[this text was provided by our translator for the hearing impaired, Loveeta Baker, who did a transcription of his sermon. This is being provided in a rough-draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings.]
It was 33 years ago when Bishop C.P. Minnick laid hands on my head and said those big heavy important words, take thou authority, to preach the word, to administer the sacraments and to order the life of the church in the name of the father and the son and Holy Spirit. I was there kneeling on the stage, waiting, expecting at any moment the heavens to open and the spirit ascend. Unfortunately, it was in the Oxford high school auditorium, in Oxford, Mississippi, it was not a holy place. It was a makeshift altar, we did the best we could to make an auditorium look like a sanctuary, but somehow God showed up.
And yet, I waited, there was that moment, the bishop laid his hands on me, I am taking the place in the line of Apostolic succession, I knew I would rise and all would be right with the world. I was finally, all of my deepest theological questions, I knew that when I rose that I would preach with eloquence, my prayers would be beautiful, I knew that when I stood beside the bedside of a suffering soul God would grant me just the right words to speak. I just knew that night it was all going to come together.
Well, I hate to tell you folks this, there were no visions, no rushes of mighty wind, no just hands on my head and a few words; a little sweat, and that was it.
I confess that I rose pretty much as I knelt at that altar. The difference was I held an ordination certificate in my hand. Praise God. We have had clergy along the way that thought once they got that it was a license to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted to do it.
It doesn’t. The church granted me these keys to an office, nobody else knew it, don’t tell anybody in Tennessee, please. You promise? I knew that I was unprepared and inadequate for the role. I was inadequate to preach the word, to offer sacraments, to baptize, balance a budget, Lord have mercy.
I want the lay people to understand you get a bunch of folk that don’t understand anything about business coming as your pastor, you will have to help them. To care for the dying, the the to maintain peace and harmony between the church league basketball teams. Very important role we clergy get to play.
Next year I left the safe confines of my first appointment out of seminary where I had been an associate pastor of, get this, my home church. Lord have mercy.
My mother in law was the organist and choir director, say Lord have mercy with me. She only lasted a year. This is true. I don’t make this up. She only lasted a year. My father in law, she started a business, why they left. But they sent me there because they couldn’t trust me with my own church. They needed to send me a place where people knew me and would train me up in the way I needed to go. Have any of you gotten an appointment like this?
Then came my first real appointment. Anybody an associate pastor? They used to tell us in Mississippi, when are you going to get a real appointment? Do they ask this question in North Carolina? When are you taking a real church, quit sitting on the sidelines? Whenever the bishop sends me, I will go did you get that? Whenever the bishop sends you, you say yes. See me after the service if you want to know more about this.
I went to Lambert, Mississippi. Lambert is in the heart of the Mississippi delta, more pool halls than churches, it was a dying delta farm town.
It was an odd year to move. Half the people who moved got increases, the other half got increases. I moved sideways. I learned the difference between soybeans, cotton, [indiscernible] when they were ankle high, if you don’t know what they are see me afterwards. I learned not to pray about the weather. Farmers are never satisfied when you pray about the weather. I prayed for rain, it rained. And rained and rained, preacher, too much rain.
Sometimes disguised in Bible toting Christian clothing. Prayers too short, sermons dull, mostly I was trying not to fail.
One night it was late, tucking our firstborn into bed, the phone rang, it was Benny. He said pastor, he always called me pastor. He said there’s been an accident, some of the kids from school were hit while doing a walk a thon. We need to go to the hospital. Joey is one of the kids, Joey was in our youth group.
There I was, feeling totally inadequate, and Benny said come on pastor, let’s go see Joey. Joey was 6 4, 300 pounds. He said we need to pray for this child. So Benny prayed, I listened.
He said words that I wish I could have said, he said words about love and healing and power interest mercy and grace and holy Benny loved this young man, I mean he really loved him. He taught me what no divinity class ever could teach me. He taught me how in the space of pain and suffering and feeling inadequate, that night was my real ordination. It was in that moment that I learned to trust of my inadequacies, and pure blessing, I learned to stand in the gap and do the work I had been called to do and I now knew I was entering, are you ready dangerous work. You are entering a dangerous opportunity to do good.
