This sermon was preached remotely from Chicago, Illinois via Zoom on Saturday, November 21, 2020 for the ordination of the Rev. Morgan Elizabeth Gates, which took place at Peace Lutheran Church in College Station, Texas. Pr. Gates is a 2020 graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC).
Grace and peace to you from God, the vine grower, and our Lord Jesus Christ, the vine. Amen.
Greetings to all who are gathered, near and far, as we gather to worship God, giving thanks for all that God is bringing to life in us, in the church, in the world, and especially in our dear sibling, Morgan Elizabeth Gates, who has responded to God’s call on her life and has been growing into the shape of her baptism. We have come together today from many places — I am coming to you from my home on the north side of Chicago — to witness a bit of pruning, more commonly called ordination. The life that Morgan has been pursuing, her growth over time, is now being shaped in a very specific way so that it can continue to bear fruit.
Half a lifetime ago, for one of their wedding anniversaries, my sister gave my parents a trellis in the shape of an arch. Dad installed the trellis inside a gap in the tall hedge of bushes that separated our back yard from what we called the “outback” — a piece of land behind our house, beyond the backyard, that was not really a lawn so much as a bit of reclaimed prairie along the outskirts of the west side of Des Moines. To me, the trellis added a bit of romance to my parents’ back yard. It added some structure to the boundary between the cultivated and the wild. It was a great backdrop for family photos.
When I think about ministry — and, by this I don’t just mean the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Morgan is being ordained into today, or even the rostered ministry of pastors and deacons in the church, but the church’s ministry, the witness of the baptized — I imagine the trellis, providing shape and structure and support to fruit bearing branches, but not their actual life. If I may, an illustration:
Exhibit A: this basil plant that’s been growing in my window since the early days of the pandemic back in March. I will admit that this plant is one of a number of experiments I have conducted over the last nine months to keep my home from feeling like a holding cell — along with sourdough bread, home haircuts, the guitar, and athletic leisurewear. This plant came as part of a windowsill herb garden kit by a small store here in Chicago, so it also felt like a way to support local business from the safety of my living room. It’s a hydroponic grow kit: just a glass jar, a perforated metal cone to suspend the soil mixture in water, and then small packets of seeds to grow basil, cilantro, mint, etc.
In the early days of the pandemic, when we weren’t yet accustomed to the numbing sameness of each day, I discovered the simple joy of watching a thing grow. I’d also brought some plants home from my office at the seminary — plants that had always struggled to thrive under the fluorescent light in my office — and by the end of the first month working from home I’d transformed the dining room into a miniature greenhouse. All I had to do was keep a spray bottle nearby and mist the soil mixture, and the warmth of the sun would do the rest. Day by day I watched with unmerited pride as the seeds I’d tucked into the soil began to sprout and grow. I marveled at the miracle of biochemistry, how a seed contained all the information it needed in every cell of its being to turn soil, water, air and sunlight into root and stem and leaf. I didn’t have to teach it a single thing. It was made to grow, which is another way of saying it is alive.
In a lecture on growth titled, “Disciplines of the Spirit” delivered at Boston University in the fall of 1960, Howard Thurman shared the following insight on the relationship of growth to patience. He said,
“Sometimes I think that perhaps the most distinguishing thing, one of the most distinguishing things between God and the human spirit is that God knows how to wait. How to sit it out and watch the slow crawling manifestation of the potential of the organism. And [humanity] does not know this.
So one of the things, one of the results of the discipline of growth is to learn patience. Now, patience may be merely an escape into inactivity. It may be the result of fear, laziness, all kinds of things. Well, I’m not talking about that kind of patience.
I’m talking about the patience that represents the time interval after the desire has manifested itself and the way in which the individual must assess and reassess [their] environment in order that [they] may know what the chances are for the fulfillment of [their] desire or [their] wish.”
This was the unexpected lesson of those early pandemic days, which became an endless exercise in patience. Each day I opened my laptop. I answered the emails. I made the phone calls. I participated in the Zoom meetings. Each day I would stand up, brew my coffee, wander over the window, spritz the soil and see that, without any coaching from me at all, the plant was growing. Life was alive.
Eventually these viney stems had grown nearly the entire height of the window, so I decided to harvest the leaves and make some pesto. Once I got going with my pruning, I went a little overboard. Within minutes, I’d removed almost all the leaves from the plant, my fingers fragrant with their oils. I made the pesto. I tossed it with pasta and cherry tomatoes and grated parmesan cheese. It was excellent. I considered whether the windowsill herb garden had run its course, whether it might be time to retire the hydroponic jar with its inverted scaffolding, its conical upside-down trellis. But I didn’t have the heart. This plant and I had been cohabitating in my humble little abode for so long, I wasn’t ready to see it go. We’d been abiding in my habitat. So I filled the jar with water and set it back in the windowsill, patiently waiting to see if these vines could repeat the miracle of growth. And they did.
So much of ministry, in my experience, has been making the decision to abide with one another and then to be patient with one another. I remember an older woman in the church where I served my first call pulling me aside after church one Sunday seven years into my ministry there to tell me something about the community. She began, “You haven’t been here very long yet, but maybe you’ve begun to notice…” This was something of a revelation to me. I’d moved around a lot as a young adult, leaving home for college and then moving every few years for work or graduate school or internship. At the end of my fourth year in that first call I had to talk myself out of looking for a new job mostly because I’d lost the sense of what it felt like to stay put in any one place for that long. So to hear that after seven years I still hadn’t been around that long in some people’s eyes was a wake up call. We live in an increasingly mobile and transient world. The older you get the more experiences you’ve had of friends and colleagues and even lovers leaving you, moving on to pursue new opportunities. Then come the years when the departures are more final. We get more practice than we ever wanted saying our final goodbyes to the people who have been the most important to us. Sometimes we don’t even get to say goodbye.
This passage from John’s gospel with all the talk of vines and branches comes from a larger unit known as the farewell discourse which takes place on the night before Jesus’ death. He knows that he will be killed and he is planting the seeds of understanding now so that later his disciples will be able to make sense of what has happened. “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Then, later, “you did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Parent will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
There are times when being faithful to the ministry God has put before you will feel like laying down your life. Again, I’m not just talking about pastoral ministry or diaconal ministry. I’m not just talking to Morgan. There are times when being faithful to the covenant of baptism feels like laying down our lives. In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul puts it like this, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Parent, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) Faithful ministry by any of us and all of us will involve decisions in which our individual wants and needs must be put aside in order to care for the needs of others. Parents know this. Spouses know this. Good leaders know this. Jesus, who once prayed, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Mt. 26:39) knew this. Good pastors know this and, Morgan, I think you know this too.
There is a pruning taking place today, a careful cultivation of your life which truthfully acknowledges that, in order to produce the fruit that is needed, there are some paths to growth that will need to be nurtured and others that will be cut short. It is the cost of discipleship and I am here to tell you that it is well worth paying because, in the end, the cost of discipleship is not so different from the price of love. It is the act of choosing to dwell with, abide with, minister to, to love and be loved by the people and places to which God sends us. It is not easy, it does not always feel good, but it is the path that leads to joy — real joy, deep joy, abiding joy. I can tell you this with confidence because I have walked this path, I have sometime stumbled down this path, I have sometimes cursed this path or doubted it, but I have surely loved it and been loved by it in return.
Morgan, people of God, I have said these things to you so that God’s joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. As we prepare now to hear you make your promises, to hear the echo of your baptismal covenant again this day, we are drawing close, raising our hands around you, marveling at how God has kept you close to the vine, waiting to taste the fruit of your ministry.
Let all God’s people say amen.