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Whom God Calls . . .
various texts
Rick in Va,

First sermon as an ordination exploration intern to a mid-size to large Episcopal Church in the colonial capital of Williamsburg Virginia.

Good morning folks, it is a pleasure to be here at St. Martin’s although I must confess to some anxiety. This morning’s epistle reminds us not to be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, we are to present our requests to God. So allow me begin with short prayer flare.

Dear Lord, You alone are worthy of praise, you alone are exalted. And You promise to inhabit the praises of Your people. We thank You Lord for your presence here this morning. Father, may what I say here today fall on deaf ears and may what You say through me fall on open hearts and open minds. We pray this in our Savior’s name, the name of Jesus, amen.

As I stand here before you this morning, I confess to having a minor case of butterflies or flutterflies as the younger ones might call it. In an attempt to break the ice, and having nothing to do with my message this morning, I’d like to share a short story with you.

There were two little boys who were placed next to each other in the pre-operative ward of a local hospital. They were understandably a bit anxious about the surgery they each faced and were also suffering from a case of the flutterflies. One of the little boys, as he fidgeted in his bed, turned to the other and asked “What are they going to do to you?” The other boy nervously answered back “Take out my tonsils.” The first boy then said “Oh, I had my tonsils out when I was 8, it hurt a little but I remember getting’ lots of ice cream and being treated really special.” So the second boy asked the first one “Well what are they going to do to you?” The first boy answered “I’m going to be circumcised…” The second boy then said “Oh, I had that done shortly after I was born. I couldn’t walk for about a year.” (smile)

As most of you probably know by now, I’m an ordination exploration intern and a participant in the Diocesan Ordination Exploration Program or OEP to be short. Your vestry and Father Pickett have agreed to host my family and me for about 12 weeks. And we’re very glad to be here. We’ve been greeted with open arms and have been made to feel very welcome. And we thank all of you for that.

As part of the intern ministry phase of the OEP, I get to preach a couple of Sundays, meet with a lay committee about 8 or 9 times, serve in a variety of different ways and basically be exposed to the life of the clergy here at St. Martin’s. I’ve been blessed with the fact that there is more than one ordained person serving the community here and will hopefully be spending time with each of them as well.

I have the luxury, as a lay person seeking ordination, to be able to bring you a message today. However I do so with fear and trembling and with a couple of disclaimers. (Smile) I’m not seminary trained. I’m not an experienced public speaker. So if I say something up here that is less than sound, I ask for your mercy. And if I offend, then I ask for your forgiveness as I plead ignorance and inexperience… although they sound like pretty decent loopholes if you ask me. Maybe I should never go to seminary (smile). Seriously, I’m hoping that in some way at least one of you might, as the lectern reads, see Jesus… or more accurately hear Him today from the pulpit.

Father Pickett agreed that I could stray from the lectionary readings today and talk about my perceptions concerning the call to ministry.

The Scriptures clearly describe what some have called the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. In 1st Peter we read that “We (meaning all believers) are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that we might proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” We are already priests, in the sense that we have been commissioned by God to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to teach that which Jesus has commanded and remind all that He is with us, till the end of the age. We are all called to serve others as He did. We are all called to love others as He did. We are all called to be Christ-like to our loved ones and to our enemies. All of which we cannot do absent the power and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit and our submission to that person of the Holy Trinity.

Let’s get back for a moment to the phrase “priesthood of believers”. How, exactly, might we be priests to our neighbors, our friends, our family?

We begin by ministering to each other. We are capable of responding directly to the personal activity of God in our own lives by sharing what we have experienced. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, at the direction of the written word of Scripture, we are able to comfort, to guide, to assist, to empower, and to enlighten those who do or do not know Jesus intimately. This is accomplished in large part because we now have direct access to God. No longer is there a need for a mediator between God and us. The Lord Jesus Christ is our mediator. You and I are able to be the channel or the pipeline of God’s Holy Spirit. We are able to mediate God’s grace in prayer, confession, fellowship or simple witness in particular situations. At one time in Israelite history, a curtain was used to close off the holy place and the holy of holies in the Temple, where God's presence was manifest. The Scriptures record the tearing of this curtain from top to bottom at the time of Jesus' death, symbolizing the access that was granted to God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit.

