A Sermon for the Ordination of Priests

The Rt. Rev. Craig Loya

A Sermon for the Ordination of Priests

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” 

I want to start this morning with two saints. Marilyn McCord Adams was a towering figure in the world of philosophy. She taught for many years at Yale, and later was the first woman appointed to the prestigious Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Marilyn was a very early advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and leadership of the church. She was an adamant Christian universalist, believing that all people ultimately receive the salvation offered by Jesus. But she did not come to these prophetic and progressive positions through the cheap and performative self-righteousness that is so pervasive in the church and the world. She suffered for it at the bedside of gay men dying of AIDS in in the early 1980s, sitting with so many beaten down and cast aside by the church and the anemic god we often present. When I was her student, she was one of those people who believed in me absolutely, when I didn’t give her a single reason to do so. I’ve come to understand that she believed in me not because she saw anything particularly good in me n but because she knew the goodness of God, and she knew that if she could help me keep my heart unguarded and open, God just might have a shot with me. 

Hiram Hisanori Kano was a priest who served the little Episcopal church in the Western Nebraska town where I grew up several decades before I was born. On the day of Pearl Harbor, as he was leaving the church after celebrating the Eucharist, he was arrested, and spent several years in internment camps for Japanese Americans. In the camps, he was well known and celebrated for his ministry of boundless love and compassion with his fellow Japanese Americans, German POWs, and the soldiers who guarded their imprisonment. 

Both Professor Adams and Father Kano shone with a contagious love and joy that emerged, not from easy lives where all was well, but from entering the depths of the world’s brokenness and finding the power of love, from looking straight at horrendous evils and seeing the exceeding goodness of God. Their hope was legit, born from being well-acquainted with hard times. They were the kind of shepherds Jesus is longing for the harassed and helpless crowds in our gospel lesson to know, people so deeply possessed by the Spirit of God that you wanted to be with them, you wanted to follow where they were going because they had found and radiated the very thing our hearts most long for. 

I am convinced that what the church and the world need more than anything right now are saints and shepherds like them: people whose whole lives cry out God’s victory over death because they have seen it up close. 

You all are signing up to help steward the Christian Church into a massively unstable and uncertain future. I can’t stand here and tell you how it’s all going to shake out, but what I can tell you with confidence is that we will not find that future with some brilliant new idea, or better management, or more money, or longing for the way things used to be. We’ll find our way forward by growing more souls like Adams and Kano, people who have been lit up with Easter after a sober reckoning with Good Friday, people who have discovered the goodness of God in the face of the world’s horrendous evils. 

Today, you are being called to become that kind of shepherd, and even more importantly, to help others become shepherds, too. 

The prophet Isaiah was also sent out as a shepherd into deep suffering and fearful uncertainty. To prepare him for that, God sent terrifying seraphs, who singed his lips with burning coals, pain and power all mixed up; a fitting warmup for what was coming. If you are going to be shepherds, then you need to let the seraphs do the same thing to you, every single day. There is nothing more important for you to do as priests than to yoke your heart to the living God moment by moment by moment. Go into the temple of your heart, go into the temple where you pray, and let the wild, creepy seraphs set you on fire so that your living and your work can render the unhinged, death-defying power of God to everyone you meet. Anything you do that is worth anything at all in the economy of God will only grow from that daily encounter. Don’t miss it. 

And once your lips have been burned with the fire of God’s love, your job is to go to where the pain is, just like Jesus, just like Adams and Kano. You sit at the bedsides, you march in the streets, you weep at the grave, you hang out with those the world considers unclean, you stand with those whose lives are falling apart around them, because that’s where Jesus always is, and the good news you will preach is only good if it accounts for the crushing bad news that everyone has to live with.

I’m not much smarter now than I was when I was Marilyn’s student, but here’s what I have learned: the only way you can be a shepherd is by putting your whole heart out there for the sheep every single day. And the funny thing about being a pastor and putting your heart out there is that people are almost always nicer or meaner to you than you deserve. Your heart will be broken regularly if you’re doing it right. But it’s in those very moments when we allow our unguarded hearts to be broken by both the church’s ridiculous fights and the world’s horrendous evils that we will discover God’s mighty power. It’s only from those encounters that we draw any credibility to carry the shepherd’s staff. 

What the world and the church need most are saints and shepherds. You’re being called to be that, but you are not being called to be heroes who stand out from the crowd. The world and the church don’t need a few priests to be saints and shepherds, the world and the church need every follower of Jesus to be fully lit up with the Holy Spirit, so your job is to bring everyone to meet those coal-bearing seraphs. 

Being a pastor used to be a respectable life choice, that guaranteed a more or less easy life, and often access to the lush halls of power. That time is a long distant memory, and thank God. I am not interested in a church that is big, or wealthy, or easy. Thank God the Spirit’s seraphs are slowly but surely burning away all that was once built on the racist, colonial, and sexist foundations of empire that were rotten with injustice. Years ago, you would have had a lot of baggage to take with you on the journey you’re embarking. Today, all you have is Jesus, poor and crucified. All any of us have is Jesus, poor and crucified, and the astonishing thing is that Jesus keeps raising up more saints and shepherds, coming from, yet one with, the harassed and helpless crowd, all of us together pressing in, longing to touch Jesus, who singes out souls to be blazing lights, setting the dark world on fire with God’s perfect love. Amen.