Sermon of The Renewal of Ordination Vows and the Chrism Mass 2020
Church of the Resurrection, Loudon, TN
The Right Rev Brian L. Cole
We work with words.
First, there is the Word, like in the beginning was the Word.
Also, the words of the scriptures are central to our work.
And liturgy, the words of the Book of Common Prayer and the prayers of the Church, both ancient and contemporary, along with hymns and sacred songs, enable and enliven our work.
Granted, let it also be said that too many words can fool us into believing we can live out our vocation without ever arriving at silence and acknowledging so much of the Spirit and the Holy cannot be named. Silence is holy, but also awkward, so we reach for more words.
Along with all those words, you also generate words, with sermons and newsletter articles and thank you cards and pastoral care notes and those impromptu, “Would you like to say a word before we begin?” invitations. You are gifted, I believe, as ordained clergy, to pay particular attention to the words of others. Wherever you serve in ordained ministry, in whatever capacity, you move through the language landscapes of people who have a way with words.
Jesus had a way with words. He had been immersed in the sacred texts, in the stories of faith, in the psalms. He could also tell new stories, by taking old and known images and giving them a turn, a twist, an addition or an amendment.
We hear him speak of the Good Shepherd. He tells us he is the Good Shepherd.
In telling us something new, we recall something ancient. We recall the Shepherd in the 23rd psalm leading the people through all kinds of trials and places. The Shepherd of the psalm revives and guides. The Shepherd of the psalm calms the fears of those who follow, even in the midst of death and evil, even when enemies and troubling ones are close.
Now, Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd. Jesus is clear he is no mere hired hand. This relationship is not transactional. The kind of shepherd that Jesus is, well, he’s all in, leave it on the field, give up his life for others, for them, for us, for sheep, whether in this fold or not.
No wonder he says he is good. That kind of Shepherd is also rare. But that kind of Shepherd, well you only need one Shepherd like that. So, you all do not need to apply for that job. It remains filled for the foreseeable future. Jesus is that Shepherd.
Before coming to East Tennessee, to serve as your bishop, I was the Rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. In Lexington, I soon discovered certain words were very important to the locals there and were repeated often and stories and tales grew up around those words. Those words were basketball, bourbon, and horses.
In listening to the words of the people who made up the membership of The Church of the Good Shepherd and also to those fellow travelers who circled around that parish church, I was surprised to discover the most common way that people named that church which was situated on East Main Street in downtown Lexington.
They did not call the church Good Shepherd. They did not call it The Church of the Good Shepherd. This is what most people said when they spoke of that church—The Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd.
Before moving to Lexington, I would have told you The Good Shepherd was Jesus. I now know in Lexington that The Good Shepherd is also that church on East Main Street. They would say, “We really love The Good Shepherd,” or “I have so many fond memories of growing up at The Good Shepherd,” or those words that no rector wants to hear, “Yeah, we used to be members of The Good Shepherd.”
Now, from this morning’s gospel lesson, we are told that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. For the people in Lexington, The Good Shepherd is not just Jesus. For them, it is also a church, a physical place, and a spiritual and emotional space in their memory and their common life together.
In following Jesus, we are invited to be in Christ. In Lexington, for many people, they understand that you can also be in The Good Shepherd. You can enter the door from Main Street or the side street from Bell Court or, if you are really in the know, come into the backdoor by the playground.
In a moment, we are going to reaffirm our ordination vows. In so doing, we will use words. We will use words that deacons and priests and bishops will say all throughout the Episcopal Church. On the day of your actual ordination, along with words, you were also given tangible gifts. Bibles and stoles in the liturgy, for some also a chasuble. On that day, at a reception, maybe someone gave you a book of prayers or an icon or some other signifier that you had been ordained.
Today, all we have are words. However, I hope those words of reaffirmation for you might also function in the same way that in Lexington people think of The Good Shepherd not only as a person but also as a place. I hope your vocation is also a place and still has room for you.
My prayer is that when you consider your vocation, a place also comes to mind. It is the place where you live out your call. Be it a parish church or a neighborhood coffee shop, a writing desk or standing with parents on a soccer field sideline, a hospital room or a college campus, I hope your vocation feels strongly rooted in a place, a physical space. I hope that place nurtures your call and celebrates with you on this day of renewal.
My prayer this day is also that your vocation, in the renewing of these vows, discovers more emotional and spiritual space inside of you. In the place of your interior life, I trust there is enough room in there for you to move around in living out your call. I hope your vows do not seem tight around the shoulders, constraining you into someone else’s understanding of the diaconate or the priesthood. I hope it is your vows that you are renewing today, not someone’s romantic view of the ordained life.
I hope that inside your vows, you are able to breathe deeply, to pray without ceasing, to know and trust that the Spirit of God that descended upon you on the day of your ordination is still descending upon you again and again and again. I pray the understanding that the ordained life is a lifelong call does not feel like a life sentence without the possibility of parole, but rather like a gracious and ongoing deepening of who you were made to be. In growing up and growing old, I hope your vocation also continues to grow more space.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus speaks of a power that he possesses. It is the power of his own life. He can lay it down and he can take it up. He can lay down his life without fear. He can take up his life, while also continuing to make room for you and me to find room inside of him, the Good Shepherd. In the person of the Good Shepherd, we also walk into the place of the Good Shepherd and discover that room has been made for us. It is a room that Jesus will protect for us, though wolves may come to the door, seeking to snatch us away.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, also told us he was the bread and the wine. Along with protecting us, he told us we were to feed on him, to eat and drink. In this Lenten season, some of you may be fasting. While I commend your fast, remember to eat the body and drink the blood. Also, remember to feed on the Word that we discover in the words of scripture. Eat those words, take nourishment from those words. Do not find yourself starving, while good nourishment from the Good Book is just across your desk.
I think I have said enough. I think I have given you enough words.
What is left now, for you, for me, is to sit in silence and recall our names, our given names. Your name, that is a word in which the Good Shepherd so delights at the sound of.
So, sit in silence, recall your name, remember the person you were when you were called, who was then ordained, who is about to be invited to say renewing words, and with God’s Spirit descending afresh, will be renewed.