What Happens When: Old First E-pistle 09.27.19

Pastor’s Note: People have asked for the sermon I preached at Haeman’s ordination. The sermon, I was aware as I wrote it, reflects my experience of ministry (which I offer to Haeman as some help or advice or some such!). I share it now more broadly (than the ordination congregation) especially after the thoughtful celebration of my 10th Anniversary at Old First last Sunday. The church makes us pastors by giving us tough assignments. But some of those assignments, alongside of their difficulty, are also unending joy.  


“What Happens When”  — a sermon preached at Old First in honor of the ordination of the Rev. Haeman Hong Shin

Mark 2:23-27 and Matthew 15:21-28


Margaret Ernst last Saturday. 

Haeman today. 

Katrina Forman in 3 weeks. 

And Amy Davin — 

she’s still working her way through the very involved MID process in MA Conference,

but she’s not going to be far behind. 


4 of our dear members…

getting ordained almost right at the same time. . 


That leaves me awed and humbled 

by all that has gotten them to this point, 

and by all that is before them in their ministry:

…All the people whose lives they will touch, 

…All the healing, forgiveness, justice and love they will inspire, 

…All the ways they will benefit Christ’s church and God‘s world. 


This confluence of ordinations 

has me thinking about…

actually praying about…

how we initiate, 

or better, 

how we… consecrate… ministers. 


What happens when the church ordains someone? 


It‘s a big question… not unrelated to the Scripture texts for Haeman‘s ordination. 

They are both stories of somewhat hard to figure out

religious changes that take place 


What happens

That Jesus can ignore religious convention 

and overturn religious understanding 

To get closer to God 

and how God wants us to live and love. 


What happens that a Canaanite woman shows Jesus up 

to open his mind and heart to the breadth of God’s love.  


What is happening today when we ordain Haeman? 


     *     * *     * * *    *


In the Roman Catholic tradition, 

when a man (only a man) is ordained, 

He is believed to become ontologically different. 


Like his cells are actually changed 

so he’s no longer like other, ‘regular’ people? 

His clerical cells somehow „get different“ from others’ lay cells? 


I admit don’t quite get this! 

But then priests in that tradition ARE accorded superpowers: 


Like transubstantiation — changing ordinary bread and wine

Into Jesus’ flesh and blood. 


The power to grant absolution of sins.  


Haeman, I hate to tell you, but I have to tell you… 

This service today, 

our act of ordination… 

…it’s not going to give you any superpowers — 

Not even mini-powers —

Inside the church or out. 


Ok, I confess, 

I have used my clerical collar powerfully and usefully  

When I am protesting and particularly when I am getting arrested.


I once got out of a parking ticket in Manhattan 

while the officer kept calling me „Father“ 

…and I didn’t correct him . 


I have gotten a few free cab rides when I’m wearing clerics. 


In Philly, I even got into a Federal Building 

without  any i.d.

(bet that wouldn’t have happened if I were a Muslim cleric)


But, Haeman, 

There will be no super powers. 


There will be no Rev. Hong Shin action figures, 

…no Rev. Hong Shin anime, 

despite the image on your bulletin cover today. 


Come to think of it, these days,

It’s not just superpowers you’re going to have to do ministry without. 


There’s neither much broad public understanding 

nor respect 

for what it means to be a minister

And for what we do as ministers. 


I often feel like people, 

hearing that we are ordained ministers, 

They look at us as some throw-back artifacts 

— like potbellied stoves —

Something outdated and no longer necessary 

That nonetheless somehow survived. 


Haeman,  tomorrow morning, 

at least ontologically, 

You will be the same man you were this morning. 


I think that‘s Good News! 


Because as Protestant pastors, 

We have only ourselves, 

Our lives, 

Our mustard seeds of faith 

Our ability to draw on and share the tradition, 


…We have only our all to human experience to use

In the hopes of helping others 

With their faith and their lives. 


We cannot produce Jesus. 

Nor can we cancel sins. 

There’s not really anything special, extra or unusual we can do. 


We can ONLY re-present the One 

who can do all that and more. 


The church sends its pastors out 

with out purse or bag or sandals

…Sends them only out with themselves

and with God. 

And that should be enough. 


You will be the same man tomorrow, 

…Though the church will have asked and promised more of you. 

Ours is a functional ordination. 


As Paul wrote: 

…some, apostles; some prophets; some evangelists; some pastors and teachers;


For the perfecting of the saints, 

for the work of the ministry, 

for the edifying of the body of Christ:


Young man, you, like your sisters Margaret, Katrina and Amy, 

are being asked to take on certain tasks 

which you have now been educated and trained for. 


There are roles and relationships 

that the church is entrusting  to you. 


Some…thing happens when the church ordains people. 


Like something  happens when Jesus overturns religious convention and religious understanding 

To get closer to God and how God wants us to live and to love. 


Like Something  happens when a Canaanite woman shows Jesus up

To open his mind and heart to the breath of God’s love. 


Here’s what I think happens at ordination, Haeman,


Others will disagree with me, and I will hear about it after the sermon, 

But you asked me to preach, 

So I get to tell you what I think is happening here.  


I believe what’s happening… 

What’s happening is

That the church is moving you deliberately 

Moving you into a difficult, 

maybe even untenable position. 


Hear me out… 


The church asks its ministers to take up a hard job, 

it puts us in position over against what is powerful and popular and attractive, 

And that means we find ourselves in an almost unending series 

of tight, narrow, awkward situations.. 


