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Going where you do not wish to go…

October 14, 2008

With the permission of Ron Adams, I am posting here the text of the sermon he preached at my ordination service-October 12, 2008.  The scripture readings were from Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 18:15-18, 25-27; John 21:15-19.

They were still at the table when the prophetic word was spoken. Still reclining there, perhaps sipping a last cup of wine.

Then Jesus began another of his bewildering pronouncements about his death and leaving them and being glorified.

And Peter asked him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ And Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.’

Sometime later Peter was at the high priest’s house. Standing outside the gate after watching Jesus being forcibly marched inside. Standing outside the gate, perhaps trying to decide what to do next. A second disciple, who had also followed Jesus to the house of Annas, had gone through the gate and into the courtyard. When he noticed that Peter had not dared to follow, he went back to the gate. He talked to the woman guarding the gate. Peter was permitted to come into the courtyard.

As he began to enter the courtyard, the woman said to him, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ Peter said, ‘I am not.’

It was a cold night. The police ordered some slaves to start a charcoal fire to warm themselves by. Peter joined them at the fire, the slaves and the police who’d arrested his teacher.

One of the police officers turned to him and said, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ Peter denied it and said, ‘I am not.’

Then a slave came to him, strangely enough a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off in the garden. ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Peter answered. No. At that moment, a rooster crowed. Soon the sun would rise. But it was still very dark.

We don’t know how Peter felt. We can only imagine. We have all likely committed some small denial. Some time when we wished or wanted not to be recognized as a disciple of Jesus. Times when it was inconvenient. Times when it was embarrassing. Times when we stood and warmed our hands by the fire and hoped to be left alone, that no one would recognize us, that no one could tell that we were followers of Jesus.

My heart goes out to Peter. I grew up believing that the proper response to this story was to turn to Jesus and say, ‘Not me, Lord. I will lay down my life for you.’ And visions of heroism in the face of mortal danger would fill my head. Poor Peter. What a weakling. What a coward. ‘Not me, Lord. I will lay down my life for you.’

But I am older now and have less time for heroic fantasies. My response to Peter is more one of pity. The pity that comes from recognizing myself in him. Knowing that we’re not so different after all.

Peter’s promise was made with all the naïve honesty of youth, a youth that still marveled at its own strength and was not yet deeply marked by failure. But Peter aged a lot that night by the fire. And in the days afterward. Now it is that promise that seems so unlikely to me. Not the denial that followed it. Peter makes me weep.

We don’t know how he felt. But we do know what it is like to fail. To fail small. To fail big. To fail in such a way that we wound others. Not because we wanted to or intended to or tried to. But because we’re human and so capable of, even prone to, failure. While we may never have failed so miserably as Peter, our smaller, more mundane failures can at least give us a glimpse into his spirit in the days following his denial.

And what I see is hunger. Hunger for a second chance. Hunger for restoration. Hunger for renewal.

When I catch a glimpse into Peter’s soul, I see hunger. And in the dark days following his failure, I wonder if Peter thought he’d never have that hunger satisfied. I wonder if he thought he’d always have that ache in his belly, that empty feeling of loss combined with failure. I wonder if he thought he’d ever taste freedom again.

And then Easter came. The Lord returns! Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem. Once and then again.

And I wonder what Peter felt about this. John gives no indication of a great reunion between Jesus and Peter. No opportunity to sit and talk through what happened, to give Peter the chance to ask for forgiveness, to try and heal what was broken by Peter’s failure. Perhaps such a scene did occur. Maybe John didn’t know about it. Maybe Peter kept it secret. Or maybe it never happened. In which case, I imagine Peter having trouble making eye contact with the risen Jesus. Trouble caused by the size of his own failure, a failure so great it stood between them like a wall. Peter could look over the wall. But he couldn’t break through it.

If that’s the case, it’s no wonder then that, when they got back to Galilee, Peter decided to go fishing. Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James and John, and two others were in the boats, the net hanging between them. It must have felt good to be back out there. Back where Peter could think more clearly. Doing what he was built to do, work that did not demand things Peter did not have within him. Facing dangers he understood, like storms and sea monsters, not heartache and betrayal.

That morning after daybreak, they began to make their way to shore. And they spotted someone there, waiting for them. It was Jesus, though they did not know it.

