On Preaching: Ordination Sermon
Colleen Cook is the pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Georgia.
It’s that time of year. The officer nominating committee has met (repeatedly), the congregational meeting has been held, and newly elected elders are poised to be trained and ordained. At my smallish church, we maintain a session of eight or nine ruling elders, so our slate of nominations often includes both those previously ordained and one “newbie.” For the past four years, I have met with those who will be newly ordained to share the riches of the PC(USA) constitution. Generally, our treasurer trains about financial processes and the manual of operations. I get to talk about the good stuff! And I find that it feeds me every time.
Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life, acrylic and ink on wood, Jennifer Bunge
In the best of situations, I get to encourage new ruling elders by reversing their expectations and breaking down the stereotypes that the Book of Confessions, Part One of the PC(USA) constitution, is made of dust-dry theological treatises and that Part Two, the Book of Order, is merely made up of a minutiae of rules meant to make Presbyterians ever more decent and in order. I get to share how I feel about these foundational documents.
To me, the constitution of the PC(USA) is exciting and risky and heroic. In its best expression, it resists fascism, pierces institutionalized racism, and puts into practice our great hopes: that God’s new heaven and new earth shape us in the here and now. What could be more badass than an institution that makes this claim: “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life” (Book of Order, F1.0301)!
On two occasions I have had the joy of sharing the constitution with individuals who wore wounds from extricating themselves as adults from evangelical theologies and traditions. Both were women with incredible gifts for ministry, and both seemed to be holding their breath, wondering whether Presbyterian theology would really feel different after all, wondering if they could actually make vows binding them to another way of doing church.
We bear a responsibility to be gentle and truthful toward those who have been wounded by damaging theologies, those who were raised to understand the Bible as literal and morality as self-evident and those who were robbed of the power of their intellect and faith because of their gender. The PC(USA) constitution holds the key for such persons to reclaim a place at Christ’s table.
Long before we approach the vagaries of the structure of Presbyterian government, we dip into the fresh water of the great ends of the church. Finally, someone is telling us what the church is really meant to accomplish—nothing less than the salvation of humankind, the maintenance of divine worship, and the preservation of the truth.
We see how councils solved christological arguments and how German resisters in World War II drew a line, making the bold and dangerous declaration, “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him” (Book of Confessions, 8.15). The Reformed leaders of our past give us courage in this era of Christian nationalism.
We linger over the bright, small jewels of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death? A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Book of Confessions, 4.001). We notice places throughout the confessions that we would most certainly not confess today: the anti-Catholic flavor of the Scots Confession and the exclusively male pronouns in the Confession of 1967 where humanity is spoken of as “men,” for example. This is a church that is learning to progress. This is who we were, and we are being reformed. We dare not forget it.
We spend time parsing out what we believe are the “central tenets” to which we must give our assent in the ordination service. We decide whether we believe in it all. We rush through the layers of councils, the rules about calling a congregational meeting, the necessity and density of the discipline.
And as we do, my fire burns a little hotter for my work. I store up the good questions, fodder for sermons and devotion. I tear up, knowing the stories of the one who sits before me. They have decided to trust again. They have accepted a mantle of leadership in a church that has so often failed them. I am grateful to bursting for the gift of doubt that rejoices so when it is met with truth and order. I start to form a sermon for their ordination service, a sermon that affirms their call and their humanity, their preciousness to God.