Isaiah 40:3. “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti
That’s Bill Estes from now on – That’s what he’s going to be for the rest of his life – a voice like that of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, crying out to a world that has gone more mad than bad. A world of people who have not so much lost their souls as lost their minds. I suspect that more people are likely to get to heaven these days than in any previous age, simply out of invincible ignorance. They don’t know enough to go to Hell. Oh there‘s still plenty of sin around, but most people can’t recognize a sin when we seen one. We call pride a deadly sin, and then tell our children to take a little pride in themselves, and to stand on their own two feet. We praise greed and call it wanting one’s just deserts; envy and call it ambition, anger and call it righteous indignation, lust and call it self-fulfillment.
Your future priest will be crying out in a wilderness of people who not longer believe in sin. If Father Estes gets into the pulpit and says you are all sinners and ought to make your confession, most people will smile benignly and think, “How quaint; but I guess priests are paid to say things like that.” But if he stands up and says “You’re all sick and you ought to see a psychiatrist,” he will have a fight on his hands. People today believe in sickness, not in sin.
In the midst of this wilderness, this future priest will cry out week in and week out, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” And some people will listen, but many will not. He will preach Sunday after Sunday and some will say that he is talking down to them, while others complain that he is talking over their heads. He will hold bible classes, and those who come will find them interesting and even helpful, but most will go away unchallenged and unchanged. He will prepare couples for marriage and watch their marriages break up in a few years; he will minister to the dying and find that most of them have no hope for the future. Though he will do his best to love his people and have compassion on them, many will take his love for granted, and some may even turn against him.
I am not telling you all this out of bitterness or any sense of discouragement. There is nothing I would rather be than a priest. I tell you all this simply because it makes no difference whether people accept or reject our love. When I was newly ordained, I thought that if I really loved the people enough, and passed on to others what I had learned from many wise teachers, they would respond and grow closer to God. And you know, some of them actually did. But many didn’t. And finally I came to realize that whether the people respond or not, our task as priests is just to keep on loving them - the good, the bad and the indifferent. Our task is to teach and demonstrate that the Good News of Jesus Christ really is good news, and that priests are called to be prophets in the wilderness, to sow and to reap, knowing all the time that only God can give the increase.
Tonight, Bill Estes is being ordained a prophet to help prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. He will do this by teaching the truth through sermons, classes and counseling – no matter what the response. Yet words in themselves are very cheap, and he will not prepare a highway for our God just by talk. He will do it by sacrifice, for he will be preparing a highway for the coming of the crucified into the hearts of His people.
Bill Estes is not simply being ordained a prophet, but a prophetic priest. Not only is he to be another John the Baptist; but also to stand in the place of Him whose sandals the Baptist was and is not worthy to unloose. He is being ordained to bring new life to God’s people by allowing himself to be pinned to the wood of the cross, to be a sacrificial victim along with his Savior. That life of sacrifice will often come without the drama of Calvary’s hill.
The story was once told, I don’t remember by whom, of a newly ordained priest who was called to the bedside of a dying woman She could barely talk. He knelt down beside her with his ear close to her lips, as she muttered, “I want, I want.” And he imagined rushing back to the church to get the Blessed Sacrament and then administering the last rites. Again she said, this time with more effort, “I want, I want.” He thought she probably wanted to confess some sin still burdening her conscience, and he waited to give her absolution. Or perhaps it was only a blessing that she wanted. which he was now empowered to give. He listened more closely than ever, and at last she was able to get out the words that expressed her deepest desire: “I want, I want – some tapioca pudding.” He rushed into the kitchen rather than the church and heated up some tapioca pudding he found in the fridge. And as he returned to the bedroom he realized that much of his future life would be spent giving people tapioca pudding instead of the sacraments. Not that he believed any of the silly revisionist nonsense that one might be just as good as the other. He knew that a priest cannot start with tapioca pudding and get to Jesus’ body and blood, for the Eucharist is not celebrated on a kitchen table but on an altar of sacrifice. But he learned that night that once you start at the altar you can also feed the people tapioca pudding or whatever else they think they need.
The everyday life of the priest must be centered at the altar. For it is there that the ordained priest stands for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And when we call Bill Estes father we make all fatherhood majestic and all true kingship fatherly. Your priest is your spiritual father because he is the head of the clan, the king of the kinsmen. And he exercises that kingship in his pastoral care for whoever happens to wander into this church, the respectables and the not so respectables, the educated and the ignorant, the discouraged, the depressed, and the confused. He is not among you to govern or organize you like some sort of company president or CEO. His task is not to control you or to judge you; it is to care for you and to love you and to give you God’s grace. Allow him to do just that. Respect your priest. Honor him and use him for the purposes for which he was ordained: to offer the sacrifice of the cross, to absolve you of your sins, and to bless you in God’s name.. As you do so, an amazing transformation will take place. Instead of being spiritual children of your priest, you will become the bride of Christ. For just as Jesus is head of his church, and Mary the church’s mother so you and your priest will be the sacraments of this headship and this motherhood – and the fruits of the Spirit will be the children of your spiritual union - signs of reconciling grace preparing a highway in the desert for the coming of Our Lord in full power and majesty.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Tonight we are not simply celebrating a sacrament. We are making you a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the presence of Christ in His Church. Henceforth you will be a walking sacrament, an indelible sacrament – one that can be defaced but never erased. Never forget who you are, for I can assure you that no-one else will forget. Whether you are walking down the street, going into your local shop or enjoying a cocktail party in the home of a parishioner, all will try to see Christ in you. And what they actually see will largely determine whether they fall in love with Jesus or come to despise Him and crucify Him afresh. Do not expect to be loved by everyone, but make sure that those who reject you are the sort of people that would have also turned their back on Jesus.
Embrace the cross, offer you life as a human sacrifice. No longer may you live for yourself. Be a man for others. Do not proclaim your own opinions – nobody really cares about those – but always speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Constantly proclaim the truth as best you can though careful study of the scriptures and holy tradition.
Secondly, do not offer the worship of your people according to your own particular likes or interests but to what best serves the devotion of the people and is consistent with the teaching of the whole church. I don’t know if you prefer rite 1 or rite 2 or the old prayer book, or whether you like Mozart mass settings, or renewal choruses. But from now on it makes no difference. Simply offer the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday, and every day if possible (and it usually is) in a manner which increases your people’s faithfulness and devotion to Our Savior.
Finally, if you don’t want to be judged yourself, do not judge other people. There will be a whole spectrum of possible motives for everything your people do. Christian charity demands that you always choose the best possible one. This does not mean that you are to be indifferent either to sin or to stupidity, but you must not blame other people for either. We are not in the judgment business, but in the forgiveness business. If little Joey tells his teacher that two plus two equals five or some bishop tells you that we must conform to the mentality of our present world, you are duty bound to say that each of these is wrong but you must never say that Joey or the bishop are wrong people for saying such things. That judgment is up to God.
Never try to get away from your priesthood. To do so would be to deny your very self, for you are not becoming just a functionary but a new creation. Tonight, through His Church God is making you a priest forever. You will always be a priest no matter where you are or what you are doing. whether you are celebrating mass or taking a vacation, absolving your people or forgiving your children, receiving your Communion or dining out with friends.
But what kind of priest you will be is up to you. The Holy Spirit takes the shape of the vessel He fills. Provide Him a proper vessel that in you the Spirit may be glorified - together with the Father and the Son unto whom be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, dominion, majesty, power and praise this night and forevermore. Amen