Sermon delivered at the ordination of Dr. Jonathon Wylie to the sacred order of Priest, Friday, September 18, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of tonight’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 119.33-40; Ephesians 4.7-16; St. Luke 10.1-9.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight is your big night, soon-to-be Father Wylie (God willing and the bishop consenting), and already your ministry is in trouble. Instead of preaching at your ordination the bishop has called in the second string to preach. Perhaps you shouldn’t quit your day job quite yet. Or perhaps you’ve got even bigger fish to worry about. Cardinal Mercier in speaking to his ordinands once said, “Remember, God chose you to be a priest because he could not trust you to be a layman!” Maybe having a second stringer preach at your ordination is the least of your worries. I don’t know.
All teasing aside, it is my privilege to preach at your ordination tonight. While I would never admit this in public, I know you are going to be a superb priest, young man—Oh wait. I just admitted it. Bishop, is it time to call in the third string? Father Gatwood is here with us tonight—and as such, I want to remind and exhort you to two sacred duties as a priest in Christ’s one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. There are more than these two duties but there are not less, and I take my cue from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in our epistle lesson tonight.
First as you begin your ordained ministry, I urge you to be first and foremost a good pastor (shepherd) to the people you will serve. The work we do as clergy is above all else relational on all kinds of levels. We are called to party with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (and everything in between). You must be willing to forgive those who grieve you, especially the EGR folks (extra grace required—the bishop knows how to do this very well because he has to deal with EGR clergy like me all the time, so learn from him how it’s done because he does it superbly). Of course you must also be willing to forgive yourself when you miss the mark or get it wrong. It means you must be willing to confront folks pastorally when they go astray and gently try to help them get back on track. You must also be humble enough to let them do likewise to you when you miss the mark. This all requires that you love the people you serve, love being defined as desiring and advocating the best for yourself and your parish family, and that of course means pointing folks to Christ as the way to live their lives. We have an excellent example of what I am talking about in 1 Corinthians 5. There St. Paul confronts the church at Corinth about allowing a stepson to sleep with his stepmother, all in the name of “grace.” How can you let this kind of sexual immortality go on? St. Paul demands. Not even the pagans allow this kind of depravity! He continues by saying:
You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. …I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church…Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns (1 Corinthians 5.1-2, 5).
Notice carefully the apostle’s love for his people here, a love that made him confront them about behavior that clearly had the ability to destroy them as God’s people in Christ. But St. Paul did not advocate punishment for its own sake. The discipline he imposed had a restorative purpose. Yes, the man was involved in an egregious sin, but he was still dearly loved by Christ and worth the effort to seek his restoration to Christ’s body despite the man’s catastrophic moral failure. Love Christ’s people enough to help them get back on track and then help them keep on track. That’s the essence of being a good pastor to your people. Encourage them. Support them. Uplift them, and yes confront them when necessary, but always out of a deep sense of love for God’s people and out of a sense of profound humility. Remember, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). We all are in desperate need of Christ’s love, mercy, and grace. Your job as a pastor to God’s people is to model this for them, however imperfectly you do so. God will honor your work done faithfully, whether you see it first-hand or not.
Aside from confronting folks, which very few of us like to do (and the ones who do probably shouldn’t be our fellow clergy), most people who go into ordained ministry like to pastor folks because they have a heart for God and his people. But there’s another aspect to pastoring that many of us are reluctant to do. As we have just seen, sometimes wolves infiltrate God’s people and try to disrupt and corrupt them via false teaching or whacky ideas or evil behavior. And what are good pastors to do? Like St. Paul, they shoot the wolves to protect Christ’s family. Corrupt ideas/behavior and bad teaching are like cancer. If you let them spread, the whole body gets infected and dies, and so you must cut out the cancer before it metastasizes. Nobody likes to do this and you must be patient, humble, and circumspect in doing so, always consulting with your bishop for guidance and support in this difficult task. But if you love God and his people enough and want to be a good pastor to them, you must be willing to shoot the wolves when necessary to protect those whom you serve (and yourself as well) when they rear their ugly heads. May God always give you the needed reticence, wisdom, grace, strength, toughness, and love to be a good pastor to his people.