There are times in this dangerous calling it can be frustrating. I could talk about those frustrating times in ministry, and talk to you about not becoming one of those frustrating people, amen? That goes for the laity here too, friends.
But we clergy were called, you know, to administer to all kinds of people, the call me every time folks, usually the delegates to Annual Conference, and to minister to those, hmm, what do you call them, so so folk, and can I say this? We are called to minister to those people who are extremely difficult to love. They just are. Now, I will give you this is free advice, doesn’t cost anything extra for coming to night. There will be five people in every church you serve and they will drive you absolutely crazy.
They will be in every church you serve, just have different names. Can I get a witness?
So, when you meet these five people, it’s not about you. Now, they may hook something in you, yeah? But you need to take a step back. That’s a sermon for another night. Just remember, there will be five. But this night you are being ordained into a night that will allow you to step into the most profound moments of life. Baptism, confirmation, graduation, for better for worse, richer poorer, you get to pronounce the words of resurrection and life, you get to stand, invited into the most intimate settings, the hospital room, and pray, hold a hand, and give a cup of water. There is no holier life anywhere than the life to which you are being ordained. So hold this life carefully. It is a treasure in hold is carefully.
Who knew, when you said yes to your baptism, yes on Jesus, yes to baptism, who knew it would take you out the door to this life? Who could have predicted this? It’s dangerous. Did I say that already? I want to be sure you get it.
Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings said it’s a dangerous business, stepping out the door, keep to your feet and there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to. You say yes to the church and your bishop calls, sends you, you go out not knowing where you are really going. You may think you know, but you don’t know, because you don’t know what’s already there. Guess what, the good news is you don’t have to bring it all. Some of it’s already there, some of the good stuff, it’s not on you to bring it. All you have to do is bear witness to what God is already doing.
Everybody will say whew, isn’t that a relief?
It was dangerous for Jesus, you knew this, you have been to seminary. You have read the book, right? You are going to be asked if you believe in the old, New Testament, know this part of it. Dangerous.
From his baptism in Jordan to Galilee, he risked everything for the sake of the kingdom of God. Everything.
I have to confess I am a fan of the gospel of John, I just like the mystery of it. I like these dichotomies of dark and might. But one of the ways I have come to understand the gospel of John, at least half of the gospel of John is preparation for what the disciples are going to have to deal with once Jesus is gone. In John 12 Jesus is anointed for burial, then the triumphant the upper room the foot washing, betrayal, all this, you have this powerful prophetic moment when Jesus says one of you and a new commandment. Did you catch the new commandment? Anybody here get that? Hello? Just checking. This is important.
Then you get to John 14. I will come back to 13, but 14, you get the big words, almost every funeral, let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God house of many rooms. The King James version says many mansions. I just want to tell the Methodists, we’re going to get rooms. Not getting mansions, we’re just room kind of people.
Intuitively, Jesus understands the emotional impact of this good bye business he’s giving, he knows his boys are a little brief stricken, they don’t know we get to 14, verse 8, wringing hands, you are going to be gone, how will I handle this. You will have church people come up what will you do if you move they made it before you got there and will be just fine when you are gone. Philip is nervous about what they will do when Jesus leaves. Jesus gets out done, says Philip, good grief, you have be kidding me. I have been with you how long? You have seen me turn water into wine, walk on the water, feed 500 people and you don’t know what you will do when I am gone? Get real, buddy.
It reminds me of my teenage son, when he was a teenager. Lord have mercy. You tell him and tell him and tell him and he still doesn’t understand. I remember the time right after he got his driver’s license, in Mississippi. I said you must drive the speed limit in this town or you will be stopped. Bless his heart. I drove by my son on the side of the road stopped by the police, the poor boy didn’t have time to go home and prepare his mother so she could prepare me. This is how Philip was. Jesus, what are we going to do? Jesus says this: If you will put your trust in me, if you will put your trust in me, greater things will you do than I have done. You believe that? That’s gospel.
