Sermon: Saturday, November 21, 2020: The Ordination of the Rev. Morgan Elizabeth Gates

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).

Text: John 15:1-17 / To view the video of this sermon being preached, click here.

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.


Sermon: Sunday, July 15, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 2, Scene 2 — Learning to Dance”

Texts:  2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24  •  Ephesians 1:3-14  •   Mark 6:14-29

This past week Kerry and I took our first Latin Dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square.  We had a blast.  The guy teaching the class is named Saladeen Alamin, and he is awesome to watch.  I don’t know for certain, but I think he looks to be in his 50s, and he’s in incredible shape.  As we were shuffling our feet back and forth learning the basic steps to the mambo and the cha cha cha, Saladeen was leaping up and down, back and forth, adding flourishes to every step pattern as he called out, “BA! — BA! — BA! — BA! — left foot up on one and down on two, now move!”

You can’t learn to dance if you’re worried about your dignity, in fact, it’s hard to learn pretty much anything if you’re overly concerned about what other people think of you.  Learning requires an openness of heart and mind and an acknowledgement that we are not already perfect — that we still have things to learn.  Stated like that, it seems kind of obvious.  None of us would say that we’re perfect, or that we know everything, but our actions… well, they tell a different story.

After a month of telling you that we’re in a sermon series this summer following the semi-continuous set of texts from the books of Samuel and Kings in which the Hebrew scripture reading is disconnected from the gospel text, today we get two stories about dancing — one from 2 Samuel and one in the gospel of Mark.

In the gospel story, set during the reign of King Herod and the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, the king gives a feast in honor of his birthday at which his daughter dances so masterfully that Herod promises to give her whatever she desires — which ends up being John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

In the older story, from 2 Samuel, King David is bringing the ark of the covenant up from its previous home to the new capital, the city of David: Jerusalem.  Along the way he and the honor guard he’s brought to accompany the ark to its new resting place dance frenziedly before the caravan in a show of ecstatic devotion.  As he enters Jerusalem, David dances in front of the ark and before all his people, dressed only in his undergarments, not afraid to expose himself to God and to the world.  His dancing angers his wife, Michal, the daughter of old King Saul and drives a wedge between them.

How did you discover what you’re good at?  Whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer, a student or a grandparent, how did you first discover the kinds of gifts God has given you?  Maybe it was a natural talent you’ve enjoyed since childhood.  Maybe it was a passion you discovered in school.  Maybe it was the quiet pride you nurtured as you raised your children and found that you liked them, and that you were good at being a parent.  However it happened, can you remember the joy and delight that came with the discovery that God gave you a gift, a talent, a knack, a calling?

Over time, as your gifts became known to you and to others, you likely found yourself being asked to use them.  If you’re lucky, someone offered to give you a job doing the thing you love most.  I say “if you’re lucky” because so many people don’t get that opportunity.  Many labor away day after day for years, wishing for a way to join their vocational role with their God-created soul.  But even those who find work that connects them to their native talents can come to feel alienated from the sense of joy that once came with discovering their gifts.

When your gifts become your bread and butter, it’s hard to hold on to the joy that comes with exercising them.  I remember deciding in my early twenties that I didn’t want to follow my parents into a career in music because I never wanted to have to rely on the thing I loved to make a living.  I wanted to be able to keep on loving it in a much simpler way.  Instead I became a pastor, which still comes with many of the same risks.  Once you are “on the job,”  it’s hard to allow yourself to make mistakes, to risk looking like a fool, to learn.  In fact, your professional success, sadly, may depend on you conveying the appearance that you don’t make mistakes.

But there’s no growth without learning, and there’s no learning without risk.  Whatever gifts God has given us, none of us has perfected them yet.  If we want to grow as people, as professionals, as a community, we have to be willing to try things out, expose ourselves, and make some mistakes.

