I had the honor this past weekend of preaching the sermon at my friend Michael’s ordination. The service was at Community Christian Church in Lincolnshire, Ill., where I served for 8 years. It was wonderful to be back in that space again, to see the people who were such an important part of my life. This is the sermon I preached.
SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 64:1-9
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.
October 16, 2010
Ordination Service for Michael Swartzentruber
It is good to be here with you today. I bring you greetings from your sister congregation, another CCC, Crestwood Christian Church in Lexington, KY. I want to thank Rev. Nelson Irving, the Elders and the entire congregation of Community Christian Church for welcoming my family and me back to such an important place in my life. For more than eight years, when I stood here on Sunday morning and look at this congregation, I saw the embodiment of God’s love and compassion, and together we did our best to live out God’s call. I will always be grateful for our time together.
I want to also thank Michael for inviting me to be part of his special day, to share in this wonderful celebration of his ministry. I find it ironic that he asked me to preach today, because during our time together on staff here at CCC I found Michael to be incredibly difficult to work with. When you work alongside someone who is so much smarter, charismatic and overflowing with sartorial splendor, it’s hard not to be a tad bit resentful. He was an intern in title only. I reality, he was and is a trusted colleague, partner in ministry and treasured friend.
If you are not convinced that Michael was not your typical student associate minister, I want to tell you a story that will illustrate it. One of Michael’s first responsibilities was to write a column for our monthly newsletter. Like all his tasks, he pursued it with a vengeance and submitted the final product for me to proof. I knew I was dealing with someone extraordinary when I read through his column and found at the bottom…footnotes. In a church newsletter article. It seemed just a little out of place next to the announcements for the garage sale and the chili cook-off.
This story highlights what I believe to be the greatest challenge facing Michael and other students as they move into full-time ministry. How do we make the transition from the academic rigors of the university to the administrative and pastoral challenges of the church? While the two are not as mutually exclusive as some want to believe, there are significant differences. For example, in seminary you spend countless hours reading hundreds of books and articles to further your knowledge. In the church, the main textbook was not written to provide information, but to inspire transformation. What do we do when footnotes and textbooks no longer provide the answers for the problems we face in ministry?
It’s a good idea to have a plan. Knowing Michael, he has one. He’s thought through that first day on the job, the first counseling session, his first Board meeting and late-night crisis call (not the one from the snowed-in senior minister; he’s already dealt with that). No doubt in his plan he handles each situation with grace, compassion and competence. Our plans always go well in our minds. But to quote one of the great theologians of our time, Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face.”
And make no mistake, while this vocation is the most rewarding experience I can imagine, it will punch you in the face. Hopefully only metaphorically. As ministers we are given people’s most precious and precarious moments to hold and safeguard. People will look to us to solve their problems, work miracles and provide answers to unanswerable questions. Like the Israelites, they will cry out to us, “Oh, that God would rend the heavens and come down. Well, Michael, we’re waiting!” You may think that’s not fair, that people shouldn’t expect so much of us. After all, we’re only human, simple earthen vessels, plain pieces of pottery. But as Isaiah reminds us, we bear the fingerprints of the Potter, and if we are willing to stand up and take the vows of ordination, to have both hands and expectations laid upon our shoulders, we have to be prepared for the consequences. As a minister, you have to prepared to be punched in the face and bear-hugged and cried on and madly finger-jabbed at, because those are the kinds of things that happen when you dare to enter into deep relationship with someone, when you dare to let your story be intertwined with the story of a community of faith.
In my mind, that is the essence of what we are called to do as ministers. We are called to listen to the people as they tell their stories and then to help them see where that intersects with God’s story. Or, as J. Gordon Kingsley, president of William Jewell College, said, our role is “to learn the song of the tribe in order to sing the song of the tribe so that others can find their place in the song and write together the next verse.” Our job is to help the body of Christ tell its story.
That’s what the Israelites are doing in the passage from Isaiah. During at time of crisis, they are retelling their story of being God’s chosen people, whom God saved through supernatural acts of power. “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.” Ah yes, the good ol’ days! Every congregation has them and wherever you go to serve, you are sure to hear about them. Stories of when the church thrived and flourished, filling the pews and the offering plates, changing lives and making a difference. And regardless of the church, almost all these stories have one thing in common – they tell tales of a time a whole heckuva lot better than the present.
But as Rev. Springsteen sang in his theological treatise on the subject, “Glory days, yeah they’ll pass you by.” They’ve certainly passed by the Israelites. And now they are struggling to figure out how their story makes sense, because they’ve seemingly lost a major protagonist. “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” One of the most difficult parts of a minister’s job is to help a congregation see God’s presence in the midst of what feels like God’s absence. When we are existing in the in-between, living in the borderland after what was and before what will be, we need to remind folks that God is still there and that God is not finished with us. As author Caroline Bohler says, “We are works in progress – God’s works in progress, but still in progress. Some of us have been fired by life’s intense heat. Some of us are colorful, others are earthier. Yet the Divine Potter made us all, shaping us, handling us, gently, firmly, creatively. Sometimes life is well-centered; sometimes it is flying out of control. But God’s hand is always there, molding us into works of art.” How do we reframe the stories about wilderness and wandering to show that God is there, as well? That is part of the song we are called to sing.
But it’s hard to sing about soaring on eagles’ wings when you’re living with turkeys. What I mean by that is it’s human nature to want to stay mired in the past or fretting about the present. To truly tell the story of a congregation, to capture the essence of God in the midst of a distinctly human organization, requires more than a verbose vocabulary and poetic prose and an abnormal addiction to alliteration. We are not only called to tell about what did happen and what is happening; we are called to tell about what could happen. We don’t just report the story; we retell it. And that requires imagination.
We may associate that word with fairy tales and day-dreaming, but “imagination” is a deeply theological word. It’s defined as “the faculty of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses,” which reminds me of another definition, found in Hebrews 11: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Having an imagination requires the faith to see what could be, even if it is not congruent with what is. Imagination is the fertile soil in which the seeds of hope grow.
As servants of God, we are called to help awaken a congregation’s imagination to see what God has done, what God is doing and most importantly what God could do through them. This requires us to take the stories of scripture and re-imagine them for our current context. Where is the Exodus happening today in our lives? Who in the congregation is smack-dab in the middle of the lion’s den? Which of us is crying out for healing, begging to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment? Author Diana Butler Bass says pastors are called “to exercise a ‘pastoral imagination’ in tandem with their churches’ ‘congregational imagination’ in order to reshape the stories of faith.”
As we help our congregation reshape these stories, as we help them learn the tune to the song of the tribe, we partner with them and with God in writing the next verse. And in this process we are called to be midwives to essence of the story, to the defining metaphor of the narrative, which is rooted both etymologically and theologically in the word “imagination” – the image of God, which resides in each of us and in all of us. “Oh look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.”
Michael, the calling you are receiving today is a humbling and formidable one. You are charged with being the narrator for God’s people, helping them find meaning, find themselves, and find God in a confusing and chaotic world. Don’t duck the punches or sidestep the hugs, because that’s all part of the story. As Butler Bass says, “We become ourselves when we tell our stories and we cannot know ourselves apart from our stories.” I pray as a minister you help people to know themselves as the work of God’s hands. And if you can do that, if you can help people see themselves and others as children of God, created for the purpose of loving God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and loving each person as if they truly mattered, if you can live out this calling to help people find their voice in the midst of God’s redemption song, if you can help even one person in one congregation live up to their potential as God’s handiwork…well, that story has yet to be written, doesn’t it? But if you can do those things, with the help of God…just imagine. Just imagine.