An Ordination Sermon

Started by Richard Johnson, September 06, 2011, 08:36:01 PM

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Richard Johnson

On August 28, 2011, I preached this sermon at the ordination of my daughter.

Ordination of Johanna K. Johnson
Peace Lutheran Church, Grass Valley, CA
August 2, 2011

Twenty-eight years ago today, in Fresno, California, Johanna Kathryn Johnson was brought to the baptismal font, where she was washed in the life-giving water which by grace gives the new birth through the Holy Spirit. It has been quite a journey from that day to this one, this day when on behalf of the whole church we set Johanna apart for the office of holy ministry. It is, of course, a special joy for me to be asked to preach on this day. I have, as she says, been her pastor for all of her life; and while I suppose I have to relinquish that role now, there are other aspects to our relationship that will remain!

Preaching an ordination sermon for anyone is a particular challenge, and most pastors don't get the opportunity to do it very often. What can be tricky about it is the preacher's desire to address the ordinand, and yet to preach the gospel as well to the entire congregation. But perhaps that is not as big a problem as it seems at first. In the baptismal liturgy of the Lutheran Book of Worship there are these words: "Through baptism God has made this new sister a member of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus." Though Johanna's baptism did not take place in a Lutheran setting, quite similar words were used in that liturgy. "The priesthood we all share"—you see, in our Christian understanding, priesthood, ministry, is not the exclusive province of the ordained. It is something we all share. And so this afternoon I will be reflecting on the gift and the challenge of ministry; but while the focus today may be on Johanna, the challenge is the same for you, for your priesthood, your ministry, you vocation as a member of the body of Christ.

I want to call your attention to three phrases from the Scripture lessons chosen for today. The first is from the Psalm: "My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage." For Johanna, these last few months have been wonderfully exciting. Completion of her formal education, consideration and acceptance of a call to serve two New York congregations, and today her ordination. When the moving van came for her worldly belongings the other day, one of the movers asked if she was excited. "Yes," she said, "excited and terrified—but maybe those are the same thing."

And how can she help but be excited? "A pleasant land"—this wonderful journey on which God has led her and is leading her. It is, of course, a journey that has gone through the valley of the shadow of death, and yet it is one that, over all, has been filled with such graces and gifts. "A pleasant land" indeed.

And, of course, "a goodly heritage." Johanna will be a fourth generation pastor. Laying hands on her today will be her father and her uncle. Here as well, just beyond view, will be her grandpa. More distant yet still here will be her two great-grandfather pastors, and her great-grandmother who was a deaconess. And of course that is not to neglect the dozens, hundreds of faithful lay people who have loved her, supported her, prayed for her, and who surround her today—the church on earth and the hosts of heaven. "A goodly heritage" indeed.

And so it is for all of us. God has placed us among this great cloud of witnesses. I know I am here today in part because of the prayers of my grandmother, and the love and support of the congregation in which I was raised, and the faithful friendship of so many Christian people through all the decades of my life. You could tell your own stories of your goodly heritage—and you should! You should tell those stories to your children; tell them, as far as that goes, to yourself, reminding yourself again and again that we are part of an endless line of splendor.

That's the good news. But let no one ever tell you that being a pastor or being a Christian is all sweetness and light. St. Paul's brutal honesty comes to the forefront in the second lesson today. "We do not lose heart," he says. What's that? Losing heart? Yes, I'm here to tell you that's part of the challenge. He goes on to recite some of the realities of ministry—and really, the realities of the Christian life: affliction, perplexity, persecution. That's what Johanna has signed up for, you know. She has signed up for a life that sometimes makes one lose heart.

Yes, that's what she signed up for—twenty-eight years ago, when she was baptized! Those challenges that Paul outlines here, those are the challenges of all who seek to be faithful—the ordained, to be sure, but not only the ordained. We all face afflictions: disappointment, illness, discouragement. We all face perplexity: why is God letting this happen? How am I supposed to endure this? Why have you forsaken me? We all face persecution, as our old satanic foe still seeks to work us woe.

And yet, Paul says, we do not lose heart. We serve the God who brings light out of darkness, life out of death; we serve the God who will not abandon us, and who has promised to show us the path of life.

I suppose the key to this lies in Paul's wonderful reminder: "We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us." "Clay jars"—one of my favorite metaphors in all of Scripture. It means, of course, that we human beings are weak and frail, subject to being broken, chipped, cracked. We aren't even called "fine china"—just earthen vessels, nothing too attractive, nothing too special, just ordinary people with ordinary talents and ordinary longings and ordinary pains and troubles. That doesn't change when you are ordained. We are, all of us, clay pots.

And you see, this exactly why God became one of us. I dearly love what the prophet Isaiah wrote about the coming Messiah, our Lord Jesus: "He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." That was Jesus. And that is us. We are servants, not greater than our master; we are messengers, not greater than the one who sends us. Clay pots.

But there is a reason for this: it is to "make clear that this extraordinary power," this gospel of mercy and love which has been given to us, "belongs to God and does not come from us." I often find myself turning again to our foundational Lutheran statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession, to read what it says about ministry. It is in Article V; after noting that the ministry is instituted so that we can obtain saving faith, it goes on to say that through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, "the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and when it pleases God." Where and when it pleases God. I know of few phrases that so articulately put us pastors in our places with regard to our ministry, and so clearly remind all of us that when God calls, God takes over. We all have great ideas about how we're going to serve God, what great things we're going to do for God; and almost invariably, God says, "Well, actually, I've got something else in mind. Why don't you just let me decide how to use you?"

A couple of times I've been invited back to previous congregations I've served that were celebrating their centennials. Usually, of course, at events like that there is a time of reminiscing. Both times I sat and listened to people remember what they had appreciated and valued about my ministry with them—and most of what they remembered where things I had completely forgotten! The things I thought were important weren't so important to them, or at least not the most important things. God does his work where and when it pleases God.

And that is true for all of us clay jars. The work of the Holy Spirit is done through us, sometimes almost in spite of us, as we go about the mundane, day to day tasks that are set before us: in our work places, in our homes, in the public square. It is as Mother Theresa put it: "We can do no great things, only simple things with great love." And then, when and where it please God, those simple things are used by God to bring light out of darkness, to produce faith in ourselves and others, to bring life out of death.

That is the promise made to you, to each one of you, in your baptism. We are setting Johanna apart this day to embody that promise in her own life, to model it and teach it, to remind us of it and proclaim it to us. But in that setting apart, we are yet again offering ourselves—clay jars though we are—to the service and love of God, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in us. May God accept and bless that offering, and may it bring faith where and when it pleases God. In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Richard O. Johnson
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

J.L. Precup

Richard, well done.  You achieved that balance of addressing the ordinand and preaching the Gospel.  Well done, indeed.

That phrase, "the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and when it pleases God," is that like Luther's playing with the word Regenplatz...rain appearing here and there and watering as it will?
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.


Well done, and congrats to you and your daughter.  What a special day it must have been!

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