Thursday, July 16, 2009

YEAR OF THE PRIEST - An Ordination Sermon from Dr John Heidt

It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit. John 15:8

Slowly and solemnly, the priest with his two deacons ascends the steps to the altar - not just the three steps that you find in many Episcopal Churches, but more than a hundred steps up a great pyramid. And the priest is not wearing a peculiar hat with a pom-pom and several blades attached to its sides, but a gorgeous headdress of gold and silver and long multicolored feathers cascading down his back. Nor does he wear a long black skirt, or if he happens to be a Canon or Rural Dean, a skirt with edges splashed about in scarlet. His chest is bare, painted all over with mystic symbols and sacred signs. He reaches the top of the pyramid and stands beside the altar while his deacons strap down on its hard stone surface the young, beautiful sacrificial victim. A hush comes over the crowd. Then the drums begin to roll, the organ plays and the trumpets blare forth, as the priest takes the ornate ceremonial knife, lifts it far above his head, then plunges it into the chest of the victim, and with the other hand reaches in and pulls out her still beating heart and holds it high for all the people to see. A great shout of jubilation rises from the crowd; another victory for their God, another sacrifice complete.

Well, whatever else you may want to say about it, for dramatic effect it certainly beats what we do here at St. Laurence Church Sunday after Sunday. Here we seem content with such simple and ordinary things, actions with no apparent significance or real importance; perhaps, if we dare say it, actions that even seem a bit monotonous at times - a dash of water over a baby's head, little bits of tasteless bread, small sips of wine, a smudge of oil on peoples' foreheads, outstretched hands in blessing or absolution. And that's just about it. That's about all we have to offer. We have no other tricks up our sleeve.

And we ask ourselves, is it enough? Don't we need something more? Actual childbirth seems much more thrilling than rebirth at the font, and when I am hungry I go to a restaurant or to the grocery store rather than to Communion; if I become ill I am much more likely to call my doctor than to tell my priest.

We are tempted to turn to our priests and ask them to give us something more dramatic, more impressive, more important and significant. And, oh, how easily we priests fall for it. Like everyone else, we all need to be needed; we need to think that what we do is really worthwhile. So we search around for something that can make us feel that we are men among men, something that our friends will appreciate, something our families will respect, perhaps even something that will strike fear into the hearts of our enemies. We go to the politicians' platform and try to become a great orator or defender of social justice and human rights; we borrow the professor's books in the hope of becoming a great scholar; we envy the psychiatrist's couch and try to pass ourselves off as cheap social workers or psychological counselors. Perhaps we attempt to make a reputation for ourselves, following in the footsteps of the carpenter and architect, by building or repairing lots of churches. And if all else fails, we can always imitate the local electrician and always turn on the lights or adjust the air conditioning.

Now all these things are perfectly good things for a priest to do - if he has the time. Paul after all was a tent maker, and Peter was very involved in the commercial fishery industry. Yet it was not for these things that we were ordained, and it should not be for these that we are paid.

There are only three things your priest can do that no one else can do. He can take those little pieces of tasteless bread and small sips of wine and turn them into the body and blood of your God; in God's name he can shower divine blessings upon you; and he can forgive you your sins.

At first this sounds great, but when you come to think of it, what are these things but lunacy at best and sacrilege at worst? With the ancient Jews we want to cry out, "This is blasphemy; who but God can forgive sins?" And we ask ourselves, how dare my priest think that only he can bless us when our own children say such a divine blessing before our family meals? And who but a superstitious charlatan or deranged magician can possibly think that he can turn bread and wine into God's body and blood?

We ask our priest: "Who do you think you are, anyway, a little God, another Jesus Christ?" And, as hard as it may be to believe and more difficult to understand, the answer must always be a resounding yes. Your priest is another Christ, what we call an Alter Christus. He is the local embodiment of the presence of God among you - an icon, a window into the court of heaven, a walking sacrament of Jesus Christ.

Today we are making Lee Nelson one of these walking sacraments. And I can tell you right now that he is not going to do a very good job of it. I know this, because none of us do a very good job of it. The outward sign is smeared by our sins; the vision is clouded, the window misted over. You are right to demand much of your priest, but do not expect much in return. He has nothing to give you but God; nothing to do for you, but give you back to Him. His task is to place you upon the hard surface of God's sacrificial altar, and then lead you in lifting up your hearts for God to see. For the world this will seem like not very much, but for us it is the gate of heaven and the way into the salvation of our souls.

