This is one my favorite sermons that I have preached. It wasn’t popular at the time that it was preached. It may have been one of the nails in the coffin of my relationship with Oakland Pres. It’s not a very “pastoral” sermon. I had just come back from Haiti, a trip thy did not support in any way, and I was angry. I was angry at the ways I saw Americans behaving. I was angry at the ways that our foreign policy affects that nation. I was angered by the sea of people living under tents that showed off the fact that they were from US Aid work. I was angered by the Baptist mission, a veritable mini mall that felt so out of place down the street from the rubble of Wings of Hope.
I love this sermon because, though I haven’t, I could preach it again and feel exactly the same. It would probably be longer. Maybe it would be angrier. Our nationalism strikes me as incredibly dangerous. And we sink into it more and more. We claim our superiority even as we lag far behind in key markers for developed countries like education and healthcare. The only thing we lead the world in now is overconfidence.
To quote J-Live “Don’t get me wrong, there’s no place I’d rather be. The grass ain’t greener on the other genocide”. I love this country. It is home. And because it is home, it is mine to critique. We need to lead the world in compassion. We need to lead the world in human rights and expressions of human dignity. We need to be the ones tearing down the boundaries and borders, not strengthening them. We need to lead the world in caring for the environment, recognizing that the planet does not respect national boundaries. We need to lead in speaking for a common humanity and the interconnectedness of peoples across race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, age, ability, etc…
And if we can’t do that, can we at least take care of our own urban centers? Can we stop having a school shooting a week? Can we stop having a shooting a day in some places? Can we recognize that our whole country is improved by access to education for all? Can we tear down the pipeline that leads directly from our cities to our prisons?
And for the love of God, can we please get a high speed railway system?
Happy Birthday, America! You’re not aging well.
I wrote this in ’06.
(sigh) I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self how much ordination has meant to me. I wish I could tell him about that June evening in 2009 where my friends preached, my family surrounded me and prayed for me, and I officiated communion for the first time. I wish I could tell him about that evening when we drank beer and ate good food overlooking the city from Mt. Washington. I wish I could tell him that the night of my ordination was also the first time I told many of those closest to me that I was going to be a father.
I would tell him that he’ll end up meeting some of the best people that he knows because of his ordination. I’d tell him that he gets to travel to cool places, have meaningful conversations, and build lifesaving friendships. I’d tell him that he’ll get to sit at the bed sides of the dying, and that while that may not feel like a huge privilege in the moment, it totally is. I’d tell him that he’s going to love officiating weddings! He probably wouldn’t believe me. I’d tell him that communion means something different when you’re the one holding the bread and the cup. I’d tell him that getting to baptize his children will change him fundamentally.
What I would tell younger me is that ordination is about more than gate-keeping and hoop-jumping. I would say that to be ordained is to be redefined by your community. It is to be set aside for a specialized purpose. It is to be given a new set of privileges and obligations. It is to live by a new set of standards. It is thrilling. It is terrifying. There is so much I can’t explain to younger me about how different being ordained has made me feel. It is a weight I can’t define. It is both joy and curse…
…and I would tell future me to care for this new status as best as possible. I would tell me that this can all be taken away and all that is required is for me to give into the worst parts of myself. Umm… our self. Dammit. I’ve gotten lost in my own internal time travel logic. Anyway…
It was incredibly hard for me to reread this in a time when I am unable to live into my ordination. Younger me had no idea what a gift it is to be called by your community to a special place of service. Younger me had no idea of the pain that would come from having that status put on hold. Younger me probably wouldn’t understand how important it has been to be a part of my particular community, the one that I have found in the Presbyterian Church (USA). It’s not perfect. It has a lot of flaws. It is broken in many places, but there isn’t a community that is without flaws. On the whole, slowly as it may move, the community seeks justice. It seeks to be a force for peace in the world. It seeks to be a tangible sign of Divine grace in the world. Yes we move slowly. Yes we could be using our wealth better. Yes we do a ton of navel-gazing. Yes, we’re overwhelmingly white and aging at an astonishing rate… wait, what was my point?… oh, right. The PC(USA) has been good to me and I believe that it is about good in the world… ya know, most of the time.
I would tell the version of me that wrote that blog post that in just a few months he is going to have a redefining experience in the great city of Portland. I’d tell him that that will be the first time that he is called “pastor” and it will fit him like tailored glove. I’d tell him that he’s going to have lunch with a retired minister named Jim who will tell him that ordination changed him. I’d tell younger me not to be so skeptical of that statement. I’d tell younger me that he is working too hard to define himself by himself and that he can only truly be who he is within the context of who he is to his community.
I would have some wise words for my younger self. Maybe I should listen to my own advice.