Sermon by Elizabeth Welch, incumbent at St George the Martyr, Cadboro Bay. Commemorarting Margaret, Queen of Scots, Helper of the Poor
I want to begin by saying thank you most particularly to Ruth and to Logan, our Bishop, for the honour of being here to speak. This seems to beg the question, though - why are we here? Some of you are very familiar with this ritual or ordination and others may wonder what in God’s name is happening here. In the simplest terms we are here because we have been touched by the Holy, the transcendent, what some of us call God or Allah or Mother or Father or Lord or Beloved or Big-Big, to use the name for the Divine used by a friend of poet Padraig O’Tuama.
Just think for a moment of a, for lack of better term, spiritual experience you’ve had. Place your body in that experience. Perhaps it was gazing at the blank brilliance of a full moon just de-clothed of clouds; or standing before the waves of the ocean which, despite the chaos in your mind, just keep washing ashore in their untroubled rhythm thereby soothing your soul; or holding your newborn baby to your breast; or kneeling on the damp earth before the grave of a loved one; or entering a church and receiving a bit of bread and a sip of wine and suddenly being filled with a sense of your unity with every hungry being who has ever walked the earth; or bowing in prayer with your forehead gracing the floor and being flooded with the overwhelming reality of the mercy of God; or sharing in Shabbat dinner and blessing all that is as divine gift, or being blessed with forgiveness from your partner or child or parent or friend not because you earned it but because they love you; or receiving tender touch that teaches you that your body is a temple. Each of us has had experiences that simultaneously take us out of ourselves and bring us home to ourselves. Sometimes we wish we could stay in such moments forever and sometimes we cannot get away from them fast enough.
The point is – whatever we label them - we all have experiences of the Holy. Why then do we ordain people? The word “ordain” stems from the Old French ordener meaning to "place in order, arrange, prepare; consecrate, or designate”.
We ordain priests, I think, because we need people to help us navigate the borderlands of our lives. Ordained priests help us embody and integrate our experiences of the Holy; they preside over the rituals that turn us again and again towards the Holy. They accompany and encourage us as we carry the snuffed candles of our souls back to the Holy Fire of God to be relit. They are a symbol, a reminder, that God is not just in some distant realm we cannot touch, but is always meeting us here in the chaos of the world, if we have the courage to look with our hearts. They help us open the daily invitations we receive to dwell in divine love, to seek divine justice.
Ordained priests are not closer to God, we’re just designated to keep turning us all toward God, when it would really be much simpler to turn away. The great Roman Catholic pastor, priest and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote; “the mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. . . it is not enough for priests and ministers . . . to be moral people, well trained, eager to help their fellow humans, and able to respond creatively to the burning issues of their time . . . the central question is are [they] people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence”?
Dwelling in God’s presence sounds lovely and comforting but sometimes actually it’s nothing short of terrifying, because if we dwell with God then we have to go where God calls. There is a good reason why nearly all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible when called by God say in some way or another: “hmmm, don’t you think you’d like to find someone else for that job?” God is terrifying because God wants to love us, the naked us, not the dressed up in fancy clothes us, not the “has it all together in front of our colleagues and neighbours” us, not the fake smile “I’m fine, thanks” us, but the “I am lost and I don’t know who I am or why I am here or where I am going “ us; “the sometimes I am filled with anger or sadness or fear” us. And God will burn away all the layers of fakery to get to the core of us, the naked us, and will say: “you are so beautiful and I love you.” And this will feel like it scalds us, because it touches us at the heart of our vulnerability and our longing. God’s love always confronts and transforms us if we let it, and that is always a little terrifying.
In the Anglican Christian tradition, to give us courage and direction in our own journey of faith, we honour the lives of certain faithful people who’ve come before us. Today is the commemoration of Margaret, Queen of Scots. Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess who was married to King Malcolm III of the Scottish people in 1069. She is revered as the “helper of the poor” because she went out to meet the poor where they were and she brought them into her home and knelt and washed their feet, and she sought to reform institutions to better serve them. It is to reflect these choices she made in her life to be in solidarity with the poor that the reading we heard from the Gospel of Matthew is assigned for her commemoration. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” What is shocking to me about these words is that Jesus is not indicating that he’s been present in disguise in the hungry and imprisoned ones, he’s not been playing some kind of theatrical game - he is the hungry one, the thirsty one, the imprisoned one, the naked one, the stranger knocking on the door.
