It’s Not About You — An Ordination Sermon
A Sermon on the Occasion of Four Diocesan Ordinations to the Priesthood
by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue
Numbers 11:16-17; 24-25; Ephesians 4:4-7; 11-16 and John 10:11-18
There will be one flock, one shepherd. This is Jesus’ promise for what the future holds—no scattered sheep, no hired hands trying to lure away the sheep of another shepherd—one flock, one shepherd.
The text could be a bit confusing this morning as we are about to ordain four priests for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Their roles will include that of pastor as Bishop Benhase will ask each of the four if he or she will be a faithful pastor to all he or she is called to serve. Pastor is Latin, literally for “feeder” or “one who feeds.” Pastor is the word for “shepherd.” So we are, in a sense creating four new pastors, or shepherds. It would seem that we only need one shepherd, yet here we are praying for God to make four new ones.
Given that I knew well the august body before whom I would be preaching, I did a good bit more research than usual. It was a given that I couldn’t dazzle you with flashes of homiletical brilliance, but I thought I could flex my exegetical muscles a bit and perhaps have something to show for it. I decided to dig down far into the biblical text itself to discover deeper meanings. I hoped that in the Hebrew of the Book of Numbers and the Greek of the Gospel of John, there must be some hidden key to connect the scripture to this occasion. So into the Hebrew and Greek texts I went and what I found there was, in fact, astounding. Well, it is not so much what I found as what I didn’t find.
Not finding something is difficult. It takes much longer to prove conclusively that something doesn’t exist. And so when I found this lack in scripture, I checked various English translations, the several ancient versions including the Syriac and reconstructions of the likely Aramaic expressions represented by the Greek. I checked the key Hebrew words of the Numbers text against more recent findings in Ugaritic. The work was exhaustive and exhausting.
The end result is this. In no single place ever recorded in scripture, either in these passages or any other for that matter could I find the four things I sought the most. I was looking for occurrences of the names Lynn, or Justin, or Bill, or Jim. But they simply do not exist. Not one of you is ever referred to in scripture as The Good Shepherd or anything else.
I can now say conclusively that the scripture readings for this morning are not about the four ordinands. I’m sorry, but it is simply true. These texts are not about you. And the more I have studied on it, the more I have become convinced that this entire ordination service is not about you either—any of you—not the ordinands, not the Bishop, neither me nor the rest of the priests and deacons gathered here, not the congregation either. The scripture we read today, the words of the liturgy, the act of ordination, none of any of this is about any one of us in this place.
I want to show you what I did find. First, we heard the reading from what we call the Book of Numbers. That’s not a very promising title. The Hebrew name for the book is B’Midvar, or In the Wilderness as the text tells of the wandering Children of Israel during part of that 40-year period between crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt and entering the Promised Land. During this time, God was forming a people. As their head, was Moses who spoke to God and mediated for the people. Moses also served as judge over them. Moses has been bearing the burden of the people alone and God calls him through this passage to share the load.
Moses had already been warned of the problem and sought to deal with it. In the account of this found in Exodus Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, saw how Moses went about the task of leadership as a one-man show. Moses was at this stage a father-knows-best kind of leader. Jethro told his son-in-law, “The thing you are doing is not right.” He went on to tell Moses, “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you and you cannot do it alone.”
Jethro counseled Moses to set up leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens to resolve minor issues and to only present him with the major disputes of the people. This was for the good of the people as well as for Moses’ own health.
Now in Numbers, God has Moses pray to put some of the spirit that is on him on to seventy elders of the people. Elders. The word in Greek is Presbyteros, from which we get Presbyter. This should resonate with this morning’s liturgy as we are ordaining four presbyters. Moses is told that more elders are needed as his I-can-do-it-all-by-myself approach will not only burn out Moses, but it will also wear out the people.
In the Numbers reading then we get Moses praying for a group of elders who then have the Spirit fall on them, giving them the gift of prophecy which previously was a gift God had only given to Moses. Today, Bishop Benhase and the gathered college of presbyters of the Diocese of Georgia will lay hands on the four ordinands, praying for God to once again give the Spirit to these elders. We will pray for Lynn, Bill, Jim and Justin to each receive that charisms, the gifts, they need to become priests. In this way, Bishop Benhase will share the load he carries as the chief pastor of the Diocese. It would not be good for him to carry the burden of the people alone and so four more presbyters are added to our number in the Diocese.
In the reading from Ephesians, we also find clearly this idea of God giving the Spirit to those who serve, various gifts for ministry. And so some are called to be pastors and teachers and these are given those gifts.
