The Common Good

Sermon for Ordination: You Don't Have What It Takes — But You Have a God Who Does

The hands of the author and ordainee, Matthew Nickoloff, in the baptismal font.
The hands of the author and ordainee, Matthew Nickoloff, in the baptismal font. Photo via the author.

[Author's Note: Matthew was the Vicar (seminary intern) for 14 months at House for All Sinners and Saints and this past Thursday I was honored to preach at his ordination.  He is planting a church now in Rochester, NY.  You can “like” a page on Facebook called South Wedge Mission to learn more. Today literally is his first day on the job.]

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’  ~ Matthew 16

Years ago on a bright Tuesday in March, I was driving to seminary and I found myself stuck in traffic on I-25.  Sitting in a dead stop on the interstate I stared up into the clear blue Colorado sky and thought, “What in the world  am I doing?  I don’t believe a word of this Jesus stuff. I mean, It’s a fairy tale.”

But then in the very next moment I thought, “Except…throughout my life…I have experienced it to be true.” 

I experience the gospel to be true even when I can’t believe it. And honestly sometimes I believe the gospel even when I don’t experience it.  And I suggest to you today that this is why we have and even why we need Word and Sacrament. Because see, we are a forgetful people.

And it is to this office of Word and Sacrament that you have been called Matthew and I feel like in an ordination sermon, the preacher should in some way address the level of preparedness of the ordinand in question, and I am in a position to do just that.

So here we go…

You, Matthew Nickoloff,  have demonstrated great gifts intellectually, pastorally, and theologically. You and Leah have left your mark on the church you served as a Vicar and we are the better for it. You have been awarded a Master's of Divinity degree (and I think some, like, bonus master's when you were at Southern).

You have learned to do pastoral care by text message. You have learned how to pretend not to be bored out of your last mind at clergy conferences. You have learned how to create liturgies and write shorter sermons and admit when you’re wrong. You have learned to forgive and how terrifying grace really is. 

You have learned what it feels like to pastor broken people as a broken person. You have learned how to learn. You have learned how beautiful and maddening the people of God can be. You even got through CPE.

So, if asked if you are prepared to hold the office of Word and Sacrament the only answer is: Of course you’re not. Don’t be ridiculous.

But before you take this personally, you should know that when addressing the graduates at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary I said that if they were worrying that they might not have what it takes to lead this church that they should  stop worrying. Of course they don’t have what it takes to lead the church, but  fortunately they do have the God it takes. And here today I say the same to you.

You, Matthew Nickoloff, besides these things you’ve learned and experienced and quite apart from any giftedness you may possess, first and foremost you have the God it takes for you to be a pastor.

And this is what you can never ever forget. Because as I mentioned earlier, us Christians are a forgetful people.

I think Jesus meant for us church-leader types to keep this in mind, that it is God who makes us worthy of our calling and that God’s people are forgetful and perhaps that is exactly why in our Gospel text for today, Jesus chose Peter.

Jesus chose Peter. Peter of all people. 

This week I started wondering what in the world would a candidacy committee think of that guy? Peter wasn’t exactly a winner. He seems always to be over reaching or totally falling short.

Jesus could have picked one of the nice, pious, righteous apostles, one a bit less embarrassing, who doesn’t blurt out the wrong answers in class all day. But instead he chose Peter, who was kind of a buffoon and that’s when he wasn’t being a total sycophant.

See, I have a theory about this text where Peter is named the rock. I think that it must have been redacted.  I think what really happened is that Jesus said, “You are Peter, dumb as a rock…on which I will build my church,” and that is our legacy to this day.

But the thing to remember is that it’s not that Jesus had the guy it took to lead the church, it’s that Peter had the God it took to lead the church, and that’s different.

So I’d like to suggest that Jesus didn’t choose Peter because he was the first to confess Christ…after all, Peter’s moment of glory lasted about 10 seconds before he said something stupid enough for Jesus to say get behind me Satan.

So I don’t think that Jesus chose Peter because Peter understood everything or because Peter was clever or because Peter had the best prayer life or because Peter had the mildest personality and he just “seemed” like a pastor. 

And Peter wasn’t exactly chosen because of his loyalty –  lest we forget, it was Peter who denied Jesus. THREE times, if you recall. And here’s the real kicker: I don’t think Jesus chose Peter DESPITE the fact that Peter would deny Jesus three times on the night he died. I think Jesus chose Peter BECAUSE Peter would deny him. 

Jesus knew that only a forgiven sinner really could preach the Gospel. Only forgiven sinners can preach the Gospel. It’s always been that way so I’m not sure at what point the church decided its leaders were to be sinless examples of perfect piety.

I might not give them the keys to my house, but only a forgiven sinner can be really trusted with the keys of the kingdom.

See, as with Peter, you are entrusted the keys of the Kingdom. This is heavy stuff, Matthew. What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Which sounds like you get to judge people…like you get to decide what God thinks of folks. But that’s not it. You are to be, as the text says, a steward of the mysteries of Christ and for all his faults, it is those exact mysteries that Peter actually understood.

Peter knew what it meant to really screw things up and be given grace. That is to say, he knew about binding and loosing.

So as a Pastor, I ask that you take binding seriously.

It’s called Baptism. Pour water on God’s children in baptism and bind unto them the promises of God.  Mark them with the cross of Christ – for what does being sealed by the Holy Spirit mean if not that the oil on our foreheads glistens with the shimmering promises of a God who claims us and names us as God’s own? That is a binding. Remind God’s people of this as often as you can. Because we are a forgetful people. 

And to be sure, there is loosing to be done in this work. It’s called confession and absolution. It’s called forgiveness of sins. Loose from God’s people that which weighs them down, their sin, shame, and despair.  Loose from them their pride, anger and resentment and guilt for not being able to live up to even their own values. Remind them that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Loose them.

And here’s some job security for you — you’ll need to do all of this again and again and again. Never assume that just because your people leave on Sunday believing the gospel that when they return a day or a week, or an hour later that they still believe it. Don’t assume that if they experienced this thing to be true that they still do…. Put Jesus in their ears and mouths and don’t stop. Because we Christians are a forgetful people.

That is your charge — binding, loosing, putting Jesus in the ears and mouths and eyes of God’s people. Being a forgiven sinner reminding a forgetful people of God’s love and mercy.

Your charge is not to be a professional Christian on their behalf. You are not charged with being a quivering mass of emotional availability on their behalf. You are not charged with doing good works on their behalf. You are charged with preaching the gospel and presiding at the table. 

You are charged with none other than putting Jesus in their ears and mouths so that they might believe the good news and continue to share it with others. That they might experience this thing to be true and that YOU too, a beautiful forgiven sinner might experience this thing to be true. God will do this. For you, Matthew Nickoloff, have the God is takes to make you the pastor people need you to be.

May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you. May God look upon you with favor and give you peace.

I love you. Amen.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.

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