Last weekend, I preached at the ordination service of a friend. I thought it was strange of her to ask me, being that I don’t really find ordination helpful anymore (I did once, and I am ordained). It’s not so much the institution itself (though I do have problems with it), but the way it’s used that I find so troubling. It’s too often used as some kind of worldly power grab, an excuse to make someone call you “Pastor,” or a reason to get a really lucrative tax break, or the chance for an otherwise relatively culturally powerless person to be in charge — of a pulpit and microphone on Sunday, a staff meeting on Monday, a board of elders on Tuesday, etc.
Thankfully, I was involved in the ordination of a friend who is tempted toward none of these abuses. Here is an edited version my sermon:
“We are here assembled on a very interesting and solemn occasion, and it is proper to advert to the real object for which we have come together. There are in the world, and there may be among us, false views of the nature and object of ordination. I do not believe that any special or specific form of ordination is necessary to constitute a gospel minister. We are not here to make a minister. It is not to confer on this our sister a right to preach the gospel. If she has not that right already, we have no power to communicate it to her. Nor have we met to qualify her for the work of the ministry. If God, and mental and moral culture, have not already qualified her, we can not by any thing we may do by way of ordaining or setting her apart. Nor can we, by imposition of our hands, confer on her any special grace for the work of the ministry; nor will our hands, if imposed upon her head, serve as any special medium for the communication of the Holy Ghost, as conductors serve to convey electricity. Such ideas belong not to our theory, but are related to other systems and darker ages. All we are here to do, and all we expect to do, is in due form, and by a solemn and impressive service, to subscribe our testimony to the fact, that, in our belief, our sister in Christ, [Antoinette L. Brown], is one of the ministers of the new covenant, authorized, qualified, and called of God, to preach the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. This is all; but even this renders the occasion interesting and solemn. As she is recognized as a pastor of this flock it is solemn and interesting to both pastor and flock to have the relation formally recognized.”
These words – with one notable difference – were preached by the Rev. Luther Lee on September 15, 1853 in South Butler, New York. The occasion was the ordination of Miss Antoinette Brown, the first woman ever ordained in modern times. Appropriately enough, Rev. Brown was ordained as a Congregationalist….
However, I come today with some troubling news. Ordination, my friends, is in trouble. Deep trouble.
The verb, “to ordain,” comes from the same Latin root as, “to order,” and it means basically the same thing. Ordination is, presumably, about putting things in the right order, about getting the hierarchy right. Now, as Congregationalists, we don’t have much hierarchy; there’s a little more for Presbyterians and a lot more for Episcopalians and Catholics. But all of us Baptists (small “b” and large “B”) and Congregationalists, the order is really just two levels, ordained and non-ordained (also known as “laypersons”).
Ultimately, no matter the denominational flavor, ordination is about the conferring of some kind of authority upon the ordinand. Danielle will have hands laid upon her in a few moments in a sign of demarcation that has its origins in the Bible, and she will join the millions of men and women who have followed St. Peter, the one who was initially set apart by Jesus himself, given the “keys to the church.” And suddenly, magically, after we lay hands on her, Danielle will have the authority to baptize, marry, bury, and preside over the Lord’s Supper. She’ll have the authority to shepherd young people, to assist God in ushering them into his kingdom. She’ll have the authority to speak the gospel to the powers of our age! Or will she?
Here’s the rub. We live in possibly the most anti-authoritarian era of all time. You may already be convinced of this, but humor me by allowing me some examples. Just 60 years ago the press wouldn’t show the President of the United States in a wheelchair; today the President is skewered nightly by Leno, Letterman, and Saturday Night Live. The Pope is mocked in editorial cartoons, and the Supreme Court is depicted sans robes – or anything else – in this Christmas’s bestselling book.
People are deeply, deeply suspicious of authority. But before we start to bemoan how much times have changed, and how much we wish it was the way to used to be, let me say in the interest of full disclosure, I think that this suspicion of authority is a good thing!
You see, coming out of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, things were pretty rosy. It was commonly assumed that the human race had finally begun to figure things out. As Europe emerged out of two centuries of war, a generation of philosophers and scientists promised a new age, based on “enlightened rationality.” Philosopher Immanuel Kant declared that humankind had left its immaturity and that the motto of the Enlightenment was, “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!”