The man on shore called to them. ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ Children? He must be older than they thought. Or maybe they heard it differently than that, not a parental ‘Children’ but a colloquial ‘Guys’. ‘Hey guys, you catch anything? Didn’t think so’

So the man on shore told them to try again, this time on the right side of the boat. And they did. And the net was full, so full they could not haul it in.

Then the beloved disciple recognized Jesus. Something about the stranger’s way with the sea broke through his confusion, and the beloved disciple recognized him. He said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’

And now we see just how hungry Peter was. He threw on his cloak, jumped into the water, and swam ashore.

By the time all were ashore, a charcoal fire was burning. (By the way, a little Bible trivia. Did you know that there are only 2 charcoal fires mentioned in scripture? It’s true. I looked it up. One here. And the other back in the high priest’s courtyard, where Peter denied the Lord. A sure sign that John intends for us to hold these two gospel stories together).

So, fish were on the charcoal fire. And bread was baking too. Jesus was making them breakfast by the sea.

And, when all was prepared, Jesus took the bread and broke it and gave it to the disciples to eat. He did the same with the fish. And so they feasted by the fire. And the air was full of the echoes of other meals. Meals on the mountainside. Meals on the plain. Meals with Pharisees. Meals with sinners. And that last meal, the last supper, the meal Peter remembered best, when Jesus prophesied Peter’s great failure.

But, whether he knew it or not, whether he wanted it or not, Peter was about to receive what he needed to finally satisfy his hunger. Something to fill up the empty space left by his failure and denial. A space that had been empty since that dark night by the charcoal fire, was about to be filled again in broad daylight by another charcoal fire, this one by the sea.

And so we come to the moment of truth. The moment when Jesus asked Peter to tell him the truth. And did it in such a way that burned Peter, cleansing and healing him three times over, once for each denial, once for each failure.

Jesus fed Peter something more than fish and bread. Something that may at first have tasted bitter, but that soon filled that space within him. Peter’s hunger was finally satisfied. And Peter was redeemed. Restored. Reconciled to the one he’d denied. Forgiven.

And more than that. Because Peter was also given a mission. A mission to go and feed all those other lost, wandering sheep, the faithless and faithful alike, and to invite them all to the feast, to help them all receive everything Peter received on that sunlit day by the sea.

Jesus tore down the wall that stood between him and Peter. And, in the process, fed Peter a meal that sustained him and changed him forever. A meal of love and forgiveness. A meal of compassion and mercy. A meal of restoration and renewed fellowship.

And more than that. If all those things comprised the feast, then what came next was surely dessert. Jesus also fed Peter a calling and a purpose. And, with those things, let Peter know that he really was restored, that Jesus really did forgive him, that he really did have a second chance to serve. Because, as we all know, you don’t get dessert unless you’ve finished your dinner.

Today is an important one in the life of this congregation. Today you will ordain Brian Miller to pastoral ministry. And I say it that way on purpose. Because even though it will be our Bishop, Linford King, who leads the service of ordination, and even though it is our Conference which will provide and hold Brian’s ordination credential, and even though it is our denomination which will authorize and recognize this credential so long as Brian is called to serve in pastoral ministry, you are the ordaining body.

Which makes sense, doesn’t it? Because it was among you that Brian’s gifts were tested and are being perfected through the power of the Holy Spirit. You recognized Brian’s gifts for leadership. You gave him opportunity to share them, to play with them, to test them out in a warm and friendly community of faith. You affirmed him in those gifts, and offered him counsel in their use, and provided sufficient iron against which he could sharpen them. You called him to serve, first as an associate pastor and, most recently as your lead pastor. And today, you will ordain him, and so declare the gifts you see in Brian as intended for a lifetime of service, not only to this congregation but to the whole Body of Christ.

In doing so, you proclaim to Brian and to the larger Christian community what you have seen God do in Brian’s life. You are making a public declaration that what you see in Brian is of the Lord, and is for the good of the church. When you called Brian to serve as a licensed pastor, you affirmed that his gifts fit your needs for congregational leadership. That license was intended for and specifically focused on Brian’s work among you.

