Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
In the Name of our all loving, redeeming, embracing God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the launching of a life ministry and it all began with baptism. Just a week after we heard the story of wise men traveling afar to find and visit the infant Christ child, we meet the all-grown-up Jesus ready to take on a new direction in an act of adult choice. By his baptism, Jesus announces his presence, affirms his belief, and prepares to begin his life-work, one that would be a radical departure from the old time religion of the people of Israel.
And, if you remember what happens soon after his baptism—and we actually heard this in the Gospel read at Cindy’s ordination yesterday—a hungry, tired Jesus faces some demanding tests at the hands of the devil during a forty day stint in the desert. Tests—a part of the life of faith and certainly for anyone answering a call to go deeper into that faith.
I am reminded of the story about the State Trooper who pulled a car over on I-95 about 2 miles south of the Georgia/South Carolina state line. When the Trooper asked the driver why he was speeding, the guy told him that he was a juggler and he was on his way to Savannah to do a show that night and didn’t want to be late. The Trooper told the driver he was fascinated by juggling, and offered that if he would do a little juggling right then and there, he wouldn’t give him a ticket.
The driver had, unfortunately, sent all of his equipment on ahead but the Trooper told him that he had some flares in the trunk of his patrol car and asked if he could juggle them. He agreed and so the Trooper got three flares, lit them and handed them to the juggler. In the meantime, a car pulled in behind the patrol car.
A very intoxicated person got out and watched the performance briefly. Then he went over to the patrol car, opened the rear door and got in. Observing this strange behavior, the Trooper followed him and asked the guy what he thought he was doing. Slurring his words badly, he replied, “You might as well cart me off to jail, cause there’s no way in hell I can pass that test.”
Cindy, you have been tested in many ways over the long journey that has brought you to this day when you preside for the very first time over the celebration of the Holy Eucharist for this community as their new priest. There have been tests of an academic kind, tests inherent in that dreadful thing we call the “ordination process,” tests by those quirky and often painfully inconsistent practices throughout that process and tests that were just a part of that crazy yet inescapable thing we call “life” and its unexpected and unwelcome hurdles and hoops. You have endured and passed all those tests, Cindy, and we are here today to rejoice with you on this the first full day of your priesthood.
I find particular meaning for you in the Gospel today which gives the rather brief account of what took place after Jesus had been baptized in the River Jordan. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” This was an ordination day – Jesus’ ordination to his public ministry of teaching, healing, and reconciling but most of all one of radical hospitality. Baptism is, after all, a sacrament of ordination empowering us to live into that same ministry.
In the ordination rite of the Orthodox Church, as the bishop places the priestly vestments on the newly ordained, he raises each one of them in full sight of the people and proclaims, and the congregation repeats axios – a Greek word meaning, “Worthy.” The community thereby gives its assent to the ministry of the ordained person. It is a chilling moment to hear that word pronounced over you and a humbling and defining moment about what you have gotten yourself into. So today, on behalf of this community of St. Paul’s and on behalf of the whole church, we say “Axios!” You are God’s beloved. You are worthy.
Yesterday the bishop and several priests surrounded you, laid hands on you, and prayed that the Holy Spirit would come upon you and empower you to proclaim the Gospel of salvation and rightly administer the sacraments of the New Covenant; to make you a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise councilor.
What does it all mean? To be a priest? I think we find some insight in the Gospel event we celebrate—the baptism of Jesus. But wait. What was Jesus doing there anyway? Why did he need a bath like that? You might think that he would come up to John and say, “Thanks for getting things started but I’ll take over from here.”
But he didn’t. He didn’t offer to baptize John or any of the disciples or anyone—period. In fact, there is not a single reference in any of the gospels to Jesus baptizing. His disciples baptized, but Jesus did not, because his ministry was not about claiming power—but giving it away.
He didn’t have the slightest inclination of taking over the ministry begun by John the Baptist so he fell in with the whole lot of sorry-looking people and took his turn getting dunked—like everyone else. Jesus identified with all of us and became a part of—not separate from, not isolated from—our broken humanity.
In his book, A Season for the Spirit, Martin Smith writes of a new perspective on the Baptism of Jesus. He describes the fleeting film images that struck him when he saw the Pasolini film The Gospel According to Matthew. It shattered any idea Smith had of Jesus standing alone before God. Instead, Jesus is surrounded by masses of people who are in the water, being baptized with John along with Jesus.
Smith writes, “It is one and the same movement of surrender to open ourselves to intimacy and personal unions with God…and to open ourselves to compassion and solidarity with our struggling, needy human fellow beings; to be open to the embrace of God is necessarily and inevitably to be open to the whole creation which is held in that embrace.”
In offering yourself to the church in the ministry of priesthood you have, Cindy, become vulnerable like a dove—that symbol of the Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus that day in the river—and you have been called out of the crowd to be a messenger that preaches the gospel of peace and I know you will do that with great care and great love because you have surrendered to open yourself to intimacy and personal union with God…and live your life in solidarity with your struggling, needy human fellow beings who, like you, know what it is like to be tested.
Anyone who has the joy of working with you knows so well that your priesthood will not be about claiming power but about giving it away. Like Jesus, you will not lead from a position of privilege or loftiness, but from one of humility and gentleness because you will lead us from within our midst, joining us in the water, in the flesh to show how it is done.
And in a few moments you will lead us in those familiar words that constitute our baptismal covenant as we all together renew the promises we made to embark on a life long journey of relationship with God and our openness to revelation of God’s dream for us; to break holy bread together and pray for the needs of the entire world; to repent of the times we fall short and miss the mark; to proclaim by what we say—and more importantly by how we live— the Good News of God’s radical love for all; to serve Christ in all persons, to confront and work on those issues of peace and justice, and to honor the differences and uniqueness of every human being God sends our way.
It’s about the launching of a life ministry and it all begins with a baptism: Cindy’s baptism, your baptism, my baptism. The New Testament refers to the first community of Christians with another Greek word meaning the assembly of those “called out” together as a creation of the Spirit.
The great joy of my life and ministry and what I know will be your great joy, Cindy, is the opportunity to preach the good news that every daughter and son of God is beloved and has a place in God’s fellowship, not necessarily a finished or perfected community but one where, baptized by water and the Spirit, anointed as followers of Jesus Christ, marked as his own forever, we are called out and empowered by the power of the Holy Spirit to be a community of those who will welcome each and every person as the beloved ones of God, Christ’s chosen body in the world.
Along the way there will continue to be tests and there may be times when you are discouraged. People may disappoint you. The church may disappoint you. What will carry you through all that is those “holy moments” when you know you have seen God’s work and God’s grace as so real and robust that you can almost reach out and touch it.
And, as you lead—not apart nor isolated from community, but right in the midst of us, so are we there along side you, treading those muddy waters with the same wonder and bewilderment yet trusting in God’s unfailing promise to be with us no matter what.
Years ago, on the occasion of my own reception into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, after months of anticipation and days of excitement and much ceremony, I said to one of my dear friends who had been a part of my journey with that childlike let down right after Christmas, “Well, Ginny, it’s over now!” and in less than a heartbeat she reminded me, “Oh, no, Nicholas. It’s just beginning!”
And so it is, Cindy, so it is. The launching of a life ministry—and it all began in baptism. Your journey has given life and meaning to the words of T.S. Elliott: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” “Axios! Axios! Axios!”