For Amy Rixx’s Ordination

First Corinthians 13: 1-7, 13
– If I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give my body over to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Micah, Chapter 6 – With what shall I come before God? With offerings of my worldly goods, my livelihood, my family? God has told you, O Mortal, what is good and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

The Gospel of John, Chapter 1: 1 – 5 – When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was. The Word, then, was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be. All that came to be was alive with this life, a life that was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

It is a joy to be here this morning, and, Amy, we are glad that you chose to be ordained here at the United Church of Gainesville, the church in which you were nurtured and baptized and confirmed.

As Shelly said, our denomination, the United Church of Christ, believes that every church member has a calling with unique gifts to share in the church’s ministry.  Frederick Buechner says that the place God calls us to be is where our great gladness and the world’s deep needs meet. We are all called to do both what brings us meaning and joy and also to do what serves the world.

Some of us hear the call to find this meaning and joy in full-time ministry. Ordination is the official recognition and authorization of this ministerial calling. While education and seminary and experience provide the necessary credentials, the calling comes from God. Sometimes a person is called by God in a dramatic moment: like Moses who encounters the burning bush, like Jesus who is baptized in the river Jordan with a holy dove descending over his head, like Paul on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus who is knocked off his horse and blinded to get his attention. Sometimes a person just knows deep within from a young age that ministry is the call she or he must answer. And then, for some, like you, Amy, and also like me, the call to ministry evolves almost imperceptibly over time, and others often see it in us before we recognize it in ourselves.

I first met you, Amy, when you were 11 years old, in the midst of a difficult time in your life. Your beloved grandfather had just died, your family situation had changed, and you had moved to outskirts of Gainesville. You began coming to church here, an experience you describe as a soft accepting place to land, a place where you were encouraged to explore your emerging beliefs.

You joined our confirmation class as we discussed the UCG Compact and reflected on what it means to be part of this church. You were so open and present, attentive with questions and curiosity, honing your values and your growing commitment to be of service to others.

Kristi Button, who was our youth minister at that time and who is here with us this morning, remembers that, on middle school girls’ retreats, you led the girls into deeper discussions on issues of faith, so that Kristi says she began to think of you as the middle school resident theologian.

When Andy Bachmann arrived in 2003 as our Associate Minister for Youth and Outreach, you were a high school junior, part of the leadership of that high school group and then after graduation, you stayed involved with the high school program, coming back from college in Tallahassee to assist Andy with Work Tour and other special events.

You were the teenager and the young adult who always stopped to talk with me after I led worship to share your own thoughts and questions. Gradually, what many of us saw in you as potential for ministry coalesced into your own quest that led you to seminary and now to ordination.

It is a privilege for me to preach today and, frankly, it is also a bit daunting because ordination is a such an important moment in a person’s life and in the life of the church. I have heard ordination sermons that were too generic. I remember one ordination in Connecticut when the preacher started off well enough. But then, when she referred to the young man being ordained, she called him by the wrong name and continued to do that throughout the rest of the sermon. Obviously, she was repeating a generic sermon that she had used before and had forgotten to change the person’s name.

I have heard ordination sermons that went a bit overboard about the challenge of ministry.  At Larry’s ordination, his divinity school friend preached a sermon entitled “Developing a Che Guevara Guerilla Style of Ministry,” Che Guevara being a sixties Marxist revolutionary. Needless to say, the senior pastor and the Search Committee from the church calling Larry to be their Associate Minister were stunned, wondering what they were in for when Larry actually arrived.

So, in my quest to be neither generic nor over the top with challenge, I offer the perspective of someone who has walked a long path of ministry, from being a Commissioned Minister, to being a Licensed Minister and then to being an Ordained Minister. Ministry has, very simply, been my life, a joy and a treasure.

This sermon borrows its title “A Balance of Sorts” from Amy’s ordination paper. I think that is an appropriate topic, because ministry is a complex ongoing process of balancing in almost every arena: prophetic and pastoral, public and private, communal and personal, challenge and nurture, and faith and uncertainty.  While it may seem as though you in the congregation are eavesdropping right now on a behind-the-scenes conversation for ministers, I do trust that what I share has relevance for all of us in our own faith journeys.

I believe that the three scripture passages Amy chose for this service offer a perspective on finding a balance of sorts among the outward and inward journeys of ministry. The prophet Micah lays out in one sentence an overview of this balance when he says “God has told you what is good and what is required: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I always get a sense of a person’s faith and ministry by their “go to” scripture passages, and Micah’s vision of balance is the paradigm for a caring, inclusive, progressive, activist minister. Think of the parts of this balance as counterweights, those weights that exert contrasting points of pressure and provide stability and balance to a system. Counterweights are often used in elevators and those huge cranes that we see on the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street these days. Counterweights complement one another and also pull and tug at one another in a moving dance of seeking balance.