That willingness to be exposed is really what differentiates the two kings in our two tales of dancing today.  In the gospel of Mark, King Herod has been keeping John the Baptist locked up in prison for calling into question his decision to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.  The scripture here describes a situation I think most of us understand on some level.  It says,

“[Herodias] had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him.  But she could not for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.  When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

Even though Herod was the king and John was a radical repentance-preaching prophet crying out in the wilderness, “make straight a way for the LORD,” Herod liked to listen to him.

When I picture the scene in my mind, I think about the way that a child throwing a tantrum actually wants an adult to step in and restore order.  Herod has been spoiled by his power, and he needs to hear a Godly critique of his life.  He is perplexed to discover that someone as powerless as John can hold his attention, and so he protects him.  But John continues to expose Herod and Herodias’ relationship as unlawful, and so — in a scene so dramatic it has spawned an opera — the girl we’ve come to know as Salome dances before her father Herod and secures the right to ask for John’s death.

King David, too, has made a mistake — though it’s been expunged from this morning’s reading.  You might have noticed that we skipped over some verses in the reading from 2 Samuel.  They tell the story of Uzzah, who was named in v. 3 as one of the sons of Abinadab who accompanied the ark as it journeyed toward Jerusalem.  In the missing verses, Uzzah reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant, perhaps to keep it from falling, and is struck dead.  It’s a story that deserves a sermon of its own, so I wont’ go into it too much, but for the purpose of this morning’s worship, it served to remind David that the power he enjoyed as king was secondary to the power of God, which placed every good gift in him and brought him to this place in his life.

Unlike Herod, David recognizes his mistake and is able to make the course correction.  He seems to grasp the danger of his own pride… though this first glimpse of his personality flaws foreshadows the troubles waiting for him just around the corner.  As the ark of the covenant enters Jerusalem, bringing the visible sign of the invisible God before the nation, David strips off all his royal finery and dances before the LORD with all his might.  Without saying a word, David communicates to the people that there is one LORD before whom we are all naked.

When I was a child, learning to play the violin, I had to give a recital at the end of each year.  Recitals made me a little bit nervous.  Standing before all the other kids and their parents, and my parents and my teacher, I felt exposed.  I felt naked.  Somewhere along the line I learned that trick for dealing with my nerves where you imagine everyone else in the room in their underwear.  I never made the connection before now, but I think the reason that trick works is because it levels the playing field, at least in our minds.  We’re all exposed.

Decades later, having mastered my anxiety in most situations, I find that the price I’ve paid for some mastery of one set of skills is that I’ve lost the sensation of truly learning something for the first time.  That’s part of the reason behind the Latin Dance classes with Kerry.  I’m taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School as well, and I have to tell you that at the end of the first lesson, when all I’d accomplished was blistering my right thumb and bruising the fingers of my left hand, when the music I made could have been pleasing to no one but the LORD, I almost broke down and cried.  Not out of embarrassment or frustration, but out of joy.  It felt so good to be so exposed, so open, to be learning, to be growing.

Dear friends, I hope you’ve got spaces and places in your life where you get to be wide open like that.  I hope there are people and communities in which you still feel free to try new things, to make mistakes, to learn, to grow.  I hope you are able to be vulnerable with your family members and honest about your failures and limitations with your co-workers.  Closer to home, I hope we are being and becoming the kind of church that creates opportunities for you to discover and use your God given gifts and talents in a spirit of joyful discovery instead of dutiful obligation.

As hard as it may be to remember, in our overly professionalized lives, in our cultures of competition, we are not called to be perfect.  Paul says to the Ephesians,

Blessed be the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.  God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of God’s will, to the praise of God’s glorious grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace, lavished on us.

We are blameless not because of our performance, but by the grace of God’s love.  It is that love that allows us to live our lives like baby Isla did this morning, dressed in not much more than a linen ephod, squirming her first little dance before the LORD as she was washed in these baptismal waters and adopted into the forgiving family of God.

Perhaps as we come forward, as we pass this baptismal font on our way to the communion rail, we will follow in her footsteps and we will dance as well.