Nativity of St John the Baptist, 2020
Psalm 85:7-13, Isaiah 40:1-11
This is, by any standard, a memorable occasion. It would be even under “normal” circumstances. I still retain and cherish some very powerful memories of my own ordination to the transitional diaconate, now slightly more than 31 years ago. But to have an ordination in this time of the virus—with a very elite guest list, masks, and no singing—escalates the memorability of the event to an entirely new level.
The liturgy of the word a few minutes ago put us in touch with this snippet from the 85th Psalm: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people, and to those who turn their hearts to him.” We’re doing what we’re doing here tonight as a result of a listening process: Carter has for years been listening to the soft voice of the Holy Spirit, the voice of Jesus himself saying, “Carter, follow me. Follow me over here specifically.” Carter’s family and friends and colleagues at Blackburn College have been listening—listening to Carter, and listening to the Holy Spirit in their hearts and minds. The community of St Paul’s Church has been listening, listening and discerning. The Diocese of Springfield has been listening. “I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people, and to those who turn their hearts to him.”
At a key moment in the liturgy this evening, right after the laying-on of hands, I will give Carter a Bible. This is obviously not because he lacks one, or has never read the Bible. Rather, it’s a robustly symbolic act. The giving of the Bible is a sign of Carter’s authority to proclaim God’s word. Again, this isn’t anything new. Carter Aikin has been proclaiming the word of God in a variety of contexts for a rather long time. But he is being ordained tonight to speak with authority, with the authority of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that we profess in the Nicene Creed. I don’t want to make it sound magical, but there’s a profound change that takes place in a person—in a person’s being—when the sacrament of holy order is conferred. Yet, that isn’t really the significant part. The significant part concerns the discipline by which Carter will now be formally governed in his proclamation of the Word of God. He is tonight surrendering the freedom to speak as Carter Aikin, and embracing the yoke of accountability to the Holy Scriptures and to the Church’s tradition. He becomes the consummate “company man,” understanding “company” to be “the blessed company of all faithful people” that we mention in the Rite One postcommunion prayer. Carter is being ordained to say stuff—not his own stuff, but the stuff he is given.
John the Baptist, whose natal feast we keep this evening, was born to say stuff. The stuff he was supposed to say is presaged in the passage we heard earlier from the 40th chapter of Isaiah: “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” Here is your God. That was essentially what John the Baptist was tasked with saying as he pointed unfailingly to Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sin of the world.”
Here is your God. I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people.
So, Carter, what a great patron saint to have at the beginning of your ordained ministry!
But what, more precisely, is Carter to be saying as he speaks on behalf of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church? To use a cliché that you’ve probably all heard, a preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. The first part is to be found easily enough in that passage from Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Those who are as formed by the tradition of sacred music as I am cannot help but hear that text, in a slightly different translation, as set to music in Handel’s Messiah. The one who is authorized and empowered to say, “Here is your God, behold your God” speaks of and for the God who, to borrow the words of Our Lady in Luke’s gospel, “has mercy on those who fear him in every generation,” the one who has “lifted up the lowly” and “filled the hungry with good things.”
But what about the second part of the preacher’s job, the part about afflicting the comfortable? Well, John the Baptist’s own ministry is a more than ample resource for this. Pastors and preachers do well to learn a dynamically equivalent version of “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and incorporate that into their vocabulary. Once again, Our Lady’s Magnificat points us in a helpful direction: “He has scatted the proud in their conceit … he has cast down the mighty from their thrones … and the rich he has sent away empty.” Now, if I have any counsel after 31 years, it’s that the “carrot” is best used in the pulpit and the “stick” in other circumstances. But both the carrot and the stick, both comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, are elements of the ministry of God’s word.
But, whether Carter is comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, he must, like John, always be pointing away from himself and toward Jesus. Jesus must increase, and Carter must decrease. Tonight is an important flex point in that journey of decreasing that began when he was baptized and will conclude only when he is able to look God in the eye and not be pulverized, knowing even as he is fully known.
If all of this happens, regardless of what words get spoken, the message that gets heard will be that, through Carter’s ministry, Christ will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Carter, my brother, please stand. You are receiving Holy Orders on the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. You know the story, I’m sure, of how when it came time for the infant John’s circumcision, everyone was astonished when his parents—Zechariah his father having had to write it on a slate because he had been temporarily struck dumb—how John’s parents had to insist that his name would indeed be John. What you may not know is that the name John means “God is generous.” I invite you to adopt generosity as the governing theme of your ordained ministry. God has been extraordinarily generous with you, as I suspect you would be the first to agree. Now you are called to pay that generosity forward, on God’s behalf, by being generous toward those into whose way you are placed. I have every confidence that he who has begun a good work in you will bring that word to completion, to the glory of his name.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.