Sunday, December 05, 2010

ordination sermon: creationary re John the Baptist

A creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary. For more resources go here.

I had the privilege of being asked to preach at the Uniting Church ordination of five folk today. For those interested, here is the sermon. A story, some theology and integration with U2’s Stand up comedy. (Since it is also based on the lectionary text for the day (Matthew 3:1-12), John the Baptist, I’ve added it to the creationary).

A story. A story of my being a minister
Of wanting to deepen our understanding of communion

Of deciding to start not by me as the minister preaching to the big people, but by engaging with our children

So of finding myself seated in a circle with eight 7 to 9 year olds.

Of using Godly play, in which you tell the Bible story and then together with those gathered, in this case the eight kids, take some time to wonder together.
I wonder what part of this story is the most important?
I wonder what part is especially for you?

So sharing 2 stories. One with (place physical symbols one by one)
a Tablecloth
And people
And blue felt
A sand
And stones
And matzo bread

The exodus story – of the people, God’s people,
running away from these people, their slaveowners
led by God across the sea
into the wilderness, the place of sand and stones.

So whenever you eat the bread, you remember being a people,
enslaved, then saved and gathered by God

Which helps us understand another story
Another tablecloth (place physical symbols one by one)
This time with bread and wine.

Jesus at communion
take the bread, breaking it,
whenever you eat the bread and drink the cup,
remember being a people, enslaved, now saved and gathered by God

Then inviting the kids to wonder.

Daniel looking at me. Such a thoughful boy. Cocking his head. I wonder why Jesus broke the bread in the communion.

Good question aye.

I wonder, Ordinands, if you every considered Daniel’s question in your training?
Church, Ministry, Sacraments perhaps?
Uniting church Heritage and polity maybe?

I wonder why Jesus broke the bread in communion

In a moment of unscripted spontaniety, I pick up the communion bread.
Looked at Daniel. Eye to eye.

Daniel, I wonder, how you’d feel if I said,
This is my body, not broken, only for me.

And then I slowly hold the bread to myself.

Daniel is on his feet. He’s incensed.

As only 8 year old boys, full of righteosness and justice – can be.

“That’s not fair.” He said indignantly. “That’s not fair. You’re meant to share.”

Which, when you think about it, is actually pretty good theology isn’t it. Whether you are 8? Or 48? Or 88?

You’re meant to share.  As it says in Basis of Union: “In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptized people”

So one way to understand what we’re doing today, is simply as a call to share.
In a body broken
In what the risen Lord is up to
in feeding the world’s hunger

That’s theology from a 8 year old. We’re meant to share.

And so the Bible reading from Matthew, simply adds some more layers, deepens our understanding of what it means for us to share.

In Matthew the story of John the Baptist, emerges from the wilderness.

The wilderness is the sands and stones where Moses takes the people of God after Exodus, a place to find sanctuary, to gain guidance, to learn how to live as the people of God.

The wilderness is the sands and stones where Elijah gets fed by the ravens, a place to be saved from starvation and despair

The wilderness is where God’s mission through John begins.

One of the Hebrew translations is “land burnt by summer heat, generally wasted rocky and sandy land with minimal rainfall.” How a Kiwi might describe South Australia!

And it’s so easy to look for what is big and obvious and close to home.

And yet time and again throughout the Bible, and through church history, and perhaps even here today in South Australia, God’s new things begin in the wilderness.

John emerges from the wilderness with a message. An invitation to share in repentance.
In verse 3, Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.
In verse 8, Produce fruit in keeping with repentance
In verse 11, a baptism of repentance.

For John, this wild Baptist, the religion he sees has simply put a box around God.
It’s reduced the mystery of God, to in verse 9, to the tradition of our fathers, the love for the good old days, the security of what worked well in the 50s.

Schweizer in his commentary on Matthew argues that in for John “all the security of ritual is overthrown; what matters is not the fact, but the “fruit” of [your] baptism. (49)

An invitation to share in the fruit of repentance.
That what matters is not our past.
That what matters is not our dry religious adherence to rules and regulations.

What matters is an entire life, for start to end, in which we show the fruit of repentance. To quote a contemporary band, U2 we stand up for hope, faith, love.

That’s the first “we’re meant to share.” In repentance.

Which then got me reading Catherine of Sienna. Born in 1347.
A spiritual director, a theologian, a social activist.
Urged church reform 200 years before Luther.
Declared a Doctor of the Church, a title given to individuals the church recognises as particularly importance.

Catherine of Sienna – activist, leader, thinker – exactly the type of effective, missional leader that Uniting College would be privileged to be part of forming.

Catherine’s major writing takes the form not of a systematic theology, but of a conversation between her and God.

In which she argued, like John the Baptist, that repentance is essential to Christian life. But only when it’s partnered with a sharing in friendship.

Catherine defines repentance as a sort of truthtelling. That we take the actions of Christ and we place them alongside our own actions. And we begin to tell the truth about ourselves, how unlike the way of Jesus our actions and behaviours often are.

And yet how before, during and after our truth telling we share in God’s friendship. For those of you who are into Facebook, God keeps presenting “like”, no matter what our status update. In the words of Catherine of Sienna, we are “wholly submerged in God’s mercy and vast goodness.” (Inquiring After God: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology), 186)

So neither repentance nor friendship is the gospel.
Together, repentance and friendship, that is the Christian gospel.

And never just once. Never just at baptism. Never just at ordination. But always, as a process, over and over again, through our lives.

Catherine was writing deeply troubled by the actions of her church. Appalled by it’s selfishness and inward looking protectionism.

