From Andra O'Neil's sermon at the Service of Ordination, Consecration and Seating of Rev. Canon Dr. Todd Townshend as the 14th Bishop of Huron
“I’m sending you out sheep into the midst of wolves so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”
When our teenage children leave for school each day, if I see them before I go, I say something like “have a good day”, “I love you” and often I give them a hug, which they accept because they are sweet and kind and willing to put up with their Mom’s affections most of the time. And if I’m honest, I’m pretty certain there is at least one or two pieces of advice. Hard as I try I can’t seem to stop myself from “equipping” my children with some due warning or preparedness for the day, even if it is a simple as “take a coat it is cold”.
When Grace began driving this past year, a whole new genre of advice was added to the repertoire and I think Grace would agree, my specific concerns around teen drivers became evident with the sending off…
”Don’t listen to your music too loudly.”
“DO NOT look at your phone.” Stay Focused.
“Watch for terrible drivers, people drive through stop signs in the county!” Don’t get Distracted. (...)
And I am quite confident that the talks that we are having with our teenage children as they enter into all of these new experiences: driving, parties, dates, going away to school…have gone on in the homes of parents who have come before us and those who will come after. And you all know why we do it. We are trying to prepare them for what lies ahead. (...) Sheep among wolves, that is what they are, sheep among wolves and I only hope that when they face adversity they will remember what I said, hear my voice in their head and know what to do.
Jesus has called the twelve disciples, given them authority over unclean spirits - to cast them out and to cure disease and sickness. They are being sent out with a very challenging task into a world they think they know but are only about to discover. They bring with them the testimony of the Gospel. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near: Love, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Healing.
They will bring the message that every person longs to hear: Darkness to Light; Bondage to Freedom; Death into Life.
Jesus’ advice to them sounds a lot like my advice to Grace when she takes the car: Stay focused, don’t get distracted, be discerning. Be wise as serpents, innocent as lambs.
But while I am imagining these very human concerns for my child, Jesus is warning the disciples of concerns of a cosmic nature. Jesus is beginning to tell them what his life will mean, the seismic shift that will take place in the spiritual universe in his death and resurrection. They weren’t facing the very real risk of distracted drivers, they were experiencing the very real risk of distracted people of God. Look at Saul - educated, faithful, devoted…distracted by tradition. Saul thought he knew what the Messiah was going to look like. He had forgotten to allow the voice of God to speak to him. He was distracted by what he thought he was seeing and so God took away his sight.
God will tear down whatever does not built up the kingdom. And God can do this with a small handful of sheep regardless of the number of wolves because those sheep are following a Shepherd whose voice they know. “Do not worry about how you are to speak, or what you are to say. It is not you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (...)
When we think about the testimony of the gospel and what those disciples accomplished through the grace of Jesus Christ, we have to ask ourselves what is possible for us when we let the Spirit of God tell us what to do and what to say. If we can learn anything from the story of God’s people, from the Garden of Eden to this day it is that none of it was predictable. What has seemed impossible has always been possible for God. And what has been possible was not imaginable for humans. This is what Jesus is telling us - warning - you are sheep among wolves but don’t worry - just let me do the talking.
When our father Bob was consecrated a Bishop in 1986, we stood outside this cathedral greeting all those who had come to celebrate and worship with us that day. Mary and I were standing beside Todd and heard many people ask him if he would be the next Bishop Townshend. And though those comments were asked in the good spirit of the day, it was a lot for a 17- year old to contemplate. Dad’s advice to Todd was this, “Todd, you have to figure out what God has planned for you on your own. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks.”
This was not the first or last time that our parents taught us that the only way through this life was to seek the path God intended for us. Trust that there is a path that God intends for us.
Possibly from his own experience, our Dad knew that who we are in God’s great story is only discovered through our own relationship with God. That day in 1986, he had heard from his own father, preaching from this pulpit, that a good Bishop must be Priest, Prophet, Shepherd and Friend. His Dad had given him some advice to equip him for the task of Bishop. Words taken from this ordination service and lived in Grandpa’s life. Words that our Grandfather knew would be important for Dad to continually recall during his 17 years of Episcopal service. And Dad pursued this calling faithfully following his own path set out by God.
And to any of you who are in this cathedral today, who wondered casually if there would be another Bishop Townshend…? Isn’t God a wonderful storyteller.
Now Todd has become all that he needs to be to take on this calling. Like our grandfather he is a teacher and preacher, he teaches about the great gift of grace- how to testify to the activity of God in the scripture and in the world. And through his preaching and teaching has shown so many of us that this world is brimming with the grace.
And like our Father he is an administrator with vision, wisdom and devotion to his calling. He sees the church as a living, evolving body that belongs to Christ. And like both of them, he is a Pastor. Loving and caring. And with God’s help, Todd will pastor to the wolves if he can. But what may be most important in Todd is his steadfast faith in the purpose of God for humankind and this world.
At 17 Todd didn’t know how to respond to those good-hearted questions but he allowed himself to be led to this day. He takes up the responsibility of shepherd but as one who follows in the line of the apostles, I know that he will continue to first be a follower of the Shepherd of us all.