Alan Olson’s Ordination to Minister of Word and Sacrament
2 Timothy 3:14-17, 4:1-5
14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Good afternoon, saints! So, have you heard the latest news out of the PCUSA? The news about the 127 seminary students who took the Bible Content Exam in September?
For those of you who are not Presbyterian pastors, I’ll clue you in on what I’m talking about. The Bible Content Exam is a test that all candidates for ministry in the PCUSA must take and pass before they can be considered for ordination.
And of those 127 future pastors who took the exam in September, only 36 people passed.
36 out of 127!
That, my friends, is a 28% pass rate. Pathetic, yes?
By way of comparison, for the 12 previous examinations before September, the average pass rate was more than 80%.
The decline from 80% to 28% is pretty significant. So what happened?
There was no error made in the scoring, and it’s not like this particular group of Presbyterian seminary students suddenly became biblically illiterate.
The explanation for the sudden drop is obvious to many of us who already knew the dirty little secret revealed by the September scores.
Before September, the Bible Content Exam was entirely composed of questions recycled from previous exams. Which meant students taking the test could study past exams and memorize all the questions ahead of time.
It’s as if high school students could access all the SAT questions from the past 10 years and memorize them, knowing the questions they needed to answer on their exam had already appeared on earlier tests.
All a student would need to do is put in the time to memorize the old SAT questions. That’s what’s been happening for years on the Bible Content Exam.
I should know. That’s how I passed with a whopping 90% in my first month of seminary 15 years ago. And if my Facebook feed is any indication, there are a fair number of fabulous Teaching Elders who also memorized their way to a passing grade on the BCE. Maybe some of them are sitting right here in this sanctuary this afternoon.
The idea behind the Bible Content exam has always been to measure how well potential pastors “know” sacred scripture.
The exam contains lots of questions about who begat who, in what order the books appear, and what patriarch said this and which prophet said that and which epistle contains this passage, and oh, by the way, how many Psalms are there anyway? Anybody? (150)
I am slightly embarrassed about how feeble I am in knowing objective, hard factoids about the Bible. Factoids are my great weakness. I forget names and places, especially the ones that are hard to pronounce. I have to look up stuff about the Bible all the time. I am terrible at quoting chapter and verse unlike some of my brothers and sisters who grew up in churches that stressed memorization. My church was a more juice and cookies and Jesus loves you kind of church. No bible drills for this kid.
Then again, the devil can quote scripture all day long with great accuracy, and one Bible factoid I do know says the devil’s skill didn’t impress Jesus one little bit.
We have this book, this sacred story. And we Presbyterians are people of the word. We hold Scripture in great esteem. It is central to our life together. Today, Alan will affirm he accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to him.
And the witness of our reformed tradition insists it is not only ordained ministers who are called to engage with the Bible.
All of us are invited into the story of God’s love, grace and faithfulness whether we are teaching elders, ruling elders, ordinary people in the pews
or little kids in lamb costumes proclaiming the awesomeness of the incarnation in the inauspicious garb of a hilarious Christmas pageant.
We are people of the word. And we are living in an age in which words are getting cheaper every day.
We are flooded with words. Cynical words.
Careless and cruel words.
Words designed to make us feel small.
Words designed to make us fearful of people who do not look and think and believe like us.
Words designed to make us fearful, period.
The average American is exposed to 360 advertisements every day, each one filled with words designed to ignite a sense of longing or inadequacy. Every hour we are awake, we are told 22 times we are not rich, thin, young, beautiful, strong, or stylish enough.
So many words are drummed in our ears that it is difficult to know exactly how our sacred words of faith can hope to be heard above the din. How in the world can the Word of God preached by your average earnest Presbyterian pastor compete with a TedTalk?
Assuming, of course, anyone shows up on Sunday morning to listen to a average, earnest sermon. As we all know, “showing up” is happening less and less. Biblical literacy is sinking like a stone, even among seminary students as we learned in September.
It’s partly the church’s fault so few people know about Scripture. Over the years, we’ve often done a poor job teaching the Bible, reducing it to a dusty and depressing book of religious rules and factoids.
Or we’ve made the Bible so boring for our kids that once they’ve escaped the confines of confirmation class and Sunday school, they never crack the spine of their neatly inscribed presentation Bible ever again.
And, of course, there’s the problem of what I consider Scriptural abuse. When the Bible is used to justify exclusion and shaming. Considering how often it has been used to whack people over the head, it’s understandable why many see the Bible as a cruel weapon of mass destruction.
It’s all very distressing. And perhaps we should have warned Alan a long time ago to think about a different line of work.
Because you, dear friend, are being entering ministry at a time when a pastor has no assurance the majority of people who show up for church know or care anything about the biblical story. In fact, you can be pretty certain they do not care about how much they do not know.
Why should they? Why should anyone care about more words from the Bible if it’s all factoids and boring rules and harmful weaponry?
