Our daughter Laura’s ordination to the ministry, last Saturday afternoon at Plymouth Church in Seattle, was like a devil’s food chocolate cake — rich and many layered. (Laura and her brother Joe, at right.)
Dr. Joyce Finch Johnson, professor and organist at Spelman College, played Plymouth’s new organ with tender passion for the service. (Linda and Joyce in photo) Joyce, our dear friend and her husband Aaron, became Laura’s adoptive grandparents in Atlanta when she was at Emory for divinity school. I was so enthralled by Joyce’s introduction to the opening hymn, “All Creatures of our God and Light,” that I awoke from my reverie to discover the congregation all on its feet and singing — except for me! And I was sitting up front in full view. Oh well. I saw Laura laugh, affectionately, when I jumped to my feet.
My favorite part may have been when at the conclusion of the “Laying On of Hands” which is the actual ordination. Conference Minister Mike Denton said to the kneeling Laura, “You may rise, Rev. Robinson.” “Rev. Robinson” has for a long time now meant me. It was both mildly shocking and strangely joyful to hear these words mean another, and in particular my beloved daughter.
I preached — at Laura’s invitation. Though the run-up to my sermon was marked by some considerable anxiety and many revisions of my sermon, the final product felt right.
My text was II Corinthians 12: 1 – 10 in which Paul speaks of a persistent “thorn in the flesh,” and the word he received from God when that thorn would not go away, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”
It is all about God and God’s grace. I really believe that. So often the church offers good advice rather than good news. That is, the focus shifts from an astonishing God, who choses the strangest people and most unexpected places, to giving advice and urgings about how we can do better, be more inclusive, more spiritual, etc. etc. Fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough.
The good news is about the power and mercy of God. It is about God’s capacity to show up when and where we least expect it.
Good advice doesn’t change lives. Good news does.
Another highlight was Laura’s benediction at the end of it all. Noting that what she most believed about God is that God is “relational,” she expressed gratitude for all the people gathered and their varied ways in which they were related to her, to each other, and to God.
In the end, the ordained ministry is about reminding people, reminding people of what we most forget — the grace, power and mercy of God. Of a love which loves us first. Of a love to which our loves and labors, however inadequate, are a response.
Years ago I heard a story about a chaplain at a youth detention facility. She conducted worship week after week, wondering it it made a jot of difference to anyone. The day came when she told the youthful congregation she would soon be leaving.
At that point, a heretofore sullen young woman who had never said a damned (or blessed) word, stepped forward from the back wall where she habitually hovered. She said, “If you leave, who will remind us?”
Indeed. Who wil remind us God, of God’s surprising grace and shocking mercy? Of the God whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts.
Reminding us of the grace of God is what the best pastors/ preachers do. I am confident that it will be what Laura will do.