Sermon by Bishop Paul V. Marshall
Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, 2010
Ezekiel 34:11-6; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19
Voluntary: Enigma Variation IX. Nimrod. Edward Elgar
Brian and I thank all of you for your participation
this evening, and I especially thank the rector, staff and parish of St.
Stephen’s for making people from across the diocese feel so much at home so
often in this wonderful space.
Indeed, how we make ourselves at home is part of the
package tonight. As Christians found themselves more and more at home in the
ancient Roman world, they began to do some redecorating. The example we all
know best was the placement of a celebration of Christ’s birth during the Roman
solstice holidays in December.
Another switch was their focusing on Peter and Paul,
rather than Romulus and Remus, in celebrating the foundations of the eternal
city. Rather than the twin brothers who drew in lupine instincts with their
nurses’ milk, Peter and Paul are remembered with more or less accuracy as not killing
each other, as trying to understand each other and to work things out, and then
both giving up their lives in testimony to Jesus Christ. By Christ’s power
working within them, the crude fisherman and the nervous tent-maker were able
to transcend themselves sufficiently to become foundation stones of the city
God as well this piece of Italian real estate. Switching the founding fathers
announced a new set of values.
So as days for
ordination go, this feast of Peter and
Paul is a powerful one indeed. Along with the invocation of the leading
apostles, we hear with Ezekiel words, God’s deep longing that his people
gathered and tended, that they be nurtured and protected.
The text also tantalizes the reader: nobody knows quite how to translate the last part of the passage, the bit about the fat and strong—it’s a good reminder that God is always up to more than we can neatly perceive, even in retrospect.
Brian, you have
offered yourself, and the church has
called you to a special place in God’s ordered yet not entirely defined
ministry of tending Christ’s flock in all kinds of pasture. So you stand
tonight in line with thousands and thousands of scholar-priests who have
through the centuries fed the minds, hearts and spirits of the God’s
keeping the simple truths of faith in tension with age-old challenges to
understanding. It has taken a while to get to this day, Brian, and we
rejoice with you, Liz, and your family, and we all join you in a moment
But there is more—or
should I say, less? Both our
epistle and gospel readings come with challenges. Paul speaks of his
ours to proclaim the gospel against the cultural grain, persistently and
patiently. Peter hears three times the command to express his emotional
to Jesus, not with sentiment but with practical devotion to caring for
flock, as it is and where it is, knowing whose it is.
Well, fair enough. I
for one, think you are more than
competent at both tasks. Each passage, however, goes on to address what
be gotten at quite so easily: self-emptying, the part of this job that
bureaucracy cannot quite ever appreciate and our hyper-egalitarian world
A part of you will be consumed if you are to be a
There just aren’t two ways about it, at least not if you do it right.
sacrifices take many forms, and some are salutary. Others are not. Paul
of himself as being poured out, the way drink offerings were poured on
or altars. An act of adoration, but also the experience of being
never to be put back in the bottle. Peter hears that he won’t always
energetically and decisively tuck in his belt and get to work: when his
others will take that belt and tie his hands with it, tugging him to an
of his choosing.
I hope these observations
seem neither maudlin nor
dramatic, but sober and realistic. For those who share the priestly
the privileges we have are inexpressible: we get to stand with people in
most personal and holy moments, in their greatest joys and in the times
their souls are at their thinnest. Yet we do so under orders. The church
committed to our care its most precious gifts to strengthen and direct
people of God for discipleship. Is the priest “another Christ?” That
is only for the contentious these days, but who can doubt that where but
people are together in his name, Christ is present and effective? Who
for anything more?
In not too many minutes
you will stretch out your
hands in this place. Instead of being tied up, though, your hands will
anointed, caressed with holy chrism, explicating the sacred work they
given to do. I hope you can feel that moment as double-edged. It is
meant to be a moment of great privilege and trust, and yet with those
what you are doing and imitate the mysteries at which you preside,” it
inescapably a time of commitment to emptying self for the sake of
people. Other categories aside, it is surely in the intentional emptying
self that each Christian becomes another Christ.
For priests, the day comes
over and over when in simple acts of ministry, perhaps entirely
ministry, strengthen, fulfill, and reveal to us just a glimpse of crown
righteousness which is laid up for all who long for Christ’s appearing.
takes a certain discipline to treasure them as such.
So far the lessons. Because
we have known each other
so long on this journey I have struggled more than I usually do to find
personal word of encouragement customarily shared in this publicly
moment, where our predecessors used to have something they called a
conclude the sermon.
The liturgy does that hortatory task these days, so
turn to our right brains, where I find hovering that shadowy type,
whose musical incarnation may be made to speak to the joy and the strain
Canon Laubach has
selected this very wonderfully
introverted ninth of fourteen variations to play after you have stood at
altar as priest for the first time. It’s an instructive and inspiring
The longest of the original Enigma variations, the Nimrod
not coded with someone’s initials, but marked with that Biblical
Genesis merely says that “Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord,”
ancient traditions assign him everything from keeping Adam’s original
to ruling Babylon and/or Ninevah (“that great city”).
This variety invites much
wonderful speculation, all of which could be profitable in other
in Elgar, Nimrod slyly and simply stands for one August Jaeger, a man
Duesseldorf whose name just happens to mean Hunter, and I mean to invoke
More than his music
editor, Jaeger was, for Elgar,
both a comfort and source of courage. Each of the Enigma variations is
describe both a character and an incident, and in Nimrod we begin sadly,
echoes of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata.
For there was indeed more than one day when Elgar was in low spirits.
was so low that Jaeger had taken him out for a walk to remind him of
personal struggles and doubts, all which were overcome by strength of
and devotion to vocation.
What happens to the music after that initial sad
encounter is thrilling—in a measured way, and reminds us academics that
words seldom have the last word. Without erasing the sadness, the music
steadily builds in hope, confidence, and fullness (even with tympani in
orchestral version)…but it never reaches the anticipated Edwardian
boisterousness, triumphalism, or any oblivion to the pain that went
fact, just when the peaking crescendo could explode into another Elgar
Land of Hope and Glory, the music
fades rapidly to a centered and calmer version of its somewhat
beginning. Then it stops, without further explanation. As must sermons.
Let Nimrod remind the part of you that is too deep for words that everything can be for something. Along with your many more obvious gifts and talents, it is, I think, the quiet confidence that comes from understanding our common suffering, the strength that comes from having persisted, that equips you or anyone for effective long-term priesthood for Christ’s people, and I hope you will hear that in the music, cherish it in the liturgy, and confidently hum it in your every act of ministry.