This sermon was offered at the ordination of the Rev. Andrea Castner Wyatt as an Episcopal priest. Andrea was sponsored by Church of the Good Shepherd, Watertown, and was ordained at Grace Church, New Bedford, where she now serves.
Hello Grace Church! I’m Amy McCreath, and I came down here with a group of people from CGS Watertown because we have something in common with you. We’ve experienced the ministry of a remarkable servant of God, our sister in Christ, Andrea. And wild horses wouldn’t have kept us away from being here today to celebrate this holy moment and the grace of God at work in Andrea.
I am so excited about Andrea’s ministry. Andrea, who has already been a blessing to so many for so many years as a UCC minister, a hospice chaplain, a mother and a wife. She brings so much with her to this moment and to this place where she is serving. You were wise to call her, Grace Church, and the Episcopal Church rejoices that she says “I will, with God’s help” to the promises of ordination in our corner of God’s reign.
I am excited about Andrea but I am even more excited about the Gospel. Today’s gospel begins with the rich phrase, In the sixth month. Not in the beginning. Not once upon a time. Not when God was beginning to create. In the sixth month. Things are already underway. We pick up our story six months into something else. In this case, the pregnancy of an elderly woman named Elizabeth. The story of one amazing work of God is set within another story of amazing work by God. The news of Jesus coming into the world is placed like the filling in an Oreo inside the story of John, his cousin, coming into the world.
And isn’t that how it always goes: God has been at work long before our story begins. Long before we step on the stage, long before we show up in the sanctuary or the food pantry or someone’s life, God has been at work. We, whether priest, deacon, bishop, or lay person, do not bring God with us, but rather, are called upon to behold what God is already doing and to enter into it, bringing what we have to enrich, enliven, shape, or magnify.
God has already been at work in Andrea. Through many dangers, toils and snares she has already come. And through many dangers, toils and snares she has already accompanied others, helping them to see God at work, or to watch for God’s appearing, or to hope for resurrection. The poet David Whyte defines resurrection as looking out at the shipwreck after having washed up on the shore and exclaiming, “I survived that?!” Yes, Andrea has come through it, and she is still standing, and she knows that it is by God’s grace, and it is God that she wants to proclaim, and salvation is not of our making but is by grace.
On many shores and in many pulpits and at many bedsides she has already offered a good work and healing balm in Christ’s name. I have personally distributed “ashes to go” with her in Watertown square. I have watched her lead a group of lay leaders from two churches through a crazy exercise on the stages of church life that involved putting masking tape all over the parish hall floor and then convincing people to stand on it. I have heard her resurrect hope in a room full of grieving people through tender, wise, deeply honest preaching at a Blue Christmas service.
And God has already been at work at Grace Church through so many years of faithful service and outreach in this community, so many strands of unique and beautiful ministry, generations of families fed at this altar. God has been at work. You are known in this diocese as the “real deal.”
But the coming together of Andrea and the congregation and your wonderful rector, Chris Morck, in the sixth month, as it were is a place where something new can come into being. Christ can be made manifest here in a particular way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy: a new thing is happening because of the convergence of strands of history and wisdom and faithfulness, here and now in this place. Isn’t that tremendous?
And the world needs this convergence. What a week for an ordination. A week in which we mourn the grim statistics of the scourge of gun violence in our nation; when we hear politicians actually suggesting that we exclude our brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith from our nation; when we know that many children will go without at this holiday season, when statistics show that today, people will be pulled over, arrested, jailed because of the color of their skin. This is a world and a season that needs tidings of joy. This is a world that needs communities and their leaders to cast a vision and take seriously their capacity to make a difference, to speak a bit more loudly and act a bit more boldly for love’s sake, for justice’s sake.
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel came crashing into the life of a teenager named Mary in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, and a convergence happened unlike any other in the history of the world. The love of God for those made in God’s image that’s us converged with the life of a particular young woman in a particular community to result in an incarnation. This incarnation brought the force and source of life itself into its own creation, to be nursed, raised, and prayed for by a peasant woman in a humble community. I submit to you that this was on purpose. God chose this way of arriving through this particular mother. And Mary did more than she could ask or imagine to God’s mission.
Mary was ordained to bear God into the world, a model for all of us of faithful ministry. The church “recognizes through her that the end and fulfillment of all life, of all love, is o give Christ life in ourselves.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World).
In the sixth month – that is, in the midst of the ongoing work of God in your life and my life and the life of the world and of Andrea’s life — an ordination is happening. And what will God bring here because of it? How will you be changed? How will Andrea? How will New Bedford and this diocese and the world?
Ours is to behold, that is, to hold thoroughly. That’s what “behold” means in the original Old English: to hold thoroughly. We hold thoroughly to the promise that God is everywhere and always at work. As a priest, Andrea will break the bread, a reminder of our call to give ourselves away for others – always and everywhere - as Christ let himself be broken for us. She will wrap her stole around the hands of those being married, a sign of God’s presence in their union – always and everywhere - and God’s call for them to be an icon of Christ’s love for the church. She will dip babies into a holy bath, announcing that they have died with Christ and are raised to a life where they have nothing to fear, and they will never be alone because they are part of the Body of Christ – always and everywhere.
They will never be alone, those babies that Andrea will baptize, and neither will Andrea ever be alone as a priest. The Spirit will never abandon her and neither will we. There is no such thing as a lone ranger Episcopal priest. Can’t do it! And I think that’s good news to Andrea. I know that Andrea is glad to have a bishop (Our diocese gives her two bishops!) and a deanery and a diocese, and structures of accountability, advice and resources. She has offered ministry long enough to know that we need one another, that the ordering of the church is a gift, that accountability can bring out the best in us and keep us faithful and healthy. God works through each part of our Episcopal polity, not always gracefully or perfectly, but in the end, it’s for good and for our sanctification. It really is.
At this point I am supposed to give Andrea a charge, and I will, in a minute. But before that I want to thank her. I want to thank her for her faithfulness. There are any number of moments along the highway of life that led you here, Andrea, when you could have chosen to take an exit ramp to a simpler life, a more lucrative career, a shorter commute, a less complex polity. But you were faithful to your call. You yearned to be a priest, a midwife of the Holy Spirit in this fascinating, frustrating, wonderful new era (as our mutual mentor Tom Brackett would say). You were determined to bring your considerable gifts to a community that is openhearted and curious about what is next, rather than clamped down and closed to change. You just kept going, fueled by prayer and fed by the sacrament, and hopeful in the most Adventy way imaginable. Thank you.
So here you are. And here is your charge, which is stolen wholecloth from the angel Gabriel: Be not afraid. Nothing is impossible with God. The entire biblical story of God’s work, including the story of the annunciation, and the entire narrative of your life and my life and the life of the world, testifies that the mission of God is never expected, never logical, never tidy. But God is always faithful. So be not afraid. Stand at the table and the font and the bedside and in the streets with those working for justice. Wherever you stand, know that it is the sixth month. Holy convergence is waiting to be revealed, blessed, broken and given away. And you are called to that ministry. Be not afraid. Nothing is impossible with God.