But by calling for and affirming Brian’s ordination, you look past the immediate and toward the future. You look beyond your congregation and its leadership needs, and to the needs of the larger church. You serve as a representative part of the much larger Body of Christ. You stand in the place of that larger Body, and testify to it that Brian is indeed gifted and called by the Lord to love and serve the Church and the world in Jesus’ name. And the larger church, the Conference, the denomination, and the global Christian community, join you in spirit and say Yes, and Amen. In this way, ordination is a prophetic act, declaring that what the gifts you see in Brian are not for your congregation alone or for this particular point in time. By ordaining Brian, you also agree that he will carry those gifts to other places in other times and offer them wherever he goes so long as God chooses to use him in ministry.

We Mennonites have long struggled to know what we are up to when we ordain someone to pastoral ministry. Our history tells us to be suspicious of power, and especially of clerical power. Our ancestors opposed the notion that it took a human priest to mediate between them and God. They argued that the only priest they needed was Jesus, and he did his work once and for all, and so now we can approach God directly and without any other mediator. And we have, I think, inherited their suspicion of clerical power.

So it is that we emphasize very clearly that God gifts every baptized believer for ministry, and calls every baptized believer to engage in ministry. We rightly say that there is no distinction in God’s eyes between the work that Brian does, and the work done by every other member. We say too that all of those gifts are equally necessary for the health and well-being of the congregation. In fact, Paul makes clear that we have been given a variety of gifts precisely for “building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” That’s not any single person’s work, no matter how gifted. That is the work of the gathered and gifted community.

At the same time, we do recognize a need for leadership within the congregation. And we recognize that there are specific gifts which make a person especially suited to that work. We recognize that the same God who gifts also calls persons to pastoral ministry. And, in our tradition, one of the hallmarks of that gifting and that call is the willingness to make way for the expression of the gifts of others, to honor those gifts, to call them out, to test them, to provide room for them to be expressed and to develop and grow. In other words, one of the things we Mennonites look for in a pastor is a desire to see that every gift given by the Holy Spirit to every single member is encouraged and given free exercise for the common good of the body.

So it is that we understand ordination not as a bestowing of power upon Brian, but instead as a recognition of the power of the Holy Spirit who gifted and called Brian to his service here and in the broader Church. Again, what you are about today is saying Yes to what God has done in Brian. A testimony to Brian, to those here gathered, and to the whole Body of Christ of what you have seen in Brian through the power of the Holy Spirit. One great big congregational Thanks be to God and Amen.

It seems right to me that our gospel readings for this service focus on dear Peter. Of all the characters in the scripture, Peter is the one to whom I feel most kinship. He’s the one who too often thinks he knows more than he does, and talks before he thinks. The one for whom every opening of his mouth was a roll of the proverbial dice. Sometimes more right than he knew. Sometimes dead wrong. Sometimes: Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah. Sometimes: Get thee behind me Satan. One moment warming his hands by a charcoal fire and denying Jesus three times. Another moment standing by a charcoal fire and saying I love you three times. Peter captures the truth of what it means to be a fallible and weak human being who nevertheless seeks to follow the perfect Lord of all.

It seems right to have Peter attend this service today. Because, despite his many failures, Peter was commissioned by Christ to lead the tiny band of Jesus-followers. A sign of hope, it seems to me, not only for those called to leadership in the church. A sign of hope to all of us. For who among us has not somewhere along the way, in thought or word or deed, denied our relationship to Jesus? Who among us has not been confronted by that Lord we denied, and so been gathered back into the love of God, and sent again on the way of faithfulness?

One of the gifts I have received in my years of service at East Chestnut Street, is the gift of a generous forgiveness. Generous because it recognized my humanity and so offered me the benefit of the doubt. Forgiveness because it is assumed that even I am worthy of restoration. This gift makes it possible for me to serve the church in pastoral ministry.

I trust that you offer that same generous forgiveness to Brian. I have often remarked that one would be crazy to attempt to engage in pastoral ministry without a deep sense of call. That call is often the only thing sustaining a pastor when times get difficult (and sooner or later they will get difficult). That internal sense of being in the right place and with the right people is critically important to the life and well-being of a pastor.

