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The Rev. Canon Patrick J. Wingo's Sermon
Ordination to the Priesthood, The Falls Church Episcopal, December 15, 2012


It is an honor to be the preacher for this service of ordination to the priesthood. As the new guy on the diocesan staff, I can't begin to express to you how it feels to be asked to come to this beautiful church, to speak to nine talented, faithful and eager transitional deacons and their families, friends, and colleagues. Since I am the new guy in the Diocese of Virginia, having been here almost four months, let me tell you just a couple of things about me and my family.


My wife and I have three daughters, and my wife is also a priest; we were married two years before going to seminary, and in our Middler year we had our first child, Graycie. She will be 22 years old a week from today. When Graycie was about five or six years old her parents had already been ordained and immersed in church work for a number of years. She was at school one day and the teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. When it was Graycie's turn she said, "Well, I might want to be a policeman, or I might want to be a fireman. But I know what I don't want to be." The teacher said, "Oh? What's that, Graycie?" She said, "I don't want to be a priest!"


To be a priest. This phrase must have entered your vocabulary and took up residence there at some point in your journey to this day. When you perceived that God was up to something in your life, you may have reacted like my daughter – "I don't want to be a priest!” – or perhaps like Isaiah all you said was "Woe is me!"


Or you may have guardedly said to a friend, or a family member, or a spouse, with a healthy mixture of excitement and fear, "Honey, you may not believe this, but I think I want to be a priest." Then your journey brought you to the point when you had to respond to a question from a bishop or a committee, or from your own priest or a vestry: "Tell us, why do you think you are called to be a priest?"

And now, in just a few moments, the bishop will put his hands on each of your heads, and pray that God will give the Holy Spirit to you, and make you a priest. And even though you will be a priest because God promises to be in our faithful sacramental intentions, and because, like Isaiah, you have finally presented yourselves and said, "Here I am, send me," you will be made a priest over and over again as you love and serve God's people. I think all of us ordained people might say a variety of things about what it means to be a priest. My hope would be that the common denominator in all our descriptions and definitions is that we never stop on our priestly journeys, that we all define ourselves not by who we have come to be, but by who God is calling us to become. You are made a priest today, but you become a priest every day for the rest of your lives.


How does that happen? Differently for each of you, because each of you will serve in different contexts, with different people; you will be influenced differently by your colleagues in ministry, and perhaps more importantly you will learn much from those whom you serve. My second call out of seminary was to a church in a Birmingham, Alabama suburb, as its very first full-time rector. It was a church plant, it had been in existence for five years with a part-time priest, and when I was called there it made its home in a triple-wide trailer. The bishop called it the Trinitarian trailer. I went there with a lot of anticipation and excitement, because I just knew that God was calling me there to build the best and biggest congregation in the Diocese of Alabama.


Nine months after I got there most of the people left. It was probably for a variety of reasons. Some of them were tired of worshipping in a trailer and they didn't think I was going to lead them into anything different anytime soon. Some of them had some heartburn about the wider church issues we have been struggling with for decades now; and some of them had finally had enough the day it rained in the middle of the 10 a.m. service and the trailer sprung so many leaks that one of the children asked if we were going to build an ark. A good number of folks left, and I was an unhappy priest.


But here's what happened. At the next vestry meeting, I got a raise. It was small, and it was technically from diocesan funds, to be honest. But this is what the core group of lay leaders said to me: “We called you to be our rector because we believe God called you. Do the things you were ordained to do, and we'll do the things we were baptized to do, and let's see how the Holy Sprit will move. We may not ever get out of this trailer, but we know that God has called us to be here, and God has called you to be here.” I became more of a priest that night at that vestry meeting because of seven faithful people. I stayed there 11 years, becoming more of a priest each day and each year because of the context into which God called me and because of the people whom I served and who served alongside me.


Who knows the contexts in which each of you will find yourselves? Who knows what God has in mind when we open our hands and say, "Here I am, send me?"


In the Gospel passage you have chosen for today, Jesus looks out at the crowds and has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Then he tells the disciples to pray that God will find more laborers for the abundant harvest, just waiting to be picked.  Since the Book of Common Prayer suggests this passage from Matthew 9 as an appropriate Gospel reading for ordination to the priesthood, it's an easy jump to say that you nine transitional deacons are the new laborers, ready to go out and make new disciples. And since Matthew tells us that Jesus looked out at the crowds and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, maybe while you are picking the harvest, you should round up some of the sheep, too. So there it is--you are the laborers, and you are the shepherds.


