I was ordained thirty-six years ago today. The following is from a sermon I gave when my congregation celebrated my first 25 years in the ministry.
One day when my son was about nine years old, he and several of the neighborhood kids were playing in our yard. I was also outside, working on the car. I knew that one of the kids was a bit of a bully, so I had my eye on him. Just as I expected, before long he was pushing the other kids around, causing fights, and making an all around nuisance of himself. I went over and told him to quit. He behaved for a while, but then was back at it. So I talked to him again. This time I spoke more forcefully and threatened to send him home. He got the message and the kids then played together without any more trouble. As I was walking away, I heard him say, “Gee, why is your dad such a crab?” Without hesitating even a moment, my son said to him, “Well, he’s a minister, you know.” What?
I had to think about that. I was used to people having many different notions of what a minister is and what a minister does, but that was a new one to me. A crab? With that in mind I would like say a few things about being minister, on this anniversary of my ordination. I’ll try not to be too crabby.
Martin Luther once wrote a little piece on what it means to be ordained in which he said: “If we know of a godly man, we choose him and, on the strength of the Word which is ours, we give him authority to preach the Word and administer the sacraments. This is what it means to be ordained.”
On the strength of the Word, as Luther says, the church first of all ordained me. Then you, as members of this congregation and the other congregations I have served, called me to be your pastor. And then, it says, you gave me the authority to preach the Word. WORDS; that’s what you want from ministers most of all, isn’t it? Words. In every church survey I’ve ever seen, and from every call committee I’ve ever faced, I have heard the same thing– what congregations want most of all is a pastor who can preach, who can put words together. You want the right words at the right time, words that can inspire faith, words that can explain the faith, words that can make clear the difficult words of the Bible, words that can challenge you, and words that can give you comfort and hope. You want words, don’t you?
The reason you want that is because that is how God himself has set things up. Have any of you ever seen God? Neither have I. But I believe God has called me to be ordained, called me to stand between you and God, called me to lead you in worship each week as we come into God’s presence, and called me to help you in your faith in God. And what has God given me to work with in order to do all that? Words. Just words. In the Bible, we read all over the place that we are saved by faith. But how do you get faith? Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing” the message, and “the message is heard through the word of Christ.” Words. We hear about God and are connected to God by words.
Do you know what is the hardest part of this job? The hardest part is when the words don’t come. The words aren’t always there on command, and sometimes the more desperately I want just the right words, the less likely they are to be there for me. I did not type these words into my computer until yesterday afternoon. I was starting over on this sermon; starting over again. And that was not because I waited until the last minute. I had been working on this all week. But my trash can was full of false starts and abandoned notes, and the delete button on my computer was almost wore out. The words weren’t coming. That’s how it goes some weeks.
If you are in a conversation and have nothing to say, you can just keep your mouth shut. People might even appreciate that more than anything. But whether or not I have anything to say, I still have to be up here every Sunday morning, with a whole bunch of words, ready to go.
Not only that, but there are other times in a pastor’s week when one searches for words that aren’t there: at the scene of a fatal car accident, when someone tells you the grim diagnosis from the doctor that their cancer is terminal, or when told by a couple who have been active in the parish that their marriage is ending. Pastors are called to proclaim the Word, ‘in season and out of season,’ Paul said to Timothy. You have every right to expect words from me, but sometimes the words don’t come very easy. This is the most difficult part of my calling.
There’s more. My words are not always appreciated. You know the old line, “Talk is cheap.” And there is another old line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The meaning is that words are unimportant and have no impact. Words are important and they do affect us, but sometimes we do all we can to resist their power– especially if the words are in a sermon.
Sermons are not the best-loved form of communication. If someone is going on and on with too much unwanted advice, we might say to them, “Don’t go preaching to me.” I even get this from my wife once in a while. Yesterday morning she asked me a question. It was one of those questions that pushed all the wrong buttons. So I started in giving her a whole bunch of words about what I thought on the subject. And what did she say? She said, “I just asked for your opinion; I did not ask for a sermon.” Yeah. A sermon. Who ever wants one of those? Not only that, but ‘Silence is golden,’ says an old bit of wisdom, and that is backed up by the Bible itself. Ecclesiastes 5:2 says “Let your words be few,” and Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.” But how is a preacher supposed to manage that? We have to talk. Like I said, the toughest part of this job is coming up with all those words. (continued…)
I Timothy 4:1-5 — In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead,and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
O Lord, you see how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office. Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed in it long ago. Therefore, I call upon you for guidance. Gladly indeed will I give my heart and my voice to this service. I want to teach the people. I myself want constantly to seek and study your Word, and eagerly meditate upon it. Use me as your instrument. Only, dear Lord, do not forsake me; for if I am left alone, I will most certainly ruin everything. Amen.
–Martin Luther (1483-1546)