This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 11.1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including love, books, ordination, dietary restrictions, the rule of threes, kingdom expansion, the praise of creation, funeral texts, tangible promises, commandments, Makoto Fujimura, and newness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The New Newness
1 Timothy 2.8-14
I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. Now a mediator involves more than on party; but God is one. Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
We were in the basement rooms of my seminary. Our preaching precept had eight students and one preceptor. Each week we would gather as a large group to listen to our distinguished professor wax lyrical about the ins and outs of homiletical theology, and then we would break off into our little small groups to do the work of preaching.
We would be assigned a text, offered tools for exegesis, and then one by one we would stand in front of our precept to preach.
It was awful.
It was one thing to preach occasionally on a Sunday morning for a dozing congregation, it was another thing entirely to preach in front of a bunch of soon to be preachers – particularly since we were required to listen to comments and criticisms immediately following our proclamations.
And don’t get me wrong, some of the sermons were really good. I can remember one of my classmates preaching on the institution of the Lord’s supper, that final evening shared between Jesus and his friends, and the theme of the sermon was, “We are what we eat.”
It was perfect.
I can remember another classmate preaching on the binding of Isaac, this terrifying moment in Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his son and she, the preacher, kept slowly knocking on the pulpit over and over again whenever she talked about Abraham chopping the wood, or taking steps to the top of the mountain, and his heart beating in his chest, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more anxious in a sermon.
It was perfect.
But the one sermon that stands out the most wasn’t even a sermon. It was the prayer offered beforehand. One of my classmates walked over to the pulpit, opened up his Bible, called for us to bow our heads in prayer, and then he said: “Lord, I thank you that you have called men, and only men, to preach your Holy Word, be with me now as I do so. Amen.”
I opened my eyes in that moment to the five women in the room, one of whom was our preceptor, all who felt called by God to preach, and we had to sit through a sermon and I know not one of us listened to another word he said.
Why do women have certain roles in certain churches? That’s the question for us today and it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the short time that I’ve been here, and frankly it’s a question that I’ve been asked throughout my ministry.
The question is born out of the fact that, depending on what church you experience, there are a variety of understandings about what women can, and can’t, do.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church which means I saw women reading scripture from the pulpit, I saw women preach, I saw women serve as Lay Leader, and just about every other aspect of the church.
But in other churches you might never see a woman read scripture, or preach, or serve in places of leadership, and it’s all because of the Bible.
Well, sort of.
There are various verses in favor of limited female participation in church and there are various verses in favor of full female participation which is why, depending on the church, you can have wildly different experiences.
Perhaps the most well known, and often quoted texts, regarding the limiting of what women can do in the church comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
Men should pray, Paul says.
Sounds good. But they aren’t allowed to be angry or have arguments – something we can aspire to I guess.
Women should dress themselves modestly, no braids in their hair, no gold, no pearls, no expensive clothing.
Okay Paul, that’s oddly specific, but you are the apostle.
Let a women learn in silence and with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
Examining authorial intent, or community context, can be a slippery slope in preaching. We can certainly speculate about intentions or situations but it can only go so far. Nevertheless, perhaps it worth our time to recognize that, in the time in which Paul is writing, men and women would’ve sat on separate sides of worship spaces, only men were allowed to speak, and only men were allowed to learn, which would’ve left women required to be somewhere and yet they had nothing they, themselves, could do. There, anything they did do was seen as a distraction, from talking at all, to what they wore, etc.
And yet, scripture says what it says. You know, the whole Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God…
However, scripture says other things as well.
Take some time to explore the strange new world of the Bible and you can read about Miriam, who led the people Israel during the time of Moses. Or you can read about the judge Deborah who was in charge of Israel’s governance and military (there’s a particular striking episode during her time with a woman named Ja-el who runs a tent peg through the skull of a foreign enemy). Or you can read about Hannah the mother of Samuel who put the chief priest in his place. Or you can read about Queen Esther who save an entire nation of people from genocide. Or Rahab, or Ruth, or I could go on.
And that’s just a cursory glance at the Old Testament! And, to be frank, those women who make it into the hallowed halls of scripture do so precisely because they broke conventions, they upended expectations, they made the impossible possible.
And the Gospels are no different!
