Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Offering of the Priesthood

Sermon given by Fr. Jim Jensen for the ordination of Fr. Jim Heidt (December 2007):

If ever there was a day for which fervent prayers of petition and intercession had been offered, certainly it’s today. And if perseverance is any measure of vocation, then there should be no doubt about the vocation of Jim Heidt.

The journey to this day took a few detours. Those detours stand as a cogent reminder of one of the reasons that discerning God’s will can be difficult. It’s because God often shapes and molds us in ways we would avoid, if given a choice.

But, here we are. We have come together in joy and thanksgiving, to join with our Bishop as he ordains Jim a priest in Christ’s Holy Catholic Church. As we prepare to do that, I believe it’s wise for us to pause for a moment to consider just what that priesthood is about.

The Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer tells us that the ministry of a priest is... represent Christ and his Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.

In the ordination liturgy, following the laying-on-of hands, the Prayer Book directs that the ordinand be presented with a Bible, “ a sign of the authority given... to preach the Word of God....” Thirty-five years ago when I was ordained in the Diocese of Milwaukee, it was customary for the Bishop to present, along with the Bible, a chalice and paten as a sign of the priest’s authority to administer the sacraments, and, in particular, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. This was referred to as the “delivery of the instruments’--- the instruments of priestly ministry. We used to joke about it, observing that if you considered the daily life of
most parish priests, it would be more fitting for the bishop to present a toilet plunger and a broom. Which is simply to say that ministry is one of those areas of life where there is often some incongruity between theory and practice. It’s just a plain fact of life that parish priests spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with matters that have nothing to do with priesthood.

But we come here today in the midst of Advent— a season of hope and expectation— so let us pray that the ideal is still something for which we can strive, and that it can, by God’s grace inspire Jim’s commitment, and ours as well, to the Church’s mission: to restore all people to God and to each other in Jesus Christ.

As I was thinking and praying about this sermon, there were two passages of scripture that came to mind. The first is found in the 20th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It is the Lord’s admonition to: “Beware of [those] who like to walk around in long robes....” Clergy can be prone both to vanity and over-sized egos. The fact that we get to wear the fancy clothes and occupy the most prominent seats in the house doesn’t help in that regard. It’s but one of the reasons we need to remember that it is baptismal ministry that is primary and basic to the life of the Church, and it is only when and where clergy and laity both believe and embrace that truth that the mission of the Church can be advanced. Those of us who are ordained, while exercising ministries that are essential to the Church’s life, do so to support and empower the ministry of the all the baptized, the vast majority of whom are lay people. Without them, our ministries have neither context nor purpose.

The other passage, found in the 21st chapter of Luke, centers on the Lord’s description of a poor widow who comes to make her offering at the Temple. It’s a small offering— we usually call it the widow’s mite— and Jesus’ observes that while others had given out of their abundance, this widow gave out of her poverty. I believe there is truth here that has everything to do with ministry and priesthood.

Priesthood is about the offering of sacrifice. In the Old Testament it was the priesthood of the Temple, and it offered animal sacrifice. Keep in mind, however, that it was not the slaying of the animal that was at the heart of the sacrifice, but rather the offering of life to God; the slaughter was simply a necessary prerequisite. It was the offering of life, represented in the animal’s blood, that constituted the sacrifice.

For Christians, Jesus made a monumental and crucial change in all that. He offered himself. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us:

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11ff NAB)

Priesthood has to do with the offering of sacrifice; but what we are called to offer is not the life of an animal. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to offer ourselves. Jesus did it perfectly and completely; that is why he is our Great High Priest.

The Christian priest stands before the gathered community to be an icon of the priesthood of Christ. So it is the priest who is given the privilege of presiding at the celebration of the Eucharist, offering the Bread and Wine to God that will become the Body and Blood of Christ, both to re-present the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, and to feed the People of God for their ministry in his name.

But the priesthood is given not only, and perhaps not even primarily, to those who are ordained; it is a gift given to the Church, to the whole Body of Christ. So the person ordained also stands before the community as an icon of its corporate priesthood. And priesthood has to do with offering, the offering of life, the living of life, to the glory of God. Life is offered and lived to the glory of God when it is lived fully, and when it is offered and available to God to be used as a vehicle of divine love and grace. Christian priesthood involves speaking the words and doing the deeds of divine compassion and forgiveness. In doing so we enable others to see in and through us the face of Christ, because we have become the hands and feet and lips of Christ in this world. This priesthood belongs to the whole Body of the Faithful; it is the priesthood shared by all the baptized.

And what do we have to offer? In and of ourselves, both lay and ordained, all that we have is the widow’s mite. What we have is our own limited and fallible humanity— imperfect and broken, flawed in so many ways, prone to making stupid and idiotic mistakes, seemingly unable to offer the perfection that God has the right to expect. But the incredibly Good News of the Gospel is that this is precisely what God wants. God wants the imperfect, broken and flawed human beings that we are, to reach out to the world, because each and every human being on the face of the earth is made of the same stuff, experiences the same challenges, and must deal with the same flaws.

It’s all symbolized in the widow’s mite— it seems like so little. But it’s not the amount that’s important, it is our willingness to offer who and what we are and have. That is our call; and that is how we exercise our priesthood.

James, my brother, today apostolic hands will be laid upon you for the office and work of a priest, to serve the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep. Remember as you minister in his name, that there is only one Good Shepherd, and it is not you! You are called to serve him, you are not called to be him. Neither are you called to lay down your life for the sheep. Jesus did that, and he’s the only one who can. What we as priests are called to do is to lay our lives at the feet of Jesus, and to do what it is that he calls us to do.

Some might say that this is a bit of semantics, but I don’t believe so. The Church can be a bottomless pit of needs and wants, of people pulling at us from every side. And it can all look urgent. It can all look worthwhile. It can all look like ministry. We could give a thousand lives to it, and it wouldn’t be enough.

Priests are not called to save the world. That, too, has already been done. Our job is to lead people to the Good Shepherd, because that is where they will find green pastures and still waters. And he is the one, the only one, who can restore their souls.

The Lord asks you today, “James, my brother, do you love me?” And as you respond, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” he gives you your ministry: “Feed my sheep.” May the Lord bless, guide and strengthen you, today and always.

© James M. Jensen