Ever gone unwillingly to a church meeting. I went unwillingly once to a church meeting. Once. It was a Saturday during SCC football. I have to confess I was not interested in driving five hours up I 55 in Mississippi to your former bishop’s hometown to a prayer meeting. But I went. There was a little high school praise band playing the song with which I was not familiar, says a lot about my taste in contemporary church music. The song was God of the City. I started listening. There was a line that said “love for the and hope for the hopeless, peace for the restless. Of course greater things are yet to come, still to be done. You know what happens if you Google greater things on your phone? John 14:8 will come up.
Who knew? I began to believe that was the word the church needed to hear. That’s the word our pastors need to preach, love for the loveless, hope for the hopeless, so greater things can come. In these chapters, closing chapters of the gospel of John, Jesus realizes things are going to be tough.
In this upper room with those who knew him best he took a towel, yet again taught, taught them what it means to be servant of all. To keep both the commandment to love one another, and to keep the covenant into which you are being ordained. I want you to understand tonight not only are we called by the commandment to love one another, you are being ordained into a life of covenant with your sisters and brothers in the order of deacon and elders.
There is no higher calling than to kneel, and wash and serve, and love. None. Unfortunately, along the way some of us forget the water that baptized us is also the water we are used to wash feet. You get that? Same water. It’s a shame John Wesley didn’t pick foot washing up as a sacrament. It’s a sacramental moment. It’s holy water. Do you remember the first time you felt God stir in your heart and mind and soul, when you said maybe God, maybe you want there’s something you want from me. You remember? Anybody here remember? I am asking you.
I bet the name Ken Goodson rings a bell to some of you. When he spoke he sounded like God. When I was your age he preached at our Annual Conference in Mississippi and he said this: I don’t remember the first time I was called; but I remember the last time! The last time I was called was this morning. What about you? When was the last time you were called? Whether you remember or not when you were called, you were marked with a baptismal water and they flowed down your face and you have been inching toward ordination a long time. For some longer than others, but this moment is a culmination of grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace all in this moment of your life, everything that’s gone before you, all that you heard when you were a child, young person, everything you heard in college, seminary, all the formational experience you have had as you moved through this crazy long, arduous process. It’s all there.
I am prone to believe Isaiah had when I was in my mother’s womb, I was named. The day I was born my father was ordained as an older. I believe in a God that work this is stuff out. Somewhere along the way we got ourselves baptized, not of our own doing, somebody took us. Held us at the fount, I baptize you, name you, claim you. The church came alongside and did what the church is called to do, make sure we live up to our baptism. That’s the job, friend, laity, to make sure they are living up to the baptism. You don’t get off the hook.
Which is to love and nurture, teach, preach, and those who have enough sense to pay attention and stir up the grace that is already in us.
Somewhere along the way, teenager, mid life, somewhere in between we wake up to the call God is speaking and realize we have a vocation and that is something more than merely a job, it was a summons to participate in the work of God doing that which we were born to do. That’s what this means this night. You are being set apart tonight, for ministry.
This night you are living in your baptism in a new way that is to be God’s person in and for the world. When you were baptized you were marked forever to be the person God needs you to be in the world. Understand this night that you are the world you are being ordained into you will come to understand you are consenting to be visible in the world. We are not like all people wearing a robe, stole. We have a name, claim, ordained for a particular act and work of ministry.
In the days to come you will be challenged, sometimes when you least expect it, sometimes it will come when you are riding the wave of success and you begin to believe I have this ministry thing figured out, this is not too bad, I can do this, this is easy. Be prepared.
I remember I was a new church pastor once and we had a really high Sunday, on a wave and the next was the lowest Sunday in attendance. Be prepared. It is the law of physics, for every action there’s an opposite reaction. High and low, it’s going to happen. Don’t ride the high so you get so inflated when you hit the ground you fall apart.
