Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sharing God's Spirit

December 9, 2017 – The Ordination of a Priest
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:35-38

© 2017 Evan D. Garner

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” Numbers 11:29b

I must admit that I was a little surprised when Worth called and asked me to preach at this ordination. That’s not because we do not know each other well. (He is godfather to one of our children.) Or because I worried that he could find someone better. (Many of you know how highly I think of myself.) I was surprised because it seemed a little risky. He is just getting started in his career as a priest, and there are so many stories and jokes and more jokes that I could tell that could derail the whole thing. The other day, I called him and mentioned that I might make light of recent “family developments” throughout the Anglican Communion or share some of the jokes that we learned when we worked for Robert Wisnewski, and all he could say was, “Are you trying to make me regret this?” I chuckled.

I confess that I don’t actually remember the first time we met. When you’ve been in ministry in the Diocese for as long as Worth has been, you meet and overlap with others at youth events and diocesan conventions and Camp McDowell and sometimes can’t recall when it all started. I do know that I knew Murray, Worth’s brother, before I met Worth. (Happy birthday, by the way. Isn’t it just like your older brother to ruin your birthday?) And Murray was really cool, so surely Worth would be, too. It turns out that they aren’t very much alike at all, but I did get to know Worth by reputation before we started working together. Although I can’t remember the details of our introduction, I do remember that first day of work with particular clarity.

It was long-rang calendar planning day for the staff at St. John’s, Montgomery, which is to say that Worth’s introduction to that parish was a four-hour, mind-numbing, month-by-month planning session that covered every event for the next two years. But, that day, the calendar didn’t steal the show. Instead, it was the book store. After finishing some renovations, St. John’s was preparing to open a little shop where parishioners could buy books and trinkets and religious gifts, and one of our colleagues asked what we should name it. “Name it?” Robert responded incredulously, “It already has a name: ‘The St. John’s Bookstore.’” “That’s no fun!” she retorted. “Let’s think of something creative.” So she began offering one suggestion after another.

Quickly, the tension at the table grew, and Robert’s mounting frustration was evident to almost everyone. It might have been his first day on the job, but Worth didn’t miss a beat. How about “Holy books!” he blurted out with a wry smile on his face. And then the game was on. While our colleague tried to offer serious suggestions, adding to our boss’s consternation, we lobbed out names that only poured more fuel on the fire. The coup de grâce came after one of us—I think it was Worth— offered as a possibility “The Book Hole.” At that, Robert put his foot down; our colleague folder her arms in frustration; and Worth and I giggled our way through the rest of the meeting. What a fabulous start to both a working relationship and a friendship! But, more important than that, I got to see, right from the beginning, something special. Worth has a gift for taking a challenging situation and helping us find joy in it. I don’t know whether either of us could have imagined that we would end up here today, but, in that moment, I got my first glimpse at who Worth is as a vessel for what God is doing in the world.

“O God of unchangeable power and eternal light,” we prayed a few minutes ago. I love that collect. It is one of my favorite prayers. “Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.” Those words seem to capture all of our hopes for the church that we love. They place the work of the church squarely in the heart of God’s “plan of salvation.” In them, we boldly ask God to make us vehicles through which the whole world will “see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up,…[that] things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by…Jesus Christ.” It is the ultimate reminder of the church’s business, and, as the collect for this occasion, we use that prayer as the theological lens through which this ordination comes into focus. It is, in effect, the definition of why we are here today.

But ordinations aren’t the only time that we pray that prayer. It doesn’t show up on a Sunday, but every year on Good Friday it catches me by surprise. Right in the midst of our commemoration of the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we pray those words of hope. It is the last of the Solemn Collects, and, as such, it brings the work of the church right back to the foot of the cross. The only other time we pray that prayer is a few days later, during the Easter Vigil, when the story of salvation is retold. After we hear the prophet Zephaniah promise that God will deal graciously with the remnant of his people by saving the lame, gathering the outcast, and transforming their shame into praise, we pray these same words, which means that the glimpse that we get at today’s ordination is the same glimpse we get when we journey from the darkness of the cross into the light of the resurrection.

The question for us, as we look at Worth and the bishop and everyone else who is gathered here today, is whether we can see it. How will God’s plan of salvation—the revelation to the whole world that God is making all things new in Jesus Christ—be manifest in the life and ministry of this newest priest of the church? The “record of God’s saving deeds in history” suggests that it will not be manifest in him as much as through him.

The Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel…and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” The choice of Numbers 11 for an ordination lesson is a curious one. This moment of distributed authority and power is not rooted in celebration but in conflict. At the beginning of the chapter, the people of Israel grumbled against the Lord, and he became angry, so he consumed many of them in the fire of his wrath. But Moses prayed, and the fire abated. Shortly thereafter, the people grumbled again, and this time Moses’ anger was kindled against them. “Why have you treated your servant so badly?” he prayed to the Lord. “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor it your sight.” And, just when it seemed as if God’s plan to bring his people into the Promised Land might fall through, God took some of the spirit that had rested on Moses and shared it with the seventy elders, and the journey continued.

The journey toward salvation always continues, and it is enabled not by the bottling up of God’s Spirit but by spreading it among God’s people. God is in the business of meeting us in our trouble and bringing us into hope. God’s plan of salvation means transforming darkness into light. It is the raising up of things which were cast down and the making new of things that had grown old. And we see that plan being accomplished in the church when the church is in the business of spreading the Spirit’s power among God’s people.

Sometimes that makes us nervous. Sometimes God spreads his Spirit upon God’s people in ways that we don’t expect and can’t control. Later in Numbers 11, we learn that when God’s spirit fell on Eldad and Medad, who for some reason didn’t make it to the tent of meeting, and they began prophesying in the camp, a young man ran to report it to Moses. When Joshua, one of the seventy, heard it, he begged Moses to make them stop. And what was Moses’ reply? “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” A true servant of God always wants more and more people to share in God’s Spirit. And a true priest of the church makes that his business as well.

We all know that Worth has gifts for priestly ministry. We all have our own stories from those moments when Worth came alongside us and reminded us that God is in the business of turning darkness into light, of changing despair into hope, of transforming anger and frustration into joy and frivolity. But, if we are only looking for those gifts to remain concentrated in this man of God whom we love, we will never fully see God’s plan of salvation working through him. The sharing of God’s Spirit has led us to this point, but now it must spread out even further. The plan of salvation must continue to unfold, and, Worth, as a priest of the church, is charged with helping others receive that Spirit.

Worth, may God bless you and equip you for the building up of God’s church and the reconciliation of the world through the sharing of God’s Spirit. May God give you the courage to lead God’s people through moments of uncertainty as a vessel through which God’s Spirit flows mightily. And may you always be in the business of sharing God’s Spirit with others so that the world may see and know that God is bring all things to their perfection by Jesus Christ our Lord.

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