December 3, 2010, in honor of Nathan Ritter and David Carletta's ordination
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25 Phil. 4:4-9 John 10:11-18
Desmond Tutu once said, “There is nothing a Christian can claim of personal significance. Everything that I am, that I do, everything that I have ultimately is corporate...If you stand out in a crowd it is only because you are standing on the shoulders of others.”
This Episcopal service of ordination appears to make two individuals and their call to priesthood very significant and the focus of our attention. Just the opposite is true, actually.
We are here to rejoice in the new life Christ has given us. We are here to sing God’s praises and to pray for grace in our lives and in the lives of others. We are here to listen to the Word of God read in our midst. And we are here to dig into the Scripture a little bit to see how it can enlighten our journeys and inform our ministries.
Later, we will share a sacred meal together so that, as a community, we can feed the Body of Christ before we head back into a hungry world.
Oh yes, and before the Eucharistic meal begins, God willing, we will all participate in the ordination of Nathan and David to the sacred order of priests. Just remember, they are standing on the shoulders of all the Christian communities that have had a hand in their formation.
The readings we’ve just heard make clear that this business of leadership in the church is a communal affair. The only significant focus of our worship this evening is God. The readings make clear that there are some very important skills that a new leader should have in his bag of tricks.
Let’s begin with Moses.
Before Moses was told to gather the seventy elders, he complained bitterly to God that he couldn’t carry the people of Israel all by himself. “I am not able to carry all these people alone, for they are too heavy for me,” Moses whines. “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once – if I have found favor in your sight- and do not let me see my misery.” (Num 11:15)
Moses could be a little melodramatic. What God tells him is one of the most important lessons that a leader can learn: stop complaining and acting like a martyr and go out find some other leaders to help you. One of the most common traps that a priest falls into is thinking she must do this job perfectly, and absolutely must do it alone.
From the looks of it, Moses never even gave a passing thought to the abilities of his fellow leaders. They were right there under his nose. They were called ‘elders,’ which, when translated into Greek, is presbyteros, the word used to refer to the evolving role of a priest in early Christian writings.
Ignatius of Antioch, martyred in the year 107, wrote frequently of the threefold church order of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. While the roles of bishop and deacon were very clearly laid out, there was still much ambiguity around the role of a priest.
Like the elders selected by Moses, the earliest Christian elders functioned as an integral part of a community. They were communally a chosen people – a people destined to worship God continually, and to remember who they belonged to: God. Leaders served the purpose of reminding them whose they were.
The early Christian communities believed that the onus of responsibility and leadership fell on them all equally. The First Letter of Peter makes clear, “…for you are [all] a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” (1Peter 2:9)
It is a common misconception that our hierarchical structure in the Episcopal Church is intended to make some people holier than others. It may look that way sometimes. Just look at the regalia of tonight’s ceremony. Majestic vestments and props; regal processions; dramatic bowing of heads and laying on of hands; and heavenly voices singing with the king of all instruments – the mighty organ. It all hearkens back to medieval ceremonies.
All of this pomp and circumstance signifies a grand event that demands our attention. What is happening here tonight is not the crowning of two new princes, but the humble acceptance of our very human role in God’s magnificent Kingdom.
We, like the early Christian communities, go to great lengths to remember the holy presence of God in and among us. The medieval echoes of our ceremony serve to focus our attention on the ethereal and numinous nature of the risen Christ in our midst. Our senses are alerted to an altered reality. God is worthy of praise and adoration, and the primary reason for our being here tonight.
Our leaders are but trusted servants, fellow workers, and humble sheep among sheep; which brings us to the Gospel lesson for today.
The Gospel of John was written so that those who listened to the Word would “come to believe” that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and the son of God. The gospel’s cyclical nature winds in and around itself, kneading the listener into the dough of a new community, rising out of their Jewish heritage.
Theoretically, when we arrive at the tenth chapter about the Good Shepherd we have acquired certain listening skills. For instance, we have learned that the gospel itself was written to be the place where one actually encounters the risen Lord.
Like the apostles who first saw, and then believed, we readers of the Fourth Gospel have a real encounter with Christ through the words themselves. Because of the mystical and poetic nature of this gospel we can have an experience of Christ among us comparable to those who actually knew him.
When Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep,” (John 10:14-15) we recognize, once again that the words circle around themselves in direct imitation of the Prologue to John’s gospel.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2) The proclamation, “I am the good shepherd,” directs us to the nature of Jesus’ relationship with God his Father. Jesus was sent by God to be the only shepherd of God’s sheep.
In John’s Revelation we hear, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Rev 7:17)
All the illusions clergy have about being the good shepherd are misguided. In fact, they are dangerous. If any of us model ourselves on the Good Shepherd we run the risk of self-aggrandizement. We are not the Good Shepherd, Jesus is. Our attention is better spent on trusting God to guide our clumsy sheep behavior.
Like Isaac, offered on the altar as a sacrifice to God, Jesus lays down his life in the gateway of the sheep’s fold. No one can harm us without encountering Christ first. It is through grace that we count ourselves among Christ’s flock.
As our shepherd, Jesus seeks each of us out and calls us to our ministry in the church. We all have the responsibility of reminding each other that Christ is our shepherd, so we shall not be afraid.
This is such a paradigm shift from thinking that our pastors are supposed to be the good shepherds. In the Episcopal Church that I grew up in, we took for granted this skewed model of leadership.
As one of our professors at General Seminary said, the old model for ministers and congregations was, “My job is to minister and yours is to congregate.” So little was expected of us we were lulled into believing that we actually had no work to do. Just show up!
What would the apostle Paul think of this?
In the letter he writes to the church in Philippi, Paul is excited beyond belief that the community is working so hard without him. This is the model of leadership that we are trying to regain in the twenty-first century.
A good leader rejoices in the leadership skills of his community, and sends them out to do the same. Leaders raise up new leaders, who in turn raise up new leaders, who raise up yet more new leaders. And God rejoices.
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4) Paul reminds his friends that, like a shepherd with his flock, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (4:6)
With these words, Paul states the primary responsibility for every leader in God’s church: “In everything, by prayer and with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
Which brings us to the distinctly Anglican practice of prayer, the Divine Office. The Office marinates us in the psalms that were so dear to Jesus, and makes our prayer a deeply engrained habit.
The daily recitation of psalms and beautifully written Anglican prayer helps bring our focus back to the Word of God. In spite of the fact that there are so many other things you can get done in the time it takes to pray the Office, we believe that the activity of daily prayer is actually pleasing to God.
Praying the Office is pleasing to me because my soul becomes quiet as my mouth recites the beautiful words. The ordinands just promised that they
“believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”
What better pastime than to spend time daily with the words so necessary for our salvation?
When Paul says to imitate him, it is his immersion in prayer, coupled with the joy he finds in Jesus that he wants to see mirrored around him. Imitate a deep prayer practice, and seek the joy that comes from serving Christ and you will live into Paul’s idea of ministry.
All baptized Christians have a responsibility to lead, minister, and witness to their faith. We bear witness to Christ by leading lives of integrity and faith, always mindful that it is up to us to work for reconciliation in our world, and to witness to our faith in the risen Christ.
And now, David and Nathan, would you please stand up?
If you would, please, take a look around at whose shoulders you are standing on.
They have just promised to uphold you in your ministry. Remember that and hold them to it. You are here because of them.
And now, a reminder from the prophet Micah: “Remember all that the Lord requires of you; to do justice, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Heb 13:20-21)