Sunday, November 09, 2014
Ordination of Rev. Liz Niehoff, Bronxville, November 9: "I Pledge My Life"
I want to thank the Bronxville Reformed Church for the hospitality of your pulpit, and I thank the Classis of Rockland-Westchester for the privilege of the floor, and Liz Niehoff, I thank you for having invited me here.
In just a few moments you will read out the Declaration for Ministers, that third Formulary in the Book of Church Order of the Reformed Church in America, and then you will sign your name to it in the register of the Classis. The Declaration is one the treasures of the RCA and the best part of the BCO, and we don’t even know who wrote it — the church wrote it. The words are sacred and the Classis will rise to its feet to hear you read it, as your witnesses, as the trustees of your sacred vow. And when you sign it, you will have made this RCA thing, this BCO thing — for the rest of your life you will have made this Declaration a Liz Niehoff thing.
You will declare these words: “Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God.” You pledge your life. What else have you got, finally — your precious life that you have fought so hard to keep alive, and you’re going to pledge that to the gospel. It’s a vow that’s more extravagant than a wedding vow. I pledge my life. If I were to ask any one of you ministers here if you had a personal mission statement, you could just repeat these words.
I did not understand this thirty-four years ago when I first declared it for myself. I remember other things about my ordination, but not that I pledged my life. Probably because I really hadn’t. I was pledging a part of my life. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t declaring the whole truth. I wanted to do something else with my life, and I was doing the ministry thing until I could do what I was supposed to do. I would do this ministry thing until I could get my Ph.D. and then my teaching job, which I thought I knew I was meant to do.
Was I a fraud? Was I an imposter? No, I think not, because despite my not having given my life to it, the gospel was taking it. I got my degree and kept getting turned down by our seminaries and I was angry and bitter and then, about twelve years in, one day I noticed that I had been happy for the last three months, as a pastor. How Dutch is that, not to notice you’re happy till afterwards? So I decided to become a pastor. When people ask me when I decided to go into the ministry, I tell them it was about twelve years after my ordination.
Something else happened at the same time. I was up in Ontario on a pastor’s retreat, six of us in my friend’s cottage, a spring morning, bright sunlight, and Andrew, a minister from Ottawa, read these verses from Philippians 3, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that I might somehow attain the resurrection of the dead.” I heard these verses as if for the first time. I heard them as a direct revelation, like I was Muhammed listening to the angel Jabreel. These angelic verses called me. I needed to find out what they meant. I needed to know what they meant for my life.
I was always someone who wanted to know. I was lousy at sports but I was good at knowing things. At Trivial Pursuit it used to be me against my relatives. I was competitive at wanting to know things and I wanted to know what you knew better than you did. I wanted to know all the birds and all the trees. I wanted to know how to speak Dutch with my grandparents and then how to read Greek and I wanted to know Reformed theology and I wanted to know church history, I wanted to know it all and I ended up a know-it-all.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing the intellectual pursuit. Pastors should be lovers of learning and by no means avoid God’s mission to the public intellect. But what I am saying is that I discovered, more like, it hit me, I discovered it like you discover the piano that’s been dropped on your head, that now that I was willing to give my life to the gospel, I had to convert what I wanted to know. I needed to know Christ.
So if your personal mission statement is in the Declaration for Ministers, then your personal vision statement is Philippians 3:10-11. If you’re pledging your life to preach and teach the good news of salvation then you’re going want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, conforming to his death to attain somehow the resurrection from the dead.
When I say “wanting to know Christ” I don’t mean wanting to be friends with Jesus, and I mean much more than knowing the Christ of history or even the second person of the Trinity. What St. Paul most certainly means is that in Christ you get to know the whole of God, for in him the fulness of God has come to dwell.
You want to know how, in the person of Jesus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit actually entered and engaged and identified with humanity in real time in a real place as a real person. You want to explore this, you want to share in the suffering side of it and know the resurrection side of it. You want to know Christ because you want to know about this real connection God made with us by having a real mother named Mary and a real ethnicity named Jewish.
You want to know about God’s experience of us. You want to know what humanity feels like to God, you want to know what suffering feels like to God, and that you know in Christ. Closer than most of us, you have been like him in his death, and more than most of us, you have shared in suffering, but your own suffering can tell you only so much. How does suffering feel to this man Jesus, who caused no suffering to anyone else, who asked no sympathy, and who never complained?
You want the sharing of his sufferings. You don’t want the suffering itself, but the sharing of suffering. The word “suffer” comes from the Latin subfero which means under-carrying, undergoing, undergirding, undertaking, understanding. But you want to do that not on your own but in the power of his resurrection, and there where in your life and ministry you suffer most the likeness of his death is where you will learn to discover the power of his resurrection.
God is the one who frees the enslaved, it is God who relieves the oppressed, and God is the one who comforts the afflicted, but God has seen fit do that through the media of Word and Sacrament, and these media require human mediums. You pledge your life to be a medium. God is active in your mediation, God does business through your ministry. And in that business that you do, you want to know where Christ is, and keep yourself there.
You want to keep reading the encyclopedia of the power of his resurrection, you want to rehearse and rehearse the music of his suffering, you want to drill yourself in the dance-moves and in the verb-forms of his death, and you want to spend hours in the laboratory of the resurrection of the dead. You want to know Christ, you pledge your life to exploring God’s coming into the world, and reporting on God’s coming and taking people with you into God’s presence and no less meeting people who are already there and meeting up with God who is already there and waits for you in love.
St. Paul writes that he counts as rubbish all that he had gained. Should you? Should any of you? I have had a few losses in my life, but I’ve had much more privilege than loss. Should I count it as rubbish? This church is used to privilege; should you regard it all as rubbish? Well, yes, but only in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Our candidate knows many things. She deserves to know them: she is an excellent student who studies hard, and she has paid very dearly for much of what she knows. And all that knowledge and experience increases the value of that young life of hers which she is pledging to the gospel today.
But she knows more than most of us the relative value of all that, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as her Lord. She even counts all her losses as rubbish. I like to get some sympathy for my losses. Not her. She reminds me of St. Paul. Verse 13: “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press onward toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Her call is all she really knows about herself and her future. But she chose this text, so we know what else and whom else she wants to know. And so we commend her to churches, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.