This sermon was preached at the Ordination of Priests on the Feast of St. Barnabas on June 11, 2016 at the Liverpool Cathedral, Diocese of Liverpool by the Rt. Rev. Susan E. Goff, bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Virginia and assisting bishop in the Diocese of Liverpool.
Loving God, bless my lips to speak your Word;
Bless our ears to hear your Word;
Bless our hands to do your Word;
Bless our lives to be your Word. Amen.
Son of Encouragement, that’s what they called him – Barnabas, whose feast day we celebrate today. His given name was Joseph, but they nicknamed him Son of Encouragement because of who he was to the community. In the spirit of Barnabas we gather in this magnificent cathedral today to hear God’s encouragement to the Church, to offer our strongest encouragement to these eleven who have been presented, and to ordain them as sons and daughters of encouragement.
A year and a half ago, I was encouraged in a surprising way in a stressful situation. I was in the airport in Los Angeles, California, following a retreat with the Bishops Suffragan of The Episcopal Church. It was a gorgeous, warm and sunny day in Southern California, but winter storms were hitting much of rest of the country. I was scheduled to change planes in Texas where snow was falling. Of course my flight was delayed. As the crowd of waiting travelers grew, impatience and frustration grew as well. It was proving to be a trying time. Suddenly, a man in an airport security uniform stepped out of nowhere and began to sing:
I used to think that I could not go on.
Another man stepped from behind a counter: And life was nothing but an awful song.
A third joined in: But now I know the meaning of true love.
And a fourth: I’m leaning on the everlasting arms.
Then an entire chorus of men and women in security uniforms launched into the refrain;
I believe I can fly.
I believe I can touch the sky.
I think about it every night and day
Take my wings and fly away.
I believe I can soar.
See me running through that open door.
I believe I can fly. I believe I can fly.
Tempers cooled as the crowd of us laughed and sang along and danced together. We were encouraged and lifted by surprising grace. That encouragement carried me through a long overnight in the airport until I got home the next day.
Barnabas, in his life and ministry, gave words of encouragement that carried the Church through challenging times. He offered hope to others in the midst of their frustrations and confusions as well as their joys. Barnabas supported the young Christian community by selling a piece of land and giving the money to the leaders for the benefit of those in need.
I believe he could fly, I believe he could touch the sky.
Later, Barnabas made it possible for the man we call St. Paul to become an apostle, teacher and leader in the church. At first, no one trusted Paul. He had, after all, stood by and watched when at least one follower of Jesus was executed for his faith, and he had rounded up others to turn them in. So when Paul said he’d been converted to following Jesus, no one believed him – except Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement. Barnabas vouched for Paul until others accepted him. After that Paul and Barnabas travelled far and wide, proclaiming the risen Christ as Lord and Savior wherever they went.
I believe they could soar; see them running through each open door.
I believe they could fly, I believe they could fly.
Now in Christ’s name and for the sake of his love, we are called to fly. We are called to be like Barnabas – to be sons and daughters of encouragement for the sake of the world.
The need for encouragement is strong in this age. In America, as the November presidential elections draw closer, we are divided. We are polarized more sharply than at any time in recent history. I fear that we will be in for a rough ride no matter what the outcome of the election, because we have forgotten how to talk with each other with civility and respect. We’ve forgotten how to listen, how to trust one another in community.
I believe we can . . . Actually, I believe we’ve forgotten how to fly.
Your nation faces some of the same threats of polarization and separation as you approach the referendum about remaining in the European Union or not. I understand that arguments are sharp and, even during this weekend of celebrations of the Queen’s ninetieth birthday when patriotic fervor is strong, divisive tensions linger nearby – perhaps fueled by patriotic fervor.
So we need people of the Church to speak as Barnabas did: people who offer encouragement and embody hope. And we need the Church to give the community something else that Barnabas gave. Barnabas means Son of Encouragement, but in Aramaic, the dialect of Hebrew that Jesus and his followers actually spoke, the name Barnabas could also be understood to mean Son of Prophecy.
We need sons and daughters of prophecy right now in our world. Prophets are not people who predict the future, as popular culture assumes. Prophets are people who speak God’s word no matter how challenging or unpopular or counter cultural that word may be. And God knows, the Word is counter cultural. It’s becoming more and more so as the place Church in society changes quickly and radically.
Barnabas was a son of prophecy. The early Church was torn over the question of who can be included in the Christian faith and life. Was the community open only to good Jews like the disciples? Or could Gentiles, foreigners, people of different religious backgrounds become a part? Similar questions are at play now in the elections in America and in the referendum here, questions about the place of immigrants, questions about people of other races and ethnicities and religions in our increasingly diverse populations. There is much fear and anxiety about our differences and many people are lured by the temptation to believe that we will be safer if we are homogeneous.
Barnabas took sides in the argument in his day. He argued that seeming outsiders should be welcomed into the life of faith without any extra hoops to jump through. They should be part of the community of faith on the same terms as everyone else. And that argument prevailed. The Church grew because of it and is richer for it.
In our polarized and anxious societies, we need such voices of prophecy, reminders that Jesus loves all and offers the fullness of glorious new life to everyone, everyone, everyone. We need voices to proclaim and embody the utterly counter-cultural message that Jesus stretched his arms wide open on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.
So it is that these men and women are presented for ordination today. They will be ordained in part to be like Barnabas – sons and daughters of encouragement, sons and daughters of prophecy, who speak God’s love and truth in a divided and changing world.
Pray for them, these faithful, prayerful, joyful, playful, committed, mature, loving, well-prepared priests-to-be. Continue to encourage and uphold them as they encourage, challenge, pray for and support you.
And you – Rachel, Darren, Fiona, Sarah, Katie, Adam, Howard, Dave, Christel, Mohammed, Andy – remember that you are sons and daughters of encouragement; you are sons and daughters of prophecy in the Church and in this wide, wonderful, changing world.
And know that:
We believe you can fly
We believe you can touch the sky
We think about you every day and night,
Spread your wings and take God’s flight.
We believe you can soar. We see you flying out that open door.
We believe you can fly.
In God’s love you will fly.
In the Spirit you fly.
The Rt. Rev. Susan E. Goff is bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Virginia. She first joined the Bishop’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary in January 2010. Bishop Goff was consecrated on July 28, 2012. As bishop suffragan, she oversees mission churches, in addition to multicultural and ethnic ministries.