She argues that the only way forward, the way of social activism, is a lifelong sharing in repentance and friendship.

That “Christian spiritual living thus moves on a journey shaped by both the absence of God – how unlike God we are – and the presence of God – forgiving grace of God.” (Gregory Jones, drawing on Catherine of Sienna, Inquiring After God: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Blackwell Readings in Modern Theology)).

That’s a second “we’re meant to share.” In friendship. To keep standing up for God’s hope, faith, love.

Which is captured in this video (2.5 min long). A wondering about how it might feel to be the woman at the well in John 4.

With leads to a third sharing. Did you hear it in the video?
“Let me run back to town, there are others who should hear, see, taste, feel.”

A third “we’re meant to share” in mission. Which is made most clear in Luke rather than in Matthew’s version of today’s Bible reading. It’s in Luke that we find more examples of John’s preaching.

Anyone who has two shirts should share with one who has none
Be comfortable with your pay. Act for justice in your workplace.

“We’re meant to share.” That repentance and friendship are never just for ourselves. That the ordained are never just for us, the church.

But to stand, for God’s hope, faith, love, in our public places.

Which still leaves the elephant in room, the really obvious question that simply has be asked of this lectionary text at an ordination service. The one you must have all been wondering: would the Uniting Church have ordained John?

Would it let someone dressed in camels hair and calling themselves “a Baptist” into a period of discernment? Would the Synod vote to ordain someone talking of repentance and with a few fried locust wings in their teeth?

So there’s something deliciously subversive about this text on this day. In today’s language, I suspect we’d call John a pioneer leader. On the margins and at the edge. Coming with fresh expressions of baptismal reform. Asking hard questions. Probably, if we’re honest, making people uncomfortable

Eduard Schweitzer in his commentary on Matthew, calls this a passage “against smugness.”  Which means that this is another type of “We’re meant to share: in mission.” In which the edge talks to the centre, in which the pastoral and the organisational welcome the prophetic.

Which is part of our challenge as a Synod going forward. What we heard at Synod in July from Dave Male. How we at Uniting College are reshaping our Bachelor of Ministry. How we might see the ministry of Sarah, Benji, Naomi, Andrew, Matthew. As a pilgrim people, we’re wanting to welcome John the Baptist pioneer leaders, God’s prophets, the edgy ones among us.

So that’s the Gospel reading for today.
Some of you like theology through stories. I’ve told you about Daniel. We’re meant to share.

Some of you like theology through words. I’ve told you about John the Baptist and Catherine of Sienna. A sharing in repentance and friendship

Some of you like theology through visuals. I’ve shown you the woman at the well.

Sarah, Benji, Naomi, Andrew, Matthew – Will you share? Will you stand up. For love?

Synod of South Australia, will you share with them, and though them. Will you stand up. For hope, faith, love?

This went straight into an item, a performance of U2’s Stand up Comedy, from their No Line on the Horizon album.

Chosen because it seems to me to capture something of what ministry is about

  • a willingness to be comedians in the sense of fools for Christ (Stand up comedy)
  • a willingness to create space for a big vision of God (stop treating God like a little old lady trying to cross the road)
  • a willingness to not take ourselves too seriously (small man with big ideas)
  • standing for hope, faith, love
  • in a way that engages the cultural world we are part of
  • seeing change as evolutionary cf revolutionary
Posted by steve at 05:33 PM


  1. I like it, I like it a lot, strangely unsettling just the way I suspect John may have liked it!
    I wonder if the John’s of this world, those edge people who so unsettle us and the traditions we desperately try to hold on to are really meant to be so domesticated by ordination?
    Or is it that we have let the church so domesticate ordination that it no longer unsettles us?
    Where we place ourselves determines what we see and who we hang out with determines what we become.
    I wonder if the John’s of this world loose their edge, loose the very gift they have for the church by ordination?
    Still a wonderful challenge to share, to stand up for hope, faith and love, thank you Steve for your prophetic words.

    Comment by Geoff — December 6, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

  2. Thanks for posting your reflections online, Steve, much appreciated. I was sending prayers and good wishes from the sky!
    Glad that the words of a wise Catholic woman were part of the ordination service – and how ironic that the Catholic church can make a woman a doctor of the church and still deny ordination to women … but that is a conversation for another time 🙂
    Great lyrics to that U2 song – I haven’t paid so much attention to NLOTH but will revisit post concert… finally, making this a very eclectic blog comment, but triggered by the picture of Bono smoking – how on earth does he hit those high notes so well if he smokes??

    Comment by Michelle — December 6, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

  3. Thanks Geoff. Your questions are certainly questions I wrestled with as I became a minister. (I got a 2nd ear piercing to mark my first placement and a 3rd when I was fully “revd.”

    I think all leaders need to work on practices to avoid domestication by their organisation.

    I nearly based the sermon around the icon I’ve been blogging about recently – – church as hands open to God, eyes open to the world, and those being ordained part of what we as “pregnant” with – so will we let their presence inside us change us.


    Comment by steve — December 7, 2010 @ 9:13 am

  4. Michelle, given that the Bible text was male centric, I deliberately went looking for some female wisdom. I didn’t so much see Catherine as “Catholic” but more as wisely Christian, drawing on her work which is used in a pretty impressive theology text, Inquiring after God, by Ellen Cherry.

    Plus I deliberately highlighted her skills – spiritual direction, activism, theology – as a way of enlarging concepts of what we might call leadership.

    What can I say about Catholic ordination. Leave it to the pope! 🙁


    Comment by steve — December 7, 2010 @ 9:15 am

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