Ordination of William Starke to the Priesthood Dec. 14, 2007
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
I have been a shepherd of both the four-legged and the two-legged sorts of sheep. My wife and I helped to support the ministry in the first parish I served in rural Maine by raising sheep. Bill has asked me to speak on the figure of the Good Shepherd. This figure of Jesus as shepherd — as pastor — is the oldest representation which we have: a picture in the Roman catacombs of a young shepherd with a lamb draped about His neck. The crucified Christ is the most widely shared representation of Jesus, and second to it and closely related to it is the figure of Jesus the Good shepherd. Closely related because at once we think of the biblical Good Shepherd, we must think of the one who lays down His life for the sheep — who is irrevocably committed to the sheep and flees not when the wolf approaches — who is faithful even unto death. This utterly unique Shepherd who is also the Lamb that taketh away the sins of the world and who is truly our peace with God and with each other — who is truly Life, Life eternal — the life of the Resurrection and of the world to come.
The great Anglican theologian of the previous century Austin Farrar has a sermon on the priesthood entitled “Walking Sacraments.” I believe that ordination makes a person a walking sacrament. I teach that a sacrament has two dimensions. It has an objective dimension that has to do with God’s action which always has the character of unmerited grace. A sacrament also has a subjective dimension — our response in faith, our apprehension of the unmerited grace in and through this objective and effectual sign.
In the time that I have been a priest there has been great ambivalence about the sacramental nature of the priesthood. Some of this ambivalence comes from a feeling that such an understanding runs counter to Reformation theology, but mostly it comes from a mistaken feeling that the relationship between lay ministry and ordained ministry is a zero-sum game and that the needed building up of a church of disciples and the ministry of the whole people of God can only come about through de-emphasizing the ordained ministry. Clericalism is a real problem, but is not solved by laicizing the clergy and clericalizing the laity. Lay ministry needs advocates but they are least likely to be found among those who can only imagine the ministry of the laity as some kind of para-clerical ministry.
I believe the ordained ministers of the church are walking sacraments. I believe in ordination as a spiritual fact of great moment. It is characteristic of our approach to the sacraments that there is a temptation to domesticate them and to dilute the signs, to soften the inherent offense of the Gospel — So baptismal immersion which speaks of death and life becomes a sprinkling, and Communion bread and wine become predictably packaged and portioned. So we rationalize away the significance of the walking sacraments. But the sacraments resist — the ordinand finds it not so easy to shake off the awesomeness of the sign, and people who are properly instructed to not have too high a view of holy orders persist in acting as though they are entitled to look to their clergy for a glimpse of the Good Shepherd Himself. The people hope in the words of the priest to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, and hope to feel the pastoral touch of this Shepherd who is also the Lamb of God and who feeds us with His very body and blood and thereby offers us a new life with God and each other, the life of the Resurrection.
Let me say a few things about the nature of the shepherding which I perceive as I read the Bible through the lens of my experience with the four-legged sort of sheep.
Shepherding is hard work. There is no question of Bo Peep and her snowy white flock. Caring for actual sheep requires a great deal of stoop labor. It requires from the nomadic shepherds of Jesus’ time and place miles of walking in hard places. It requires endurance and the kind of physical hardness that comes from strenuous labor over many years. Some of the most physically demanding aspects of this labor require at the same time great patience and tenderness — the thing that chiefly makes a successful shepherd is the ability to midwife the birth of lambs, occasionally assisting in difficult births. But the real art is making sure that the newly birthed lambs eat — getting mother’s milk within the first 24 hours is the difference between life and death for a lamb. Some lambs drink very easily and naturally on their own. Some are too weak to eat and they can be helped — a little milk can be forced upon them even if they will not eat themselves. The most difficult are those called stiff-necked lambs, who will not eat and are strong enough to struggle against the shepherd who attempts to bring them to the milk. These also can be helped, but only with sacrificial perseverance and the greatest patience. St. Augustine says that the clergy must hold the faithful to the bosom of the Church.
And of course the whole life-saving business is a wet, bloody and dirty business which requires getting on our knees. It has about it the humility of Christ — His getting dirty for our sake — His perseverance in love even unto the death of the Cross. Just so this is a ministry and a sacramental ministry of life — the life the Good Shepherd has come to bring us, and that abundantly.
Now we come to an awesome moment this night — it is an awesome moment when in marriage a man and woman promise themselves to each other til death do them part, and make this promise for Christ’s sake. It is an awesome thing when a person after much training, preparation and prayer, makes an irrevocable commitment to Christ in the service of His people — and promises to be faithful unto death. Here the shadow of the Cross falls and here the rays of the Resurrection begin to shine forth — Here like Baptism there is a dying and rising with Christ, the putting away of an old life forever and the entry into a new life, the life of a priest in God’s Church, which is a til death do us part kind of life. Here God acts through the laying on of hands on behalf of His people and for the sake of a lost world.
It is no dis-service to the Baptized that a man should commit himself irrevocably to the ministry of making the Baptized life possible for given individuals in a given time and place and so be a walking sacrament of the Good Shepherd who calls each sheep by name and promises to lead them through the valley of the shadow of death and into green pastures.
William, here is my prayer for you and for those among us who are thinking of irrevocable promises we have made to God and which God has made to us.
I pray that you will be unashamed to confess Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead, and to give an account of the faith that is in you.
I pray that you will be unashamed of the fact of your ordination — of the fact that you are the priest of Jesus Christ and a walking sacrament of the Good Shepherd.
I pray that God will give you the greatest possible congruence between your life and the persevering love of Christ calling and gathering, feeding and guiding home His people, of which your life is to be henceforth an effective sign.
I pray that you will respond in faith and faithfully to this thing God is doing in your ordination.
I pray that many will be touched with the Good Shepherd’s sacrificial love through this effectual sign.
I pray these things in Christ’s name, in the name of the One who said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”