Sermon preached at the funeral for the late Canon Ernle Gordon

St. Andrew Parish Church, Half-Way-Tree
December 8, 2020.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, I would like to use this opportunity to express publicly condolences to the members of the family of our late brother, Canon Ernle Patrick, his wife Juliet, his children, Sherryl and Richard, his siblings, members of the extended family, friends, colleagues in ministry, and those who have been the beneficiaries of his ministry, on behalf of the entire Diocese as well as my own behalf. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the protocols which we have to observe, it is not possible for all those of the Diocese and the wider ecumenical and national community who would like to be present for this act of worship commemorating the life of Canon Ernle, to be physically present for this Service.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies sake.  Amen.

I want to begin this reflection by reading some words which, for some in our society, and indeed, in the church, may represent at best, socialism, and at worse, material straight from the communist manifesto.

Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
    and bring righteousness to the ground!

(They) Who hate the one who reproves in the gate,
    and (they) abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
    and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
    but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
    but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
    and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
    and push aside the needy in the gate.

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
    and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
    and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
    and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
    and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
    and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
    so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
    so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
    and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

These passages are all from the book of the prophet Amos. I have been led to begin with these passages from the Scriptures as part of an exploration of the nature of the ministry to which our late brother was called of God as a priest and which he discharged faithfully. To this end, I will not be rehashing information on his publications and the various institutions with which he was involved as these have been adequately highlighted elsewhere.

In a world in which Christian discipleship has been reduced by many to a personal and inner spirituality and commitment that offers peace of mind, or an emotional experience driven by the philosophy of Norman Vincent Peale, or the prosperity theology and its guarantee of divine healing, the riches of this world, and happiness without suffering, the passages which I have read from the book of the prophet Amos, appear to be extraneous to the Judeo-Christian faith tradition.  Furthermore, in a world in which economic indices of success are the measures of the worth of individuals and nations, the morality and life of holiness of which the prophetic tradition speaks, either has no relevance, or is so far removed from awareness, that they are deemed to sound like secular philosophies to be rejected.

The prophet Amos lived around 750 BC when there was political stability in Israel and there was economic prosperity for many who became wealthy and were able to live a life of luxury.  But, as is often the case, prosperity among some of the people brought with it a collapse of moral and social responsibility. They paid scant attention to the great ideals and commandments of the Torah (Law) with its imperative to help the poor, and to practice justice and loving kindness. Consequently, with little sense of accountability, the rich oppressed the poor; for those in positions of privilege and authority, might was right; and generally it was an age of corruption. With this neglect of their relationship with God and the keeping of the Torah, degeneration of the morals of the people led to the worship of strange gods.

In the first two verses of the Book of Amos there is an exhortation of the community of faith to amend their ways and to pursue that which is good as there is yet the possibility of the experience of the graciousness of the Lord.  There is also present a note of what may be regarded as the mocking of the community, a note of sarcasm perhaps, as it makes reference to the fact that they have been mouthing the same words as his exhortation, which is being seen by the prophet as a cheap and insincere utterance by the people, as it was apparently having no impact on the way they were living and the way in which the society was organized.  So, while the prophet is introducing the element of hope into the situation, he is making it clear that the community must re-examine the veracity and integrity of its profession of faith and utterances, because the day of the Lord for which they were longing and hoping will not bring the good things which they anticipate, but calamity.

The prophet then turns to the primary religious practices of the community of faith represented by their ritual offering of sacrifices.  Yahweh hates the sacrifices which they have assumed all along that he desires.  What God desires is the moral agency of the community of faith expressed as justice and righteousness.  Justice is rooted in the very nature of God.  Justice and righteousness are used interchangeably.

As one commentator expresses it, “What we have articulated here is a call for moral agency.   Justice is the framework that gives form and substance to the social life of the religious community.  Indeed, the distinctive stamp of the … theology preached by Amos is that the essence of faithfulness requires us to live daily in accordance with the moral principles of equality.”

Amos was reminding the people of that age, as he is reminding us who today belong to a nation that we glibly speak of as Christian, and in which we boast more churches per square mile than any other nation, that far too often, religious people, as is true of a nation that claims to be Christian, get lost in the ritual and formalities of worship and neglect acting in just ways.