I’ll personalize what I mean by this direct access to God by telling you folks about my cousin. He was a couple of years older than I was and he too was named Rick. When we were kids, since he was older, he was called Big Rick and I was called Little Rick. Those names stuck with us into our adult lives even though I eventually became bigger than Big Rick.

Roughly ten years or so ago, Big Rick was found to have a brain tumor. The family was understandably distraught. He had to undergo some very serious and very complicated surgery. Roughly the same time, I had just started attending a Episcopal Church on the south side. I had in fact, after nearly 20 years of absence, only recently returned to Church. I had been witness to and had experienced incredible things at this church, to include some rather dramatic healings. God’s presence had been manifested time and again.

When we were told of Big Rick’s condition, I wanted the priest of that church to come and pray for and with him. I wanted him to lay hands on Big Rick and pray for healing, as I had seen him do for others. Unfortunately, the priest wouldn’t or perhaps couldn’t come. Instead, he gently asked me to do the praying. He shared a number of Scriptures with me. He was loving and gracious. He prayed with me and for me over the phone. He tried to encourage me but when that call ended, I was less than happy. I thought it was his job alone to pray with people. This bothered me for a very long time. I decided however to muster up the courage, swallow my anger, and go and pray with and for Big Rick. Of course, I was to find out that many others were praying for him as well. His tumor was successfully removed and his recovery from the surgery was remarkable. He was on his feet in less than 24 hours. His determination to live and fight this disease was simply incredible. The cancer went in to remission. We were able to spend quite a bit of time together. In fact, within a few short months we were even able to play a round of golf together. It was an incredible comeback from very serious surgery. Sadly however, the cancer returned with a vengeance less than two years later. Again, we prayed. Rick fought valiantly and hard. Our faith was tested. But far too soon, and at far too young an age, Big Rick eventually succumbed to the cancer.

Many had prayed with Big Rick. He himself had prayed. We had prayed for healing. We had prayed for a miracle. Yet he slowly wasted away and then passed on. I can distinctly remember being called to the hospital shortly after his death. It was a terribly upsetting time. He had been such a fighter. He had been an inspiration to all of us. He had written a letter to the editor that was published in the Daily Press about his ordeal. A letter that had given comfort and aid to many who were also suffering from one disease or another. After paying my respects there in his hospital room, I found an isolated hallway with a window that overlooked the water. And there I broke down. I was physically heaving with sobs of anguish, sorrow and anger. Right there in the hallway, I cried out to God. Why? Why wasn’t he healed Lord?

In the middle of that very emotional event, literally in mid-sob, a peace that to this day continues to baffle came over me. I heard, certainly not audibly with my ears, more like my heart, or my spirit, a voice say that Big Rick had received healing. He had received the ultimate healing. He was now whole. He was with Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that upon death, believers are absent from the body and present with the Lord. I believe that truth was confirmed for me about Rick by God’s presence in that hallway with me, a presence manifested by a gentle, sweet and assuring peace.

That peace I experienced, alone in that hallway at the hospital, is a peace that is available to each of us. I have been able to share that moment with others, who’ve told me of the peace it brings them. It is a peace I’m sure some of you have also experienced. It is that peace I think we all long for, especially when we face pain or sorrow. I had not experienced anything quite as intense as I had that day. The memory of it is vivid, and the memory is greatly comforting. God manifested His presence that day to me, of that I am certain. And I am just as certain that He has done the same for countless others. And it is those manifestations I believe we are obligated to share with each other so that we might fulfill our obligations as ministers of the priesthood of believers, bringing hope and comfort, assurance and consolation, to people in need.

Direct access to God by the power of the Holy Spirit, through our mediator Jesus Christ. I’ve talked about the priesthood of believers, and the responsibilities we have as members of that priesthood. And how I stepped out uncomfortably and reluctantly to assume some of those responsibilities. But what about the ordained priesthood? And more specifically, why might one believe he or she is called to seek it?