But Matthew's story doesn't end here. The context of this passage continues into Chapter 10, where Matthew goes on to tell us that Jesus sends out the twelve disciples themselves.  And in a wonderful mixture of metaphors, all of sudden he says to them, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves." So I wonder about you nine transitional deacons. Are you laborers? Are you shepherds?  Are you sheep?  And who are the wolves? Are they those who are outwardly hostile to religion? Are they the people you are called to serve? Are they the people who more and more are simply apathetic and disenfranchised by an institution that cannot keep up with a changing culture?


Here's what I think: all of those questions have some truth in the answers. You are called to be laborers when the context of your ministry puts you into those places where the work can be hard and discouraging and back-breaking, the way I felt when my ministry in the trailer seemed to be falling down around me. You are called to be shepherds when God's sheep are hurting, or scared, the way many of us may feel today after hearing about the tragic events yesterday in the Connecticut school. You are called to be shepherds when God’s sheep are running toward things that draw them from the love of God. And you are called to be sheep all the time, because at our core none of us are any different from the people we serve. And the wolves, man, the wolves could be anywhere. To be a priest you need to remember that all of these are part and parcel of your call; to become a priest you must see these roles and metaphors as possibilities for transformation – your own transformation and the transformation of the world.


When Jesus looked out at those crowds, I bet he knew that he would not be the one who would touch them, or listen to their stories, or celebrate their happiness with them. He knew that to reap the plentiful harvest he would need people like tax collectors and fishermen, or like some of you, teachers or naval officers or business managers, people ready to wade out into the plentiful harvest, putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes with a bounce in your step and sometimes with lead in your boots. So he sent out the twelve disciples, as he is sending you out. He sent them out to be laborers, but I bet he knew they would become something else. Maybe it wouldn't happen right away, but I bet Jesus knew that the ones he chose to send would be not only compassionate, but also become passionate about sharing his message; that they would be shepherds but also become leaders; that they were sheep, but would become clever and calm when they encountered wolves. And most of all that they would be his representatives, but they would also become his friends.


You enter ordained ministry at a time when people are exiting churches in droves. I could quote the statistics to you because I looked them up, but I'll not bore you with the numbers. The point is that the harvest is more plentiful even now, and there are more and more people who are indeed like sheep without a shepherd. If you drill down deep, most folks are looking for two things: community and meaning. Howard Shultz, the CEO of Starbucks, has made it his company's mission to become the "Third Place.” Home is the "First Place", work is the "Second Place," and Starbucks, the soccer field, the local pub and Facebook have supplanted the church as the place where people go to find community. And our culture tries to make so many things meaningful that everything is in danger of losing all its meaning.


At this point I need to confess that I am a hopeless Alabama football fan. I admit it, and that’s just the way it is. On August 25 of this year the New York Times reported the story of another hopeless Alabama fan, a 69-year-old woman who went to the annual “Fan Day” just before the season started, and discreetly spread her recently deceased husband’s cremated ashes on the edge of the football field. Now that may not be surprising to you – we hear about people all over the place doing quirky things like that all the time. But what was absolutely stunning to me was how many people I talked to and listened to on the radio who said that it was the most meaningful thing they had ever heard of. Really? Really? Jesus Christ is crucified, risen from the dead, and changes lives everyday, and that’s the most meaningful thing you’ve ever heard of? The harvest is plentiful.


Jo, Laura, David, Megan, Rob, Cayce, Amy, Leslie and Andrew: please stand. 

Each of you are called, like every child of God, to be the authentic person God has made you to be. And today God continues the Holy Spirit's work, as you come here to be a priest. As you step out into God's abundant fields, remember that whether you work in darkness or light, with lambs or with wolves, whether the wind blows lightly at your back or you encounter relentless storms, you become more of a priest because Christ goes with you on the way. You become more of a priest as you encounter Christ himself in the people whom you serve. Who knows what God has in mind when we open our hands and say, "Here I am, send me?" I can tell you, nobody really knows. So I charge you today, as you prepare to go out into the harvest, authentically be who God made you to be and makes you today, and continue to allow yourselves to be transformed by the One who desires the transformation of the whole world.


Amen.