Icons of Christ: The Both-And of the Shepherd’s Vocation

Sermon for the Ordination to the Priesthood

St. Andrews Episcopal Church – Burke

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi, Rector of Pohick Church

Celal, Peter, and Santi, I imagine Isaiah’s humble and compassionate response to the Lord’s call resonates deeply within you this night! With images of clouds and seraphim, it seems like a mystical dream.

When you heard God’s call, I suspect you “pinched yourself” to be sure you hadn’t dreamed it.  I know I did!  As I lay weeping in a dark room where my mother had just died, I saw a glow down the hall, like a large, pulsing flame. I literally pinched myself. I heard: “It’s all right; she is with me.” And a little later, “I have something for you to do.” Of course, that “something” took years to unfold.

It’s in those intense moments that we spiritually pinch ourselves. We are awed by our encounter with the Holy. Simultaneously, we are humbled by the awareness of our own sin and failings. (Perhaps you three are now exceptionally aware of weaknesses, after CPE and years of seminary!)

Like Isaiah, when we first encounter that overwhelming, unmistakable presence and call, most of us protest in humility. Our thoughts and words are similar to Isaiah’s: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”

In other words, Lord, I’m just one of many sinners, and I feel lost a lot of the time! How could I be called and sent to shepherd your people? Yet, as we experience the power of divine mercy and love ourselves, we can do nothing less than share it. Like Isaiah who hears the Lord say, “Whom shall I send?”  Love compels us to answer, “Here am I; send me!”

I don’t know all of you personally -except Celal – but I sense that each of you has followed a unique, challenging path to the priesthood. To add to the usual challenges, the pandemic is changing the way we experience community, challenging the way we minister. We are called to a new resilience, creativity and flexibility. Nothing seems normal.

As former chaplain and a CPE and VTS supervisor, I’ve heard many stories of calls. Some wonder if they’ve really heard God’s voice. The process can feel like an obstacle course, with hoops and hurdles to clear. Some person, circumstance, or institution may disillusion you. Perhaps you even consider throwing in the towel.

Then, some spiritual guide, or someone you’ve ministered to, recognizes something in you that you couldn’t see yourself. Perhaps they articulate the way you embody and proclaim Christ. Their observations resonate with your life experience. They helped you remember: since childhood you’ve welcomed the outcast, spoken up for the persecuted, wept with the suffering, prayed with the fearful. With joy, you discern that God has been forming you for this since before you were born!

The prophet Jeremiah relates his call: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as prophet to the nations.”

A mystical experience of hearing God’s voice can feel intensely personal. You wonder if others will think you’ve lost your mind. As postulant in the Diocese of Texas, I was subjected to the requisite battery of psychological tests and interviews. During one test, I received a text message from a priest friend offering this tongue-in-cheek advice: “Just be sure and tell them you hear voices!”

In every age, there really are deceptive voices calling God’s people here and there. These voices divide and scatter, rather than unite.

Throughout history, scripture describes prophets as “shepherds” and God’s people as “sheep.” Prophets rail against false shepherds and others who scatter people, and shepherds who abandon their flock to ravenous beasts.

Ezekiel says: “They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field.” (Ezek 34:5)

Jeremiah indicts false shepherds: “You have scattered the flock and have driven them away, and have not attended to them.”

In Jesus’ time, the Gospels contain several passages warning of those who “scatter” sheep. In John, Jesus explicitly articulates the difference between good shepherds and false ones.

The good shepherd is the voice of love and reconciliation, beckoning sheep to gather and unite as one flock, under one shepherd. He gathers sheep, unites them with outsider sheep, and protects them.

Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus is pointing to his own sacrificial love that reaches its highest point on the wood of the Cross.

Conversely, false shepherds are identified by the chaos and division they cause. They allow wolves to scatter, divide and ultimately devour sheep.

These days, polarized voices so often divide and scatter, rather than gather and unite. Certainly, few issues cry out as loudly to us today, as the dividedness of a world and church torn by hatred, anger, extremism, and conflicting ideologies.

We sense our culture has become an incubator of rage. With the advent of social media, even Christians are quick to speak our piece, slow to listen and respect others.

Pastors may even take a side and dig in. As Christians, we have another identity. We reflect Christ’s love. Called to maintain inner and outer integrity, we are doers, not merely hearers of God’s Word.

I wonder if dualism, characterized by a divisive, either-or, in-or-out mindset, is the greatest enemy of Jesus Christ in our time. Perhaps our path to reconciliation and integrity is embracing a both-and consciousness.

Through the Incarnation, we apprehend God himself embodying the both-and! Jesus is both human and divine. He proclaims both Word and Sacrament. Both mercy and justice. Union, not division. In John’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes our ultimate spiritual goal: participating in the same one-ness and unity the Father and Son enjoy.

Athanasius describes the Incarnation thus: “God became man, that man might become God.”