Every day in one way or another you will face a test and will you remember that you are a child of God? That you are baptized, washed and cleaned up, or will you just a little bit forget? Will you live up to your name as a Christian? Sometimes we will be tempted to be more than we are, and sometimes we clergy will be tempted to be less than we are. You will be tempted to say “I’m only human, I made a bad mistake, it happens all the time.” You see the problem with that logic is that you are baptized in Christ and you are no longer just human, you are a new creation. You have ever had spiritual amnesia, though, when you just forget? Paul spoke of this in roam Romans, it’s not I that live it’s him that lives in me. We are still praying God will take away our bent for sinning. We clergy haven’t got this just right yet. I think Jesus knew this was going to be a problem for the disciples as he was departing, why in the upper room word and actions spoke of servant hood, foot washing, the caringness, being ordained into a life of servanthood, a life that is selfless, to love one another, including the one another’s in this clergy family, which is to lay aside any sense of entitlement, Lord have mercy, brothers and sisters in the church today we have no room for clergy to have a sense of entitlement. I should have preached this before you started voting.
Let go of any competitive spirit and trust the one that natured you, claimed you, is the one that will hold you and love you and send you. So you are being called again tonight, friends, to be servant, to kneel, to wash, to love. To take the towel and basin, and in my estimation there’s no higher calling than to kneel, to wash, to serve, to love. This life is not normal, the world does normal. We do something different. Some of you have been to London to Christ’s Church, Wesleys, could have remained to remain in the safety of the cathedral. He writes I speaking from a little eminence in the city to, about 3000 people. A mission field in front of you, there’s a mission field, and while we’re on this beautiful sacred mountain and lake side, God needs you to kneel, to wash, love, serve those who may never find a path into this place.
In 1881 Booker T. Washington established a little school in Alabama called Tuskegee Institute, now it’s Tuskegee University. He got an old school house, church, not wealthy at all, no means whatsoever. He could teach them to read, write, and how to make bricks. During his time there he came to know one George Washington Carver. The work he was doing in agricultural research. Decided to white Dr. Carver a letter.
Seeking to provide education, a means for survival for those who attend. Our students are poor, often starving, they travel miles, years of poverty. We teach them to write, read, but words cannot fill stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest. I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have, the last, from a place you now occupy you no doubt will achieve. These things I ask you to give up, I offer you in their place work, hard hard work, the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste, to full humanity.
Dr. Carver was a professor at Iowa University. He was the lead agricultural scientist on that faculty. When he read the letter he walked outside down through town to his favorite spot on the creek bank, sat down, re read the letter. He tore a piece of paper out of his notebook and scribbled three words. Got up, walked to the post office, but that piece of paper in an envelope, mailed it to Booker T. Washington, to Tuskegee Alabama. Several days later Booker T. Washington opened the letter and the words were these: “I will come.”
Subsequent to that he went to see the president of the university and said to him, I want you to read this letter I have gotten from Booker T. Washington, the president reads the letter and then with tears flowing from his eyes he said this, in this life we are prone to turn our eyes away from greatness less we are blinded. He’s asking to you give up money, prestige, position, and fame. And in its place he is offering you immortality. So the president stood up and offered a benediction, he said go, go with God.
George Washington Carver did and the rest is history. He went out with God. Sister and brothers you have been chosen, and this night you will be ordained for ministry, and time is running out for us, and we can no longer sit on our blessed assurance and do nothing.
So go, go love one another, here, wherever God sends you with hands, heart, mind tidings of salvation. You may not feel a flame of fire tonight, you may feel heavy bishop hands on your head and a few important words spoken, but one day you will be standing in a pulpit, holding the hand of a person in a hospital bed or visiting in a prison, and watching the pain and suffering around you and it will be palpable, and you will feel totally adequate and the Lord himself will speak the words you cannot find yourself and you will sense God loving the person you cannot love. You will know the mystery that is at the heart of ministry and the joy of your ordination. May it be so this night and all nights, so go, go with God in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.