The message of the prophet to the community of faith is that of a call to a renewal of our covenantal relationship with God which, while finding expression in ritual acts of worship and its routine nature, must also be embodied in the pursuit of a moral agenda, and which leads to right relationships with other human beings.  So, if the community of faith wants justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” there must be consistency between our professed faith and our deeds, finding expression also in advocacy for those who are being denied justice within the society.

As you can imagine, those who heard what the prophet had to say were by no means receptive, because one who claims to be an authentic religious figure, it is assumed, must speak comforting and assuring words, words that do not disturb the people of God. So, they called him names, they threatened his life, and they sought to force him into exile.  In other words, get away from among us and then we shall have peace. The priest, the leading religious figure of Amos’ day, and who was in sync with the status quo, reported him to the king, pointing out that he is a traitor and should be forced to leave town. In Amos 7:10+ we read of the advice he had for Amos:

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Apparently, so heated was the exchange that Amos found it necessary to defend himself and the mission on which he had embarked. He made it clear that he was not a part of an institutional establishment, but a simple farmer who God took hold of and called to be his mouthpiece and prophet.

14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am[b] no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am[c] a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Today we come to celebrate and to give thanks to God for the life of Ernle Patrick Gordon, priest, whose life and witness bears some striking connection with the life and witness of the Old Testament prophet Amos. Ernle Gordon’s, first vocational choice was in the field of Agriculture and which saw him attending and graduating from the then Jamaica School of Agriculture at Twickenham Park.  Having been prepared for a life in agriculture which would have offered a certain level of calm and tranquility to his life, that is before praedial thieves took control of that sector, he was taken hold of by the Spirit of God and called to exercise the function of a priest within the Church of God.  As one who stuttered in his speech, he had a good excuse for not accepting the call, drawing on the precedence set by Moses, as well as Jeremiah who declared by way of excuse – “I do not know how to speak, I am only a boy”.  They perceived that the call of God has an unsettling impact on one’s life.  It is a call to risk and adventure, but not a life of recklessness.

This is not a call to preoccupation with the religious liturgy, ritual and matters confined to that space called “the spiritual” or the temple and its maintenance. So, those in contemporary society who believe that the Church of God is about entertainment, emotional highs, and prosperity, better go back again and engage the Scriptures of the faith.  And those who believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition has nothing to do with matters of state, including politics, economics, social justice and freedom, do not know the tradition.  These are they who seem to believe in the privatization of religious beliefs and expression and would confine religion to “quarantine”.  The call and mission entrusted to the prophetic voice is to engage, challenge and confront rulers, institutions, and power structures, and the assumptions and values which underlay their modus operandi. It is within this tradition that Ernle Gordon understood his ministry.

We cannot be oblivious to the fact that Ernle Gordon died during that period in the liturgical year regarded as the pre-Advent season when the lessons take on a focus on the endtime and the call to accountability, moral agency, justice and watchfulness before the return of the Lord; and he is being interred during the season of Advent which brings to a climax the themes of the pre-Advent season. These are all themes embedded in the prophetic tradition and the preaching of our late brother. Indeed last Sunday had as a particular focus, the messengers of God, that is, those who have served to herald the activity of God through the ages.

In a book by William Willimon, a United Methodist Bishop, entitled, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, he lays out for us a foundation for understanding ministry, and then takes us into some of the chief contemporary images/metaphors which have been informing the practice of ordained ministry.  One such image is that in which the pastor is seen as the community prophet moving about town agitating for reform, speaking out on justice issues, and engaging the powers that be. This figure has usually been identified with liberal theology, and among local figures who have been identified with this image are late Bishop Neville deSouza, Ashley Smith, and Ernle Gordon, to name a few.
These were voices speaking in the 1970s through to the 1990s, a period during which this nation was experiencing significant social turmoil, although understood by some solely in terms of what the Gross Domestic Product and rate at which the exchange rate of the dollar was fixed.   Speaking in those decades, these pastors were given all kinds of labels and dismissed because they were deemed liberals who did not represent the gospel as they understood it.

