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Sarah’s Ordination Sermon: The Cloud and the Glory

By January 1, 2011 No Comments
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Sarah DeYoung Brouwer was baptized on a beautiful spring day in Central Pennsylvania. At only three or maybe it was four months of age, she had no idea what was happening to her. But her parents knew. By presenting Sarah for baptism we believed that we were giving to her the most precious gift that we could think of to give her. Not as expensive as a college education, but more precious.

At the time, I was very new to ministry, I had only been ordained a couple of years, and therefore I had little experience in administering the water of baptism. Sarah’s baptism, as it turned out, wasn’t my first, but was pretty close to it. Somehow I missed the class at seminary where the big, dramatic gestures of worship are explained. I think there was such a class, but I just didn’t take it. As a new pastor I had no idea how to do the most basic things–how to take a baby from the mother, or how much water to apply, or even what to say.

Happily for me, I found myself working with an experienced senior pastor who was only too glad to fill in the gaps in my seminary education. Among other things, the senior pastor showed me how to baptize a baby. We would go into the sanctuary at 6:30 or 7:00 on a Sunday morning, before the minister of music arrived to practice, and with a large baby doll we stole from the church nursery, I practiced administering the water and saying the words I had memorized.

The senior pastor’s method of baptizing was to take large fistfuls of water from the font and apply them to the baby’s head. Those babies were always in for a soaking. The baptismal liturgy says that in baptism we die to our old selves and rise to new in Christ, and I truly believe that the senior pastor felt it was his duty to get those babies as close to a fatal drowning as he could.

When I took Sarah from her mother’s arms, she was dressed in one of those long, white baptismal gowns, and we were standing in a large Gothic sanctuary, down by the front pews, around a massive stone font. I looked into Sarah’s eyes, much as I did moments after she was born, and I confidently grabbed a fistful of water from the font and applied it to her head. I managed to say, “Sarah DeYoung Brouwer, I baptize you in the name of the Father…” But as it turned out that’s all the farther I got. In that moment, I suddenly realized where I was, and what I was doing, and who I was holding in my arms. I was unable to go on. I froze. No more words came out of my mouth.

The senior pastor was hovering nearby, and he didn’t hesitate to finish what I had started. He grabbed some water and thoroughly drenched both Sarah and me. “In the name of the Son, and in the name of the holy Spirit,” he said, “Amen.” In that moment Sarah was baptized. She was a child of the covenant, sealed in the Spirit, marked Christ’s own forever. We all sang a baptismal hymn. And then it was over.

It was quite a moment. I was aware at the time that it was a holy moment. And in that baptism I began to understand a bit more clearly what my ordination meant. Ordination, I began to realize, meant spending time with holy stuff, being allowed to handle the water of baptism or the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper.

I began to realize in that moment that my ministry would consist of holy moments–probably a whole series of them. And as a pastor it would be my privilege to be right there in the middle of them. Some would involve my own family, but most would involve others, people it would be my privilege to come to know.

But it wasn’t just a privilege. I began to see that it was my job, my responsibility as a minister of Word and sacrament, to point to the holy, to name it, and to make sure people recognized it. Freezing in the face of it, getting all tongue-tied because of it, wasn’t an option. I had to seize the moment, and I had to find the language to talk about it, so that others could begin to see it too. In the words of the Apostle Paul, I became “a steward of the mysteries of God.”

I knew from the start that it was quite a calling. And it still is. To be honest with you, that’s the best part of the job. I can do without the endless meetings and the budgets and the staff quarrels. Some days I feel like nothing more than the executive director of a non-profit agency, someone who is concerned only with fund raising and management issues. And on those days, to be honest about it, I don’t like my job very much. Those are the days when I wish I could do something else, anything else. But in recent years, I have surprised myself by finding holy moments at some of those meetings I mentioned, and also in budgets, and even in those staff quarrels.

Finding the holy in baptism, as it turns out, was a piece of cake. But if you look closely, if you have a trained eye, even at meetings of the Building and Grounds Committee, even with a group of guys who think they’re doing nothing more than comparing estimates for roof repairs, even there God’s presence can be found. Sometimes at those meetings, instead of wishing I could be someplace else, I find myself looking at those men (and they’re almost always men), and seeing in them faithful servants of God, doing the work of God. And it’s then that my spirit is renewed. And I understand once again why I am there.

Being ordained to the ministry of Word and sacrament has come to mean for me that I am in this position, not just to unlock the doors and turn on the lights on Sunday mornings, but to look for and point to the holy, which of course is all around us.

Tom Dozeman, whom Sarah grew up calling Uncle Tom, and his wife Aunt Mary, even though they’re not relatives, is an Old Testament scholar who recently took up the challenge of the World Council of Churches. Way back in 1982, in a paper on “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” the World Council challenged churches to search out the biblical meaning of ordination, partly so that churches around the world could begin talking about it, and partly so that we would have a biblical and theological framework for talking about it.