All this of course requires a good deal of prayer, self-examination, Bible study, and a willingness to be part of a community who loves you and will support you, and who will hold you accountable, both in good times and bad. Don’t make the mistake that many clergy do and try to be a rugged individualist in your work. That’s the last thing God’s people need, starting with you and your own family. Find folks, both lay and clergy, you trust and with whom you can share your joys, sorrows, trials, and tribulations (and as long as we have our current bishop, lean on him as well. He is a pastor par excellence). Trusted friends allow you to think, speak, and act badly in private so that you can act well in public. We are called to live life together as God’s people. Don’t make the critical mistake of trying to do your ministry in isolation. The world, the flesh, and the devil will conspire to pick you off.
Likewise, I am constantly amazed at the number of clergy I know who have almost no semblance of a devotional life, and who ignore the rich devotional history/tools the Church provides, our Anglican tradition included, to give them the spiritual strength and compass needed to be a good pastor. Don’t become part of the vast spiritual wasteland that sadly exists among God’s people and ignore your spiritual health, my brother. It will undo you quicker than greased lightning. Make your devotions a regular and integral part of your daily discipline and when possible, do them with others. The Lord will surely bless you if you do. Again, as St. Peter warns us, “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5.8). Don’t become another of Satan’s victims like many clergy have become on occasion. A robust devotional life will go a long way in helping you avoid the Evil One’s traps.
If you are a good pastor to your parish family, your second sacred function as a priest will be much easier because you will have built up good relational capital and folks are always more willing to listen to those whom they love and respect. What is that second function you ask? I’m glad you did because it will allow me to finish this sermon in short order. The second sacred function you are charged with is to teach those you serve their own Story as lived out in Word and Sacrament so that they too will be able to withstand the dark powers and their human agents that corrupt and destroy God’s good world and people. Time does not permit me to explore this in any detail. Instead, I want to exhort you to proclaim God’s word boldly and with power, God’s power, both in Word and Sacrament. We Christians have the only answer to the desperate times in which we live: the gospel of Jesus Christ. But over the last several centuries, at least in the West, holy Mother Church has lost her voice and her boldness to proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, to a world who desperately needs to know him. So help those entrusted to you to learn the Five Act Play as Tom Wright has dubbed the narrative that is contained in the Old and New Testaments: Creation, Fall, Israel, Christ, and the Church in the end times. We live in perilous times when godlessness and lawlessness seem to be winning the day. We are at each other’s throats more often than not, and if we continue this course, our nation cannot stand. But we are people of God and therefore have the power of God—a power made known supremely in Christ’s saving death and resurrection—to help us navigate through these times. How desperately the world needs to hear the central message of Scripture: That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5.19). The Church cannot stand if she refuses to believe her own story. So teach that story contained in God’s holy Word and in the holy Sacraments of the Church. Don’t ignore either one. Preach and live the gospel of Christ boldly and expect your people to do likewise. Teach your people to feed on the holy power contained in the Sacraments. It is our only hope and this too is your sacred task as a priest.
Remember, you are not called to save the world. God has already done that in Christ. As a priest in Christ’s body, you are charged with the sacred responsibility of equipping God’s people for the arduous task of living faithfully in this mortal life. None of us can do this on our own. But the Christian faith is not another version of human self-help that inevitably must fail. It is about the power of God to overcome all that is evil and corrupt, and it has the power to heal, transform, and redeem, despite our best efforts to the contrary and messy as that looks at times. If you will be a good pastor and bold evangel to God’s people, however well or poorly you do so, have the confidence that God will use your ministry to help bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven. This is the sacred privilege and task of every human being as divine image-bearers, especially God’s ordained ministers, and I charge you tonight, soon-to-be Father Wylie, to devote your considerable skills and talents to this call, all the while resting confidently in the Lord, who is your life and strength and power all the days of your life. The extent you are able to carry out these sacred duties is the extent God’s people under your care will grow up to the full stature of Christ—or to use OT parlance since you are an OT scholar, to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God (Micah 6.8)—so they have the ability to withstand all that assails them as Christ’s people. Again, remember always to rely on and trust in the power of him who calls into existence things that don’t exist and who raises the dead to life (Romans 4.17). I know you will do a great job with these daunting tasks because I know you do believe and trust in the Lord’s great love and power for his people and you. Be assured too, my dear brother, that you will have my ongoing prayers and affection as you live out your call to ministry. God bless you. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.