(The candidate stands.)

Lee Michael Nelson, today you shall be empowered to do what is not given angels to do, to offer God to God. Every time you make that offering and stand before the altar of His sacrifice take all your people with you. Lay them on your heart and place your heart upon the altar. Some of them will not be very nice. Some you will not like, and several will probably not like you. It has always seemed to me a good thing to let people know that right from the beginning of our ministry among them. Yet, like them or not, you will be their father; care for them. And to those who are the most difficult, be the most merciful. Follow the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux when he said: "the merciful are those who are quick to see truth in their neighbor; they reach out to others in compassion and identify with them in love, responding to the joys and sorrows in the lives of others as if they were their own."

You are being ordained on the Feast of St. Bernard. He will be the patron Saint of your priesthood. Make him a model of your spiritual life. He became embroiled in the battles of the church, fighting her enemies both from within and from without, arguing successfully against the idiosyncrasies of Peter Abelard and preaching a great crusade against the Turks that failed miserably. I have no idea what battles you will be called upon to lead or inspire, or what personal attacks you will have to endure, but whatever they are and whether you win or whether you lose, fight them all for the love of God and His church and never for yourself.

Bernard was not a fighter by desire but a man of prayer who desired solitude. He never sought fame or preferment and refused several dioceses who wanted to make him their bishop. Be a man of prayer; find time for solitude. For only in this way will people be able to see Christ in you. Above all say the divine office regularly and faithfully; it will provide the framework for the rest of your daily activities.

St. Bernard memorized whole books of scripture. Let your prayer be grounded in scripture. Don't just read your Bible; don't just study the scriptures; be immersed in them. Come to think the way their authors thought. Be another Jeremiah; pray like the psalmist, have the mind of St. Paul. St. Bernard got embroiled in the affairs of the church because he was a man of obedience. Be obedient. This is not the same thing as being a yes man, but it does mean that you must not inflict upon your people your own private prejudices tastes or preferences, either pastorally or liturgically. While you are a curate, obey your rector. If you do not agree with him, listen to your Bishop. If you cannot trust your Bishop, go to the wider authority of the whole Catholic Church, East and West. But never ever impose upon your people your own opinions or clever ideas.

Today, you are being made an Alter Christus, another Christ. Never be ashamed of that fact or try to hide it from others. Wear your clericals wherever you go. Where you dare not wear your clericals, you should not go. This means that people may be surprised to find a priest in some strange places. When I was in England, some people used to say, "Oy, he may be the local vicar but he still goes to the pubs." I had to explain to them, "I go to the pubs because I am the local vicar." I am amazed at how few priests I ever see in shops or malls or bars. I wonder where they hang out? - or is it that they think priests should only be recognized in respectable upper middle class places? Of course, there are times when you will want to wear casual clothes, especially when you are working alone or are with people who already know you are a priest, or are on vacation. But remember that you can never take a vacation from your priesthood, that in one way or another, in one form or another, you are always offering God to the people and the people to God.

The road ahead will not be easy for you. I can assure you of that. In today's second reading, St. Paul warns us that there will be many obstacles thrown across your path. Like St. Bernard you will suffer disappointments, frustrations and betrayals. There will be times when you will wonder if it is all worth it, times when you are ready to throw over the whole thing as a bad job, when you think that surely there is something more important to do, some place where your talents will be more appreciated. Lee, when these times come, stand firm. Persevere! Never give up! You are being made an Alter Christus. Allow yourself to be a sacrificial victim. In the Harry Potter books the way to the land of wizardry is from platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross station. I can assure you that the author is right when she says that at that station there is only a brick wall between platforms 9 and 10. To the uninitiated, this wall is an impenetrable barrier, but to those who are willing to take risks, and if for you no barrier is impenetrable, that wall and all other obstacles thrown across your path will be none other than the gate of heaven and the way into the salvation of your soul.

(This Ordination Sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. John H. Heidt, SSC, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas on 10 Mar 2006. It was originally posted HERE.)


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