SERMON PREACHED BY BISHOP ALISON TAYLOR
AT THE CELEBRATION OF THE 10tH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN
TO THE DIACONATE AND THE PRIESTHOOD
IN THE DIOCESE OF BALLARAT
Malachi 3. 1 – 14; Song of Zechariah; Phil 1.1-11, Luke 3.1-16
9 December 2018
Today in our Eucharist we are marking the tenth anniversary of the first deaconing of women in this diocese and the fifth anniversary of their first priesting. In 2008 Jennifer Brandon, Anne McKenna and Robyn Shackell were made deacons here, in the Cathedral and then in 2012 Anne and Robyn were made priests here. Jennifer (who became a priest in 2012) and Robyn continue to minister here in this diocese, while Anne is now the Rector of Castlemaine in the Diocese of Bendigo. Since then, Heather Scott has been deaconed and priested here and Kaye Hanks, Cheryl Haines, Christine Angus and Netta Hill have been made deacons.
It’s a wonderful roll of honour, of eight pioneer women in ordained ministry and it is really good that family and friends are able to be here today as well.
I am delighted to be here with you all on this very special occasion. A time of real celebration. I thank Bishop Garry and Dean Christopher for inviting me and for their warm hospitality.
JOHN THE BAPTIST IN MYERS
Around this time of year I usually find myself in the city, in Melbourne, at Myers. I’m there to buy Christmas presents. If truth be told, I also like to see the Myer Christmas windows too.
I was standing near the front of the store, in the perfume department, and I had this sudden image of John the Baptist there. I consider that I have two patron saints, that is, saints that personally mean a very, very great deal to me. One of them is John the Baptist. He is such a great figure during Advent — he kind of bursts on to the scene for us each year. We always have Bible readings about him, like we did just now for our gospel from Luke — so I think even more about him than usual in the run up to Christmas.
So my image of John in Myers was of him wearing his camel hair and a leather girdle, just like it says in Mark’s gospel, and with a little paper bag with locusts in in his hand, for snacks. And he’s standing in in a place where people are paying up to $195.00 for a fluid ounce of perfume.
John’s shouting at people to repent. Most of the shoppers and the salespeople don’t hear him, because it’s pretty noisy, and they don’t see him either through all the Christmas decorations. The few people who do notice him, move away discreetly. One person asks the sales assistant to ring for the security guard. John continues shouting – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.
Yes, this is an embarrassing scene, the one I have imagined. Certainly, it’s anachronistic —John is out of sync with modern day Australia by about twenty centuries. And yes, the image may make us uncomfortable, because John’s message is nowhere near the one that we’re hearing anywhere else in the frantic lead-up to Christmas.
And that’s another issue really, one for another sermon. But the question I have particular pondered this week rom my imaginings is this – what do these words of John actually mean for us: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’?
WHAT DOES IT ACTUALLY MEAN ‘PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT’?
The words referred to one thing when they were first voiced, which was towards the end of the time of the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon, around the year 538 BC. There, in the book of Isaiah, we read of Isaiah the prophet calling: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God’. This was a call to the Jewish people who were living in exile, deeply disheartened, in locations deep within the Babylonian empire. The Jewish people had seen their city Jerusalem and its Temple destroyed by the Babylonians forty years before, their king captured. They’d been driven away from their lands and made to go into exile, their religion ridiculed and displaced.
The cry from Isaiah was that God would deliver them from Babylon and return them to Jerusalem, he would restore the city and rebuild its Temple. So, lift up your hearts, says Isaiah, raise your sights and your hopes, cease your hopelessness: get ready in your hearts to prepare the way of the Lord as he prepares to do these miraculous things for you. Which he does, and the Jewish people are able to return to Jerusalem and their lands.
Five centuries later, when John the Baptist appears on the scene in Palestine, he was using those same words. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. He’s using the words to tell the Jewish people that God is again doing something wonderful for them: this time God himself is coming in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. John says to them, and this comes a bit after where our gospel reading finished today:
`one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals’.
So, repent! Turn from what you are doing. Return to the Lord. Make him again the focus of your lives. Jesus Christ is here.
BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO US TODAY?
But what about us, many, many centuries later still? We know that God did indeed hear the cries of the Jewish people and did indeed deliver them from Babylon. We know that, as John the Baptist proclaimed, the Lord did come for us. The Lord came in swaddling clothes in a manger. In the most unexpected way imaginable. And in the most right and true and good way imaginable. This is what we’ll be celebrating at Christmas in a couple of weeks’ time.
What does it mean for us to continue to prepare the way of the Lord now? To heed John’s words in out own time and place?
The core meaning of the words of the prophets remains unchanged – of waiting upon the Lord who truly comes to us for our salvation, who is always coming to us, from his great love of us his people. And the response called forth from us by these words is at its heart always the same. It is about repentance — about turning once again in our lives to face the Lord, once again to renew the fervour and commitment of ourselves as disciples to the Lord our God.
But the precise form of the response, of the repentance, evolves over time. This is why Advent is a time when we particularly need to give enough time to personal prayer, for coming to know God’s desires for us, in our life now, at this time.
ALL OF US TOGETHER
There’s something else very important here. Recall how both Isaiah and John the Baptist were speaking as much to the whole community as to individuals. They were calling forth a collective response, a collective repentance, a collective discernment. So it is for the people of God gathered in the Anglican Church today — as part of being a faithful people journeying together, we are called to make real collective discernments from time to time. To turn from what we have been doing. To return to the Lord. It is not so much that what we did before was wrong — as much as that the Holy Spirit calls us from time to time to new pastures, to new ways of being faithful.
I believe that the decision of the Anglican Church and in particular of this diocese of Ballarat, to ordain women was one such discernment, one such turning to a new way of being faithful. And it is particularly this which we are remembering and celebrating today.
News of the fruitfulness of the ministries of these eight pioneer women and of how well you are accepted in the diocese reached me even in the tropical wilds of Queensland where I was over the last several years. Yet I know that the process of discernment about whether women should be ordained here or not, took place over a number of years, and was at times difficult and controversial.
As I said, it was not so much that ordaining only men in the past was wrong as that it could be discerned that in our time and our place that ordaining both men and women was now right.
And so it is that we go forward. For ours is a God who comes to us, who is found not just in the pages of the Scriptures — precious as they are — but in the pages of our lives and of history too. Our God, our Saviour Jesus Christ, lives and breathes forth on us now, today. This, at its heart, is John the Baptist’s message to us.
Everyone here is to be congratulated for the part you have played in this real step forward in understandings of the ordained ministry for this diocese, and in hearing and acknowledging the call of God which has come forth in this new way here. May God continue to bless you in all your endeavours.
I wish for you a holy Advent.
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