Updated: May 3
© 2017, 2022 - Rev. Étienne LeSage, M.Div. B.Sc.
Scripture readings: Mt 10:16-31 and 1 Cor 4:1-8
Presented at the Hamilton Conference's Celebration of Ministries service
Port Elgin ON, May 28, 2017 –
Ordination of Deborah Ambridge Fisher, Roni Beharry, Jenn Hind and Katherine Knoke –
Admission of Tim Kennedy and Martha Lockwood –
into the Order of Ministry of the United Church of Canada
"I'm sending you like sheep among wolves," said Jesus. Hearing this, perhaps our candidates are thinking, "Oh great: after such a long process that stretched my heart, mind and faith, now I should expect to be devoured? Of all the quotes from Jesus, this what I get to hear on the day I finally get to join the clergy? Well, thanks for nothing, Étienne."
Hey, don't shoot the messenger. Two years ago, when I got ordained, I was surfing on the joy of Spirit, and I hope you are too, rightfully so! Beyond that, I want to give you something that might be useful in the future for when you are less joyful. Becoming a leader of people is never easy, and the Church is no exception. The title of Reverend will not always bring you the respect and collaboration you expect to receive from the people you will serve in the name of Christ. Between gratitude, entitlement, joy and resentment, you will truly love your people, and they will love you back. But they will also judge you at times, and you will judge them too. Dealing with judgements on who you are will feel unfair when it happens. This is when the ego becomes heavy and painful. The mind will look for a way out of that sadness and anxiety.
We could ask the opinion of a theological turtle. You know her; you met her at Seminary or during your internships. She's the one that says: "oh, you know, the transformation of identity and relationships in healthy leadership is like anything else: a journey." When the ego is bruised and fatigued, it doesn't want a meandering journey; it wants a solution. The ego wants to move and use the little time it has to do what it thinks is real ministry. It doesn't want to be stalled by the politics, cliques, moodiness, and pettiness of people projecting their fear, anxiety, and vulnerability into judgements against you and others in their community. The ego wishes: "Oh, if people could only see my intentions and devotion, they would not be that way with me… Oh, if I could quickly see who are my trustworthy allies.."
Well, that is now possible. What if I could give you a way to trade the agonizing steps of the theological turtle for the sprinting leaps of modern genetics? Imagine a solution presenting itself in a little syringe, a revolutionary product called "Reveal Me," accessible to anyone craving to be understood.
Here's how it works: once you and other people take the injection, It transforms people's bodies into a real-time mirror of their hearts. Let's call it constructive authenticity, showing you precisely as you are. Do you have kind, loving motives inside? Then you would shine with beauty, and people would know they can follow you! No more bad hair days unless you have bad attitude days. If you filled your heart with something dark, the mirror would tell you it's time to adjust it. Uh oh, are these wrinkles of entitlement, clogged pores of resentment, fangs of powertrip and revenge? You would be better to work on those if you don't want to look like the Wicked Witch of The West... Wouldn't it be easy and grand to rely on any mirror for an obvious measure of our emotional and spiritual makeup? Think of all the energy we would save with this kind of instant awareness. Imagine the easy relationship tuneup for anybody leading, parenting, educating, serving and influencing. Deal with it and move on!
So, Jesus said, "I'm sending you like sheep amongst wolves." No problem, we're laughing because with "Reveal Me," we just found a way to reduce the number of wolves in disguise; Who would say no to growing inside-out beauty? Any takers?
Ok, maybe I should unmask myself too, then. Don't get too excited; this is a trap. This is the new apple hanging from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit of temptation waiting for your bite. But beware: This pharmaceutical serpent omits to tell you everything. Even though almost all test groups using Reveal Me would grow in hope and truth at first, it would set the bar too high. There would always be something breaking out. You know that big pimple appearing on your face just before an important date? We all have a part of darkness, of wants that are not so pure, of wounds and imperfections that are acting up at times. That would always be revealed publically, and the test subjects would end up obsessed over trying to grow so it gets off their face. But aiming at that perfectly reflected beauty is unattainable, and they would spiral down in doubt, loathing their evident flaws.
Reveal Me would not last in ministry. It reveals us but doesn't reveal God. As our colleague Nadia Bolz-Weber told me last week in Texas: "The grace of God is not a self-improvement project." God doesn't seek to call the purest self-sufficient hearts because we rediscover God's grace when hearts crack open again and again. God will see your need for love, acceptance, respect, and support. God will see your need for validation, meaning and care. God will see that you don't always seek to fulfill these needs in noble ways, just like the people you will lead. God will see the rawness of your face and heart but will never cast you away from his. God will still see your beauty and call you to remember it while you reveal hers.
