Signs of Hope
An ordination sermon preached on St. Nicholas Day. It contains a fine section about Saint Nicholas.
Ordination to the Priesthood of Bonnie Malone, Donna McNiel and Chuck Messer
December 6, 2003
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
There is a saying that every baby’s birth is a sign of hope, a sign that God hasn’t given up on humanity. Likewise, every ordination is a sign of hope, a sign that God hasn’t given up on the Church.
Recent events in New Hampshire and Minneapolis, in Dallas and Lambeth, have shaken the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Some people have predicted its imminent demise. But long before any of these events, knowing all that would be, God began the process that has brought us to this day. God spoke in the hearts of Bonnie and Chuck and Donna; God called them and awakened in them a generous desire to respond, to make over their lives to the service of Love. Long ago, God prepared this day as a sign of hope, a promise that God hasn’t given up on the Church or the world.
At every ordination we pray the magnificent prayer that God will “carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation, that the whole world may see and know that things which had been cast down are being raised up, and things that had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In the face of chaos and dissolution, of fragmentation and despair, the divine design is constantly being carried out in tranquility. Quietly, imperceptibly, the Kingdom of God is growing, like seed cast on the earth, like mustard in a field, like yeast in dough. These new priests are to bear witness to the invisible operations of grace, to be signs of hope: signs of the ultimate vindication of the divine design.
In this dark season, this Advent time of not yet, of waiting and hoping and longing, in which the Church reaches out in yearning to the coming of God into a broken, sin-twisted, violence-torn world, God has raised up three new priests to focus and make visible the priestly work of the holy people of God. In the face of guilt and vindictiveness, they are to pronounce absolution of sin. In the face of hatred and cursing, they are to pronounce God’s blessing. They are to preach, and teach, and love, and serve, and become living signs of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are to celebrate the Eucharist, a sign of hope proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes in glory. So they are to join with the Church through all the centuries; with prophets and apostles, confessors and martyrs, evangelists and teachers, bearing witness that God is carrying out the plan of salvation, and that even now, in a dark world, heaven is breaking in.
Today is not only Advent; it’s St. Nicholas’ Day. What a great day for an ordination! How could priests ordained today be anything but generous and joyous as they “nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace?” St. Nicholas is a sign of hope, a symbol of generosity and giving which children can understand, and even the secular world recognizes. In fact, the secular world seems to know a good deal more about St. Nicholas than the church does, down to the names of his reindeer. Our St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra, is supposed to have been a confessor during the persecutions, and to have been at the first Council of Nicaea, which, like his city of Myra is in modern Turkey. Tradition has it that he was a rich young man who actually did give away everything to follow Jesus, the beginning of his reputation for generosity. He seems to have been so loved by his people that he became an icon in his own lifetime, and all sorts of wonderful stories came to be told of him, even before he moved northward and took up with the reindeer and the elves and all. I’d like to relate just one of them: St. Nicholas and the Grain Ship.
One year there was a terrible famine in Myra. People were weak with hunger, and the children, whom Nicholas loved especially, were crying for food. Now it happened that a ship loaded with grain harbored at Myra. Naturally, the city leaders begged the ship’s captain to sell them some of his grain, for any price he might name; but that, he said, he couldn’t do. His cargo was promised to Alexandria, and had been carefully weighed; to part with any of it was more than his job was worth, and maybe his life. So Bishop Nicholas came and asked him to spare just a little, five bushels, maybe: many people would die in Myra otherwise; and, Nicholas assured him, he would not regret his generosity. Moved by the saint’s appeal, the captain gave the bishop the grain; and, sure enough, when he got to Alexandria, his cargo was not short so much as an ounce. Meanwhile, Bishop Nicholas distributed the grain from his own house, day by day, and from five bushels fed all the people of Myra till the famine was ended.
You’ll notice in this story an echo of the setting for today’s Gospel from the discourse on the Bread of Life which unfolds the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” Bishop Nicholas was an effectual sign of that promise. But I’m intrigued by one particular feature of the story: How did the bishop have the nerve to ask, and why did the captain agree?
I believe Nicholas could ask because he himself had already given everything. This is simply a principle of good leadership: You don’t ask others to do what you yourself are unwilling for; you can’t lead others where you won’t go. This is crucial for the work of parish ministry, I think. It’s true that as we listen carefully to the people we serve and gain privileged admission to the sacred precincts of the soul, again and again someone’s quiet courage or depth of devotion, so far beyond our own, astonishes and humbles us. However, while God can and does work through us despite ourselves, it’s unlikely that overall we will inspire greater generosity, more tenacious fidelity, more faithfulness in prayer and study, or greater willingness to take risks for the sake of the Gospel than we ourselves are willing to give. You are not being ordained to be consultants on the sidelines: you are yourselves to live very close to the heart of the Paschal mystery, dying and living in Christ, suffering and rejoicing with the members of his Body. Your priestly authority comes from Christ’s authority; and his authority is grounded in self-giving love and willing obedience, even to death on a cross.