Mary the Mother of God who literally bore the fullness of the divine in her womb. Peter’s mother-in-law is called a deacon for serving the needs of Jesus and the disciples. Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the resurrected Christ and was the first Christian preacher! She’s the one who reports the Good News, the very best news, to the stumbling disciples hiding in the upper room.
Which is another way of saying: without women preachers, we never would’ve heard about the resurrection!
Even throughout the rest of the New Testament – female prophets were common among the churches that sprung up during the Acts of the Apostles, both Peter and Paul affirm this in various places. We can read about Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Aquila, Syntyche, on and on and on.
And that’s not even mentioned the powerful women int he first generation of the church! It was only in the 4th century, during the Council of Laodicea, when women were banned from ordination and being elders in Christian churches.
And this is what is really wild: up until that Council, Christianity was revolutionary with regard to women as compared to the wider culture. Women were afforded rights, privileges, and power though the church that they could receive no where else.
And yet, today, its as if things have flipped in certain churches – that is, women have greater rights and powers and privileges in the surrounding culture than they do in church.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about what women can or can’t do in the church – it’s about how we understand one another in the totality of existence. What we believe shapes how we behave. Or, to put it another way, what we do in church shapes what we do outside of church.
It we’re part of a church that limited what women can or, a church that belittles who women are, we’re obviously going to do the same outside the walls of the church.
Think, for a moment, about what that teaches a young girl about who she is and how she is to understand herself… Think about what that teaches young boys about who they are in relation to girls.
God calls both men and women to preach and to lead the church.
It’s really as simple as that.
And yet we’ve mucked it up centuries.
Which leads us to Galatians.
Paul, the same apostle who wrote to Timothy, also wrote to the budding church in Galatia about what it means to be the church. Again, we can only discern so much about the context behind the content, but it’s clear the community of faith was struggling between who was in and who was out, what was and what wasn’t permissible. And Paul’s words are remarkable.
Why all the rules? Those were added because of our inability to be good, they were given until we could come into the promise made to us.
Are the rules in opposition to the promises of God? Of course not! If rules were given that could give us life and life abundance, then righteousness would have come through the law. But the Word has imprisoned all things under the power of sin so that the promised might be given not because of what we do, but because of what has been done for us.
The rules were our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now that Christ has arrived we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian – we are all children of God through faith.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
In his call for “no longer male and female” Paul isn’t combining the two or obliterating their distinctions. Instead he is eliminating the privileged position of men in the new reality we call the kingdom of God. His words insist on the equality and equity between the two with retraining the glorious uniqueness of each.
In essence, whenever the church attempts to claim what anyone can or can’t do, the church then attempts to limit what God can do. But God is the God of impossible possibility, God lifts up the lowly and brings down the mighty, God makes a way where there is no way.
The church is called to proclaim the goodness of God in Christ Jesus who came not to judge the world, but to save it.
Nobody, in other words, not the devil, not the world, not the law, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, or course, squirm around in God’s grip and make up all sort of declarations about the church and we can no doubt get ourselves into a heck of a mess by doing so.
But if we take seriously the proclamation that we are all made in the image of God then perhaps we should start acting like it. Amen.
I was kneeling before the entire Annual Conference when the Bishop placed his hands on my head and ordained me in full connection. The moment was overwhelming – the culmination of 15 years aimed toward one particular goal. And when the stole was placed around my shoulders I felt the full weight of the responsibility.
I’ve known no life outside the United Methodist Church. I was baptized in a UMC when I was 19 days old, and spent nearly every Sunday of my life in that particular sanctuary. I was confirmed in that church, played drums for a worship service in that church, felt my call to ministry in that church, and even preached my first sermon in that church. Later I was married in that church and had my son baptized a few feet away from where I had been baptized in that church.
When I first felt called I felt specifically called to serve the United Methodist Church. Partly because it was the only church I really knew, but also because I was entirely persuaded by our theological conviction of prevenient grace. The God I discovered in worship and in scripture and in community was absolutely the God who offers grace freely to all without any work on our part. I was so moved as a young person by the totality of grace preached in my local church and that God works through Christ regardless of our morality, or our beliefs, or even our doubts.
It was more refreshing than I can describe particularly when I used to talk with friends at other churches in which everything was whittled down to whether they were doing enough for their faith.
