Sermon at the Ordination of Warren Bradley Toebben
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 9:35-38
For the past few weeks, I have been joking that it takes a bit of courage and a bit of foolishness to be a good priest. And that by inviting me to preach before he had ever heard me give a sermon, Brad has already proven he has both!
It may have started as a joke, but there is some truth to it, isn't there? You have to be foolish and courageous enough to make the audacious vows that Brad will make when the Bishop exams him in a few minutes. Foolish and courageous enough to dedicate yourself to this institution - the church – with all of its quirks and to which the world - at least our corner here - is often indifferent and sometimes even hostile. Foolish and courageous enough to think that you have the vast diversity of gifts necessary to do this work or, at least, foolish and courageous enough to think that God will equip you with what you need along the way. Foolish and courageous enough to think we can transform this world. And foolish and courageous enough to try. Yes, the priesthood requires a bit of foolish courage and courageous foolishness.
During our interview process that brought Brad to us, the word brilliant kept on popping up in the reference checks. And I think that Brad's brilliance in inviting me to preach is that I cannot fall into one of the common ordination sermon pitfalls: talking too much about Brad. I don't have any funny stories about him... Yet... I can't talk about about remembering him when.... Back in the old days... I can't talk about my perspective of his call, and how obvious this all was to everyone for years before he realized it himself. And I think that might be why Brad invited me to preach. Because he knows the reality that ordination is not really about him. Ordination is about the church: the whole body of Christ. And a priest is just one member of that body. A member important as every other member. A member with particular functions, but functions whose entire meaning and value are in relationship with the other members. A priest is only a priest in relationship with lay people, bishops, and deacons. Each important to the health of the body as a whole.
And so, when we hear in our Gospel about the few laborers for the plentiful harvest, we would do a great disservice to Jesus' message if we hear this and think that priests are the laborers, and we don't have enough of them, so thank God we are ordaining another one today for the rich harvest. Noooo.... Each one of us here - whether priest, bishop, deacon, or laity- is a laborer for the metaphorical field Jesus mentions in the Gospel today.
And courage and foolishness are traits we all need to do this work. We need courage and foolishness to think that we can proclaim Good News and heal this world. For that is the very thing that Christ asks his disciples to go do. The Gospel reading starts with Christ doing those things, and then he talks about needing more laborers and then in the next few verses after our reading, he tells them to go do the very thing that he has been doing. That is what it means to be a laborer. Go proclaim the Good News. Go heal the sick. Go, taking nothing with you when you go - not money, not an extra pair of shoes, not a change of clothes - simply trusting God to provide you with what you need along the way given through the generous hospitality of strangers. How many of us are foolish and courageous enough to do that? But that is exactly what Christ asks them, and us, to go do. Go be him. As his disciples, as the ones who would eventually be called the Body of Christ, they, and we, have to go act as his healing hands and his proclaiming voice throughout the world. You need a lot of courageous foolishness to not only take on the mantle of Jesus, but to say you are acting as Christ himself - his hands, his voice, his heart.
And when we hear our Isaiah reading, we would be sorely mistaken to think that this is some kind of archetypal call story for priests. I doubt many, if any, have had a vision of God in the holy of holies with a robe so glorious and grand that it fills the room, and with seraphim flying around singing holy, holy, holy. Priests are just as likely as laity (and deacons and bishops) to have heard God calling them in a dream like Joseph; in a voice in the night like Samuel; in the words of an advisor, perhaps friend, like David; in the words of a stranger like Abraham; in an impossible request like Mary; in the deafening sound of sheer silence like Elijah. Rather, when we hear this story, we should hear within it our own call stories - our personal, individual call stories, and our communal, corporate call stories - not because all of us have such overwhelming, clear visions of God, but because there is so much here about the foolish courage we need to say with Isaiah "Here am I; send me!" The courageous foolishness and the foolish courage to allow the burning coal to touch our unclean lips and purify us, to truly allow our guilt to be washed away and live our lives without shame. The courageous foolishness and the foolish courage to stand up to one's peers, to stand up as one just as guilty, and say "Folks, we are on the wrong path." The courageous foolishness and the foolish courage to offer hope in the midst of darkness. Hope: Sometimes, I think that is the most foolish and most courageous one of all.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, be foolish, be courageous in the work to which God has called you in this world, in the work to which God has called all of us in this little corner of the earth that we occupy. Be Christ: Proclaim the Gospel. Heal the world. Offer hope. Amen.