But the congregational gift of generous forgiveness is equally important. Henri Nouwen writes this word of caution regarding how we look at our pastors and other leaders: “We expect that our religious leaders will bring us closer to God through their prayers, teaching, and guidance.  Therefore, we watch their behavior carefully and listen critically to their words.  But precisely because we expect them, often without fully realizing it, to be superhuman, we are easily disappointed or even feel betrayed when they prove to be just as human as we are.  Thus, our unmitigated admiration quickly turns into unrestrained anger. Let’s try to love our religious leaders, forgive them their faults, and see them as brothers and sisters.  Then we will enable them, in their brokenness, to lead us closer to the heart of God.”

Like Peter, like all of us, Brian is a human being. And ordination does not change that basic fact. Brian is a human being. A human being capable of great acts of faithfulness. A human being gifted and called by the Holy Spirit. But a human being all the same. Capable of messing up royally. Of making mistakes. Of failing. Capable too of being forgiven. Of being healed. Of being restored. Capable of being used by the Christ who tears down the walls between Brian and himself; and then sets Brian back on his feet with a renewed sense of call to serve the people of God.

This humanness, this fallibility, this weakness is only a liability if you let it be. If you do not take your call to Brian seriously enough to offer him counsel and accountability. And if you do not take your commitment to him seriously enough to offer him your most generous and forgiving selves, both individually and as a body. By ordaining Brian, you commit to love and support him not only when he does everything right. You commit to love and support him on those occasions when he is weak, when he is wounded, and when he fails.

But, lest you think you are doing all the giving, remember too that it is precisely because Brian is a human being, with all the weakness that implies, that he is able to serve you. In his weakness, he serves as a living, breathing sign of God’s grace and mercy. From his weakness, he can reveal the power of forgiveness. His wounds make it possible for him to recognize and empathize with your own. Because he has stood at that fire with Peter, warming his hands and denying his Lord, Brian can show you the way to the next fire, to the place of healing and forgiveness. Not that he’ll do even that perfectly. But he will be better equipped to find his way together with you. Because he will have felt that hunger for redemption, and walked that path from denial to forgiveness many times.

In closing, let me offer a few words to you, Brian. I cannot guarantee their wisdom. But I offer them anyways in the manner of dear Peter and in a spirit of Christian love. I don’t know if what Christ meant when he told Peter that one day he’d be taken someplace he did not wish to go was a prophetic word offered only to Peter, a foretelling of his martyrdom. Or if it was a word with a message for us all.

But I do know that being a pastor, one ordained by your community to serve in leadership in the congregation, can sometimes be just like what Jesus describes. Like being taken to someplace you do not wish to go. You will be called, invited, and sometimes pushed to enter into the lives of your members and others in ways which leave you feeling unsettled or even wondering about your usefulness. You will be tangled up in congregational issues and conflicts and witness those occasions when the body seems to be turning against itself. You will walk with sisters and brothers through their darkest moments. You will stand by their beds as they die. As pastor of this beloved group of saints, this little flock, you will be taken places you do not wish to go.

Much of the time, you will be surprised by what you learn in those places you did not wish to go. Much of the time you will find blessing awaiting you there. Other times, truth be told, you will encounter brokenness, your own and that of others.

And so, I offer these words of counsel. Extend the same gift of generous forgiveness to these you serve. Offer them your very best self. And be equally generous and forgiving to yourself, for those moments when you resist going where you’d prefer not to go, for those moments when you feel entirely a failure, for those moments when you wonder what good you have been or done.

And, most of all, remember this day. Remember it tomorrow and when everything seems to be going just perfectly, and when the path before you seems clear and your legs feel strong and the congregation trips along beside you in all joy. Remember it too when the path is dark and unknown, a path forced upon you by circumstances or someone else’s mistakes or your own failure. Remember this day and the affirmation of these people and the hands of love on your shoulders and head and the prayers of the Bishop. Remember this day. And so know that the same Christ who met you by the seashore, the same Christ who forgave your sins and set you on your feet again, the same Christ who called you to go and love his sheep, that same Christ is with you even then, walking beside you even in those places you did not wish to go.

May you know that holy presence always, Brian, as you keep the covenant you make this day. And may that same Spirit guide you, my sisters and brothers at Sunnyside Mennonite Church, as you keep the covenant you make this day, and as you walk with Brian along the path set before you. May God make it so. Amen.

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