And then when I was 15 years old, I felt pulled to my knees in prayer one night, and when I stood up I knew that I could do nothing else with my life but serve the UMC. I immediately told the pastors at my church and they handed me a snap shot of what the next decade of my life would look like: A Bachelors degree in religion, a Masters degree in divinity, and then at least three years of provisional membership before I could be ordained in full connection. So I finished high school, went to college, went to seminary, got approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry, started serving my first church, and then was fully ordained.
I am grateful for the journey, as so many of my clergy peers intoned as their mantra during the journey of ordination. And yet, I believe that a lot of the problems facing the UMC today are in large part due to the ways we ordain individuals for ministry.
During the recent Special General Conference I was able to sit down with Bishop Will Willimon and he put it this way:
“The real trouble started when the General Conference started requiring Mdivs for Elders. It was around 1958. It’s been downhill ever since. As someone who produces Mdivs for a living now, this is a difficult thing. We started adding all these requirements for ministry, and ask any UMC what they’re looking for in a clergy person and, first of all they never mention anything about coitus, and secondly they don’t really care where or whether someone went to seminary.”
Our ordination process (and it is a process) has become a bloated and institutional mess. It puts so much emphasis (and power) on the institution itself to make pastors rather than the local church.
When I told my pastors that I felt called their first response was, “Would you like to preach in six weeks?” They made sure I had every opportunity to discover what ordained ministry really looked like, they continuously checked in with me while I was in college and seminary, and my home church was constantly praying for me.
I now know that I was an exception to the rule.
In most churches, if someone expresses a call to ministry, they are given a book about ministry/calling and soon they are paired with a clergy mentor (from another church) and begin working with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. And, of course, the local church still has to recommend the individual to continue on the journey, but ultimately the individual is handed on to another group of people who now become responsible for the calling of the individual.
I fully recognize the complicated nature of discerning a call, and the community’s responsibility for helping identify the call. Additionally, I completely agree with the work of discovering whether someone is theologically prepared for the difficult task of serving a local church. But passing someone along to another group (or to a school or seminary) continues to perpetuate the condition that we currently find ourselves in.
It denies the fundamental role of the local church and instead places even more emphasis on the structure instead of the Spirit.
I could elaborate on how the professionalization of clergy (and the requirement of a Masters degree) has stratified the ordained from the laity, and how the resentment between those two groups has grown and grown and grown. But I can’t argue against theological education – pastors do need to be theological informed, they need to have their thoughts, ideas, and convictions sharpened in order to serve the local church.
My bigger concern is not theological education itself, but the theology in which clergy are being educated.
At the real heart of the matter is the way in which the structures of the church whittle candidates for ministry down to a mosaic of arbitrary conditions.
Today, those who go before the board of ordained ministry have to demonstrate that they are prepared for ministry (at the beginning) or they are effective in ministry (after the provisional process). These are important frameworks for the work of ministry, but they also include interludes into whether or not individuals maintain certain moralities that largely deny the point of needing Jesus’ grace.
Which, to be clear, might be the most important theological claim we have to make at all.
And, for what its worth, this is no new thing. My CPE supervisor once told me that when he was attempting to get ordained (decades ago) he had to record himself preaching a sermon on a tape cassette, but was unable to do so in an actual church service so he recorded it while pacing back and forth in his basement. However, he grew anxious during the recording so he started smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves. He sent the tape off to the conference and their only reply was that they could hear him smoking while preaching, and he would need to quit if he wanted to be approved for ordination.
No comments about the substance of his sermon.
No questions about any of his theological claims.
Just a moral absolute about pastors not being able to smoke.
Fast forward to today and the Special General Conference just approved a new measure that would allow (and in fact require) boards of ordained ministry to look through an individual’s social media accounts to discern whether or not the person is part of the LGBTQIA community. (To be clear, the Judicial Council has yet to rule whether or not this will be constitutionally viable)
We are now in a place where the process for ordination is far more focused on the model in which it takes place, and our flawed mission statement, than on the work of Jesus. Ordination, and the ways we preclude someone from it, denies the central proclamation of Word which is at the core of who we are supposed to be.
I have met far too many people who were held back from ordained ministry for things like their obesity, or their divorce, or their timidity, which fundamentally ignores the God who calls people regardless of their circumstances.
In light of GC2019, I appreciate Will Willimon’s comment that “God is going to continue calling gay people to ordained ministry whether we like it or not.”
