Monday, February 04, 2013

February 3, Epiphany 4, "In A Mirror, Dimly: The Ordination of Elders and Deacons"

Jeremiah 1:1-4, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

The name which we give to our church’s board of trustees is “the consistory”. It’s about the equivalent to a vestry or a parish council or a Presbyterian “session”. Today we are going to install four new members into the consistory. But first we have to ordain them. We ordain them and lay our hands on them — we ordain them into sacred ministries.

The elders have the ministry of spiritual care and oversight. The deacons have the ministry of mercy and mission. We ordain them to signify that they hold sacred offices, offices no less sacred than my office as a pastor. They are sacred because they represent the living presence of the Lord Jesus. The elders and deacons represent Our Lord within the church, which is why we make them the trustees. You might think that because you elected them they represent you, which they do only coincidentally. Their real job is to represent the Lord Jesus to you.

As far as I know, it’s only the Reformed Church that does this, and we’ve been doing it since the 1550’s in Europe, and since the 1650’s in Breukelen. Most churches have pastors, many churches have deacons, and some have elders, but the Reformed Church has all three, and we ordain all three. We ordain our elders and deacons because we regard their offices and ministries not merely as useful for the church’s functioning but as essential to the church’s mission and spirituality. And I think it’s because we ordain them that the consistory is such a stable institution. Do you know of any other committee in Brooklyn which has been meeting continuously for 355 years? With minutes?

God has a Word for us today, in what we’re doing today, and to our four ordinands. Well, six words — two by three and three by two. Two words from each of our three lessons, and the first three words for your persons and the second three are for your ministries.

First, from Isaiah. It was God who called you, even though God’s calling was hidden within a pragmatic process of a committee doing a mailing and tallying returns and drafting a list with alternates and sending emails and making phone calls. Do you believe that this is how God calls you? We will ask you if you believe this, just before we ordain you. It’s hard to believe. But isn’t it true that God works this way, by means of many small and subtle miracles, hidden in such ordinary things as bread and wine and water? Your calling and our ordination of you is a sign and a wonder. The sign of our hands upon their heads is a sign of God’s presence and activity for us to wonder at. We wonder if there even is a God, but if there is, then the world should be full of wonders, and and all of us should wonder at our own lives.

Second, also from Isaiah, it was God who called you before you were ready. No one who gets asked to be a deacon or elder is ready for the job. If you thought you were ready, it was your own desire and self-regard that was calling you. If the office is sacred, then by definition you should have a healthy fear of it. And your healthy fear of it will make you a better elder or deacon, just as will facing your unreadiness, and seeking your power outside of yourself, from God.

Third, from First Corinthians. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.” You don’t know where God will take you when God calls you. Your calling has uncertainty built in. You don’t know what bearing your office will do to you. You have to feel your uncertainty and even welcome it, and accept the freedom that comes with it, because your uncertainty is the very medium of your freedom. And you do have a say in how you get to where God calls you to.

You must lead the church to what you can see only dimly. You lead this church to places beyond the horizon of our sight. A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, three hundred years ago, our elders and deacons were making choices and decisions that have all worked out to bring us here today, but they could never have imagined what we are today. Only God could see what they were choosing for and what they were investing in. So it must be for you. Within that continuity, within our long and patient evolution, you must keep leading this church to new obedience to the Lordship of Christ, and to new manifestations of God’s presence, and to ever new signs of the City of God and newer wonders of God’s love.

How do you know if you are leading the church correctly? You won’t know for sure, you can’t have that certainty, because you’re “seeing in a mirror dimly,” and because the judgment of God on what you are doing comes with the blessing of God on every move you make. But you can have a good idea by checking for love. Yes, you have to test the spirits and trust the scriptures for guidance and instruction, but mostly you have to keep gauging the love in the congregation. You lead by faith and with hope, but the greatest of these is love.

So, Fourth, also from First Corinthians, the first job of elders and deacons is to love the congregation. We have been given gifts and talents to equip us for our ministries, but if we do not have love, our ministries are nothing. We have been given skills and aptitudes to equip us for our leadership, but without love, our leadership gains nothing. Love is simple in its conception, textured in its expression, and complex in its application. You have to learn the arts and sciences of love, and when fear and pride and honor are in the way, elders and deacons have to pay the price of love and make the sacrifices which love demands, which end up wonderful and fulfilling, but yet are sacrifices.

Fifth, from the Gospel, love can be tough love, challenging love, which your people might not feel as love. I suspect the congregation of Nazareth experienced Jesus as a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. They might not have called him envious or boastful, but they would have called him arrogant and rude, which made them irritable and resentful. Yes, love may be simple in its conception, but it is textured in expression and complex in application. And it falls to the elders and deacons, and no one else, to do the hardest works of love within the congregation, most easily misunderstood, which cannot be defended or explained. They do it in fear and trembling to represent the Lord Jesus within the church, for the church to better represent the Lord Jesus in the world. Which is why you, the congregation, must honor them.

Sixth, from the Gospel, what enraged the congregation of Nazareth was Jesus saying that God was just as good and loving to their opponents and oppressors as God was to them. God loved their enemies as much as them, so they should be as open as God is. Well, Old First has its own ways of being closed and defensive and irritable and resentful, we must confess it. But it truly is our historic heritage to be an open church. For a hundred years we were the only church in the town of Breukelen and we welcomed everyone.  We were founded by the state church of Holland, for the enjoyment of everyone. Over the centuries there were secessions from our denomination by people who thought it was too easy-going. The conservatives called it a “hotel church”, meaning anyone could walk right in.

Well, let’s affirm that we are a hotel church, and rejoice in it. You’ll see what I mean if you come here during the week. We’ve got a hotel kitchen over there, we’ve got beds here in the summer, and on any given Sunday our worship includes as many non-members as members. Great. Our church has a porous boundary with the world. But how do we keep it in the world but not of the world? How do we keep it from being only a train-station church?

Our strategy is concentric circles of intentional community with Jesus Christ. And the innermost community of Jesus is the consistory. It’s not just a committee, it’s a small intentional community, modeling community to the next concentric circle of the congregation, and so on outward through the intentionally increasingly fuzzy concentric circles which the world identifies with Old First. And so the consistory is essential to the mission of this church, by its leadership, but also by its modeling a community of churchly love.  Elders and deacons, God calls you to be a community of Jesus Christ within Old First so that Old First may be a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn which welcomes persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

Jim Gorman said...

Marvelous sermon! I came here because of the article written by Jeff Chu about Megen and her sister attending "Old First" last Sunday (Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church. Thanks for being their home however permanent or temporary.

I should say that the UCC, where I'm a pastor, we also ordain deacons, elders and Trustees. But then we are also out of the Reformed Tradition.

Blessings on your good work.

Jim Gorman, Pastor in Wisconsin.