Ordination to the Priesthood of Ginny Wilder
Trinity/Old Swedes Parish,Wilmington,DE June 30, 2012
Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8 Psalm 67 Romans 12:6-13 Mark 10:24-45
Servants Who Are Shaped by the Holiness of God
Many years ago, my brother, sister and I visited our father in Raleigh, NC. By then, Daddy’s Altzheimer’s disease had progressed to the point where he was in a special care unit, eating his meals in a large dining hall. On this particular day, we were finishing our lunch when another resident began to look around with great worry. Finally, my sister said “What’s the matter, Miss Emma?” The elderly woman responded, “But. . .but. . but my dear, who is going to dismiss the servants?” Without missing a beat, my sister said, “Oh, Miss Emma, you can do that if you want to.” So Miss Emma stood up, waved her arms grandly and announced loudly, “You are all dismissed!”
Of course no one—residents, guests or staff—paid her the least bit of attention. Clearly, this tall elegant woman had, at one point in her life, possessed enough money and power to have servants to her bidding. In perhaps what was cruel irony, she now lived in an Altzheimer’s unit where she could no longer even take care of her own basic needs.
Every time one of my colleagues or friends is ordained to the vocation of deacon, priest or bishop, I think about Miss Emma in two ways. First, I believe that every person whom God calls to the ordained ministry is a deacon forever. So whether we are deacon, priest or bishop, we have no integrity if we forget that Jesus calls us to serve, not to be served. Miss Emma has stayed with me in a second way. At the end of every ordination service, I always want whomever dismisses us to wave their arms grandly and announce loudly , “You are all dismissed!” As people baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are all called to serve, not to be served. “We are all dismissed—to love and serve the Lord!” That should remind us where real ministry is supposed to take place—out there in the world, beyond any set of church doors.
A particular challenge of ordained ministry, however, is that very fact that we are called to serve, not to be served. Newly minted deacons begin their ministries excited, fresh, full of ideas, eager to use all that knowledge they have acquired in a crucible of three years in seminary. About six months later, a glowing priest changes the way she wears her stole. She is empowered “to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessings, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood.” Oh, and one more thing: “. . .to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.”
Sometimes, it is that last phrase that sticks out its foot to trip priests and bishops. One minute, we’re running the race with strength and patience. Then, without warning, we feel as if we are slogging through mud and can hardly walk—much less run. Suddenly, we find ourselves either face down on the track, flattened either by misstep or exhaustion, or by too many of those “other ministrations.” So if we are called to serve others, what must we do to nurture, nourish and strengthen ourselves in order to serve God’s people after year after year?
Of course, this problem is not limited to the ordained. Throughout the years, I have known many fine lay people whose ministries have strengthened, sustained and supported the Church. Yet when those folks do not invite or engage others to help, or when they do not hand over a long-standing ministry to someone else and take a much-needed break, they can easily become a martyr for Jesus. Sometimes the wreckage is not pretty.
Clergy are no less susceptible to this kind of misdirected service. The majority of us are really good at responding to others’ needs, yet when it comes to feeding, nourishing, taking care of ourselves? No. (I speak from some experience here, Ginny.) We must remind ourselves—or, for some of us—be reminded by people who love us—to rest, to reflect, to be in the presence of the Holy One who has called us to ministry. We must remember what that call from God originally looked like, sounded like, felt like. Did that call to vocational ministry happen in a holy place like it did for the prophet Isaiah? Did it happen in a moment when we could no longer run from the God who had created us, redeemed us, sustained us, and now calls us to a different kind of ministry? Or a moment that split open our souls, revealing the great truth that God is God—and we are not. In a holy moment of truth, in which we know that it is only God’s gracious action that calls us. God opens our ears to hear “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God opens our mouths to utter words we may never have thought we would say: “Here am I; send me!”
Yes, the call to serve others as deacon, priest or bishop is experienced in a variety of ways. Yet whatever that call looks like, it must be centered in the holiness and love of God. If our calls to ministry do not continue—throughout the years—to be grounded in the spiritual practices which nourish and strengthen us, our bodies and our spirits will trip us up. We will find ourselves spent, sprawled out face down on the track.
So we must follow our most perfect model of spiritual and physical nourishment: Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus withdrew frequently from the crowds and his disciples to be in the presence of God—to pray, to reflect, to listen, to rest. Yes, Jesus gave of himself to others. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Yet in order to meet the exhausting demands of ministry, Jesus nurtured his own body and soul as best he could. Jesus also took the time to nurture and teach his disciples. He corrected their false illusions about power. He modeled how to do ministry—not individually, but in pairs. He showed them how to offer what they had, to rely upon God to multiply out of God’s abundance. He showed them how to die so that they could truly live. Then, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, he empowered them to do God’s work in the Church and the world.
In a very real sense, Jesus formed disciples in a way that Brian McLaren describes “as an artist forms a work of art—or better, disciples are formed as an artist himself is formed.” In other words, Jesus modeled the practice of a holy life by his own example, then sent the disciples out into the world to teach that way to others. So it has been for over two thousand years.
In his book Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, Brian McLaren writes about practices by which we experience the holy, transforming presence of God. Whether we are ordained by baptism or into holy orders, these seven spiritual practices can ground us in the way that they ground Jesus. “Pilgrimage, fasting, sacred meal, common prayer, giving, Sabbath, and liturgical year—these ancient practices have formed people of Abrahamic faith through many centuries.” The practice of such spiritual disciplines reminds us, day by day, year after year, of the importance of centering our ministries in God, not in ourselves.
Only when we commit to such practices which empower us—laity, deacons, priests and bishops—will we be able to take the last place at table, not the first. Only then will we kneel and wash others’ feet. Only then will we pay attention to those who have no power, no prestige,nothing to give us. And then, only then, will we show—not only with our lips, but with our lives—the holiness and transforming love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. For those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Amen.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
 Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008), 36.
 Ibid, 28.