Ordination of Priests Sermon
Ordination of Priests
A sermon preached by The Ven Rosemary Lain-Priestley, Bishop’s Adviser for the Bishop of London.
Saturday 02 July 2022.
61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
Matthew 9:35-10.1, 5-16
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.
16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and sent them out saying ‘proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”’
Lovely colleagues who are soon-to-be-priests, you are being sent out on a journey. Sent out after a long and rigorous process of discernment and the best quality theological training, yet with no bag for your journey, no extra tunic or sandals or a staff, no gold, or silver or copper in your belts. Which is a great metaphor for the reality of daily ministry, where every encounter, every new situation, every day will remind you, as I say rather patronisingly to my children sometimes: ‘How much you know, and yet how little you know’.
And that’s fine, because we do this in God’s strength, not our own. And it’s God’s harvest, not ours. It’s not all on us to bring it in. There are even days we’ll have to shake the dust from our feet because we’re just not getting anywhere. But there’s always the next day and new every morning is the love that awakes us to pick up the task again.
In Alice Walker’s novel, The Temple of my Familiar, one of the characters says, ‘As a minister, I am quite unnecessary to anyone else’s salvation. Surely it is one of the universe’s little jokes that I must be a minister in order to make them see this’.
Similarly the theologian Simon Cuff writes that being a priest ‘means helping those to whom we are sent and whom we are called to serve to get rid of the obstacles that get in the way of their relationship with Christ, and then to get out of the way ourselves.’
I would hazard a guess that some of you gathered here today have known priests who are not great at getting out of the way. I couldn’t possibly comment.
But I want to say, as a priest, to these nine people to be ordained priest, in the presence of more other priests than I’ve managed to count, that in one sense we are completely superfluous to the communities in which we minister – all these people can perfectly well encounter God for themselves. But the point of us is to remind them of that.
I went to a gig in the grounds of Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath recently. There is nothing like music outdoors in a beautiful place, on a blessedly sunny summer evening, surrounded by people having a great time. It was pure gift.
The singer was Rag ‘n Bone Man – which may mean something to some of you and not a lot to others, so I should explain that he is a big, burly bloke, covered in tattoos, who has the voice of a soulful, deep-throated angel.
And he sang a song called ‘Grace’. Now to me the word grace sums up the Gospel. Grace is the truth of the all-encompassing love of God in every moment of our living – and our dying and rising. Grace is the knowledge that whatever we do nothing can separate us from the tender, gentle, attentive, intimate love of God. Grace is ‘Your sins are forgiven, go and live your life as your best self’. Grace is what saves us from the illusion that we are worthless. Grace is everything.
And Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s sings:
‘In the arms of the saint I’m a stranger
Will I always be defined by my mistakes?
At the death of every darkness there’s a morning
We’re all trying to find our way
Though we all try
We all try
We’re all one step from grace.’
So there I am on Hampstead Heath and in my head I’m having a pastoral conversation with Rag ‘n’ Bone Man. And I’m saying: you’re not a stranger to sainthood, big burly man covered in tattoos, singing so tenderly. We’re all a mixture of saint and sinner – the fault line runs through the middle of us – but the point is we are all forgiven. That’s grace. So no, you’re not defined by your mistakes. You are made in God’s image and God sees you, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man. And what God sees is good.
And yes, you’re right, at the death of every darkness there is a morning: that’s the promise of resurrection in the most impossible of places. That’s grace too. And you’re right again: we are all trying to find our way, and we all try, we all try, but we’re not one step from grace, because grace comes to us. There’s nothing we can do or need to do to achieve it. It’s not a prize we have to win. It’s a gift freely given. It’s just here.
One of the biggest obstacles to people’s relationships with Jesus is the feeling that they’re one step away from good enough. And as priests you will do two things in particular which help to clear that obstacle out of the way. Firstly, you will tell people that their sins are forgiven. You are a living breathing symbol of God’s forgiveness. And you will faithfully remind people of that liberating truth at every opportunity you have. Don’t underestimate the power that has to transform people’s lives.
And secondly, you will preside at the Eucharist. On behalf of the whole gathered community it will be your privilege to offer this feast: which is not your feast, it’s Christ’s, but you hold the space and you hold the people in your hearts and you do the taking and the blessing and the breaking and the offering which point to Christ’s presence among us, and you call on the Holy Spirit to make that presence real. You don’t do that because you belong to an exclusive club-of-people-who-are-good-enough-to-be-allowed. You do it because these people, the church, have called you out for that task.
The late Michael Perham, formerly Bishop of Gloucester, once wrote ‘[The Eucharist is] the bread of the broken … The more fragile or broken your life, your faith, your promises, your sanity, the more you need to hear the invitation ‘Come and eat’. And when you find yourself at the altar surrounded by people who seem a little mad, or sometimes you suspect rather bad, and certainly lost, and not always adequate, as the world sees it, remember that’s the way it’s meant to be’.
Everything else that you do will be an outworking, a concrete expression, of that table at which you host that feast, to which you invite people to come as they are and to come and eat.
So in God’s strength, live out the truth of that Eucharistic invitation. Bring good news to the oppressed: the marginalised, the forgotten, the lonely, the isolated, the refugee and the asylum seeker. Bind up the broken-hearted: the abused, the disappointed, the anxious, the depressed, the traumatised. Proclaim a message of freedom and work to make that freedom real: freedom from debilitating guilt, from poverty, from debt, from prejudice and bias, from racial injustice. Be with the bereaved, those who mourn and who long for a garland instead of ashes.
There’s a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke which has been a gift to this week’s ordination retreat. It’s a poem about how fragmented we sometimes feel, scattered in pieces, wondering how our life adds up. Wondering whether we have strayed too far from who we are to find our way back. Like sheep harassed and helpless, in need of a shepherd.
I’m told that the poem was inspired by the parable of the prodigal son. That story of how God is always waiting for us with open arms, at all hours of the day and night, whenever we eventually decide to come home. It finishes with the following words:
‘I yearn to be held
In the great hands of your heart –
Oh let them take me now.
Into them I place these fragments, my life,
And you, God – spend them however you want.’
The fragments of your life are a gift to the church. And of your lives too.
May you be blessed and be a blessing to others as you are sent out on this journey. Carrying no bag, no extra tunic, no sandals nor a staff but instead, the mantle of praise, the oil of gladness and garlands instead of ashes.
And (in the words of my youngest child) may every day be an awesome day.
And so, into the great hands of God’s heart we place the fragments of our scattered lives, that they may reflect God’s light and glory in the world.
 Alice Walker, The Temple of my Familiar, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2011
 Simon Cuff, Priesthood for all Believers: Clericalism and how to avoid it, SCM Press 2022, p12
 Michael Perham, One Unfolding Story, Canterbury Press, 2018, loc 1459
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours II, 2