What I’m about to share should certainly fall under the definition of opinion. Remember, I said that I’m not seminary trained. You folks have a wealth of experienced clergy who can shed more light on this. Nevertheless, we’re accustomed to hearing an occasional opinion coming from the pulpit, and so I’ll share a few myself.

The ordained priest is the shepherd of the priesthood of believers. Every organization is in need of leadership, of direction and guidance, of encouragement for the task at hand. There is a great need for good pilots who can fly passengers through good or bad weather, for captains who can navigate through calm or treacherous waters, for quarterbacks who can lead the team to victory despite adversity but priestly leadership isn’t rooted in these more secular examples. No, priestly leadership needs to model the leadership that Christ modeled. Servant-leadership is the name some have called it.

I remember attending a vestry meeting where this became a subject of discussion. The priest drew a large triangle. He said it represented a typical leadership model, where at the top of the triangle, where the two sides formed a point, stood the leader. From the top, as you cascaded down to the flat bottom of the triangle, were different levels representing staff and their underlings, and finally at the bottom, those who were being led. He then inverted the triangle, standing it on its point. He drew a symbol for a priest at the bottom. The implication being that the priest was there to serve the people. Lead, of course. Teach and preach, absolutely, but always in the context of service; always with Jesus Christ as head and always under the submission of God’s Holy Spirit.

I agree completely with that vision of the priesthood. The moment the inverted triangular representation of the priesthood attempts to right itself, and begins to mimic the leadership triangle of the secular world, dysfunction is the result, and heartache is the inevitable consequence.

Of course, there are other duties that are more obvious responsibilities of the priest. The administration of the sacraments is so important. The sacraments have been defined as that expression of an outward sign carrying inward spiritual power. They are reminders of what God has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. And administering, as well as participating in those responsibilities is to be taken solemnly and seriously. St. Paul tells us in Scripture that we are to examine ourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. I know that I am sometimes guilty of forgetting what the Eucharist is really all about. It is the job of the ordained to teach these important elements of the faith to us.

I also believe that an important function of the ordained priest is that role described by the Book of Common of Prayer as the guarding of the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church. I see this as being largely accomplished when one preaches and teaches from the Holy Scriptures, and attempts to encourage loving adherence to the lessons learned. I believe Faith is guarded when it is proclaimed boldly. I believe that unity is guarded when it is founded in the person of Jesus Christ. And I believe that discipline is guarded when it is taught not as punishment but as those boundaries that God has placed upon us to keep us from harming others and ourselves.

A call to ministry will be accompanied, I believe by the Holy Spirit’s gifts of servant-leadership skills, either those acquired or learned later in life, as one submits to His leading, or those innate, those who are born with such skills. I believe it is part of our job, the church’s job, to recognize those gifts in others.

I have shared with Father Pickett and others that I’m grateful for the word exploration that is part of the name of this Ordination Exploration Program. I’m exploring. I’m looking. I believe I know what I’m looking to find. But if I’ve learned anything in the last 10 years as a re-generated Christian, it’s that the pronoun ‘I’ should be seldom used. The pronoun ‘I’ can be an indicator for the noun ‘trouble’. ‘Trouble’ with a capital ‘T’. And so in reality, the OEP is a ‘we’ thing. We, my immediate family, we, my church family, we, my extended church family, are exploring this call. This means you folks here today, the folks at my home church Christ The King, the appointed St. Martin’s committee, the Diocesan Commission on Ministry, my family and finally me, we all have a role to play in this discernment process. And we certainly cannot leave out God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Let’s pray: Father in heaven, Your name is hallowed in this place, your holiness is manifest, even as we pray. Father, send Your Holy Spirit and grant wisdom, direction, and guidance to Your church. Father not just as it concerns this exploration program. But as it concerns the work you have willed for each and every one of us. Father, show us who we are to be. For when we are who you call us to be, the doing becomes second nature. May we be only that which brings glory to Your Son Jesus, in whose mighty name we now pray, amen!