In the UMC we are obsessed with making more disciples (as an end) and it has made it necessary to have clergy who resemble Jesus, rather than having clergy who can proclaim the passion with passion because they understand the truth of grace. All of our talk of perfection (for our sakes) prevents us from admitting that no one is good but God alone.
Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so eloquently wrote:
“Alas, in the present panic over faddish clerical derelictions, the church can’t see [grace] for beans. Bad enough that its preachers think their sins make them unfit to preach forgiveness. Worse yet by far that the church itself chases offending preachers unceremoniously (and with precious little due process) off the farm… If a sinner can’t proclaim forgiveness, who’s left to preach? Who, for that matter, could preach better, or with more passion? Of all the deaths that are available to us before we’re stone-cold dead, our death in sin is the most embarrassingly convincing share in the Passion most of us will ever have. The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent – even a gleefully aggressive – job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost – children who can accept their failure as children, crooked tax collectors who can stare at their shoes and say they’re worthless human beings – and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea.” (The Foolishness of Preaching)
Our current ordination process is incompatible with Christian teaching because it expects clergy to be the Jesus in their congregations rather than being the sinners in need of grace who can preach the passion with passion.
Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 –
Change the ordination process in the United Methodist Church. Place more power on the local church to not only equip individuals for ministry, but also to empower them to express their call in theologically substantive ways.
Or, at the very least, stop using subjective moral claims as a way to preclude individuals from serving God as an ordained pastor. If the earliest disciples are any indication (Peter perjured and Paul murdered), immorality should be an expectation for ministry, not something that bars someone from it.
Such a revision or our ordination process would retain the Spirit-driven and prevenient grace-filled faith that is part of our Wesleyan heritage and it would stop expecting pastors to stand on pedestals that always crumble.
The giant wheel of the UMC spins and spins because we have a process not unlike a factory model in which we expect that if we a bunch of different people in through the beginning, they will all come out the same on the other end.
I suggest we consider the opposite – we take all these people who feel called to ministry and demonstrate to them that God will use their greatest weaknesses and all of their brokenness to express the kind of reckless grace that’s at the heart of the Gospel. We give people the freedom to see and believe that God calls whomever God wants regardless of our subjectivity. And that to deny someone the call that God has placed on their life because of whatever we might deem as incompatible only goes to show that the process has become incompatible with Christian teaching.
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.
He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.
He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.
So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.
A few days later, as he sat in the study of his parsonage crafting the words for his first message, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you being reappointed.”
You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.
“I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.
I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”
That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”
I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”
I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”
Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”
In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”
God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”
God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”
The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.
Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”
And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”
It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.
In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.
Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.
Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”
And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.
But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?
The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they say two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” – not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On Monday morning, before I departed for my ordination interviews, I came by the church to print off my papers and spend some time in prayer. Full disclosure: I was very anxious. Months of effort and focus had led to up to this week. Many of you have been here throughout this whole ordination process: you have endured sermons that went into my papers and some of you were here when we had to record an entire worship service. A number of you participated in the bible study I wrote on the book of James and offered feedback about what went well and where it could’ve been better.
The sanctuary was nice and quiet when I first entered to pray for God’s will to be done over the following days, but the longer I prayed, the louder the preschoolers were down in the basement. I continued to lift up my concerns to God until I felt that I had fully expressed myself, and then I went downstairs to say “hello” to the kids.
Like most of you, they were also aware of the interviews I would have this week. Yet, even knowing this, I was not prepared for what happened when I entered the first classroom. The teacher quickly motioned to the kids and while I was trying to kneel to speak with one of them they promptly surrounded me in a circle, grasped hands, and started to sing: “Thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, right where are. Amen.”
The Transfiguration is an important moment in the life of Christ, and it really bears witness to the identity of the Messiah. Up to this point in scripture, Jesus has performed lots of miracles; he has healed the unwell, embraced the outcasts, preached in the synagogues, and started a revolutionary movement. But all of these particular moments were a crescendo to the brilliance on the mountaintop.
Jesus took with the inner circle of disciples up to the peak to pray. And while Jesus was in the depth of his prayers his face began to change and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, the disciples saw two men standing on either side of Jesus, one of them was Elijah, and the other was Moses. The disciples listened intently as the three shining men talked about Jesus’ departure that would soon take place in Jerusalem.