Starting tomorrow, you will stand at the altar week by week and celebrate the Eucharist with the holy people of God. (May God give you the grace never to take this astounding privilege and responsibility for granted; may you never cease to wonder at it, at the thousandth celebration as at the first!) You should understand that, although, thanks be to God, the efficacy of the Sacrament doesn’t depend on the holiness of the priest, in a real way the people we serve do depend on our holiness and on our desire for it—they look for and rightly expect our faltering but always renewed striving for holiness despite and through our constant struggle with sin and brokenness. Anything less is a confusing sign, not the sign of hope we are called to be. We don’t present the people’s offerings and pray the prayer of consecration apart from our own self offering.
A hallowed piece of oral tradition in my days at The Seminary (by which of course I mean Seabury-Western) concerned the day the sacristan forgot to fill the cruets before the Eucharist. They were handsome silver cruets, not glass; you couldn’t tell what was in them except by the “A” for aqua, water, and “V” for vino, wine, on top. Unfortunately, on that day all there was was “N” for nada. The server presented them to the professor who was celebrating that day, opened the top and sized up the situation with dismay. Thinking quickly he suggested, “A miracle, Father?” The professor responded, “Water into wine I might be able to pull off, but I don’t do creation out of nothing. I prefer something to work with.”
God does do creation out of nothing; but in the mystery of human cooperation with the divine work, God prefers to be given something to work with. It doesn’t have to be much. Five loaves and two fish were enough; freely given, in Christ’s hands it becomes enough to feed the multitude. Or five bushels of grain, or ordinary lives like yours and mine. God gladly takes the ordinary, humble water of ordinary, humble human lives and makes the wine of sanctity and everlasting bliss. And God takes our vows and our offered lives, and despite their obvious insufficiency, God uses them to feed the world.
In the joy of today’s celebration, that self offering expressed in the ordination vows shines clear and luminous, united with Christ’s self-gift far more completely even than we’re capable of intending. But often in the days and years to come it won’t be so clear and luminous. (There will be those pesky “B’s,” as a Roman Catholic colleague told me they call them: “Budgets, boilers, and bingo.” “Sometimes,” he says, “We add ‘bishops’.”) Your self-gift will be lived out in budget committees and plumbing problems, in hour-long vestry debates about the wallpaper in the ladies’ room, in chronic temptation to seek people’s approval above fidelity to the Gospel, in anxiety about whether we can pay both the utilities and the diocesan assessment, in weariness and worry, in frustration and failure, in desolation and darkness.
So, remember: It’s all grist for the mill. All of it is part and parcel of your offering; it’s all matter with which to celebrate Eucharist. Grist for the mill: the mill grinds out flour, which is mixed with the water of baptism, and a little salt of radical commitment, and the Word of the Lord, sweeter than honey; and in that dough the Kingdom of Heaven is hidden like yeast, till all is leavened; and it’s baked in the fire of divine love till it’s done; and with this bread we celebrate the Eucharist and feed the world God loves so dearly. With this bread you are to proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection, until he comes in glory.
Tomorrow, and the week after, and for years to come, you will stand at the altar, receive the gifts of the holy people, and celebrate Eucharist. But today, you are the bread. Today, your life is the chalice, to be filled with Christ’s own life. We make our ordination vows, and by God’s grace we persevere in them. Christ makes us priests. Christ takes our offered lives and fills them with grace and power.
Bonnie, Donna, Chuck: Be signs of hope. We want to see Jesus; we want to know that the way of the cross is the way of life and peace. The world is dark: be like candles, burning and shining with the flame of love, anticipating the Sun. The world is hungry: Feed God’s people from the riches of his grace, that we may taste and see that the Lord is good. Let the whole world see and know that things that had been cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made. “Seek the holiness without which no one can see God”—yourself or the people you serve. Make your vows and keep them; do this, and it will mean dying daily; it “costs not less than everything.” But persevere in hope, and I think I can promise that at the end you won’t look back and wish you’d done something else with your life. Celebrate the Eucharist at the altar, and always and everywhere, with everything; God will receive the gift more fully than you are able to make it. It’s for you to offer, and for God to consecrate.
Therefore, I appeal to you, my sisters and my brother, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.