It’s all very distressing until you realize this isn’t just a phenomenon of our own time. In our scripture text today, we overhear an older and wiser pastor encouraging a young pastor named Timothy to hold fast to the sacred story, even in the midst of all the competing stories floating in the 1st century air.
Pastor Timothy didn’t have to compete with the Internet and Sunday morning soccer games and 24-hour cable news and a whole slew of Joel Olsteen prosperity preachers. But Timothy’s ministry faced challenges familiar to pastors and the whole church today.
And in our text, the older and wiser pastor gives advice to Timothy we would do well to follow as we seek to live out the Word in ways itchy-eared people might notice and respond to today.
The advice Timothy receives is this:
And most of all, be patient.
Can we listen to what the Spirit is saying to Alan, and to us, and to the whole church right now, right in this moment?
We are to proclaim.
We are called to proclaim the Word with boldness, knowing the Biblical story of God’s grace, love and faithfulness is as deeply countercultural and downright radical today as it was in the 1st century.
Proclaim knowing God’s story has always and will always bump up against the larger narrative of powers and principalities who say there isn’t enough, greed is good, and violence is the only way to hold on to what we’ve got.
Proclaim as a rebuke to the false teachers who so seem so terribly reasonable when they invoke the doctrine of scarcity. Proclaim instead God’s intention of great abundance despite all evidence to the contrary.
Proclaim right now and do not wait for the time to be “favorable”
I will quibble a bit with the epistle writer and say there’s never been a perfect season for the Word of God. It has always, always bumped heads against the larger narrative of Empire. It has never been a popular Word.
The truth will set us free but, as Gloria Steinham has pointed out, it will first make people really, really mad. In fact, one of the truest sermons I’ve heard in a long, long time was preached at the presbytery meeting. The Word proclaimed that day by Rev. John Welch was Gospel truth and that truth made a whole room of people really, really mad.
This business of proclamation is dangerous stuff.
Yet the people God has created and loves are
yearning – aching –
they are starving to hear a still small voice that might just whisper truth into their itchy ears.
That is the church’s gift to the world. The gift the Holy Spirit entrusts to all of us.
Alan, God has called you to proclaim. Carry out your ministry fully.
We are called to persist in sharing the Word because Scripture isn’t just ink on a page, but a powerful lens through which to see people in all their terrible messy crazy brokenness.
Persist in holding up God’s word as a powerful lens to help people see beyond the brokenness and discover they are a Child of God.
Persist in sharing the Word because it is the lens through which we see ourselves and all human beings as children of God worth loving.
Persist in sharing the Word as an embodied rebuke to injustice in all its hideous forms – racism, poverty, inequality and hatred.
Persist in sharing the singular exquisite power of God’s word to release us from fear and into the fearlessness.
Because God’s word assures us death has been kicked to the curb and love wins.
Persist in preaching the good news about God’s love because,
as Anne Lamott says
“love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff anyone can throw at us.”
Alan, God has called you to persist. Carry out your ministry fully.
Above all, we must be patient in our ministry of the Word. This is the part of the sermon in which I am preaching to myself.
People with itchy ears don’t always want or need to be scratched. And sometimes our words do damage when we forget we do not own or control God’s Word
Sometimes the Word that is most needed is the gentle reassurance that God’s love endures all things, despite the itchy, wandering and sometimes annoying ways of God’s people.
Sometimes we are more convincing when we speak less and listen more,
patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit to reveal the Word that will bring light into dark corners and peace into conflicted situations.
Alan, God has called you to patience. Carry out your ministry fully.
At the beginning of his ministry on earth, Jesus invited his future disciples to “come and see.” And that is the essence of we do in ministry of word and sacrament. We invite people into the story of God, to taste and see that God is good.
It is a good story we’ve been given, saints.
It’s a great story.
It’s a liberating story of life and light and love.
It’s a story with a fantastic surprise ending that nobody but God could ever pull off.
It’s a story we need to keep learning how to proclaim better, with persistence and patience, in and out of season.
On good days in ministry, we tell the story soberly, patiently enduring the suffering of long meetings and tear-soaked hospital visits and sermons that seem to fall on itchy deaf ears.
On bad days, we moan and complain to our colleagues in ministry just as Timothy must have moaned and complained to the older wiser pastor. Every pastor asks the same questions on those kinds of days: Is anybody listening? Does anybody care? Is it really all just a bunch of words?
As the preacher at my ordination pointed out – the fact that we’ve shown up here today to ordain a preacher, a teaching elder, a Minister of Word and Sacrament
that very fact means that God hasn’t given up speaking God’s word through ordinary, messed up people like us. And it means we haven’t given up hope that God is still speaking to us and still inviting us into God’s extraordinary story.
It means that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is still entrusting us to carry out the ministry of proclamation, persistence and patience in the name of Jesus Christ.
What an awesome ministry we’ve been given, saints.
Thanks be to God. Amen.