After they had discussed this for some time, and the two men started to depart from Jesus, Peter interrupted and begged Jesus to let them build three dwellings for this holy moment. He wanted to establish a degree of permanence in this brilliantly shining experience. But he, as scripture tells us, had no idea what he was talking about.
Then a cloud came and overshadowed all of them on the mountain and they were utterly terrified. But a voice cried out from the cloud saying, “This is my Son; my chosen. Listen to him!” When the voice finished, the disciples noticed that they were alone with Jesus, and they did not speak about this moment for a long time.
Shortly before this passage in scripture Peter was able to confess Jesus as the Christ; he understood that Jesus was the Messiah that the Hebrew people had heard about for centuries. Yet, this story of the Transfiguration is a reminder that even those disciples in the inner circle had gaps in their understanding. Professing deep and true faith requires something more than just knowing the stories from the past and connecting the dots. Professing deep and true faith requires transfigured moments that change everything.
While the preschoolers sang their prayer around me, I felt like I was up on the mountaintop of Transfiguration. In their tiny voices and clasped hands I experienced the profound power of prayer in their willingness to lift me up in a holy moment. And like Peter, I didn’t want to the moment to end. Like Peter, I thought about setting up a dwelling place in that space to stay happy and comfortable.
When the kids finally shouted “Amen!” to conclude the prayer they immediately sprinted into the middle of the circle and started hugging me to the point that I fell over on the floor. It was a transfigured moment while I collapsed to the ground under the weight of laughing preschoolers, but I knew that I would have to eventually leave the mountaintop and make my way down to the valley of ordination interviews.
The next 24 hours were a blur. I made it to Blackstone, I spent the night, I woke up and interviewed all morning, and before I knew it I was back in my car heading west toward Staunton. The entire car ride was filled with more anxiety than before the interviews because now all I could do was wait. I spent far too much time rehashing questions in my mind and coming up with better answers than the ones I offered. But now the only thing I could do was pray patiently.
By the time our youth meeting rolled around on Wednesday evening, I had spent most of the day checking my phone every 5 minutes waiting for the call about whether I had been approved or not. I tried to be as present for the youth at the Circle but I know that my thoughts were elsewhere. With every minute that passed it felt like my heart rhythm was increasing one beat per minute. But still the call did not come.
I eventually brought the youth into the social hall and had them sit by the fireplace. I got a fire going and handed each of them a palm branch from our last Palm Sunday service and I explained our activity.
I said, “Every year churches take their used and dried-out palm branches and burn them. We do this in order to collect the ashes and use them for Ash Wednesday. Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, is a time to reflect on ways we could be better. It is a whole season for us to confront the mistakes we’ve made and start living like disciples of Jesus. I want each of you to take a couple minutes to think about one mistake you made in the past year, a moment you wish you could take back. I want you to imagine that failure as you throw your palm branch into the fire. And while you watch it burn, I want to you to remember that God can take our mistakes and make them into something holy. These palm branches will become the ashes that mark our foreheads next week. We will walk around with ashes signifying for everyone to see that we are broken people in need of grace. These ashes are a reminder that even though we mess up, God still loves us.”
One by one we each took a turn throwing our palms into the fire and we watched them burn. We took our mistakes and watched them become ashes. We concluded by praying for God to make things new in our lives, to use the season of Lent to transfigure us into better disciples of his Son. When we said the final “Amen” I looked up and saw our District Superintendent standing in the room with a giant smile across his face and he told me that I passed my interviews.
The Transfiguration is such a powerful moment because it is about transformation. Yes Jesus is changed into a glowing figure in dazzling white clothes, yes the appearance of Moses and Elijah reshaped the narrative of Jesus’ journey toward the cross, but when the disciples had to walk back down from the mountain their lives were forever changed.
Whereas they might’ve understood their friend to be a powerful speaker and leader, they were now confronted with the fact that he really was divine. Whereas they might’ve believed he was special, they were now confronted with the fact that he had real power. Whereas they might’ve believed he was capable of great things, they were now confronted with the fact that he was the Son of God. Jesus’ transfiguration transfigured their lives.
Standing by the fire on Wednesday night, as I let the knowledge that I will be ordained sink into my soul, and the youth started to jump around and yelp in celebration, I was reminded of how powerful those transfigured moments in life can be. I thought about how blessed we are to have a God who is so merciful and forgiving of our mistakes. I thought about how blessed we are to be surrounded by people in this church who pray for us and care about us. That moment by the fire reshaped my understanding of ministry and the church. In that transfigured moment I felt God’s love moving in this church through all of the connections we have made.
