you will ever receive as a priest is when someone says "you were there for me when I needed you. You helped me when I had nowhere to turn. You will never know how important you were in my life."

The rewards of priesthood are not material. They are certainly not financial. The deep satisfaction is to know that at a given moment, in the life of a particular person or community, you were the incarnation of Christ to them. You were the love of God made real. You changed their darkness into light through the grace of God working in you. There will be no rewards greater than these, at least not in this world.

This is an extraordinary privilege you are being given today. But it's a privilege given in uncertain times, in tumultuous times. We live in a polarized world, and a polarized Church. We are deeply divided over important matters – war and peace, poverty and wealth, justice and power, moral values, the sustainability of the planet on which we live. You are being ordained today into all the chaos and tumult of these divisions. And your job in this situation, as in every situation, is to be an icon of Christ in the midst of it all. In these deep discontents, you are to be the love of God. What does this actually mean?

When I became a bishop someone told me that the job of a bishop is to sit on the fence while keeping both ears to the ground. I tried this for a while, and found it rather painful. I asked myself, is this what it means to be an apostle of Christ in contentious times? Did Jesus look for any fence to sit on? Did Jesus make the mistake many of us do, which is to become managers instead of leaders, program directors instead of teachers, mediators instead of pastors, or even worse, avoiders of conflict for the sake of a spurious peace?

There are two temptations facing leaders in a time of crisis. One is to find where the nearest fence is and get on it as fast as possible. The other is to become one of the protagonists in the conflict, one of the poles in the polarity, pulling as hard as you can against the other side.

I remember one time I started a new job in a parish and one of the church wardens said to me, "In our church everyone is encouraged to join a group. There are two main groups, Group A and Group B. The purpose of Group A is to undermine Group B, and the purpose of Group B is to sabotage Group A." This was the parish in which I found myself back then, and I've seen many of them since as a diocesan bishop, and I am sad to say this is the Communion in which we find ourselves today.

What does God require of us in such a time, in such a Church. Fence sitting? Divisiveness? Are these the only options? It's important to ask, what does God require of us? It's not the same thing as asking what the Church might need, or even our local communities. Despite what some might think, you are not being ordained today to save the Church. That is God's responsibility. You are being ordained to be an icon of Christ and to further the Reign of God in people's lives and in this world.

What God needs, and has always needed, from us is faithfulness to the witness of Jesus Christ; the Jesus who came to serve and not to be served, the Jesus who said 'put away your sword: those who live by the sword will die by the sword', Jesus who had compassion upon the lepers and the widows and even unbelievers, Jesus who refused to condemn the sexual sins of his day but roundly condemned the spiritual ones, Jesus who created new kinds of community among people the world rejected, Jesus who loved at the cost of his own life, and died that we might live.

This is what God requires of us. But there is even more. Priests are not merely local. You will be priests of the whole Church, the whole family of God stretching throughout time and space. You will be priests of the Church visible and the Church invisible. We live in a time in which the pressures in our world are driving people apart and into separate camps, where it takes great courage to stand in the centre. We live in a time of extremism and rising fundamentalism. And there are different kinds of fundamentalisms we have to deal with, not just one. There are religious kinds, and secular kinds.

You know that religious fundamentalism is growing in every major faith tradition, including our own. Religious fundamentalism is based on fear – fear of change, fear of loss, fear of the future and what it means to personal or tribal identity. When people see all their anchors being pulled up, and the world they know set adrift upon uncertain seas, they re-assert old dogmas, old traditions, and insist that God demands all this to stem the tide of change.

In itself this is understandable. It is a natural human reaction. But it is a human reaction and should not be confused with God's action. And one of the jobs of a priest is to know the difference between God's action and human reaction, and to help people avoid the mistake of confusing one for the other.

Secular fundamentalism is quite different, but no less real. This is the distorted view that we are sufficient unto ourselves, that all we need is an effective marketplace where all our human problems can be resolved to everyone's mutual profit. It is the view that everything important in human life can be measured, that everything significant can be quantified - by economic indicators, for example, or the expanse of our lawns - that the purpose of human life is to maximize individual well-being, and that people are to be valued by their success in the market place as the principal indicators of their human worth.