As an Old Testament scholar, Tom didn’t have to search much further than the few chapters in Exodus where he has spent most of his career. A year or so ago, Tom published a little book with Oxford University Press called Holiness and Ministry, which locates the biblical origins of ordination right here, right at the beginning, in the wilderness of Sinai. We often look to the New Testament for our role models in ministry. We look to Peter (the rock on whom Christ said he would build his church) or we look to the Apostle Paul. But thanks to Uncle Tom, I have come to see that maybe we should be looking further back, in the Book of Exodus.

As the people of God wandered around in the Sinai wilderness, it turns out that they were doing important work. Who knew? Among other things, they were sorting out for themselves the ways in which they would live with and worship their God. They developed what we might call “holy habits.” Basically, they named the holy. They came to understand it, as much as the holy can ever be understood. They even developed the rituals and designed the furniture that would allow them to spend time with the holy.

Priests and Levites, then, were the people who got to touch the holy stuff. They were the ones who were entrusted with some of the same duties that ministers of Word and sacraments are entrusted with today. Our jobs find their origins in theirs. Priests and Levites were no better than the rest of the people, but their work, their calling in life, was devoted to God’s presence and God’s interactions with the people. Everyone participated in the rituals, but it was the priests and Levites who made sure things happened as they were supposed to.

And of course it was the holiness of God, the presence of God, that animated their lives, that gave their lives direction and meaning. When God was on the move, they were on the move. When God appeared to stand still, they stood still. Their task, and it only took them 40 years to figure this out, was to fall into the rhythms and habits and patterns of “life with God.”

Today we are ordaining Sarah Brouwer to the ministry of Word and sacrament. We are asking her to be one of those people who, down through the centuries, has handled the holy stuff, who has been able to find and name and describe the holy in our lives. Sarah isn’t better than or more important than anyone here. But her ordination isn’t about status or importance. Her ordination is about this other thing, this duty to be alive to God’s presence in the world.

Barbara Brown Taylor credits her father with giving her the eyes to see. In a recent book called An Altar in the World, she calls it the “practice of paying attention.” She writes that her father would take her and her younger sister outside on a clear Ohio night. They would lie down on a blue blanket, their father would put his hands behind his head, and then, under each of his elbows, the girls would stretch out looking up into the sky. Her father, she says, didn’t even explain what they were looking for exactly, but that was part of the preparation, part of learning to pay attention. Gradually, she found that what they were looking for were falling stars.

All I remember is lying there beside [my father] looking into a sky I had never looked into before, or at least never for so long…More and more stars fell as the night deepened. Some of them made clean arcs across the sky, while others disappeared before they had gone halfway. Watching them, I gained the understanding that the planet I was lying on looked like a star from somewhere else in the universe. It too might fall at any moment, taking me along with it. This understanding made my stomach flip even as it increased my investment in what was happening overhead. When my father woke me later, I could not believe that I had fallen asleep. How do you fall asleep, with whole worlds plummeting before your eyes? (An Altar in the World, p. 18-19)

The work of the minister of Word and sacrament, at least in part, is to pay attention, to be observant, to find the holy–not only in the night sky–but in the everyday, in the endless meetings, and in the routine. This is the task of every person of faith, of course, but the minister of Word and sacrament has the luxury of spending lots of time at it. There’s an expectation within the congregation that we’ll be able to do it, that in any old moment or setting we’ll be able to find God and we’ll be able to talk about it.

When I go the hospital, (and for ministers of Word and sacrament, “business travel” usually consists of driving to the hospital) and take the elevator to the fifth floor, and walk down the hall looking for the room where a member of my congregation is lying in a hospital bed, I am not any old person who just happened to walk in off the street. In those moments I know who I am. I am a minister of Word and sacrament. And so when that person in the bed sees me, she is not just seeing a tall guy with graying hair. She’s seeing someone from her church, someone who can be counted on to know God, to be familiar with the ways of God. She’s expecting that I will bring with me not the just the worship bulletin from Sunday’s service, but a piece of what happened there, as though holiness can be bottled up and taken with us when we make pastoral calls. When I take her hand to pray at the end of the visit, there is something in the touching of our hands that, even in that hospital room, lets her know that she is in the arms of God.

I wish ministers of Word and sacrament would spend less of their time being program directors, meeting the needs of youth, and singles, and older adults, and recovering divorced people. Those are all fine things to do, but nonetheless, I wish ministers of Word and sacrament would spend less of their time doing those things. I wish ministers of Word and sacrament would spend less of their time as managers and therapists and community activists. Of course, we need pastors who are managers, and occasionally we need pastors to be therapists, and even community activists. But what we really need, and God knows we’ve never needed them more than we do today, are ministers of Word and sacrament who spend their time with the holy.

Sarah, I don’t usually single people out in my sermons, as you know, but tonight I’m going to single you out. I challenge you to be alive to God’s presence in the world. I challenge you to talk about it. I challenge you to write about it. I challenge you to find a way to get your people to pay attention to it and worship it. And I’m so proud of you!

Douglas Brouwer is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and a contributing editor of Perspectives.