In a clear case of irony, commenting on the contemporary world, Willimon points out that the political pastors today, on whom such labels are not attached, tend to be evangelical conservatives, a curious exchange of theological bases for political engagement, as is evident in the unyielding support by the evangelical community in the United States of America and here in Jamaica for President Donald Trump. Yet, not satisfied with the abandonment of this dimension by the Church, Willimon argues that, “too many of us contemporary pastors are far too easily pleased with present arrangements, less critical than we ought to be, too deferential to Caesar and his accomplices”.

Many critics of the prophetic expression of ministry, try to make out that there is something called the gospel or salvation which is what one should be about, because an engagement with the social and political dimension of the life of the society is a kind of “add on” that is of a more extraneous nature.  A Methodist minister, Kathleen Brown, in her writing helps us understand the fallacy of such a position, and points to the way in which these aspects of the gospel must be integrated in the life and ministry of the pastor by speaking of the quality of authenticity which the pastor must possess.  “Authenticity is the integration of the private and the public, the inside and the outside, the spiritual journey and the human journey.  Authenticity for a leader of prayer means that the Spirit permeates the whole of his or her being.  Authenticity means that the word that the leader of prayer proclaims and preaches has entered his or her own soul and taken root there.  Authenticity means a life of prayer and openness to the experience of God.  The deeper a minister’s own spiritual life, the more convincing and effective his or her witness and ministry will be.  By being open to the movement of the Spirit in his or her own life, the leader of prayer can enable the Spirit in turn to transform the community. The ministry of presiding involves both the faith and the humanity of the minister – not a faith that is somehow added on to everyday life but a faith that is integrated into the whole of the minister’s life.  …Through the leader of liturgy, the word of God is given a human voice, and the good news of the Gospel is given human expression.” I believe that Ernle Gordon exuded a spirituality which reflected this type of integration and authenticity.

In St. Luke chapter 4 there is an event in which Jesus sets out the parameters of his own ministry by using the prophetic utterances of Isaiah to frame his own mission and ministry:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Now, this is a passage which we can read as Christians with great sentimentality while missing the power of what Jesus was saying. There is a book by Marcus Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder, and in which he addresses in a powerful way the significance and power of the message contained in this event in the life of Jesus.

He argues that Jesus was not just talking about things that make his audience or Christians in subsequent ages feel sentimental.  He was issuing a challenge in terms of how they conceived of God and God’s action in the world. This radical way of thinking about God is not just about being passive recipients of his grace and compassion, but to bring about fundamental change or transformation in the way in which we who identify with God live our lives. For now, we may deposit the idea that Jesus’ hearers did not get the impact of what Jesus was saying, receiving them initially as a word of consolation.

What Jesus was in fact announcing for himself, and challenging them to hear, was a call to commit to a life of compassion and a passion for justice.  And while they like us are often quick to say this is what we stand for as religious persons, the Christian theologian, Marcus Borg, makes the point that we need to be clear how we understand and apply these terms because, it is easy to have warm feelings of compassion when we turn to a text like this, but as he expresses it, “compassion without justice easily gets individualized or sentimentalized, and justice without compassion easily sounds like politics”. So as Jesus in himself was now incarnating these core ethical values, so those who identify with God, and as God is revealed in Jesus, must live out the same, an idea captured in Matthew 5:48 – “be compassionate as God is compassionate”. 

The mission as articulated by Jesus in this text is also one of passion for justice. Justice rightly understood in the life of Jesus and in the context of the text from Luke 4 sees justice and its opposite, injustice, having to do with the ways in which societies are structured, with the way political and economic systems are put together. In Jesus’ day there was a politically oppressive and economically exploitative system that was so structured by the wealthy and powerful elites in their narrow self-interest, and which had devastating consequences on the life of the majority of people who lived on the margins.    Justice is the social and political form of caring for the least of God’s children.

The service of ordination of a priest gives expression to an understanding of priesthood.  What does priesthood faithfully exercised among the people of God look like?  Our Book of Common Prayer speaks of it as that of being a servant and shepherd to the community of faith, the people of God.  And these are to find expression in several activities:

– The proclamation of the word of the Lord, with the consequent declaration of forgiveness to those who are repentant (Preaching);

–  The Administration of the Sacraments and the preparation of the people for sharing in them, with specific mention being made of the sacraments of Holy Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist;

–  The priest is to be a leader of worship, an intercessor and one who blesses the people (emphasizing the priestly nature of ministry);

–  The priest is to be a Teacher of the faith, and a source of inspiration by word and example;

–  The priest is to be involved in the pastoral care of persons, with a primacy attached to the care of the sick and the dying;

All aspects of priesthood faithfully exercised by Canon Ernle and to which persons have borne testimony in the public media.  Additionally, however, after outlining the duties associated with the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the ordinal points to the overriding principle which should guide the ministry of all priests:

  • In the exercise of this ministry the priest must have as his/her pattern our Lord, the Good Shepherd and must stand alongside the people of the community of faith in the witness to the world.