I would say this is the dominant religion of the West today. It's the culture we live in, the air we breathe. So we have these two fundamentalisms – one religious, one secular; one based on fear, the other on pride: one that has tried to co-opt and capture God, and one that has tried to banish God – and in the midst of this our priests and leaders have to be not just pastors but also prophets, not just comforters but also sounders of the alarm. We need from our priests, and indeed from all the baptized and faithful members of our Church, the leadership and vision to set us free from captivity both to false religion and to false ideologies alike.

Fear and pride are the very opposite of biblical values. They are not what God wants nor what God offers us through Jesus Christ. Our Scriptures bear witness to a Son of God whose very incarnation sets us free from idolatry, free from false attachment to bad religion and to unsustainable economic systems. Genuine biblical spirituality opens us to truth from any source so long as it incarnates the compassionate grace and mercy of God who has created all people as inter-connected, members one of another; as St. Paul says, to be one with each other and with the earth that supports us.

Kenneth Leech, a great Anglican writer, says genuine Christian orthodoxy is subversive, not conformist, it overturns human convention in the name of divine wisdom, it is not dogmatic but transformative, it doesn't fit into patterns of domination and exclusion but stands against them for a radical inclusion. Christian orthodoxy is not a tribal theology, a God-on-my-side sectarianism. It's a global vision of a world united in its very plurality, a world at one in its respect for difference and its deep commitment to justice. This is not the narrow orthodoxy of fundamentalists and demagogues, nor even may we say of some archbishops and primates. It's the radical orthodoxy of Jesus, grounded in his incarnation as the Son of God, who also lived in dangerous and polarized times and who refused all its temptations of avoidance and power.

We celebrate today the visit of strangers from a far country to the manger in Bethlehem. They were not Jews, and certainly not Christians. They are called in Greek "Magi." This is wrongly translated as 'wise men' and even more wrongly translated as 'kings.' They may well have been wise, but they were not kings. We do not even know if there were three of them because we are not told that.

In the ancient world a magos was an astrologer, an observer of astral phenomena, and also a priest. So the strangers who came to visit Jesus were priests from a far country, priests from another religion, scientists of their day who had observed something quite unusual in the stars and decided to pursue it. They were scientists open to the religious meaning of the universe. There was space in their understanding for God. They did not function with a closed, mechanistic view of reality. They made no separation between the spiritual and material dimensions of existence. They were seekers of knowledge, both divine and earthly, and they were willing to pursue it wherever it might lead. That's what we need from you, the priests of our Church.

And they trusted their dreams. They were guided by their dreams. St. Matthew tells us their dreams were reliable guideposts that led them safely home. These were remarkable scientists, were they not? Attentive to the mysteries of the universe, alive to their own inner voices, to the whisperings of God in the non-rational world.

This is what God needs of our priests today: people who have a deep trust of God, people who have a deep hope despite all the evidence of tragedy, people whose spirituality has set them free not shut them down, people who are acquainted intimately with the mysteries of the inner life and can show others the way to the very heart of God, people of prayer, people of courage.

[Sari, Joseph, Gabriel, Michael, Martha, William, Sarah, and Colleen, please stand up.]

You are about to be given one of the greatest gifts of your lives. It's a gift that will test you to the very limits of your humanity. It's privilege few others in our society can understand. It's a sacred responsibility that – if you are truly called to it - will not burden you, but set you free in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

Take this gift and be an icon of Christ to us all. Be the love of God that people long to have in their lives. Be pastors and prophets not only to your local community, but to the world and all the people that still long for fulfilment, justice and peace.

Push the tradition forward if you must, but always stand within it. Remember it is not your authority you carry but that of Christ himself. Do no harm in his name. And above all else have courage: courage to build up, courage to draw the circle wide, courage to resist your own fears, courage to let the grace of God flow freely in you. My prayer is that your ministries may set you and all of us free, and that your dreams always lead you safely home.

Source: Ingham, Michael. “Epiphany Ordinations 2007,” The Episcopal News, Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, 17 January 2007, (17 January 2007).

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