In the Gospel of John however, we find The Good Shepherd. This is the one shepherd with the one flock. The Good Shepherd is no mere hired hand looking out for his own interests. The Good Shepherd is the one who will lay down his life for the sheep.
This is where I find it instructive that none of the names Jim, Justin, Bill or Lynn appear in the text. You are not called to offer up yourselves as a living sacrifice for the people in your care. Jesus already did that. Jesus is The Good Shepherd. There are no job vacancies in that role.
Yes, of course in the words of the Eucharistic Prayer in Rite One, we are to offer and present unto Almighty God “our selves, our souls and bodies.” But this is what we offer to God. God will then use you for the sake of the Body of Christ, but that is not the same thing as continually sacrificing yourself for the people you serve. You are not their savior. Christ is. Your ministry is sacrificial, but it is Christ who is the sacrifice offered once, for all.
Your role is not to be The Good Shepherd, but to continually point others to The Good Shepherd. This will get confusing for them at times. Whenever you point others to Christ, they will be tempted to see you, rather than looking through you or beyond you, to Christ. That’s OK. Just keep leading them to The Good Shepherd. Just remain transparent. Because this ministry you have is not about you.
Notice the words of the liturgy the Bishop will soon address to the ordinands:
As priests, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your lives in accordance with its precepts. You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.
This is that which God has called you to this day, to receive the Spirit of God to empower you to love, serve, preach, pronounce blessing share Baptism and the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood and so on. At this point, it would be all to easy to see the priesthood then as about what a priest does. Priesthood as function. But we are not asking God to gift the ordinands to do the work of the priest, but to be priests. This is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week way of being whether one is in a courtroom, a hospital or a church. But even being a priest is not about these four to be ordained.
All of these tasks and this way of being, are done in order to equip the saints for their ministry. For in the words of our liturgy,
All baptized people are called to make Christ known as Savior and Lord, and to share in the renewing of his world.
The common work of all the Christians around the world and through time is to make Christ known as Savior and Lord and so share in renewing all creation. In this work, your role of equipping the saints for their own ministry in the Body of Christ is vital.
This is where proper perspective matters. The perspective I hope to bring by pointing out that these texts of scripture are not about you and neither is our liturgy today. The call experienced by our four ordinands which has been affirmed by their diocesan family is not where the journey to this day began. We have come to this time and place to ordain these four persons to the priesthood because of the needs of a lost and hurting world. We are here first and foremost because there are all around each of us, people who need the forgiveness, redemption and peace found in Christ alone.
It’s true that the lost and hurting people may not know that the healing and peace they seek is available in our churches or in any church. In fact, they may have been so wounded or disillusioned by Christians or experience in other churches that they are convinced that what they need can be found anywhere but here. Yet it is the need of these folks who never darken our church doors that make what happens here today not only necessary, but vitally important. The Good Shepherd knows those lost sheep each by name. The one shepherd is always seeking to expand the one flock and in this you have been called to a particular ministry, one that requires you to be a priest.
The four of you are to work through the ministry of Word and Sacrament to build up the Body of Christ in such a way that the baptized persons who are also the ministers of the church, can be about their ministry. This day is not about the ordinands or about any other person here. But this day is about us and the need we feel to be the Body of Christ so that the lost and the lonely find the healing, wholeness and community they need.
The ordinands will now stand to be charged: Justin, Jim, Bill and Lynn, you have been brought to this day by your diocesan family who has seen the light of Christ shining through your lives. We have also seen that God has given you the gifts you need for the ministry of the priesthood.
I charge each of you to ever recall that this light and these gifts are not personal treasures. The light of Christ is not a pocket warmer for your own edification. The light of Christ shining in you is to be a lighthouse guiding others away from the rocky shore and toward the deep waters. The gifts God has given you to enable your ministry are never to point to you and how talented you are, but to the God who gave you those gifts.
Lynn, Bill, Jim, and Justin, you are not here for yourselves. You have come to this time in this place to receive the Spirit in a mighty way, so as to equip you to equip the saints. This is not about you. This is not even exactly about the people in the churches you will serve. This is first and foremost about people who are living in darkness even on this bright Saturday morning. Use the gifts God has given you so as to build the people you are called to serve more fully into the Body of Christ so that fewer and fewer people have to live without the healing and redemption found in Christ alone.
I would like all baptized Christians here today to stand to be charged, for if this sermon is about how ministry is something we all share:
I charge you, the baptized Christians gathered this day to bear witness to Christ where ever you may go, allowing the light of Christ to shine so brightly through your life that those who are lost in darkness may see Christ in you and come to believe in God, who alone can bring healing, forgiveness and redemption.