Sermon for Ordination of Johanna Pak, Monday, April 08 2019, 4:30 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
“I am about to do a new thing.” This is one of the sentences, it seems to me, which touches on the very nature of the God of Israel. “Let there be light.” “I am that I am.” “I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down.” “Behold, I do a new thing.” The God who is pure and absolute being is also pure and constant presence, and pure and constant creation, always coming down, always making new. The God of the rivers and the wild animals, the God of the desert, the God who has created and continues to create us to be God’s people.
The new thing which God is doing here and now, making a new priest for the church, is a source of great joy for me, and I hope for all of you, because Johanna is a quite wonderful new thing, a priest of exceptional qualities, a keen intelligence, an intensity of commitment, a depth of spirituality; and also someone who once, before my eyes, physically caught a very large man in an even larger motorized wheelchair as he fell off a ramp, and heaved him back into place purely through her own strength. And that was not a metaphor. I would like to think, for her sake, that she will not be called to any other such feats in either the physical or the moral realm, but chances are that she will.
Johanna, you will be a priest whom only you can be. There is no meaningful way to talk about how to be a priest in the abstract. You can only discover, as each of us is always discovering, what it means to be yourself as priest, to be a priest who is you, this one person, this one self, with its particular strengths and failings, quirks and wishes and broken bits, all of it real, all of it eternal, all of it both changed, and made more what it was always meant to be.
You are a deacon forever, and will always be called to the poor, the marginal, the outcast, to all the places of sadness and pain. And as a priest, appointed to serve the whole people of the incarnate Word, the God who came into the world of stuff, your work will be—and this is something you know well—very much about the material realities of human life: birth, and sickness, and death; earth, and brick, and fire, and food; the literal concrete foundations of buildings, and the literal broken bones. You are, I think, a person unusually well-qualified for this. I’ve often said that no one should be ordained until they’ve fixed a toilet and cleaned up a blood spill, but you were well beyond that level of qualification the first time I met you.
You will be taken into some of the most hidden places of people’s lives, places of confusion, despair, the hardest and messiest corners of the soul; and you will be taken into their dreams, their creative energy, their visions of goodness and truth. You will see people at their worst often, and at their best occasionally; you will know them in a way both terribly intimate and necessarily separate, impersonal almost, and you will learn that balance. And some days will seem like a damp gray nothing, like tedium, administrivia, people bickering over miniscule problems, the impossibility of doing a good thing in an indifferent world. We have only a handful of the mystics to rely on then, to tell us that in the sluggish cloud of our ignorance, God may be waiting, still doing a new thing though we cannot see it.
You will preach, and you will teach, and I know that you will do these things with depth and grace. But at the heart of your vocation is the great mystery of worship and sacrament. It is to this which you are now particularly called. The water of baptism, the oil which anoints the dying, the fire of the resurrection vigil, are given into your tending. You will stand at the altar in order to offer us all, our selves and bodies, to the unspeakable eternal love. You are the body which stands for the body, you are the body which holds the body. To stand in statu Christi, as the traditional theology of the priesthood has it, is also to stand as and for the body of Christ which is the church. Your hands the hands of Jesus breaking the bread of the last supper, and your hands the hands of the people of God who broke the body of Jesus upon the cross. Your voice the voice which speaks our guilt and God’s forgiveness. “For Christ hath now a body,” says Lancelot Andrewes, “for which to do him worship with our bodies.”
Your voice, your hands, your body, one with all the church across time and space, one with the One through whom all things were made, and also uniquely yours, in your single, necessary time and place, among the people who will allow you to be their representative body, the particular, peculiar people you are summoned to serve.
And because the core of your vocation is sacramental, the question Judas asks in the gospel reading is, in fact, one which we must answer, although John assumes that his motives were self-serving. In a world filled with injustice and oppression, a world desperately in need of both care and protest, what is the point of worship? What is the point of Mary’s astonishing act of vulnerability and self-revelation and love? What is the point of our kneeling in adoration, expending our time and energy and material resources in the ritual acts of offering? What is the point, in this poor world, of beauty?
And yet that is the answer precisely—that in a world of suffering and imposed scarcity, only beauty, only love, can save us. We are made to praise, to worship, the great love which spoke creation. I don’t know what the church will look like in ten years, or twenty; I don’t even know what the world will look like. But I know that worship will still matter. Worship is the shape of the reality for which we strive, and it is the school which teaches us how to strive rightly. It is what heals and hallows the earth and its elements, and us among them. We learn beauty, a beauty owned by no one, available to every frail creature. Over and over, we offer ourselves, we pour out the scented oils of our souls, so that we may understand, slowly, partially, in our fragmentary ways, what it means to give, and learn even who these selves are which we are giving. Over and over, we hold up our hands to be fed, as helpless as infants, so that we may know what it means to receive. We glimpse the shape of a kingdom in which there is always sufficiency, always justice, a justice not about measurement, and not about service to a generalized category called “the poor,” but about infinite care and loveliness poured out on each tired body, each small crooked heart. A kingdom in which all bread is holy. And we carry this outwards, so that the world and we may be changed, so that God’s new thing, the way in the wilderness, the path through the great waters, may be made, in some small part, through us.
And that is your calling, to stand at the centre of all this, the body’s body, and the servant of the servants of God.
Rowan Williams, in one essay, defines priesthood as “the holding open of a door into a place where a damaged and confused humanity is able to move slowly into the room made available, and understand that it is accompanied and heard in all its variety and unmanageability and emotional turmoil and spiritual uncertainty … The priest remains the celebrant of what will not fit anywhere else.” And the priest is part of the damage and confusion, is likely as much of a misfit as anyone else, and probably much more so. But our work is to keep on holding open that door into that defenceless and welcoming space.
The servants of God are a various lot, and there’s no predicting exactly how you will need to serve the communities to which you are called and sent, what it will mean to hold that door for them through all discouragement, what their and your partial healing might look like, what it will mean to empower them to learn and teach, to reshape themselves, and to go out into the world to tell the story and to be the story. Every one of us, as Paul admits of himself, a work in progress. All of us, laity and clergy, are being remade by God every moment, if we allow it; all discovering our vocations, not once and for all, but over and over again. We are all of us part of this process together. And it is important that this moment, the making of a new priest, is a community action, the bishop consecrating, the scrum of presbyters laying on hands, the laity assenting, and it does not happen without all of these things. We will all sing the ancient hymn which calls upon the Creator Spirit to come to us and make us new. We are, each one of us, tied into this calling, and Johanna’s calling will necessarily be involved with the callings of each one of us, as we all gradually discover what they mean—what we mean, as words from the Word, in the whole shape of God’s narrative.
So to all of you here, in all of your various vocations, as we gather to make a new priest—let yourselves be made new. This is the moment, for it is always the moment, when God is doing a new thing. Let the way through the desert be made in you.