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, September 25, 2011–Third Sunday in Season of Creation, Wilderness

Texts: Joel 1:8-10,17-20  +  Psalm 18:6-19  +  Romans 8:18-27  +  Matthew 3:13—4:2

The congregation in which I grew up, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, used to take high school groups up to the Boundary Waters for weeklong canoe trips in the summer. We went through a Christian camping organization that provided the canoes, the backpacks, the food, and wilderness guides who were also trained to lead us in nightly bible studies. I don’t remember the bible studies at all, but I do remember the joy of floating out on the water in the middle of the cold, blue lakes that separate the United States from Canada. Watching hawks draw circles in the sky. Listening to the crackle of the campfire and the unfamiliar combination of sounds and silence in the night.

The forests of the boundary waters have been in the news in the last few weeks because of a forest fire started by a lightning strike in mid-August. For weeks afterwards the fire grew, covering as much as 16 miles a day and creating an enormous cloud of smoke that could be smelled as far south as Chicago, some 600 miles away. It was those wild lands and forests that came to mind for me when I heard the passage from the prophet Joel,

To you, O LORD, I cry. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field. (Joel 1:19)

In this Season of Creation, it’s this morning’s emphasis on the wilderness that I find most difficult to preach. The Sundays of this season move along a story arc that began with creation and alienation, and that end with passion and new creation. It was easy to talk about creation in the context of the forest trees, and alienation in the context of our relationship to the land. To try and imagine the wilderness as the place of passion is more difficult though – partly because we are so thoroughly entrenched in city life, not wilderness life; and partly because the wilderness is so densely occupied by metaphor that it’s hard to talk about the wilderness as it is without turning it into a symbol for us as we are.

The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that it’s not just difficult to talk about the wilderness without talking about humanity – it’s actually impossible. Consider this: the first Sunday of this season, we focused on forests which are filled with what? Trees. The second Sunday we focused on land, which is comprised of what? Soil. Next week we’ll consider the plight and the potential of rivers, which are made of what? Water. But today we are talking about the wilderness, which is filled with what?

Where the Wild Things Are graffittiWild things? Wild animals? Wild plants? Wildness?

Wild isn’t a thing, it’s an idea. It’s the place where we aren’t. It’s the runaway’s refuge, the criminal’s hideout, the refugee’s journey, the traveler’s nightmare. It is unmastered territory, which is precisely why it is often presented as the place where people go to master themselves. This, I suppose, is what makes the wilderness a place filled with passion. Passion, not only in the sense of being filled with desire, but also being filled with suffering – such as when we talk about Jesus’ passion and death.

That’s a pretty deep thought now, isn’t it? Desire and suffering are flip sides of the same coin, and the wilderness is the unmastered landscape where human beings go to master the untamed geographies of their hearts and souls.

That’s certainly what seems to be going on in the gospel reading this morning. Jesus rises from the waters of baptism to the sound of God’s voice declaring that he is God’s own beloved child, the one on whom God’s favor rests. Immediately thereafter, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness precisely so that he can be tempted by the devil. During that time, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, getting empty so that he can be filled, being hungry so that he can be fed. Then he returns to civilized areas and begins his work.

Very coincidentally, I took part in a bible study on this passage from Matthew the week before last. I was with a group of pastors discussing leadership in the church, and the trainer working with us used this story to talk about how healthy ministry takes place. It’s a three-act play: first the baptism, then the temptations, and finally the work.

Too often, when we think about leadership we jump straight to the final act, the part about the work. Sustainable leadership though, we were invited to think, comes first from the deep knowledge that you are baptized, that you are looked on with the eyes of love and claimed as one of God’s own children. This is critical, that our work comes from a place of security and confidence that we are already claimed by God. Our leadership, our work, our relationships, our pastimes – all of that can feel hollow, empty, unsustainable if we are using them to try and fill a hole left by anxiety that there is something unseen, unknown, or unloved about us. In his baptism, as in ours, Jesus learns that he is God’s beloved, now and for always.

But, what to do with that knowledge? What does it mean to be beloved of God? Is it license to conquer? Is it power to subjugate? Is it assurance of wealth or prosperity? Is it cause to look down upon others? Is it freedom from responsibility? The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness reflect the very real struggles each one of us has to face in our own lives. As one of the pastors in the bible study said, “you can’t be tempted with things you don’t want.” Jesus is tempted with bread, religious authority and worldly power. Temptations ranging from daily necessities to lifelong ambitions, and certainly understandable desires for someone born, as a Palestinian Jew under Roman occupation, into hunger for change.