The universe is orderly, rational, and ultimately knowable, the Enlightenment thinkers declared. And human beings will figure it all out, if we just “put our minds to it.”
We cured diseases at an astounding rate, but an influenza epidemic in 1918 and 1919 killed 25 million. AIDS is currently devastating the continent of Africa.
The global infant mortality rate has dropped from 198 to 83 deaths per thousand births in the last forty years, but overpopulation is paralyzing the growth of underdeveloped countries.
The Internet has delivered incredible resources of news, information, and pornography to young and old alike.
This list, of course, could go on. But what really brought the Enlightenment dream to an end was war. Rather than bringing a century of peace, the 20th century was the bloodiest that humankind has ever seen. 150 million people died in warfare, and the 20th century ended with armed conflict taking place in fully one-third of the nations on Earth.
And at whose feet do we lay the blame for this? At the feet of authority, because for every Einstein, Kennedy, King, and Churchill, there’s a Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. Authority, my friends, took a beating in the 20th century.
And so we emerge into the 21st century with a vast horizon of possibility before us, and an ambivalent legacy behind us. People don’t trust authority, and with good reason. Postmodern philosophers have for thirty years now been attempting to do “philosophy after the Holocaust,” for how does one speak authoritatively about “truth” when such talk sounds vaguely like the claims made by the Nazis and Africaans?
How does a pastor, for instance, stand in a pulpit and authoritatively preach about what is good and true and right when the backdrop of her profession is headlines of pedophilic priests, T.V. preachers, and pastors with moral failings? At one time we wore these robes to convey a certain amount of authority, to show how well educated we were, back when Oxford and Yale professors wore them to lectures every day. Now few know what they signify….
For only now, after the institution of ordained ministry has been laid low, can it be reborn into what it can and should be.
There is no better time to restate Paul’s dictum: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, ordained nor lay, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Now we can truly embrace St. Peter and Martin Luther’s ideal of “the priesthood of all believers.” The unspoken contract between pastor and congregation can be rewritten, for we are all called to ministry, all called to serve God daily and wholeheartedly. The pastor does not deliver us the truth – that’s the job of the Holy Spirit. The pastor gathers us, makes sure the bills get paid, and helps us to develop theological language to describe and redescribe our lives. The pastor reminds us that we are a “royal priesthood,” that we are the “body of Christ.” This is not authoritarianism but cooperation.
And there is no better place for ordination to be reborn than in a congregational church where the minister has always been in some sense, just “one of the folks” (to use a Rounerian phrase). We do “set apart” our pastors insofar as we pay them to do the business of the church. But when it comes time to vote on something, there’s one vote a piece, whether you’re “Reverend” or ir-reverend.
There’s a verse that makes any Congregationalist’s heart sing, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” Danielle is ordained today not by a distant bishop or a denominational bureaucracy, but by the local body of Christ, by the same folks who led her in youth group, discipled her through high school, prayed her through college, gave her a job in ministry, and kept her in care in seminary. We encouraged her to preach, serve communion, teach Bible studies, run summer camp, lead mission trips, hang out with kids, and mentor an amazing group of young women.
And there is no better person in whom ordination’s rebirth can take place than Danielle Hample. I have been honored to watch God forge Danielle these past years, and, more than anyone I know, myself included, Danielle’s motivation for having this celebration on this day is pure. She holds no illusions of grandeur, takes no egocentric pleasure from standing in a pulpit, doesn’t long for credibility in the eyes of men and women. She desires no worldly authority, no office of power. No, hers is as pure a heart to serve as a sinful human being can have. And she has been serving, lo these many years.
And so I reiterate the sentiments of Rev. Luther Lee at that ordination service so many years ago. We’re not doing anything here today – at least, we’re not doing anything that God didn’t already do years ago. In some ways, we’re just catching up with God’s work in Danielle’s life enough to say that she is, indeed, “one of the ministers of the new covenant, authorized, qualified, and called of God, to preach the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.” We will all do well to watch the grace with which she carries the title, “Reverend,” for my guess is that she will embody the humility that we read about in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, considering others better than herself, and looking to the interests of others before her own. It’s to this standard that we’re all called and set apart. And no one will proclaim that with more zeal than Reverend Hample.