The Ordination of The Rev’d Jonathan R. Turtle to the Sacred Order of Priests.
Homilist: The Rev’d Dr. Peter Robinson, Professor of Proclamation, Worship and Ministry, Wycliffe College
Today is a very special day for Jonathan, his church, his family, his friends. Years of study, preparation and discernment come together today as Jonathan is to be ordained as a priest in the church of God. We celebrate with him.
And yet I suspect that some of you here today are wondering what in the world Jonathan is getting himself into? Has he noticed that the church in Canada is in decline? That for many people the Christian faith is a relic of a bygone era? That God, at least the Christian God, simply isn’t fashionable anymore? That while most people like the idea of a god waiting in the wings they don’t want the church. In fact they think that church is a problem.
Jonathan – this isn’t going to be easy. But I think you already know that.
So what will it mean for Jonathan to be a priest? That is far too big a question to address today. But perhaps we can look at one or two elements from our readings.
Our reading from Ezekiel is rather frightening. It speaks of prophetic leadership: a leader is a sentinel or watchman whose job is to warn people of God’s impending judgement. If they fail to warn other people they will be held responsible. Who chose these readings?
The familiar image offered in John’s gospel, that of a shepherd tending their flock, seems more immediately appealing. That image might evoke for us a wonderful pastoral scene – a quiet meadow, lush grass, blue sky, a bubbling brook running though the field, peace, contemplation. And the shepherd – a young man in a plaid shirt with a full beard. (I think there is a name for that on social media) Perhaps a few bottles of his favourite microbrew cooling in the stream in case a friend drops by? Not so bad. Of course that idyllic image has nothing to do with the reality of being a shepherd.
When John’s gospel was written shepherds were not handsome young men with lots of followers on social media. They were outsiders, unwanted, ignored, second-rate citizens. And being a sheep herder was a thankless job; dirty, demanding and dangerous.
First Peter picks up the image of the shepherd but doesn’t offer an idyllic notion of leadership either. In fact in 1 Peter we see the same recurring theme – being a leader in the church is hard work and dare we say it – being a leader in the church inevitably involves suffering. In fact 1 Peter suggests that just being a Christian involves suffering.
1 Peter was written to Christians scattered across Asia Minor, people who were isolated in hostile environments, people who were suffering for their faith. When Peter says that he is a witness or a martyr of the sufferings of Christ he doesn’t mean he witnessed Christ’s death on the cross because the accounts suggest he wasn’t there. No the suffering he is referring to is the suffering of the early church, the body of Christ. The sufferings of the church are the sufferings of Christ. And the early days of the church are full of stories of martyrdom, of people who suffered greatly for their faith.
We don’t suffer for our faith in that way and neither do we suffer in the same way that people in Iraq or Syria or Egypt are suffering today. We are fortunate to live in a place like Canada. I suspect that one of biggest challenges for the church in North America isn’t facing persecution for our faith it is the belief that faith is meant to protect us or shield us from suffering.
A couple of weeks ago Joel Osteen was interviewed by Stephen Colbert. Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood Church in Texas – 40,000 people attend the church on a Sunday and 10 million people around the globe watch Osteen’s sermons each week on TV. He must be doing something right. Colbert was talking about Osteen’s new book The Power of I am. Sounds good except the I Am in Osteen’s book is not the I Am of the bible, it is not God. It is the importance of thinking positively about me. I am special, I am significant, I am a gifted and capable person. In the interview Osteen said that his book is meant to be an encouragement to those who feel beaten down, discouraged or are struggling. And surely that is right at the heart of the calling for any priest or minister – we are to offer comfort and hope to those in need.
The question is the nature of the comfort that Osteen is offering. Osteen is preaching good news but it is not the good news. Arguing for the power of positive thinking he says, “God is for you… You can reach your dreams.”
Osteen knows what we’re all looking for – a God who is on our side, who will make our lives better, who will turn things around for us, who will be there when we need some help and be thoughtful enough to stay out of the way when we don’t need help. There is just one slight problem with Osteen’s god and that is that his god doesn’t exist.
Will Willimon recently wrote, “The promise of all bogus religion is the promise of a peaceful life without pain.” God doesn’t come to protect us from hardship and to affirm what matters to us. No, as Ezekiel makes clear, God comes to confront us, to expose the falsehoods we all live with and to lead us into a different reality.
Now we might be tempted at this point to say, “we’re not fooled by Osteen – after all we’re Anglicans.” But we are fooling ourselves if we fail to recognize that the starting point for us all is me, the I am is where we all begin. And because I am at the centre, the most natural thing in the world is to seek what is right or good as we understand it to be. The truth is that the God we want is one who lines up neatly with what we believe to be important, one who values our priorities, our commitments.
One of the greatest advantages of the decline in the Church in Canada is that it has become much clearer that God is not our side ready to support us in those things which matter to us – no, Jesus is inviting us to join him in what he is doing in the world. To be a Christian is to be a person who is learning to follow Jesus. Learning to follow Jesus does not mean a slight adjustment in our priorities. It means allowing our fundamental understanding of what matters, what is of value, what life is all about, allowing all of that, to be reshaped in the light of who God is.
Right in the centre of our reading from 1 Peter there is a quote from Proverbs – God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. 1 Peter then goes on to say, “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.” The phrase humble yourselves implies an enduring process of change – this isn’t a one-time event but an ongoing process. It is also passive which infers that we do not do the humbling, we allow God to humble us. Humility does not mean having a negative self-image or thinking poorly of ourselves. It involves a reordering of our hearts and minds where the I am which is at the centre is replaced by the true I am: God. Where our lives are continually realigned with God and God’s desires. Conversion is not the first step in the Christian life it is what the whole of the Christian life is about.
It is an understatement to say that this is never an easy process. Jesus speaks of taking up your cross daily; passages like 1 Peter tell us that suffering one way or another is inevitable. To be a Christian is to be a person who is allowing our view of the world, our understanding of what matters, what is of value to be challenged, changed and reformed by Christ. Even the things we hold most dear are called into question, exposed for the ways in which they are false. So that they can be refashioned by God in ways that we would never have expected or imagined. And that is not easy for any of us but it is particularly demanding for those who lead.
Which brings us back to the job or the calling of a priest. Our readings make it very clear that the job of a leader in the church is not to simply offer comfort as important as that is, but to lead the community into this lifelong journey of transformation in which the façades we live with are peeled back so that we can begin to see and live in the light of the way things really are. The true Shepherd, the Good Shepherd is Jesus.
A leader’s job is to help a community come to know and live in response to Jesus. And what is more, as 1 Peter makes clear, a leader leads by example – by being the first in line to allow Jesus to reshape their heart and mind.
So why would anyone want to become a priest? Perhaps because they have seen enough of who Jesus is and what he is about that they are willing to risk it all in following him.
I love the way 1 Peter finishes this section – “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen and establish you.” The Good Shepherd knows where he is leading us and he is faithful. To be a priest is to follow his lead.