A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 8, 2018
For Matty Strickler’s Ordination Service
How does one preach a sermon when there are so many preachers here?
How does one capture the excitement and horror of this day?
Excitement for your new ministry endeavors, and horror of what you are going to be asked to do or worse expected to do or believe or act?
How do we predict the future of what you will become?
How do we expect to be changed by this?
This we know: everyone in this room has been changed by you, Matty.
You have come to us and brought with you a love for theater, a love for people, a heart for the Gospel, and an impatience with platitudes if they do not serve to bring needed healing to this world. Thank God you are here. We need you.
So, I’m gonna start out with some advice. Things I wish I knew when I was starting out in ministry 28+ years ago.
- People are more conservative than in seminary. I’m sure you know this. I’m sure you’ve seen it in your Hospice setting. James Cone said you can’t do theology unless you are in dialogue. Listen to Christian radio (in doses) to know their language. They have Christian radio more than they have you. Find a way to build trust with them. Learn old hymns and be able to rattle off their timeless poetry, even the poetry that drives you nuts. Because in a hospice situation, it’s not about what you believe, but what they believe and what is going to give them comfort.
- You don’t get respect because you are ordained. Sorry. A clerical collar wullbring you as much suspicion as trust. You get respect because you earn it. Mel Roy once told me that if people know you love them, they will give you permission to try some outlandish things. You earn their trust through pastoral care, not what you say from the pulpit.
- You are not the Messiah. You know this already. A colleague told me at her first church that another pastor told her from his coronary hospital bed that Jesus died for the church, which means that you don’t have to. The nature of this work is that it is never done. Establish balance. Find time to renew yourself. See a show. Act in a show. Exercise. Get out of town. Find friends outside of your work. Play some rugby. Nurture yourself.
- You won’t have all of the answers. Sometimes the best answer is awkward and respectful silence.
- Don’t make stuff up. If you don’t know, say so. And then do your best to find an answer or at least a respectful response.
- Ministry can be lonely. You are surrounded by people, but no one else has the privilege of your privileged conversations. No one else knows your internal struggles. Remember in those dark nights of the soul, the people in this room who are pulling for you; who believe in you, who are going to have your back when the going gets tough.
Matty, you bring to this ministry vocation a sense of purpose, a sense of clarity, a sense of passion that needs to be renewed and tended. You have a natural way of drawing people to yourself through insight, humor, laughter, solidarity tears, wisdom and steadfast presence. Nurture those gifts. They will take you far. They may not win you status, but they will win you friends. And that’s what we need to be successful ministers of the Gospel.
For let’s face it, the Gospel ministry can be a lonely business. It has its mountains and its valleys.
At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus preached in such a way that people were thrilled. That was until he went home. He had been teaching in the synagogues for years, but when he came home, he was different. I mean, he was the same dude, but he had a power to his words, an interpretation that made some people uncomfortable. Matty, you are coming to this ministry after searching for a long time. You might have spent your proverbial 40 days in the wilderness. We all know that biblical time is all figurative. You have spent time wandering, trying on different hats. But the calling of God works like this: You find something that is so compelling, so all-encompassing that you cannot escape it. It keeps you up at night. It consumes your imagination. You cannot do anything else. All you can do is respond, “Here I am.”
And so when Jesus assumed his mantle of leadership, which by the way was later in life, he came with a courage he had not experienced before.
And he came to his home synagogue and spoke in a way people had not heard him before.
He had lots of scriptures to choose from, we can imagine, but he chose one of the most pointedly provocative of passages. It came from a time when the people were returning from the exile and trying to establish themselves as a distinct people. They were looking for the core of their belief system. It wasn’t so much about the rituals or the sacrifices or even the righteousness about their own piety. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 and said, this is what it’s all about:
“The spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me (one could say ordained me) to bring good news to the poor, to set the captives free, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” That last part, proclaiming the year of God’s favor is a reference to the land reform project called the year of jubilee: when all will return what they have stolen, all slaves will be set free, and all debts are forgiven. We proclaim a piece of this each week when we say “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And then Jesus added the phrase, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Which is another way of saying. “Let’s do this. It’s time, past time don’t you think?”
Let’s bring an end to economic and racial slavery.
Let’s stop practicing exclusion and calling it piety.
Let’s instead build a beloved community.
Let’s bring an end to the prison industrial complex.
Let’s hear people’s broken hearts, and heal them when we can.
Let’s listen to people’s deepest fears.
Let’s attend to class and gender and gender-identity bias.
Let’s live into the community that God has blessed.
Let’s not wait. Let’s do this now. Let’s fulfill Isaiah’s vision. Today.
Echoing Jesus and Isaiah, Martin Luther King said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. . . . When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
You, Matty, are charged with speaking the truth to power and embodying truth, even when it puts you out of joint. Ironically, real power comes from that truth-force, or soul-force, what Gandhi called Satyagraha. Gandhi was once asked what the difference is between himself and most Christians. Gandhi said, “I think Jesus meant it.”
Micah says that God requires us to "do justice to love mercy and to walk humbly with God."(Micah 6:8) That is more important than making friends with those in high places. Doing and embodying the good news is more important than anything.
This is your ministry.
You, Matty are a minister of the Gospel. We have seen it here at UBC. We have seen it in your work as a chaplain. We have seen your patience with people who are in the throes of grief. We have seen it in your impatience with those who oppress and make life more difficult for the vulnerable.
What you offer is what Jesus offers. Radical hospitality. It is holy work.
Radical hospitality means that everyone is loved and cared for.
Radical hospitality means caring for those less fortunate than yourself, never blaming them for their poverty.
Radical hospitality means speaking to powerful institutions and in the tradition of Moses saying, “let my people go.”
Radical hospitality means offering Divine presence to people in the dark nights of their souls.
Radical hospitality is a gift from God that you mirror in your ministry. For you may be the only face of Christ that people see.
But know this, too. It was Jesus’ love for the outsider that turned the crowds against him. He was loved when he was the hero who demanded little. But when he demanded more, the people turned on him.
With ordination comes expectation. Authority. And we’re all a bit uncomfortable with that.
People expect you to be compassionate all the time, even when people are not acting right. Remember that even Jesus turned over the tables when he got fed up. You’re still human. Be fully human. Be divinely influenced, but don’t confuse yourself with Christ.
You are someone who knows the redemptive story and you are someone who wants to help other experience it.
People tried to run Jesus out of town, but his posse smuggled him out. Remember your friends. Ministry can be a lonely business. Keep your friends close. Have some outside of your work. Like us. They’ll keep you honest. They’ll push you deeper. They know the real you.
Matty, you know the Gospel story. It’s your story. It’s a story of hope, it’s a story of redemption. And it’s a story filled with love. And it’s a story we share. We’re so glad that you have said, “Here I am, send me.” By your example, we respond, “send me too.” May God bless, comfort and challenge you as you take this step into ministry.