Ordination Sermon — the Rev. J. Sierra Wilkinson

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue
Christ Episcopal Church
Savannah, Georgia
February 18, 2012

A sermon for the ordination of Julia Sierra Wilkinson
Jeremiah 1:4-9, Philippians 4:4-9, and Matthew 9:35-38

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us:

These words of James Weldon Johnson come from his great hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” There is a weight to this day, a heaviness, and importance to our task in this liturgy that seems steeped in the faith of the dark past and the hope of the present. We can’t miss the weight of history in this place with this ordination. Earlier this week, we marked the feast day of the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African American priest in The Episcopal Church. This summer, the Diocese of Georgia will call on The General Convention to add to that same calendar of saints, Deaconess Alexander of this Diocese, a saintly woman who became the first black woman set aside as a deaconess. Of course, there have been other African Americans raised up by this Diocese including deacons Roslyn Panton, Dennis McGill, Yvette Owens, and Willetta McGowan and priests Billy Alford, Reggie Payne, Kurt Miller and Frazier Green. But here in this church, history looms large as the large stained glass window over the altar is dedicated to Bishop Stephen Elliott, a southern aristocrat, slave owner and the first Bishop of this Diocese. Bishop Elliott hoped that though slavery was not a positive good, God could and would use slavery to teach Africans in the Christian faith and so save their souls. The faith of that dark past has taught us lessons learned hard.

Christ Church would go on a different path through the Civil Rights struggle which we see in plaques on either side of the nave dedicated to the Rev. Bland Tucker and Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart. Bland Tucker preached from this same pulpit, and Mayor MacLean went out to love and serve the Lord through guiding this city in a troubled transition from segregation to integration, along with the work and encouragement of Bishop Stuart. The past is not all we would want it to be but, Tucker and Maxwell led this church through that difficult time to help this church be a beacon of God’s love. Christ Church has a long history filled with the hope this present day brings us. It was this congregation which held the first baptism in this country of a black woman in 1750, and perhaps 262 years later and a generation after women were first ordained in our church, it is high time for a black woman to be ordained in this place. And yes, that a black woman will be ordained this day in this church is indeed a sign of the glorious redemptive power that belongs to God alone.

But I say all this about the weight of history on this day, in order to declare that all of this history of the church as a whole and Christ Church in specific as regards slavery and civil rights is not the point. We are not here to ordain an African American woman as a priest in Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We are here to ordain Julia Sierra Wilkinson and just as my race and gender are part of who I am, but do not define me as a person, so Sierra is not simply a black woman. She comes to this present hour where the weight of history looms large, not a representative of gender nor a representative of race, but a child of God. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Our hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” goes into its second verse “stony the road we trod” and goes on to say “we have come over a way that with tears was watered.” The path to this day has been well watered with tears. And to appreciate the astounding redemptive power of God that can work all things together for the good, we do have to appreciate how Sierra first came to Savannah. The day was March 17, 1997. It was St. Patrick’s Day and so, of course, the city would have looked like a place gone stark, raving green mad to a first time visitor. Sierra was 11, her sister Simone was 2. Their mother Julia had made a decision. After years of a tumultuous marriage to Remi Augustus Wilkinson, Sierra’s Mom, Julia, decided two things. First, she decided she had to get out for her own mental health. And then in a second decision, she realized, she would take her girls with her. The three packed clothes and pictures into grocery bags and drove down through the madness of Savannah on St. Patrick’s to land at the DeSoto Beach Motel on Tybee Island. The little money on hand could never hold them there on Tybee long.

Now, here is where you can make some wrong assumptions, so I will remind you that marriages and families are complicated. Think to your own family a moment and you’ll know what I mean. So hear me saying the marriage was tumultuous and needed to end, but if you hear me saying that means Sierra’s father, Remi, is a bad man, you will have forgotten something about how marriage works. There are many reasons why people find that they can not stay together; the fabric of our lives can be all so easily torn. And, yes, her mom had brothers who could and would have helped her, but family is complicated and Julia understood the path to health and wholeness for her and her precious girls was to strike out alone and that is what she did.

Back on Tybee Island during that March of 1997, Julia began to look for work and then God used her lack of an address in a job interview to work a small miracle. The person told Julia about Safe Shelter Savannah and she moved there with her girls. Sierra, her Mom and sister would spend the next six months living in the shelter and then for another year, Safe Shelter would provide oversight as they moved back out into the world.

It was in the refuge of Safe Shelter that Sierra began to encounter churches of differing denominations in a way that few of us here today can imagine. The three Wilkinsons were on the receiving end of the Body of Christ reaching out in love. Sierra remembers that her Mom didn’t and couldn’t hardly speak during the first three months in the shelter. It was a time of shock, a jarring experience laying the ground work for healing to follow.

In the year that followed, Julia would meet Mallory Pearce, who would become her second husband. It was the agnostic professor Mallory who brought the Wilkinsons to All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Tybee Island. That wonderfully quirky and unique congregation with its gift of radical hospitality was just what was needed. The priests there first Sam Wysong and then Otto Immel demonstrated the acceptance of God in a loving community that lived as well as taught the redemptive power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There in All Saints’ following the upheavals of the previous year, Sierra experience the power of the liturgy. She found thoughtful words prayed in a rhythm one could count on week after week. Imagine the peace and stability of that centuries old pattern of worship coming into the life of Sierra who had been through so much turmoil. Here was the stability Sierra needed, a firm foundation on which God could build something new in her.