Suddenly Scribes and Pharisees, 

the parish‘s  beancounters and 

the „we‘ve never done it that way before“ patrol 

are watching you closely 

and raising a stink loudly, 


Because someone just  brought food in the sanctuary 

and that‘s sacreligious, 


just not allowed. 

“…You know, that‘s going to spill and stain the carpet.” 


Or some Canaanite woman, 

not even a church member, 

she‘s shown up knocking loudly at the door, 

When the last thing you need is another person, 

when you have so much else to do, 

because so many others call for your attention. 


But she needs your help. 

She‘s talking about some spiritual distress 

that‘s out of your range, 

beyond your experience, 

over your head, 

not even part of your tradition. 


And her story, 

her pain and her passion, 

and her love as a mother, 

they  break your heart

and mess with your mind

and make you remember ministry

is bigger than the church — 


somehow she bears God’s love to you anew, 

And you see for the first time 

That n God‘s love, 

everyone matters. 


What happens at ordination, Haeman? 


You are asked to begin representing love

to people overwhelmed by fear, 


To make peace in a world at war


To preach abundance and spirit 

while the powerful insist 

material scarcity is our captivating reality. 


The church ordains you 

to place you 

into the mess that is ministry

In the mess that is our world…


ministry that happens mostly in all the hard to define 

spaces in life— 


somewhere between people’s fear and 

people’s self-defensiveness (ours too!0 


Between our sure uncertainty and next to impossible to believe hope.  


in the big themes of the day sometimes, 

but more often in all kinds of little dramas 

and absurd details 

that can‘t possibly matter


But they — those little dramas and absurd details — 

They do matter,

because for people 

they point to and connect them with what matters most. 


You are to tend to every last person and all their little dramas and details, 

Because they are connected with what matters most. 

God loves it all (that’s John 3:16) 


When I finished seminary, and was seeking my first call, 

I was on the phone talking with an Associate Conference Minister in Wisconsin, 


He asked me if I was looking for a Pastor’s position or an Associate Pastor’s. 


I answered —

“since I don‘t know much yet, 

maybe I should be looking for an Assistant or Associate position.” 


I don‘t remember who he was, 

But I will always remember what he said to me: 


„Michael, only the church can teach you to pastor. 

Seminary serves a purpose. 

You need to know our tradition. 

It‘s the language we speak. 

But it‘s the church‘s job 

to make you a pastor.“


I believe that’s what happens 

when the church makes you a minister, 

It’s making you a pastor 

By moving you into an impossible situation, 

into something that you can‘t possibly do, 

no matter how smart, talented or well-suited you are for this work. 


At ordination, 

the church puts you into a place

where you can‘t succeed on your own, 

and you start a journey 

Having to depend more and more on God

and God‘s people. 


Because nothing is impossible with God. 


That‘s how Jesus learned people are more important than the sabbath. 

How he broke tradition and stood up to authorities

for the people that the authorities and the sabbath were oppressing. . 


That’s how the Canaanite women knew God cared about her and her daughter too. 

How she had the chutzpah to challenge Jesus. 

How he had the humility to hear her. 

How he let himself be changed by her faith. 


In these narrow, tight, tough places, 

We realize we are not enough. 

And we remember we need God. 

And that changes us. 

Not just minister’s of course. 

But that’s what ordination does, Haeman, 

It ushers you into the just such a place. 


Haeman, you‘ll only succeed in ministry

to the degree you depend on God. 


I heard an ordination preacher once

Compare ordination to marriage. 


He pointed out that even as a pastor marries couples, 

She knows that a good number of those marriages 

Will end in divorce. 


And, you will learn, I guess, 

That we can’t tell which ones will make it and which ones will not. 


In my experience, some of the couples that seem perfect for each other fall apart, 

and the ones I can‘t figure out at all

go on to have long and healthy marriages. 


You never can tell.


Ordinations are pretty much the same. 

When I was the Regional Conference Minister in NYC, 

I must have participated in hundreds of these services. 


Some minister whom I felt were mediocre at best 

have gone on to serve with faithful and fruitful distinction. 


Others that I thought were among our most gifted 

stalled out after only a few years. 

A few actually crashed and burned. 


Ministry is hard. 

And there’s not just one way to do it. 

Well, except that we all have to do it 

depending on God. 

Let God work through you, brother. 


What happens when you are ordained? 

We put you in a place 

where you can’t survive without God. 


And then we see what happens…


And so today, important as it, 

it doesn’t matter as much as

 what you do tomorrow 

and the next day and, 

hopefully for the next 30 or 40 years.


In a few minutes, we’re going to ask you to make promises, 

And the answers will be, 

“I do, relying on God’s help” and “I will, trusting in God’s grace.”


But that’s not enough. 

You can’t just rely on God’s help today

And trust God’s grace now. 


Nope, we need you to do it again tomorrow, 

And the next day, 

And on the days when it’s really hard. 


And keep on doing it for the next 30 or 40 years. 

And see what God’s help and God’s grace do to you.   


Because the church and the world and the people you serve 

will receive so much more not because of this day, 

or any one day, 

but as the days move into seasons and in turn years. 


As you last in ministry. 

Labor on and grow and are transformed 

by the complexity and the simplicity 

and impossibility and reality 

of the ministry of Jesus Christ . 


God be with you, my dear friend, 

this day and increasingly  in all the times to come…