Transfigured moments always remind us how dependent we are on one another and the divine. When we encounter the true glory of the Lord it leaves us staggering in comparison. But God did not abandon the disciples on that mountaintop, and God has not abandoned us here and now. Instead God spoke through the cloud, and speaks to us today: “Jesus is the Son of God, listen to him!”
So what does it mean for us to listen to God’s Son here at St. John’s?
Do you feel loved? In your daily lives do you experience moments of joy that you can only equate with feeling loved? Do you have friends and family that care about who you are and what you’re experiencing? Are you connected with individuals you make you laugh and thankful for the gift of life?
This week, for me, has been an experience of love. Love of God and neighbor through all of you in this church.
In this church we have listened to Jesus speak to us, and we have responded to his command: “Love one another.” We have covenanted through baptism to love and support all those around us in the pews. We have gathered together to mourn during funerals and reach out to remind individuals of their worth. We have met here at God’s table to partake in the bread and the cup as a reminder that God’s love knows no bounds. We have opened our eyes and ears to the great witness of scripture that points toward God’s unfailing love for people like us.
So hear this from Jesus, and embrace it in your lives: “You are loved.”
No matter what you are currently experiencing, no matter how far you feel divided from the people around you, no matter how afraid you might be, you are loved. God has gathered all of us here in this place to build a new community of love.
When we lift up our hymnals to sing our faith we do so as a complete community in harmony with our relationship and our voices.
When we pray from our pews we do so as a new family who can faithfully say God is OUR Father.
When we are invited to this table to receive the bread and the cup we are invited as a community to a feast. There is a spot for us at God’s table where we can grow closer to the people in church next to us while growing closer with the Lord.
This is the place of transfigured moments that cut through the monotony of life. This is the place where we encounter the revealed Lord. This is the place where we hear Jesus saying to us, “You are loved.” Amen.
But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and you children’s children.
Rev. Tom Berlin stood in front of a room filled with pastors in the midst of the ordination process and asked us to consider this important question: “How is your church transforming the world?” He asked us to briefly write down the stories of transformation that we had heard since we started at our appointments, and whether or not we had shared them with the congregation. When we felt like we had enough time to answer the question, we broke up into small groups and debated how the stories could be used to help grow the churches we serve.
Rev. Berlin then told us his favorite story from Florris UMC. Long before he arrived as the pastor, on a typical Sunday morning, a new couple from the community decided to try out the church. The husband sheepishly stood in the middle of the congregation during worship, but when the hymns began he could not contain his operatic and beautiful singing voice. When worship ended a couple from the choir beelined over to the new couple to introduce themselves and invited the man to join the choir. A few days later they called him on the phone and reminded him about choir practice. In the weeks that followed they made sure to check in with the couple in church and ask about their lives in the community. And after the new man had practiced with the choir for a few weeks, the couple baked a pie and brought it over to the new couple’s house to show them how valued they were.
“I know it sounds like such a simple story,” Rev. Berlin said, “and I’m sure each of you have a story just like that one from the church you serve. The point is to keep telling that story over and over until new people start living into it as well. The people of Florris are probably sick of that story, but it has truly shaped the ways we reach out to people even today.”
We read in scripture about the importance of remembering who we are and whose we are. We learn about the value of taking hold of the moments that have shaped our lives and share them with our children and our children’s children. When we remember what shaped us into the disciples we are today, we are caught up in God’s great story that will continue to unfold into the future.
This week, let us each take time to reflect on the ways the church has shaped our lives: How have you been transformed by your church? What important stories are you telling to you children and your children’s children?
In the next few weeks, a number of United Methodist seminarians will sit before their respective Board of Ordained Ministry to determine whether or not they are prepared for, or effective in, ministry. The interviews can be a terrifying process; for years these students have studied diligently and now they are being asked to demonstrate their ability to articulate their theology. After going before the Virginia Conference’s Board last year, I have been asked by a number of friends/peers to reflect on the journey and offer advice. Below I have copied my response to one such friend. Though the the reflections are largely geared toward those interested in ministry, I believe they also function to help encourage theological reflection in all forms of Christian discipleship.