Ernle was faithful to the injunction to have his ministry be determined by the pattern of our Lord as expressed in Luke 4.

The outcome of the exercise of the prophetic calling is ultimately that of a creative and transformed reality for the people of God and the system of governance under which they lived. So, in the case of the prophet Jeremiah, for example, his mission was “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow”, and ultimately “to build and to plant.”  So ultimately the prophetic mission and role, as the mission is unraveled, is not that of an enemy, notwithstanding the labels that have been placed on him, the threats to his life, the exclusion which he faces from the religious cultus, and those who make up the status quo.  He is ultimately for the good of the nation.  So later he becomes the herald of hope for a despairing and hopeless nation who finds itself in exile because of the bad choices that have been made by leadership and people alike.

The same picture emerges for Amos. So, in the final chapter of the Book of Amos there is the picture of Restoration and Hope for a nation that responds to the prophetic message.  There are several promises which are present in the text:

  • I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel.
  • They shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them.
  • They shall never again be plucked up – displaced and homeless.
  • They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine.
  • God who challenged them through the word of judgement from the mouth of the prophet would in the end show that he is in truth their God.

Ultimately death comes to the life of all of us, whether prophet or priest.  Not much is said about the death of the prophetic figures of the Old Testament, with the obvious exception of someone like, Elijah who was taken up into heaven.  But in the absence of such material we can turn to one whose impact on the life of the church is incalculable, even if not numbered among the prophets, St. Paul. Most of us are familiar with a text from St. Paul which is used so often at funerals as a way of bringing closure to the life of the faithful and the expression of the Christian hope in the face of death, but few of us are aware of the building blocks which he uses to arrive at this faith position.  I speak of the following verses:

2 Timothy 4:6-8

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but to all who have longed for his appearing.

To understand all that Paul is saying in the text we need to recall some words contained in his first letter to Timothy which we may consider building blocks for the argument he is advancing in the words of the text.

  1. In 1Timothy 1:1 Paul speaks of himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, sent to proclaim the promised life which we have in union with Christ”.  Note that here Paul defines himself and his life first in relation to God, obedience to God, and affirms life (not death) which has been promised for those in union with Christ.  So he comes to the impending end of his life and looks back, and then looks ahead with optimism and the affirmation of hope, because there is life ahead.  Canon Ernle had a sense of calling and mission and to which he was obedient.
  2. In 1Timothy 1:3 he says, “I give thanks to God, whom I serve with a clear conscience…” The central concern and focus of his life was serving God, something which he had done with diligence, hence his expression of having a clear conscience. The effectiveness of Ernle’s ministry is not determined by what label some may use for the message he delivered, but rather that he had a clear conscience in terms of what he perceived to be his mission and ministry.
  3. In 1Timothy 1:16 he speaks of the suffering he has endured in order to fulfill God’s mission in his life, and expressed the confidence that God would be able to keep him safe until the Day of his coming. Canon Ernle could have chosen an easy approach to his life and ministry and not be disturbed by those who disagreed with him and wanted him sanctioned by some ecclesiastical authority for the witness he offered.  His faith and confidence in God sustained him.

So now, as Ernle Patrick’s earthly pilgrimage among us has come to an end, we give thanks to God for his life and witness among us.  We commend him to God’s care and keeping in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, as one who was baptized into Christ Jesus, nurtured with his Body and Blood in the context of the community of faith, and who served faithfully as a priest and kept the faith to the end.   

May God grant to Ernle Patrick rest and peace eternal. 


The Most Rev. Howard K.A. Gregory
Archbishop of The West Indies, Primate & Metropolitan
and Bishop of Jamaica & The Cayman Islands
December 8, 2020