So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
Numbers 11: 16-17; 24-25
Give judgment for me, O God,
and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.
For you are the God of my strength;
why have you put me from you?
and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me,
and bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling;
** That I may go to the altar of God,
to the God of my joy and gladness;
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. 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. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
An ordination liturgy in the Episcopal Church might be compared to a sonnet, a poem written within a tightly structured form. In its constancy, the form provides a scaffolding that sets parameters for our expression and experience. Yet within it, there is room for individual expression which makes every ordination unique, reflective of the persons who have long prepared for this moment.
So it is that while we all are taking our part in a ritual that tells us a lot about The Episcopal Church’s beliefs and spiritual practices, if we pay attention, we can also learn about the two who are poised to take their place as priests among us through the choices they have made within the liturgical structure given them.
We know, for example, who some of the most important people are in their lives, which is all of you gathered here, and in particular, those whom they asked to take on a specific role in worship. Having spent considerable time with both of them, I can attest to how much you mean to them, as well as countless others who cannot be here in person but are cheering them on from a distance, some from the other side of Jordan. They would be the first to say that they would not be here were it not for you, and they are grateful to the point of tears.
Each hymn has meaning for David and Catherine, so as you sing, you might ponder what that meaning might be for them, and what the music and lyrics tell us about their experience of God.
The Scripture passages that we’ve just heard and that you have before you in written form, while chosen from a set canon for ordination services, give us clues as to their understanding of ministry. These biblical themes have particular resonance for them, so let’s review them with Catherine and David in mind.
What is the message for them and from them in the passage from the book of Numbers, an ancient text that tells of God’s response to Moses when he was exhausted, overwhelmed by the burdens of his people, and, as we might say from a 21st century perspective, overfunctioning like crazy? God pointedly demonstrates to Moses that he is not alone in the work, and that it all doesn’t depend on him, by taking some of the spirit of leadership from him and distributing it among 70 others. There’s a clear message here, that what we are about today is not for the two of them alone, as if they were to carry alone the work and responsibility of being the church. No, the Spirit is shared among us. And so as we pray the specific prayers for David and Catherine a bit later on, don’t be surprised if you feel something, too, for the Holy Spirit may very well descend upon you, or rise up from within you. You may not feel anything, but it could happen anyway. May you open your hearts to receive all that the Spirit offers.
Moving onto Psalm 43, we hear an entirely different message, one of loneliness and personal lament, of intense longing for the presence of God. It concludes with a personal exhortation, as if the psalmist were looking in the mirror and saying to him or herself to the last lines:
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God,
Who is the help of your countenance, and my God.
David and Catherine both know what spiritual loneliness feels like, and so do you. Following Jesus does not give us immunity from times when our spiritual lights go out and we’re left to navigate as best we can. The faith required of us then is powerfully expressed in a song by Mark Miller, with words written by an unknown captive of a German concentration camp:
I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God even when God is silent.1
This is faith.
Shifting tones and themes quite dramatically, we hear in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians a call to live a hopeful, joy-filled life, by placing our intentional focus on what is good and lovely and true. This is an especially important spiritual practice in a time when the world is falling apart and it’s so easy to be astutely critical of merely everything and everyone. It doesn’t take much energy to be negative–not one ounce of creativity or effort is required. But to be joyful in the truest sense, and to lean toward hope in the midst of despair–that takes effort. Catherine and David are well aware of the issues facing us as a species, a nation; in the communities we live in and in our churches. They are committed to practices of hope and joy, not in a blind or Pollyanna sense, but rooted in their experience of God’s capacity to bring life out of death, and of light that illuminates even the most obscure path.
Lastly, we come to a gospel passage in which Jesus likens his relationship to us as a good shepherd who cares for his sheep and knows each one by name. Now I’m a city girl, so the shepherd/sheep analogy is a bit of a stretch, but of one thing David and Catherine are quite clear: they are not the good shepherd. In this analogy, they, like all of us, are among the sheep listening for the voice of our shepherd, entrusting ourselves to his guidance and care. Now those of us called to leadership in the church as priests–and bishops, for that matter–are also pastors, and thus we have a shepherding role, but it is always a subordinate one. Even those of us who carry a shepherd staff around as if we would have a clue of what to do if we saw an actual sheep, must always remember who is the true shepherd. We take our lead from him; we listen for him. And so this service, for all its focus on these two extraordinary people, is more about him and his work in and through and among us. Their role among us is to listen to him and follow.
Now I’d like to speak now to David and Catherine directly, drawing from yet another biblical text. It’s one in which Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples and wants to give them assurance for the future: “I still have many things to say to you,” he tells them, “but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13)
As we discussed yesterday, there is so much about what lies ahead that we cannot predict or control, some of it truly worrisome and some more life-giving than we dare to hope. But on this solid ground we stand: Jesus’ promise to be with us to the end of the age, and his assurance that the Spirit will give us what we need to meet the future with wisdom and courage.
Jesus has more to say to you. There is more for you to learn. There is more for you to understand and know and ponder than your hearts and minds can hold today. What this rather obvious statement suggests is that while you have completed a long and transformative formation process, you are embarking on yet another leg of a life-long journey as a learner. And hear this: in a spirit of humility, a leader can learn from anyone. In a spirit of curiosity and openness, a leader can glean wisdom and insight from anywhere. You can learn from the communities you serve and the ones you would rather avoid; from the people who inspire you and from those whose worldview you reject; from your friends and your adversaries–and from the fact that you have adversaries; from your accomplishments and your failures. Jesus will speak to you through it all, telling you what you need to hear when you can take it in.
As I bring this to a close, I’d like to return to the image of a sonnet, for indeed priesthood in The Episcopal Church is more like a sonnet than free verse. There’s a lot of structure–arguably too much–but there is room within it to bring all of yourself into this ministry. We not only want you to do that, we’re counting on you to, and so is Jesus. After all, the one to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid has called you. So be bold, as well as humble.
Finally, I want to publicly thank you both for having enough faith in this church to dedicate your vocational life to it. You do this with your eyes wide open, knowing how far we are from God’s dream of Beloved Community, and yet having seen enough of who we are at our best to realize what a gift Christian community can be.
In all our strengths and vulnerabilities, failings and glorious possibilities, we have all said yes to the One who calls us all by name. There’s far more at work among us than we will ever know. And your ordination, and mine, rests on this audacious truth: We will enter the Kingdom of God together, we won’t enter it all.