Service of Ordination, 2012
Matthew 28:5-8, 16-20
Matthew 28:5-8, 16-20
These persons before you, our newest clergy, tonight pledge their lives to one of the most unusual practices in historic Methodism – sent ministry. No congregation can hire a United Methodist pastor; our pastors are sent. Just as your call into the ministry was God’s notion before you thought of it, so in your sent ministry, your assignment in the Kingdom is God’s before it’s yours (or the Bishop’s!).
Like you, I am here because I was sent. And, when the time comes, you will leave, as I am leaving, because you have been sent. A sent ministry is a countercultural challenge. Subordination of your career, marriage, and family, and even the choice of where to sleep at night to the mission of the church, is weirdly un-American. We are a people who have been deeply indoctrinated into the godless ideology that our lives are our possessions to do with as we please, that my life is the sum of my astute choices, and that the life I’m living is my own.
There are less demanding ways to serve Jesus, surely. But forgive me for thinking few more adventuresome than a life commandeered by Jesus into sent ministry. Meeting awhile back, with a young woman attempting to help her discern what God wanted to do, whether Methodism’s sent ministry was for her or not, I concluded the conversation with, “Though I can’t say for sure that God is calling you into the ministry, I urge to you to pray really, really hard that God will.”
This is a prejudiced comment, but I think that few things sadder than an unsent life. What a joy, in good times, but especially in bad, to believe that you are where you are because you have been put there, and you are doing what you are doing because God means for this to be so. In a sense, we believe that every follower of Jesus Christ, clergy or not, is sent.
At ten, I was minding my business in Miss McDaniel’s sixth grade class, dutifully copying words off the black board, when I got the call: “Willimon, Mr. Harrelson” (the intimidating, ancient principal) “says he wants to see you. Go to his office.”
Shaking with trepidation, I trudged toward the principal’s office. Passing an open door, a classmate look out at me with pity, saying a prayer of thanksgiving that I was summoned to the Principal and not him. Ascending the gallows I went over in my mind all of the possible misunderstandings that could have led to this portentous subpoena. (I was only a distant witness to the rock through the gym window incident; in no way a perpetrator or even passive conspirator.
“Listen clearly. I do not intend to repeat myself: You, go down Tindal two blocks and turn left, go two more blocks, number fifteen. I need a message delivered. You tell Jimmy Spain’s mother if he’s not in school by this afternoon I’m reporting her to the police for truancy.”
So this wasn’t about me. It was worse. God help me. Jimmy Spain, toughest thug of all the Sixth Grade. Sixth grader who should have been in the eighth. And what’s “truancy”?
Pondering these somber thoughts, I journeyed down Tindal, bidding farewell to the safety of the schoolyard, turned left, walked two more blocks, marveling that the world actually went on about its business while we were doing time in school. The last two blocks were the toughest, descending into a not at all nice part of town, terra incognita to me, what was left of a sad neighborhood hidden behind the school. Number 15 was a small house, peeling paint, disordered yard — just the sort of house you’d expect Jimmy Spain to be holed up in, rough looking, small but sinister. There was a big blue Buick parked in front. As I fearfully approached the walk, a man emerged, letting the front door slam, stepped off the porch, and began adjusting his tie, putting on his coat.
I approached him with, “Are you, Mr….Spain, sir.” Just then I remembered that everybody at school said that Jimmy was so mean because he didn’t have a daddy. The man looked down at me, pulled his tie on tight, and guffawed. “Mr. Spain? Haw, haw, haw.” Laughing, he left me standing there, got into his car and sped off. (I had to wait until I was in the eighth grade before someone whispered to me the dirty word for what Jimmy’s mother did for a living, and until my Boy Scout Court of Honor before I realized the man I met that day was a member of City Council.)
I stepped up on the rotten porch and knocked on the soiled screen door. My heart sank when it was opened by none other than Jimmy Spain whose steely eyes enlarged when he saw me. Before Jimmy could say anything, the door was pulled open more widely and a woman in a faded blue, terrycloth bathrobe looked down at me, over Jimmy’s shoulder.
“What do you want?” she asked in a cold, threatening tone as I marveled at the sight of a mother in a bathrobe even though it was early afternoon.
“Ur, I’m from the school. The principal sent me, to….”
“The principal! What does that old fool want?”
“Ur, he sent me to say that we, er, that is, that everybody at school misses Jimmy and wishes he were there today.”
“What?” she sneered, pulling Jimmy toward her just a bit.
“It’s like a special day today and everyone wants Jimmy there. I think that’s what he said”
Jimmy — the feared thug who could beat up any kid at Donaldson Elementary, even ninth graders anytime he wanted, indeed had on multiple occasions — peered out at me in….wonderment. Suddenly this tough hood, feared by all, looked small, being clutched by his mother’s protective arm, his eyes pleading, embarrassed, hanging on my every stammering word.
“Well you tell that old man it’s none of his business what I do with James. James,” she said, looking down at him, “you want to go to that old school today or not?”
Jimmy looked at me as he wordlessly nodded assent.
“Well, go get your stuff. And take that dollar off the dresser to buy lunch. I ain’t got nothing here.”
In a flash he was away and back. His mother stood at the door, and after making the unimaginable gesture of giving Jimmy a peck on the cheek, stood staring at us as we walked off the porch, down the walk, and back toward Tindal Avenue. As we walked back toward the school, we said not a word to one another. I had previously lacked the courage to speak to Jimmy the Hood, and Jimmy the Tough had never had any reason, thank the Lord, to speak to me and walking back to school that afternoon was certainly not the time to begin.
We walked up the steps to the school, took a right and wordlessly turned toward the Principal’s office. I led him in, handed him off to the Principal’s secretary who received my ward. For the first time Jimmy seemed not mean and threatening at all, but very small. As the secretary led him away, Jimmy turned and looked at me with a look of…, I don’t know, maybe regret, maybe embarrassment, rescue? But it could have also been thanks, gratitude.
That evening, when I narrated my day to my mother at supper, she said, “That is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard! Sending a young child out in the middle of the day to fetch a truant. And on that street! Mr. Harrelson ought to have his head examined. Don’t you ever allow anyone to put you in that position again. Sending a child!”
But I knew that my mother was wrong. That day was the best day of my whole time at Donaldson Elementary, preparation for the rest of my life, my first experience of a God who thinks nothing of commandeering ordinary folk and handing them outrageous assignments. That day, walking down Tindal Avenue was dress rehearsal for a summer night two decades later, when I knelt before a bishop, and he laid on hands, and pronounced the words, “You, go down Tindal two blocks and turn left, go two more blocks, number fifteen. I need a message delivered….”