The Sermon Given At My Ordination
Love in the Particular
I had a different sermon written.
I thought it was a little odd that Jen had picked the beginning of Acts 5 with the story of the death of Ananias for her second reading. But they teach you in seminary that you should be attentive to those parts of the readings that are the most difficult, after all, if they are difficult for the preacher, they will probably be difficult for the congregation. So I figured, I better preach on this… And I figured I could do something with the idea of giving everything to God, you know, that’ll preach. The part about being struck dead on the spot was tricky, though.
But then I thought, I should check, just in case
.And, what with recovering from the Gathering, moving and starting her call, Jen sent the wrong reading. So we have the entirely sensible reading from Romans instead. And the woman at the well from John.
I love this gospel reading. It’s so rich and detailed and particular.
It’s easy to pi
cture it. It’s a hot, dry day with the sun high in the sky. As Jesus arrives at the well, you can see that he’s tired—his feet are covered with dust from the road. It’s very quiet. After all, no one comes to the well in the heat of the day. He eases himself down on a nearby rock, cracks his back and gives off a long sigh.
Then the woman arrives with her bucket. And she and Jesus have what is probably one of the most interesting conversations in all of scripture. We learn so much about both of them.
The woman’s personality, even though she is not named, opens up to
us as she and Jesus talk. She’s aware, from the start, of the divide between herself and Jesus—the divide that is men versus women, the divide that is Jews versus Samaritans. And surely there are more subtle distinctions, social, cultural and economic, that might create gulf between these two conversation partners. But she doesn’t seem at all concerned about those kinds of distinctions as she questions and even challenges Jesus. Jen sees the woman as “sassy,’ which seems like a good description (and also something Jen might know when she sees it…) We see the woman grow in her understanding of who Jesus is, from a Jew, to someone maybe connected to her ancestor Jacob, to a prophet certainly, to perhaps even the messiah.
We hear Jesus engage freely with this woman, a woman to whom he ought not even be talking. He offers her living water and explains what he means. And he knows her—maybe better than she knows herself, certainly he knows her better than the self she is willing to show the world. Most powerfully, he knows her and doesn’t judge her. He knows her, loves her and discloses himself as God to her.
We can feel her excitement as, leaving her bucket behind, she goes to share with others, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
What a great story, and, in its depth and detail, what a beautiful picture of pastoral ministry.
Eugene Peterson, best known as translator of The Message bible, says pastoral ministry “…represents the eternal word and will of God and does it among the idiosyncrasies of the local and personal.” Surely that is a good description of our job.
The letter of call that we receive includes a “not small” list of responsibilities using the following verbs: preach, teach, administer, lead, proclaim, provide, speak, encourage, impart, endeavor, equip and guide. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish these responsibilities in a particular place and the congregation that will receive and support our efforts is identified through the signatures of the president and secretary of the council. The letter is not a document generated in the church wide office, or even our synodical offices. It comes from a particular people in a specific place.
In your case, your letter was likely signed by your council president and secretary. They are two in a long line of
leaders who have been faithfully serving God’s mission for 134 years. They are the spiritual descendants of the 25 people who, in 1881, broke from the German Reform church because they felt so strongly about the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread
and wine. They began their ministry in a building they bought from the Universalist Church. St. Stephen supported the establishment of at least four other congregations, established with other churches a significant outreach ministry for the area and had many pastors who served there until retirement.
Two interesting facts about the congregation that has called you: in 1909 they were given a bible on the occasion of the dedication of a new church building by Kaiser Wilhelm the II of Germany in which he wrote, quoting 1 John, “God is love; and he that abides in love abides in God and God in him.” Your new congregation is also very supportive of women in ministry, having called the first woman to serve west of the Mississippi. Although it probably didn’t hurt that her grandfather was the first pastor to serve St. Stephen.
You are going to a specific place to serve a particular people, and in that place, you will represent the eternal word and will of God. You will experience that particularity in the hands into which you place the bread that is Jesus’ body each week. There may be hands that can’t be quite washed clean of the work of a mechanic. There may be a hand that is missing part of a finger or two, following a long-ago farming accident. There will be the small, marker-smudged hands of those children receiving communion for the first time.
You’ll feel that particularity in the hugs that you will share with people who would otherwise feel isolated at home, but for your visit. Hugs from a mom who’s coming to terms with what may be a terminal illness. Hugs from a widower coming to church for the first time after losing a wife he loved deeply over many years.
You’ll experience the particularity of your church in the things that bring you joy and laughter. Maybe the appearance of an unexpected sock puppet, or the joy of a choir that loves teasing each other almost as much as they love singing.
You’ll preach in a particular way to a community of people that you know well, people you know some days better than they know themselves, people you know sometimes in a way more clearly than they are willing to show to the rest of the world.
This particularity is what it means to be a pastor in this church, a church called into being by the very particularity of God in the flesh, a church sustained in that incarnation of God by the Holy Spirit.
And they get you, a particular pastor. We’re not any of us generic pastors that can be pulled off shelf, expected to fit every need. We are particular people with specific gifts. You are blessed with a rich set of identities that include twin, one of four sisters, mom of Emma, pastor’s kid and missionary kid’s daughter, and former teacher. You could equally be described as loving, warm, funny and… well, sassy. You will be a blessing to your congregation, but you will not always be everyone’s favorite pastor. If your experience is at all like mine, or really, any pastor’s, those things that make you a great pastor some days will also be the same things that on some occasions just rub some people the wrong way.
There’s a little street front flea market I drive past that has a sign on its window that reads, “Anything of value and much, much more.” For good or ill, we are all of us the sum total of the dusty bits of our experiences. But we are also all of us now and always God’s blessed creation.
The letter of call includes some direction for the calling congregation as well. The people of St. Stephen have pledged their prayers, love, esteem and personal support for the sake of the ministry you will do together. That ministry is made real in the particularities of each of you and those particularities are made sacred in the flesh and blood of Jesus—God for us.