A sermon for the ordination of Peter Dunne Skewes-Cox to the sacred ordination of priests.
Welcome everyone to this glorious celebration! Welcome to Peter’s family and friends, from the East Coast and the West Coast and all those beautiful places in between. Welcome parishioners from St. John’s and St. Catherine’s, from St. Paul’s and St. Patrick’s, and all those congregations Peter has served. Welcome deacons and priests (and Bishop Dan of course). Welcome one and all to this joyful occasion—the ordination of Peter Dunne Skewes-Cox to the sacred order of priests in the Episcopal Church.
Yet although an ordination is indeed a celebratory occasion, in my own experience it is also a moment of sheer trepidation. And maybe some of you here gathered can remember that blessed day when you took your own vows. Perhaps you were a bit uncertain as to what in the “H. E. double hockey sticks” you were getting yourself into. Or perhaps you were on the brink of hyperventilating at the culmination of a lifetime of discernment. Or perhaps the first time you put that clergy collar on it felt like it was secretly trying to strangle you. Or perhaps your knees were quaking as you slowly sunk on to the floor for the litany of the ordinand. Or perhaps you were completely shaking from the sheer weight of priest after priest laying hands upon your shoulders. What a glorious but also terrifying day is the occasion of an ordination.
And Peter, my friend and my brother, I especially feel this juxtaposition on this particular afternoon. It is like the words of Ecclesiastes 3 dare not apply: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” I feel that the author of Ecclesiastes’ words fall short for a time such as this. Upon the occasion of your ordination Peter, I also mourn with you my friend as I reflect upon the reality that your beloved is not here to celebrate with us this day. But I too join in with all of creation and your Colleen in the realm of heaven, and sing and dance for you my brother, because I am so so proud of the priest you are about to become and in so many ways already are.
An ordination (and especially this one) is a day of conflicting identities, a both/and instead of an either/or. It is like so many call narratives cited in our scriptures: from Amos, to Jeremiah, to today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah. Such a mystical experience, such liminal space, such an encounter with God is filled both with abounding wonder and overwhelming terror. It is somehow both the most amazing and the most frightening moment of the prophet’s life. Isaiah is at once witnessing the majesty of the Divine throne room (with all its royal splendor and winged seraphs in attendance), while also feeling the whole scene shaking and the otherworldly space filling with unencumbered smoke. It is a moment of awe that is both breathtaking and dismantling all at the same time. Yet every second of it is holy.
In this liminal place of both/and is where transformation happens. Isaiah repents, finds forgiveness and is changed from being one of God’s chosen people, to being the chosen prophet of the Almighty. It is in this sacred space Isaiah’s identity begins to shift. And he simply and humbly answers the Divine call with: “Here am I; send me.” It is a transformation where in our daily ordinary lives we begin to recognize that the veil is thin between the mystical and the mundane. We begin to recognize that the liminal place of the divine throne room may not be as far off as we once imagined. We begin to recognize that the both/and soul space where we see our maker face to face, is indeed close at hand.
Peter, today you are experiencing your own transformation, your own identity shift. Yet although you are taking up this new mantle—symbolized in a stole laid across your neck—, although you are embarking upon this new ministry that is the priesthood, that does not mean your old identity is completely lost or forgotten. Your former identities will always inform who you are as pastor. Just because Isaiah was a chosen prophet of God, does not mean he stops being one of God’s chosen people. Yes he was changed, but he did not leave behind what had come before. Yes Peter you have been transformed (in more ways than one over the past several months), but you do not leave behind what has come before. All of these decades of discernment have prepared you for this exciting, yet frightening thing called the priesthood. You are both a loving husband and now a grieving widower. You are both a father to your children and now a shepherd to the lost and wandering sheep. You are both a student of the sacred and a teacher along the seeker’s journey. You are both a baptized disciple of Jesus the Christ and an ordained minister in God’s Church. And every single one of your vocations is holy.
We as priests in the Body of Christ, we are called to help people see such sacred in their own lives, in all of the multiplicities of their identities, in numerous moments that pass before their eyes. We as priests, we get to witness the majesty of that mystical vision from Isaiah, with every sacramental second of our ministry: in both the petition prayed in the receiving line and in the small talk shared at coffee hour; in both the the whispers of Psalm 23 upon the edge of a friend’s death bed, and at the baptism of a baby with sweet smelling chrism oil swept across her head; in both the constant striving for justice and peace in a broken world, and in that moment of victory when a glimpse of God’s kingdom is finally unfurled.
Peter, we as priests are privileged to hold this tension, to share this burden, to name the sacred in our midst—in times of suffering and in times of joy; in times of weeping and in times of laughing; in times of mourning and in times of dancing. We as priests are called to bear witness to the Divine presence that is both breathtaking and also dismantling for the human soul. We as priests are called to live in liminal space as we are sent forth to care for God’s people, and cry out on behalf of all for whom we minister: “Holy, Holy, Holy.”