The great separation that is exhibited in this reading – the separation of the sheep and the goats - it is not a separation that is based on any of the attributes by which the world separates us from one another. It is not the people of religion “A” go over here and the people of religion “B” go over here, the orderly organized ones on the right and the chaotic misfits on the left; it is not the those with this language or skin colour over here and the opposite over there, it is not the heterosexual and gender conforming ones on the right and the queer or gender fluid ones on the left, it is, “did you love in action the suffering and oppressed? Did you stand with them against oppressive forces? Did you see God in them and love them?”
Make no mistake, there is a harsh line in the judgment of God that Jesus proclaims. The judgment is love, but it is love that takes no prisoners. And it is a love that is insistent and demanding. It is a love that will divest of every piece of armor we don and every weapon we construct to stand between us and the way of Love to which God calls us. No wonder we need rituals and prayers and sacred food and designated ones to help us navigate the journey into the heart of this holy love.
“to be known by God and to become [God’s] friend. This is true perfection” wrote Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th c. CE in his beautiful book, the Life of Moses. “Not to avoid a wicked life because . . . we . . . fear punishment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards . . . but because we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This…is the perfection of life.” Gregory does not imply that friends of God remove themselves from the mess and muck of the world or that to befriend God is to separate oneself from the world. Rather the opposite. Gregory commends Moses for standing in solidarity with his people, being willing to suffer in his body all that they must suffer, rejoice in all that gives them joy.
There’s a beautiful poem titled The Road to Emmaus by the poet Spencer Reece. In it the poet is seeking to understand a friendship of many years - a confusing friendship with a beguiling person who like most of us was sometimes wonderful and sometimes awful. About this friend and AA sponsor Reece wonders: “why did he want freedom for me?” He also writes, “Everyone found him impossible, including, at times, me.”
And yet don’t we all learn that it isn’t perfection or strength or competence that opens us to divine love? Reece concludess, “All I know now / is the more he loved me the more I loved the world.”
This is I think the best summary of what the work of a priest is: to love such that those we serve are called to love the world more.
And when I say love, I don’t mean love like the saccharine sweetness of a Hallmark card. But love like bread in the mouths of the hungry, love like standing on the front lines pressed up against the police barricades as we protect our sacred lands, love like cutting ourselves off from fossil fuels and seeking a way to live that honours the generations to come, love like sitting down at table with those with whom we disagree long enough to know we are both hungry and hurting for more than food, love like engaging in the work of Reconciliation with the understanding that it is a journey of generations, love like being able to offer real apologies, love like reaching across the lines that divide us.
What I think I’m trying to say is that being an imam or sheikh or rabbi or priest or a minister or pastor is inherently political. It is a defiance of all that would tell us that the world is only a marketplace and we are only products in it, a refusal to accept that the almighty dollar is the altar at which we should bow. It is to say, “God is bigger than all the pharaohs of all the world; and God’s bottom line is bread in the mouths of the hungry, the earth restored, the human family offering to one another the dignity to which we are called.” When I say that being a clergy-person is political I don’t mean political as in political parties and platforms and special interest groups, I mean it has to do with our bodies and how we do or do not communally care for and honour one another’s bodies as if they contain the divine, which to be clear, they do. It is political because it is to be designated to insist on behalf of us all that every living being is worthy of tender care. And to insist that everyone is worthy of tender care is always political because it goes against the philosophy of the kingdom of this world which contends that the suffering of the oppressed is the acceptable sacrifice for the prosperity of the rest of us. To insist that the earth is not a trove of resources for us to exploit, but the holy creation of God is political, because it insists that God’s justice, not Capital, is our bottom line.
We are in dark times and many people are in despair. But this moment, this ritual, reflects our commitment to hope. Poet Jericho Brown writes, “Hope is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”
Ordination is an act of imaginative hope; an insistence that God will always be calling us all into the glory of the kingdom that is Love. And it isn’t far away, it’s right here.
Ruth, you do not need to be perfect, you do not need to be the most inspiring preacher or the most knowledgeable teacher. You do not need to flawlessly preside over our rituals. What you need to do this sacred work you already have – because you have your desire to dwell in the presence of God, your commitment to be God’s friend. What we ask of you is that you use your holy gifts to call us again and again into the glory of the kingdom that is love. We ask you to exercise your creativity and make use of hope. And as we lift you up to the ministry of an ordained priest, we commit ourselves to supporting you in your ministry and loving you and your family who give of themselves, that you may walk this path to which you have been called. May God bless you and Gabriel and Odran and Iona with joy and always bring you home to one another, as you help bring us all home again and again to God.