A Sermon Preached at the Ordination of Robert Wesley Arning
St. James the Less Episcopal Church
December 15, 2018
I did an extensive search on the internet looking for a reliable source of information on the average time it takes from the first twinges of hearing a call to the ordained priesthood until the ordination takes place. I was unsuccessful. From experience I am going to guess that the average is between seven and ten years. Some shorter, some longer, but that’s in the ballpark – except for Wesley!
Wesley was called almost from birth to the ordained ministry. There are great stories about Wesley, at the age of three, making everyone gather around in the living room after Sunday dinner to watch him preach and celebrate!
On my first Sunday as rector of St. Paul’s in Murfreesboro, after the eleven o’clock service, the line of folks was dwindling down as I greeted people as they left the service. A young teenager walked up to shake my hand. His Sunday bulletin was covered with notes. He said, “Father Polk, in the first part of your sermon you said such and such (I don’t remember the theological point), and at the end of your sermon you said such and such. They seem to contradict each other. (He had it written down in his notes!) Can you explain that?” I immediately knew he was correct – and didn’t have an answer! Fortunately, there were a few more people in line, so I asked if he could come by the office the next day after school so we could discuss it. No one else caught my theological error – or at least they didn’t mention it. That young man was, of course, Wesley, then a freshman in high school. The good news is that he didn’t have a drivers’ license – so I didn’t have to explain the theological discrepancies.
Here are a few bullet points you may or may not know about Wesley:
• He has befriended two Arch- Bishops of Canterbury and bishops from Africa, as well as from across the Episcopal Church
• He officiated at his first baptism at the age of seven, when he baptized his brother Jake – one of the few Episcopalians who has been baptized twice!
• He was the first youth representative to serve on the vestry of St. Paul’s, Murfreesboro.
I could tell many more stories about Wesley, but you all know him as well as I do, if not better.
Wesley, the day you have been dreaming about your entire life is here. I have no doubt or concern over the question, “Is it your will that Wesley be ordained a priest?” And answered it with a hearty “It is.” As well as answering “Will you uphold him in this ministry?” with a heartfelt “We will.” I noticed I was not alone in this. I am so honored and thankful to be here to witness, support and be a part of your dream coming true!
In our Gospel reading, Matthew relates how Jesus looks with compassion on the harassed and helpless crowds. Compassion. The word means to suffer with someone. Jesus sees how the people are like sheep without a shepherd – and He has compassion.
Jesus tells His disciples to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field. We jump from sheep to fields of wheat ripe for the harvest, but in both cases, what is needed are workers. God needs shepherds and workers to be the hands and feet of Jesus at work in the world.
In this, Jesus does not start with the shepherd or with the harvest worker. Jesus begins with the sheep and with the wheat. Jesus begins with a lost and hurting world and then turns to find the people to reach out to bring a healing touch to those hurts. Every single one of Jesus’ disciples was expected to go out and minister to others in Jesus’ name. Every single follower of Jesus is a minister of the Gospel.
We are not gathered here to single out Wesley as the sole minister at St. James the Less or any other parish. We are here to push Wesley to the center for a particular ministry of blessing, absolving sins and in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. This is ministry for which the church has ordained persons for centuries, but not in such a way as to make him or her to be the only minister in a church.
The role of the priest is to be an example to the flock. This is where we get the now out of use word “parson” which means a representative person. We also get the word “vicar” – one who serves vicariously for the bishop. So a priest, whether in a mission or parish is representing God in such a way that encourages the whole congregation to do the same.
Priests are, in the words of this ordination service, to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” And unlikely as it seems, by saints, we mean the whole congregation. Every single baptized Christian is a saint who is to be equipped for the work of ministry. And within that kingdom of priests who serve our God, some are called to be “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.”
Why in the world would Jesus need such a vast operation, with every single baptized Christian working in ministry, with deacons serving as icons of service to others, taking the church to the world and bringing back the needs of the world to the church; while being built up, encouraged, and equipped by priests through the ministry of Word and Sacrament; and all of this taking place under the oversight of a bishop, the chief pastor of a diocese?
Because Jesus’ vision is that all of the harassed and helpless find green pastures. Jesus teaches clearly that there are folks wandering around aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd. These folks are trying to find peace in their lives through alcohol abuse, by abusing drugs, both legal and illegal, as well as through unhealthy relationships, and lots of other situations that will never bring rest to their weary souls. Jesus’ vision is that every one of these lost sheep is brought to still waters.
Bringing lost sheep home is why we are gathered here today. We are here because The Good Shepherd is concerned about the flock and I don’t mean the flock that is already in the church. The Good Shepherd’s flock is the whole world and there are a lot of lost sheep out there.
We could wander out of this building and within easy walking distance of this altar we could find people who need the peace that can be found right now in this place. Yet so often those people trying to fill a God-sized whole in their hearts are convinced that the answer isn’t here. They need to see the peace of God in our lives first. Then they can come to find rest for their souls.
In just a few minutes Bishop Bauerschmidt will be joined by the clergy of the Diocese of Tennessee in laying hands on Wesley. The bishop will pray for the Holy Spirit to fill Wesley with grace and power and make him a priest in Christ’s church. It is that Spirit resting on him that will make the ministry of the priesthood possible. Because of the work of the Spirit, Wesley will bless and absolve in God’s Name and take up the ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament. The Spirit working in and through and even in spite of Wesley, will make Christ present in such a way as to equip the saints for ministry.
Wesley, please stand up. Wesley, you are supported by your bishop, your fellow clergy, Megan, especially Megan, and your larger family. And you are surrounded by your fellow baptized Christians who are also the ministers of this church. God’s light will shine through you and all those gathered here today in His name. We gather here today because we have seen that light shining through you. We have seen that holy spark that comes from the Spirit of God alone. It is our belief that our Lord has called us to ordain you as a priest in Christ’s holy catholic Church.
Today is about those lost sheep out there. Keep the flock in your care focused outward on the needs of the world. Harassed and helpless people are all around. Never forget God’s compassion for them. Turn the parishes where you minister inside out to see that the church is not here for its own sake, but for the sake of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Spirit will rest on you and on them to empower you for the work of equipping the saints to bring healing to a lost and hurting world.
May God’s blessing be upon you as you love all God’s children.