My transformation from a candidate, to a student, to a minister has brought me such a roller coaster of joys and challenges, praise and critiques. It is very fresh and still in progress. Don't get me wrong: ministry is wonderful. I still give thanks to God for calling me and you today. You never get a boring day in ministry. But, sadly, you cannot prepare for the raw challenges that will break your heart, nor plan the amazing action of God that will mend it over and over with disarming joy. But this movement takes energy, and your compassionate heart will feel like bread kneaded too much. You might feel walled in the silo of all the boundaries you have no choice to uphold for the sheep you have to guide and protect. That is lonely. Some nights, you will present heavy shoulders to God: "Oh my Good Shepherd, those green pastures you lead us to, aren't they for me too? Where do I lay down to rest my soul? I was hopeful and confident when they laid hands on me, I love my people, and it is a privilege to be with them. Thank you, God, but I feel like I'll never be good enough for this role! That's it; maybe I'm not good enough." I am also a case in point. I prayed for you while writing this sermon, my dear candidates. I wondered: "God, don't you think they deserve to hear an ordination sermon from a better minister than me?"
Yikes! That's the "Go back to Scripture right now!" alarm bell on the dashboard of a minister who needs to refuel… None of us will face the persecution that was the lot of early Christian leaders. We will not get flogged and killed, but we will sometimes feel like we are being dragged by people when God or the Church doesn't do what they want, seeing wrongfully in our sincere, faithful attempts to do good. We will feel our sheep's vulnerability crushed under wolves' teeth, and we could even feel like biting them ourselves. But Jesus is not saying, "Good luck now, and if you get devoured, at least it will be for the glory of God!"
Jesus says: "You are worth so much to God, that none of your hair will fall to the ground apart from God (Mt 19:29b-30)." There is no way God could count your hair without always being with you. Ok, it will be challenging at times, but don't worry. Everything that needs to be revealed will be "for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your [parent] God speaking through you. "(Mt 10:19-20).
Speaking of refuelling, I worshipped with 1800 fellow ministers last week at the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio, Texas. We knew that soon enough, we would have to come back home and be good healthy ministers to the people under our care. But until then, we all wanted to be fed by the best preachers and lecturers among our peers. And it worked; boy did we get fed. You can't help but feel you are not alone and part of something so great. The silos broke open: I discovered that the pros share the same joys and challenges as the newer ministers. I told Barbara Brown Taylor I would preach at your ordination. She said, "Being nervous is like excitement without breath. Breathe and remember people want to hear you. They want to be with you. Thank you for your ministry!".
On my way back, I visited one of my congregants who broke his hips and lost sight in the same week. That's tough, and I wasn't sure what I'd say. He was so moved when he heard my voice; he cried: "My minister, it's my minister; I was hoping to see you again!" I didn't have to be the most eloquent to help him revisit the spiritual love stories in his life. I didn't have to say much to help him shed liberating tears; he held my hand tight and said, "I had no clue people so loved me, then and now. I guess God is not done with me. Thank you so much." God will also speak through your colleagues, and your congregants about the alternative option to a Reveal Me injection. The alternative is that you are enough. You are still loved and chosen to do this. Reveal God instead!
When the alarm bell rings in our pastoral hearts, we should remember to side with another legendary minister of many communities. When Paul was challenged, he had to affirm his worth as a minister, even when in doubt. The Corinthians were comparing him, but he wrote: "with me, it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:3-4). " Paul is not saying he is or ought to be perfect. But as a servant of Christ and steward of God's mysteries, he will not judge himself or others. He will not waste any energy trying to make up his case at the tribunal of ego. He won't try to find any solution, like an injection to reveal himself and improve his chances of being acquitted. He does not even want to go to the courtroom. He chooses to stand by the trustworthy judgement that God has already pronounced.
Deborah, Roni, Jenn, Tim, Katherine and Martha, my brave, intelligent, passionate, loving and vulnerable candidates for ordination and admission,
hear the verdict of God on you: "Beyond your challenges, you shine with beauty and competence. You are worthy of joining the clergy of the universal church now. Jesus called and sent his apostles by name, and in the same way, I am calling you to join the apostolic succession. I am God; I am that I am, and I know what I'm doing, even when you don't. As those I called before you lay their hands on you, my Church recognizes my judgment and links you back to the hands of Christ, who touched and embraced all of them. Will you let me embrace you? Will you embrace for me those I send to you? Now say yes, and let my grace show you that you will always have many reasons to hope and delight in my presence in your ministry.
I will be there when you sing and laugh with my people, welcome and encourage the lonely, grieve losses, and seek to give dignity and inclusion to the marginalized.
I will be there when you baptize those who take a chance on me; when you reassure parents who, like you, are nervous about the responsibility to care for vulnerable hearts.
I will be there when a homeless person wishes you a happy mothers' day because you are the closest thing they have to a parent.
I will be there when powerless hearts kick and scream for more control, when you speak to closed ears and when they open up to risking new ideas with you.
I will be there when you comfort the wounded whose hands are pierced by yet another nail; when you speak to the conflicted, the desperate and the dying;
I will be there when you teach that no one is too young, old, or broken to have a future with me. I am God!
When they all break open to show you their fragile selves I have always cherished, I will help you wrap them in the warm proclamation I lay on you now. I love you; you are everything to me, and so are they. Say yes to my calling grace, again and again. I will amaze you with surprises of kindness, compassion, love and understanding. Always Look for the hope of a new day with me. You are mine; that is my Word. Let me bless your ministry and your life. Say yes! AMEN.