Mystics have long embraced this mystery. From the earliest days of Christianity, Desert Fathers and Mothers longed for union with Christ. For them, the path to union was cultivating a mutually abiding relationship with Christ. As St. Paul puts it, “Having the mind of Christ.” And “No longer I, but Christ who lives within me.”

To be effective ministers, they focused on listening and prayer balanced with action. They practiced a both-and spirituality.

St. Benedict created a Rule of Life based on this both-and spirituality. Contemplative, prayerful meditation on the God’s Word, balanced with work. Incarnational spirituality eventually influenced the Book of Common prayer. It’s the essence of our Anglican via media, the middle way, the way of moderation. Prayer and Action. Sacrament and Word. Catholic and Protestant. Mercy and Justice. All held is held in a grace-filled tension.

Benedictine spirituality emphasizes three guiding principles:

  • Obedience. Listening with the ear of the heart for the voice of God, and being swift to respond, “Here am I.”
  • Stability. Remaining in relationship, in community. A commitment to life together, even when community seems strange, and is changing.
  • Conversatio Morum. Humility and the willingness to be transformed into Christ-likeness through participation in Christ’s paschal mystery.

What disciplines are necessary to be formed in this non-dualistic thinking? Follow our Lord’s example. Jesus frequently went away into solitude; prayed in silence; and listened, internalized and embodied the Word of God. And, as my beloved spiritual director, the late Sister Adeline would frequently say, be sure to “Rest in the Lord.” 

These principles and disciplines are useful for all Christians, as every individual is called to use their gifts in ministry – lay or ordained. These disciplines are absolutely foundational for priests. We must remain rooted and grounded in prayer, mutually abiding in Christ for the rest of our lives.

Theologian Karl Rahner wrote: “This is the life of the priest: To dwell completely in the explicit nearness of God.”

The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta, Sewanee professor and author, expands on Rahner’s quote: “This is almost unavoidable. The ministry of Christ that we experience is not some pale imitation of what Christ did in the remote past. It is not a lesser version of Christ’s ministry that we seek to emulate. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ acts through us. His ministry is incarnated through our frail flesh.”

The words and grace we administer are the words of Christ, flowing through us by the indwelling Spirit. We are privileged to be the presence of Christ on the Cross:

  • as we listen, present to people who are struggling with their faith.
  • as we sit with a dying parishioner
  • as we baptize a newborn baby
  • as we hear a confession, with humility we know ourselves to be broken and we grow in compassion.
  • as we speak the words of Christ in the Eucharistic prayer.
  • In all of this, we are privileged to be “icons of Christ.”

Soon, Bishop Goff will ask you some questions. You will take vows as Pastor, Priest, and Teacher. As pastor, you are the shepherd whose Christlike ministry extends beyond pastoral care, to administration and building the Body of Christ by encouraging peoples’ gifts. As a priest, you are the icon of Christ invested with sacramental and liturgical authority. As Teacher, you encourage lifelong formation in Christ.

Tonight, you’ll respond once again to the Lord’s call. Isaiah’s words turned into a familiar hymn will surely resonate with you: “Here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

You did not hear this call alone. Your spouses, parents, families, and community have listened too. Promising to “uphold you” in your ministry, God’s people have discerned and affirmed that the Lord’s voice is indeed the voice you heard. They will continue to support you in prayer.

As we sing the ancient Veni Creator Spiritus, we invite a special anointing of the Holy Spirit. Notice the mystery of Christ’s presence in a new way, as Bishop Susan lays hands on your head. As the Holy Spirit fills you with the grace of ordination. As the Lord makes you a priest of his church in the historic apostolic succession.

As for what is to come, all of you were raised up in this historic Diocese of Virginia – known as “The Diocese.” This makes me smile.Each of you were formed in a different seminary: Santi at Seminary of the Southwest in Texas, Peter at Duke in N.C., and Celal here at VTS. That said, I can’t resist…I have news for you…Yea, Sewanee’s right! Seriously, we were all formed in the via media, and I pray that we all embrace it!

From here, God is calling you into a variety of contexts. Santi, will complete a curacy in Hispanic ministry in Austin while his wife attends seminary. Peter, who is earning a PhD from Duke, has been called to academia as well as priest in charge at Trinity Charlottsville.

All of Pohick is delighted that Celal will begin his priesthood as Assistant Rector of Pohick Church! Along with Bishop Susan, we are very happy that he and Erin will remain in The Diocese of Virginia.

As icons of Christ and as modern-day mystics, continue to embody and embrace the both-and of the Incarnation. Be good shepherds who gather the community of love together as one, listen deeply, and reconcile a divided world to Christ.

As you return to your respective contexts and celebrate your first Eucharist, I pray that you experience, in a very palpable way, the nearness of God — under your hands, and in the eyes and hearts of God’s people. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

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