We might want different things, and so face different temptations. Perhaps we want stability above all else, so we are tempted to ignore opportunities for change and growth. Perhaps we crave freedom, so we are tempted to avoid commitments and obligations that might teach us steadfastness and responsibility. Perhaps we desire comfort, or admiration, so we amass wealth and miss openings to encounter God in the suffering of the world. Perhaps we want love so badly that we forego the time and honesty it takes to truly come to know and love ourselves. Perhaps we want power and respect so much that we treat those around us like objects, and trade community for control. Until we face these wants, these passions, these sufferings; until we remember that our truest identity is rooted in love, all our work in the world will be compulsive, unhealthy and unsustainable.

This three-act play of baptism, temptation and work can be applied in a variety of contexts. I certainly would invite you to spend some time thinking about your own life through the lens of this story, and consider your own wants, desires, sufferings and temptations. What do they reveal about the motivations behind your work, your rest, your relationships? What would happen if you brought a remembrance of your baptism into each of those arenas of life? How would your home, your office, your community be transformed for deeper ministry if it was rooted in love?

During this Season of Creation though, I want to apply this three-act story specifically to our relationships with God’s creation, of which we are obviously a part. In a webinar on presence-full leadership earlier this week, MIT teacher and researcher Otto Scharer shared three disturbing numbers that illustrate the state of division in our world today.

  • The first number is 1.5 – Scharer called this the Ecological Divide, representing our disordered relationship with God’s creation. 1.5 represents the rate at which we are consuming the planet’s natural resources relative to how quickly they are regenerated.
  • The second number is 2.5 – Scharer called this the Social Divide, representing our disordered relationship with each other. 2.5 billion is the number of people living below the poverty line worldwide, and represents a failure of values on the part of the global community.
  • The final number is 3.0 – Scharer called this the Spiritual Divide, representing our disordered relationship to ourselves. The World Health Organization says that almost three times as many people die from suicide than from war and other forms of homicide.

Otto Scharer asserts, and I’m inclined to agree, that these numbers are connected. Our fractured relationships with the planet, each other, and ourselves reflect ways of living completely detached from any sense of being made in love for love, and point to the need for us to master the passions and temptations that lead to so much of our suffering and the world’s as well.

Too often conversations about the environment treat the topic as one in which information alone is the answer. As if, all we needed was to be told that our patterns of waste disposal or our reliance on gasoline was killing the earth. I think about anti-smoking initiatives though, and suspect it will take more than information to change our behavior. Decades of warnings from the surgeon general didn’t do much to deter people from smoking. It was acknowledging that cigarettes are addictive, it was public health campaigns that introduced the idea that smoking might take you away from your loved ones, it was legislation that shifted some of the costs of smoking-related illness back to smokers in the form of cigarette taxes that began to shift the tide.

I am convinced that the same things need to happen if we are going to change the patterns of behavior that are killing the earth. Yes, we need information about the rate of environmental degradation. We need movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc.

Beyond that though, we need to call our addictions to cheap gas, cheap manufacturing, and cheap goods what they are. Addictions. We need to tell the truth about the ways that our patterns of production and consumption are alienating us from the rest of the world, where goods are produced in conditions few to none of us have ever had to endure. And we need to fearlessly enter the wilderness of our own hearts to ask what price we ourselves are paying in order to try and sustain these planet-destroying patterns of living. We live in illness-infused environments, anxious to know if there will be anyone to care for us once we can no longer fill our roles in the cycle of over-production and over-consumption, and as the World Health Organization’s numbers show us, we are literally killing ourselves.

In the wilderness, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, getting empty so that he can be filled, being hungry so that he can be fed. Then he returns to civilized areas and begins his work. We, too, are invited to take stock of what we are filling ourselves with and to begin the process of emptying ourselves to make room for what God is doing in and for the world.

People of God, in this Season of Creation the message is clear: the planet is in peril, and there is work to be done. But we do this work by faith, not from fear. The scope of the task before us is too large to take on if we don’t plan for sustainability. As Christians, we find our sustenance, our most renewable resource, in the gift of life that comes to us at the font and the table, reminders that we are God’s own beloved and that in God’s economy there is always enough for everyone.