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Ordination of Robert Whalley

Sermon preached in Wangaratta Cathedral on the occasion of the ordination of Robert Whalley to the Diaconate: Friday 4th December, 2009
Fr Stephen Miles

Ps 15 Gal. 6:7-10 Mt 13:47-52
Again the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.

At weddings, I usually begin by saying that John and Jenny have already made their commitment to each other and that what they are doing today is making that commitment public, before family and friends and before God, asking for both God's blessing on their relationship and the support of family and friends in their journey ahead as man and wife.

Robert has long since committed himself to Christian ministry and stands before us today an experienced teacher and preacher of God's word, a wise practitioner in spiritual direction, prayer and meditation and — as a former chaplain to tertiary institutions — experienced in counseling and pastoral care. For quite some time, Robert has sought to have his baptismal ministry newly "ordered"; that is, to respond to and to test a calling to ordained ministry, with the visible authority and specific responsibilities it carries. The Church, in its turn, has found Robert both suited to, and fit for, the office of Deacon. Like the man and woman who have already made their commitment to each other, Robert is today asking for the support of us all in the household of faith and for the gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands by the Bishop: an outward and visible sign of the grace of Holy Orders, in which Robert's Christian discipleship continues, and under which his ministry as a baptized person is from henceforth re-expressed.

Today, the Anglican Church celebrates the witness of Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the religious household at Little Gidding, that tiny community of family and friends who in 1626 in rural Cambridgeshire dedicated themselves to a life of daily prayer and service to others. Though the community barely lasted 20 years, so profound was the sanctity of their Christian lifestyle that Little Gidding is still today one of those 'thin places' spoken of in Celtic spirituality where two worlds meet, holy places where one might encounter God as Moses encountered God on Mt Sinai, a place indeed immortalized by T.S.Eliot in the last of his 4 Quartets as a place where "prayer has been valid." The liturgical guide to Lesser Feasts says of Nicholas Ferrar, rather summarily, that after his business collapsed "he took deacon's orders and retired to the country!" What actually went on at Little Gidding was Christ's mission to the world in microcosm — a daily round of prayer issuing in service to others — concern for the spiritual and physical needs of the local people and the education of their children.

In whatever arena — province or hamlet — the Church's ministry to the world is a response to God's love as revealed to us in Jesus, a response to Christ expressed in service to others, to work for the good of all as Paul says in today's Epistle. Paul's concept of Christian love in action is the renewal of all individual lives and, as such, he sees the whole world as our parish. The kingdom of Heaven is offered to all. It is" like a net" says Jesus "that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind." — all sorts and conditions. And implicit in Christ's saying is that all alike need that which is offered so that — as expressed in the Collect for Christ the King — all the "people of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his gentle and loving rule." This is the work of Christ to bring health and healing, meaning and hope to all humankind; the work of the Church, "the only institution" William Temple reminds us, "that exists for the benefit of those who don't belong to it."

All Christians are by their baptism engaged in Christ's ministry to the world, but those ordained into the Church catholic's threefold order have a special responsibility because they serve a public and representative function. As representative of the Church in society the office carries enormous responsibility and accountability; and as representative of Christ, as an alter Christus invested with Christ's power to heal, cleanse, and renew — powers given to the disciples — the sacred office of the ordained minister is one of immense privilege.

I referred earlier to 'thin places' spoken of in Celtic spirituality. John Pritchard has described priests as 'thin' people in whom may be sensed a world beyond, where God is, where people can be made to feel 'at home' with God. Or to put it another way, to use the words of Jesus' wonderful invitation to those who would come unto him, where people may find rest for their souls.

In describing his visit to the shrine of St Simon Stylites in the Syrian desert, Christopher Moody noticed on the plains below the shrine numerous hostels set up to welcome pilgrims and comments he suddenly became aware of the close association between pilgrims, travel and hospitality. First, the huge variety of people drawn to the shrine, fish of every kind; and as they approached that which they sought — nearness to God — places to stop and find rest, hostels wherein to find shelter, comfort, something of God's hospitality.

The Anglican Tradition has it that ministry is primarily pastoral — designed to attract people into the love of God, to bear the grief's and carry the sorrows of God's people, heal the broken spirit and bind up their wounds, bring Christ's healing and deliverance to a broken, harassed and helpless world. The Need is universal; the response by the Church of Jesus Christ is to all God's people, to fish of every kind, even if that response is sometimes met with by indifference, hostility, and rejection: As the poet R.S.Thomas writes:

The Priest picks his way through the parish
Eyes watch him, from the windows, the farms
Hearts wanting him to come near
The flesh rejects him!

But the sacred ministry — even in the context of this increasingly secular and agnostic society — still has the power to attract, to heal, cleanse and to renew lives, to offer people God's hospitality, a place where two worlds meet.

In ministry to the sick and dying we see it again and again. One old chap in Cabrini's Palliative Care Hospital said to me recently, "I'm C of E, Padre, but my wife and I never go to church. To be honest, I've never really understood it!" We avoid talk of God, but he tells me his story over and over, always accepts God's Blessing and weeps at the touch of my hand on his brow.

A colleague told me of a man who declared he was an atheist and had no need of a supreme being. The Chaplain replied she wasn't so sure about a supreme being either! But in the course of several conversations, in which Jack Spong proved to be of common interest, the fellow one day remarked, half jokingly, he no longer minded the crucifix in his room. When the Chaplain took her leave for the weekend and obviously couldn't offer a Blessing to an atheist, she light-heartedly suggested instead a peck on the cheek. "Oh, please" he responded. Quite unexpectedly, the man died that night.

The person in Holy Orders is widely perceived as a God-person, an alter Christus, as someone with Christ's power to offer rest, comfort, encouragement, mercy and forgiveness, the love and hospitality of God, proximity to the shrine, nearness to God, a place where two worlds meet.

There is, however, nothing special about any of us called to be ordained. It is a sobering reminder that we are no better than anyone when every day we come in contact with people of greater faith and virtue. And it's encouraging to note that the first disciples, chosen, commissioned and sent out by Jesus, were fragile human beings like us.

Rob, may you continue to delight in your vocation as a servant of Christ, and may your ordination this morning mark for you a wonderful beginning in a new kind of ministry. May you rejoice and pray without ceasing to the one who has called you to this service, and in all circumstances give thanks — for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.


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