1) Prepare yourself to be surprised. For as much as our fellow peers have gone through the ringer of these interviews, you can never prepare yourself for EVERY question. There will come a moment that you are asked to respond and you will be completely lost for a moment because you never though they would have asked that question. So, (heres the advice part) do NOT try to just memorize particular answers to particular questions. Most of these people have read through more papers than they can count and they’ve heard all the same answers over and over. Calm yourself and let your answers be more organic than regimented. Instead of answering everything in three points (or through every avenue of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”) try instead to relate it to YOUR experience of God in the world. The committee will then know that you are answering from Truth rather than truth. Be God’s Yes and No to the world at the same time. (which is to say: be dialectical, without confusing the committee members)
2) Scripture scripture scripture. If there is any technique or trick to help with the interviews, its to read the bible before you go. It will rest in the fabric of your being as a well from which you can draw the living water of theological and liturgical reflection. When possible, use examples from scripture to answer any of the questions you are asked. Not only will it demonstrate your commitment to the Word, but it will also show how you have a scripturally shaped imagination. For example: you might not be familiar with terrible suffering in your own life, but the lives remembered from the biblical corpus certainly have and they can be your examples to answer the questions.
3) Be Methodist (but not too Methodist). Use Wesley’s life and teaching to inform your answers, but don’t isolate yourself to ONLY thinking in a Wesleyan way. We have all been trained by a wide variety of theologians, we’ve read from the greats in church history, and we’ve experienced churches beyond the UMC. Ecumenism is not just some idealistic practice, but should instead be one of the great aims of the church. Use sources outside of your church family to answer questions, yet make sure they match up with the Theological and Doctrinal Standards of our faith.
4) Baptism, Eucharist, Sacraments (Oh MY!) – Sacramental theology is at the heart of what it means to be Christian (particularly United Methodist). Though some sacramental functions have been downplayed in the contemporary church they were CENTRAL to Wesley’s approach. Also, sacraments are what separates the laity from the clergy; they are our responsibility to maintain and provide for the people.
5) Remember: you are intimidating. (I mean this as a compliment) Most of the people in your interviews (in fact, probably all of them) will be older than you, and have a lesser theological education. You will do well to remember this. As a young and confident person, you will be viewed with suspicion by some members of the committee (I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is). Show a command of the material, but don’t overdo it. One of the things I’ve heard from a lot of our peers in different conferences was that the committees were bothered with their lack of translation between seminary and the normalcy of church life. They want to hear what you have to say IN A WAY THAT THEY CAN UNDERSTAND. For example: for as much as I love Barth, be very careful with his language and conceptions of God. They will mean little to the members on the committees.
6) Pray. Seriously. Pray before you interview. Pray between each committee room. Remember why you’re doing this and for whom (The answer is God)
7) Materials can be important. Bring your papers with you, but don’t anchor yourself to them. You might be asked to clarify a specific response that you wrote. If this is the case, don’t worry about what you wrote, but carefully respond to their question in the moment. They want to give you as many chances as they can to clarify what you mean.
8) Take your time. Before jumping to answer their questions, make sure you know what they’re asking. If they’re unclear, ask them to rephrase. Better for you to get the question right before you give a wrong answer.
9) Be humble. I know you will have an answer to every question, but showing that you still have room for growth will go a long way in reaching the hearts of the committee members. I remember being asked about death and instead of just throwing out a response I said something to the effect of “You know, thats a really difficult question. Death is one of those many things that we do not have a black and white answer to, death is something caught up in the mystery of God. Its hard for me to respond to hypothetical responses regarding death, but I can tell you that scripture says…” Owning up to the fact that you don’t have all the answers reinforces the reasons that Jesus had to come in the first place. If we had it all figured out, we never would’ve needed God to come in flesh to die, and live, for us.
10) Be yourself. Be authentic to who you are. If you’re pushed out of your comfort zone by a question, make them know they have done so. If you feel like your integrity might be compromised by giving them the answer they want to hear, rather than the one you believe, I say be true to yourself more than them. (this is debatable regarding the question) However, in my experience, they would rather see YOU answer the question as YOU perceive and understand rather than handing them over the perfectly crafted three sentence response they have been hearing all day. Theology is alive. New ideas and concepts and faith-struggles occur everyday. If we only reuse the same theologies over and over than we will never grow as a church, and the kingdom of God will remain tacit, fruitless, and stale. The Church needs imagination now, perhaps more than ever before.