sermon-2011-12-17 Judko Ordination

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Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Barnabas, Greenwich, CT
On the Occasion of the Ordination of the Rev’d Jules Jodko to the Sacred Order of Priests – December 17, 2011

May the light of Christ’s presence be with us, the warmth of the Holy Spirit gather round us, and the arms of our Creator God embrace us. Amen.

The Ordination of a new priest has always been an occasion of great joy and excitement for me. It is like new energy is being released into the church—both in the local community and in the wider church—a new leader raised up to meet the challenges, embrace the opportunities, and dream with us all the dream of God for God’s Church and for the world. But today is for me an especially wonderful occasion. This ordinand and I go way, way back.

 It was 1968 in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where as a seminarian in the Roman Catholic Church uncertain whether or not to remain in the branch of Christ’s Church, I was asked by the local parish I attended to teach the Senior class in the High School CCD program—the equivalent of Sunday School. It was a great group of kids who were very much into talking about their faith and what it all meant.

I recall a project we did, a video we made of inner city poverty and the need to raise awareness about it in our suburban parishes. Jules was one of those kids and there was something about him that set him apart—a sensitivity, a faithfulness, a humility, and integrity that continues to be a part of the fabric of who he is.

So, Jules, after all those years which separated us and led us in different directions, it was a blessing to be reunited with you on the day Ian’s election as our diocesan bishop in Hartford and then to be able to work alongside you in your capacity as pastoral associate at St. Paul’s on the Green in the time leading up to your ordination.

Looking back at the last several years of your journey, I think about the story of 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 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.”

I would imagine that many of those who have gone through the ordination process might relate.

Jules, you have been tested in many ways over the long journey that has brought you to this day when will be ordained into the sacred order of priests to serve this community and the church beyond as minister of Word and Sacrament. There have been tests of an academic kind, tests inherent in that daunting 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, Jules, and we are here today to rejoice with you.

Along the way, I expect as you  responded to God’s question, “Whom shall I send?” you have wondered if you were prepared enough, brave enough, even crazy enough—and, perhaps, most of all worthy enough to say with Isaiah “Here I am. Send me!”

In the ordination rite of the Orthodox Church in which I began my priesthood almost 39 years ago (at the age of 10), in that ordination rite as the bishop places the priestly vestments on the newly ordained—and there are many—he raises each one of them in full sight of the people and proclaims, and the congregation repeat this acclamation: “άχιος” (axios) – “You are worthy.”  The community thereby gives its approval and assent to the call to 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 and on behalf of the whole church, we say “Axios!”

Jules, you have been called to the ministry of a priest in Christ’s Holy, Catholic Church. You are God’s beloved. You are worthy and knowing you as I do, I am most certain that I can say that without even a scintilla of it ever going to your head.

The Gospel we heard may tell us more about what priesthood is not than what we have romanticized it to be. The image of shepherd, that picture of Jesus walking in a beautiful pasture with a staff in one hand and a baby lamb in the other and the sheep all clustered all around him looking very content and serene and safe is one of the best-loved in our faith tradition. Over time, this powerful image became the ideal one for pastors, for priests and bishops. The shepherd-minister was the one individual expected to have almost divine leadership qualities.

The clergy were shepherds and the congregation became the flock and the job of the clergy was to lead them into deeper faith and keep them from going astray. More and more the people living out their role as the sheep, began to have greater expectations of the pastor.  The clergy were perceived as the experts at biblical interpretation and preaching, the only ones who could rescue the drowning, care for the dying, chair the meetings, lead Bible studies, and above all, offer a prayer at every church potluck and wedding reception. I hope we have moved far away from that model yet traces of it still rear their head from time to time.

Jesus, however, is very clear. He says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He does not say “I am the model for your priests who are your Good Shepherds.” Jesus is the Son of God and he is offering us here a picture of who God is. The shepherd of God’s flock carries our sins, dies on the cross for us, and rises again in three days. There is only one candidate who fits that description, and it certainly is not anyone of us. We clergy bleat and bleed and fail and get caught in the thickets.

We are really just sheep—sheep who have been called to walk along side of and use our gifts to build up our sisters and brothers in the flock.

We most certainly need the Good Shepherd to lead us. We need to look to the one Good Shepherd for nourishment and healing just like everyone else. Jules, your ministry as a priest will be to point us all to the love and care of that Good Shepherd, to remind us that we are already empowered for ministry through our baptism, to nourish us with Word and Sacrament, help us discern what God is up to in our midst, and sometimes to just get out of the way and let the Spirit do her work.

Jules, you are called to preach the gospel of healing, peace and reconciliation and I know you will do that with great care and great love. If there is one thing from the Gospel of the Good Shepherd to hold in your heart it is this: “I have other sheep and I must bring them in also.” Typically, these words have been interpreted to mean those of other faiths, especially non-Christians, and the church’s need to lead them to the truth. I’m sure that’s not what Jesus means.

Yet one of the fastest growing religious demographics is the unchurched, the unaffiliated.  I believe that Jesus is steering us to other sheep who are looking for an experience of transcendence and sacred mystery—searching, isolated, hungry people—many of whom  have been deeply hurt by religion and for whom religion has masked the face of God. The church that Jesus founded is charged with this command: to tell people that they are loved and are not alone. Be deeply committed to spreading that powerful message. Be faithful to the Great Commission and raise it up boldly and unabashedly in your ministry with those you will serve. Never lose sight of the truth that we are here for those not yet here.

The great joy of my ministry and what I know will be yours, is the opportunity to preach the good news that every daughter and son of God is beloved, is worthy, and has a place God’s at God’s Table where together we learn to see the world, each other, and ourselves as God sees us.

Although there will be no more interviews with diocesan committees, no more oral or written examinations, no more hoops to jump through, you will continue to be tested and there may be times when you are discouraged. People may disappoint you. You may disappoint them. The church may disappoint you. What will carry you through are those “holy moments,”—what in the Celtic tradition are known as “thin places”—when you know you have seen God work before your very eyes and God’s grace is so real and robust that you can almost reach out and touch it. Know that, in all of it, the Good Shepherd walks with you and will never fail you.

Jules, your journey to this day has given life and deep meaning to the words of the poet T.S. Elliott: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”  “Axios, Jules!  Axios! Axios! Axios!”

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