What follows is a story too wonderful to believe if many of us had not lived it with her. Sierra found Honey Creek the summer she was 14. That’s where her story and mine gets inextricably linked. She discovered that the church she had discovered on Tybee connected her to others in a mighty way. She would go on to get involved in youth programs, and as a natural leader she would become a Happening Rector, a youth representative to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, and then come to travel when she was named to the nominating committee for the Presiding Bishop of our Church. In this one astounding case, our church has actually been all that we hope it can be. Sierra went on to Agnes Scott, to study in South Africa and then to seminary at Harvard Divinity School where she served as class president. Then miracle of miracles a grant sent her to Sierra Leone to connect with her father and his family and the redemption of God was made manifest. Sierra learned that her heritage was Anglican, though she never knew it. She is not the first Anglican priest in her family. So many broken parts of the story have been made whole. Sitting across the front pew in front of me is a family joining together in this celebration, lives knit back together by the power of the Holy Spirit. We tear apart the threads of our lives and God weaves it back into a more beautiful design.

It is glorious to behold what God has done in the life of this woman. This is why “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was such a perfect hymn for this service. It is a hymn of a particular story as part of a continual narrative. There is a lineage in that hymn that brings us to the present day and all of that history matters to get us to the point we are at. And yet, I say all that to say that while her life story is amazing, the sort of redemptive story that we sang about in our hymn, that too is not the point.

Yes, her life story is wonderful and the pain and the joy have helped create the wonderful woman who comes to this day to be ordained a priest, but all of that is not why we are here. I could even go on about her amazing gifts. Separate from the weight of history and from her life story, there is Julia Sierra Wilkinson. She has always been and remains not just smart and deeply thoughtful, but she is perhaps the most emotionally intelligent persons I know. Sierra is empathetic and compassionate, caring and kind. Yet as wonderful as she is, remember Jesus could not do it all on his own and Sierra, you are not Jesus. Not even close. Fortunately, humility is one of her superpowers. But Sierra being an amazing person is not the point.

The point of this day has little if anything to do with history or Sierra’s life story or even her great gifts and abilities which she brings to ministry. This day is about a world still awash with people who have not experienced the redemptive power of God as found in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Reaching that lost and hurting world with the Good News that Sierra discovered at All Saints’ and Honey Creek and all the other places where she has met God, that is the point. In our Gospel reading, Jesus looks out on the crowds and he has compassion for them. Compassion means “to suffer with” and Jesus is full of this empathy, this compassion because he sees the people are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Harassed is a good word, but the Greek we translate here as helpless could be more literally put cast down, or thrust to the ground. The crowds Jesus sees don’t just have a guide, they have been guided by the wrong things. The people have seen themselves in the eyes of others and they have been cast down to the ground, oppressed. But Jesus sees these who others have thrown out as worthless and he loves them.

Today is all about sin and redemption and the need of the whole Body of Christ to get out there day by day and live the love of God that has been preached in this place for more than 200 years. All have sinned. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. Every one of us is in need of repentance and forgiveness and we all need to see ourselves not as others see us, but as God knows we can be by the power of Jesus, his son.

And in this great redemptive mission that is God’s alone, the Holy Spirit speaks to the heart of each of us to show us our ministry. Every baptized Christian is a minister of the Gospel with a ministry to live out whether you teach, fight fires, nurse, or sell real estate, all of this can be done to the glory of God. And each one of us here this day can share the love God has shown us with all the people we encounter. That is what this day is about. Ordaining a child of God to take the place in this great work of God to which she has been called and in so doing to remind each of us that the work is not Sierra’s alone, or for the clergy alone. The compassion that is Christ’s is something we are all to share. Sierra is not to do all the work of ministry or not even all that the Rector, the Rev. Michael White can’t get to. Their work is to equip you the saints for your work of ministry.

This liturgy then is not about Sierra, in fact if she ever thinks this is about her and her gifts, she will be in for a great fall. No, what we do today is about the people all around this city and the world who need radical love and acceptance, then will follow repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. This liturgy is not about Sierra, or about us, but what God is doing. In our reading from Jeremiah we learn that it is God’s words in the prophet’s mouth, not the words of the prophet. So, it will be with Sierra and with you and me when we share God’s love. Not our words or our love, but God’s. Yes, the church did get it right in this story and a single mom with two girls lands in a homeless shelter and rather than that being the end of the story or the decisive downturn in their lives, it was a brief period of time in a longer life that the Holy Spirit used to the Glory of God the Father. Yet Sierra’s story is not as unique as we might hope. There are life stories being written that are all about being cast down. People are around us each day who need to make the story of Jesus their story so that they may join us in our hymn of praise lifting every voice and singing “keep us forever in the path, we pray.”

So let me not tarry in this pulpit any longer. We have love to share with people not here this day. First we’ll ordain Sierra, then after a brief celebration, we have got to get back into the world not as we were when we arrived this morning, but changed by what we have seen and heard and nourished by the body and blood of our Lord to live out the Good News we proclaim.

It is customary to ask the ordinand to stand to be charged. But I ask the whole congregation to stand. Take out the red Book of Common Prayer and turn to page 292. This is the baptismal covenant which helps us move from the faith of the dark past to the hope of the present to the real point of this day—God’s redemptive mission to reconcile all creation in Christ. Look to renewal on page 292 and let us reaffirm our faith:

Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
All: I do.

As this sermon closes in just a moment, we will reaffirm our faith in the Nicene Creed, which the Church uses in the Eucharist and on this occasion of ordination, so we continue on the middle of page 293:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
All: I will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
All: I will, with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
All: I will, with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
All: I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for the justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
All: I will with God’s help.

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sins, keep us in eternal life by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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