The first of Micah’s counterweights is justice. What stands out for me in particular is the verb “to do justice.” Notice that Micah doesn’t say to consider justice, nor even to love justice. Micah says what is good and required is to do justice, not as an event, but as a way of life.

Do justice on the big screen, in the larger arena of institutions: schools, government, prisons, homeless centers, hospitals. While chaplaincy certainly involves comforting and assisting those who are ill, ministry in a hospital also requires advocacy for justice in the structures of the hospital system (which includes the custodians, the medical staff, and the administrators), and in the ways patients and their families are treated, and in the society from which these patients have come and to which they will return.

The imperative “to do” justice reminds us that it is also a daily practice on our smaller screens, with the people closest to us, our family and friends, our neighbors, the people we meet in the most ordinary encounters and conversations, including  people who are on the margins, people who need allies. To do justice right where we are, in whatever ways we can.

It also occurs to me that in our contemporary vernacular the phrase “to do justice” has another twist to it. As ministers, as chaplains, we are also called to do justice to our work: to do justice to the opportunity to lead worship, to do justice to the privilege of being with someone who is critically ill, to do justice to the hour we have in facilitating a counseling session. All these moments may be routine parts of our ministry, but we are called to do justice to them with our attention and care.

Then, Micah points to the second counterweight which is to love kindness. The passage from 1st Corinthians echoes by saying “Love is patient and love is kind.” I am reminded that, in the midst of all I do, how important it is to be a loving presence. No matter how wise my words, how hard I work, how much I learn, how inspired my good causes, I can easily become a noisy gong or a clanging annoying cymbal if I am not grounded in love.

I have learned that it is not my certainty, nor my proclamations, nor my answers that open up the space for others to find hope, healing, discernment and faith. Like the Velveteen Rabbit we read in our childhood story, it’s love that makes us real. In public and in personal settings, it is my loving non-anxious presence that enables my ministry to touch others.

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest, said that good ministers are wounded healers. We walk straight into the lives and rooms and congregations of those who are wounded by the tragedies and cruelties of this world, and we open ourselves to engage that woundedness. Yet if we are going to be healers, we must acknowledge our own wounds, be aware of our own flaws and vulnerability, and seek our own healing as well.

And what of those times when I find my patience and kindness wearing thin, times when I do feel irritable and resentful instead of loving? Those times are signals to me that I have drifted away from the very things that nurture my soul: a rhythm of Sabbath rest, prayer, meditation, a conversation with a trusted spiritual friend, even times of genuine laughter and fun. These are the survival ingredients for ministry, and I suspect survival tools for loving kindness. We attend to our own sustenance in order to be able respond to others with love.

The third counterweight of balance Micah says is to walk humbly with your God. It is Micah’s reminder that I am not alone. One afternoon, long ago, when Larry and I were on our college choir tour, we were sitting in a church balcony overlooking the Sanctuary. It was early in our relationship, and Larry was trying to discerning his call to ministry. He said, “Ministry scares me. I think of standing up there in a pulpit like that all by myself, trying to find words to say that would be meaningful and inspiring. I don’t know if I can do alone.” And I said to him, “But you wouldn’t be alone.  God would be with you.”

This is the promise echoed in the opening words of the Gospel of John: that the Word and the light of God have been there from the beginning of creation and are there now for me and for you. I do not have to generate this light by myself, but I do have to open myself to it, so that the Spirit can flow within me and through me.

And we are assured that “this light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I don’t have to tell you, Amy, or anyone else here, that we are living in a difficult and challenging time. We’re l frightened about the forces of darkness that threaten to overcome us. It is worth remembering that the scripture doesn’t say, “the light shines in the light – and glows brighter all the time – and makes everything wonderful.”   No, that light of the Spirit, the feminine wisdom of Sophia, the Logos within Creation, shines in and through the darkness, shines in us and shines in the world. Tapping into that light, trusting it, tending to its flame, knowing that we are not alone, that brings yet another sort of balance to us as ministers.

Counterweights are moving parts. Like the night and day that come into balance only twice a year on the Equinox, we too experience total balance only in fleeting moments. Those counterweights of doing justice, of loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God will move up and down and around one another, bringing a balance of sorts. And those counterweights, when they get too far out of balance, will bring our attention to a part that has become so heavy that it is a detriment to the other two parts.

With this sense of balance in ministry, I turn to words from the poet Rilke who says “God speaks to each of us as God makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recollection, go to the limits of your longing.”

As we send you forth on your ministry, Amy, we empower you to go out to those limits of your longing, where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs. Do justice on behalf of others as you do justice to your own ministry, love kindness and attend to your spiritual sustenance and healing so that you are a presence of love to those who need you, and walk with your God, opening yourself to the light that shines on you and through you, flowing into this world as God’s grace. May it be so – Amen.

“Go to the Limits of your Longing” by Maria Rainer Rilke

God speaks to each of us as God makes us,
Then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recollection,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me. Flare up like a flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.