This is the sermon the Very Rev. Ronald D. Pogue preached at the ordination to the priesthood of the Rev. Paula Jefferson, December 15, 2020, at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Keller.
December 15, 2020
Today, Paula, we gather as the Church to affirm your Christian experience, which has led you to discern and accept the call to the Sacred Order of Priests. You stand before us better equipped and with a richer experience than many people receiving Holy Orders in this Church. And, yet, I’m sure you will agree that you stand here not because you feel you deserve it, not because you feel you’ve earned it, and not because you feel you’ve accomplished something, but because the grace of God has brought you to this place. It is a humbling experience. And we share that feeling – all of us who are baptized and all of us who are ordained. We often wonder why God would choose us.
Like Isaiah, you have heard God’s call and in fear and trembling you have answered, “Here I am; send me.” We don’t usually think of Jerry Garcia as a theologian or a prophet, but his words sum up the feelings of Isaiah and all the prophets, apostles, martyrs, and ordinary folks like us in the presence of the One who calls. Jerry said, “Somebody has to do something. It is a pathetic thing that it has to be us.”
History and experience have shown us that ordained bearers of the of the Word of God need to be equipped with a variety of skills and to be exposed to a variety of practical and academic disciplines in order to be as effective as possible in declaring the message God wants the world to hear. It is an important and urgent message! And we never really feel fully equal to the task. No matter how long we are at it, no matter how long the process leading to ordination or the years following ordination, most of us in Holy Orders would be in agreement on one thing: we seldom feel completely prepared and never feel worthy of the calling.
Yet, we stand on the shoulders of those who went before us as we continue to declare this ancient apostolic message of love divine. They felt their inadequacy, too. But, like us, they felt the urgency of that message in their day and went to great trouble to be faithful witnesses. They were persistent and so we must be.
William Carey, who has been recognized as the father of modern missions spent seven years in India before he baptized his first convert. Adam Clark spent forty years writing his commentary on the scriptures. Medical missionary and explorer David Livingstone served 14 years in Africa before he witnessed any results. Think of the first Episcopal Bishop of Texas, and other clergy and missionaries who came to the Western Frontier of America. They came from established cities with an entirely different set of cultural norms than what they encountered out here. They must have felt unprepared and inadequate to the task. And yet they did their part to herald God’s reign and to make disciples in this part of the world. It is a different place today, but we still feel inadequate.
And so, to be faithful in our witness, we, like them, have to be persistent. We can look back and see how much has been accomplished for the redemption of the world. It is amazing that people like Paul and Timothy declared the gospel in a relatively small region of the world and today there are believers everywhere. But, if we were to be able to look at things through the eyes of prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints through the generations we might see how slow and painful that progress appeared to most of them.
To be faithful in our witness, we have to ask for God’s help to always be mindful of the big picture. Today, we recall St. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). As Priests, it is our duty and privilege not only to exhort the people given into our care to “think” about these things, but also to do something about those thoughts, to find those ways and places in which we are called to actively participate in God’s mission. Titus Presler, one of the outstanding scholars of Episcopal Church in the theology of Christian mission, has written, “Mission is not fundamentally something we do as Christians but a quality of God’s own being. It is not a program of ours but the path of God’s action in the world. The mission of the church, therefore, derives from the mission of God, and it has meaning only in relation to what God is up to in the universe. Already engaged in mission, God simply invites us to participate in what God is doing” (Titus Presler, in Horizons of Mission © 2001).
So, Paula, the message of God is to be proclaimed both in word and in action. An essential part of our proclamation of the message is to equip and empower others to do so as well. The mission is entrusted to the entire Church, not just to the clergy. St. Paul also wrote that some are called to be “pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:12, 13). This is the story we have inherited and today we are ordaining you and charging you with the duty to continue the story in those places and among the people you are sent to shepherd.
Once there was a woman who told stories. Her name was Scheherazade. She was a beautiful young woman of Arabia, taken by the sultan to be his wife. Alas, that was not a great blessing, for the sultan, a restless soul, had the habit of keeping his wives for only one night and having them killed the next day. But unlike her unfortunate predecessors, Scheherazade had the wit to save herself. On her wedding night she persuaded the sultan to let her tell him just one story. He became engrossed in her tale – and then she stopped in the middle of it! The sultan decided to let her live another day so that he could learn how the story ended. That night she finished the story – and began another one. And thus it continued for a thousand and one nights: Scheherazade kept death at bay by making up stories we call The Arabian Nights, A Thousand and One Stories, until at last the sultan realized that he loved her and kept her alive.
In a sense, the world is kept alive with the Christian story…and its adherents are kept spiritually alive in the telling and doing of the Gospel through Word and Sacrament, from pulpits and altars, in hospitals and universities, in thrift shops and food pantries. As with Scheherazade, the story is “to be continued.”
I wonder how you will do that? You’ve waited a long time for this day. But your waiting has not been passive. You have used the time to be further formed for the ministry to which you have been called. You have sought the grace of God to work in you to add maturity, to stir up the gift within you, and to humble you. You’ve endured some perilous times. You have given so much to others. Epictetus said, “No great thing is created suddenly, anymore than a bunch of grapes or a fig. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” Things like ordinations should occur when we are ready according to God’s time, Kairos, not according to Chronos, linear time. Kairos determines when babies are ready to be born, fruit is ripe, seasons come and go, and Christian souls are ready to receive the transforming gift and grace of Holy Orders. Now, Paula, the Church has discerned that the Holy Spirit has been at work forming you into the very servant God wants you to be, not for your sake, but for the sake of the Gospel! So, today, the Church entrusts you with Holy Orders.
Always remember that these Orders belong to the Church. You must be the steward of them. In the pulpit, at the font, at the altar, and in the mission field around you, in word and in action, declare the message that has changed your life. We hope you will never reach the point where you feel you have finally arrived and are fully equipped and that you will always stand before God as if it were the first time. Never lose the awareness the urgency of the story. Be persistent. Equip the saints. No matter how often people want to tempt you to lower the standards and reduce the expectations, do what God is calling you to do in a way that challenges us to offer ourselves to God’s honor and glory and with excellence.
Once again, Jerry Garcia has different words to get the point across: “You don’t merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be the only one who does what you do.” That’s because you are unique. You are God’s child. You are God’s servant with a story to tell and a mission to pursue among God’s people. Through your ministry, the story of Christ, the story of God’s yearning for a relationship with God’s human children, the story of your personal pilgrimage of faith, and our story, will be continued, until all is praise, and all is light, and with those who have been faithful stewards of that story before us, we hear the Lover of our Souls say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”