Tag Archives: Ordination

Preaching in Times of Upheaval

Note from the Editor: Recently I asked Founding Editor Dr. Maxie Dunnam to share about the call of preaching in times of deep upheaval. Following the brutal death of George Floyd, I watched as many Caucasian pastors preached about racial justice – some to congregations that had never before heard a biblical sermon on the subject. I watched too as clergy were startled by reactions against their preaching as otherwise sedate churchgoers sent angry emails, withheld giving, or withdrew membership. As I considered the pushback, Maxie came to mind as someone uniquely positioned to offer encouragement to continue to fight the good fight: early in pastoral ministry, in the violence of 1960s Mississippi, he and other white Methodist clergy wrote and signed a public letter against prejudice, racism, and segregation that led to many of them having to leave the state, receiving death threats, even being implicated in police investigations. Those experiences aren’t something about which Dr. Dunnam is quick to speak; he rightly keeps the focus on the injustices to be confronted. However, he responded graciously when I asked him to share two short essays to exhort and encourage white pastors preaching, reading, learning, and leading toward the good news of Gospel-soaked justice. Here is the first.Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor

What a time to preach!  We may say that with all sorts of emotion and meaning. What a wonderful (challenging, tough, impossible, painful, joyful) time to preach. Who we are, where we are, how long we have been where we are, our past experience and our present understanding and convictions all combine to play huge roles in determining what we say about our present situation in the midst of a raging pandemic and justice issues that may become even more raging than the virus.

It was tough enough, complex enough, challenging enough with the never-experienced-before coronavirus. The sovereignty of God – God’s character, God’s power expressed when love is his defining nature, God’s gift of freedom to us persons, the height of his creation – these core theological issues of our Christian faith all focus in this virus impacting our world.

How much more? How long, oh Lord! Enduring the pastoral demands and upheaval of that confounding epidemic, seeking to be faithful in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, many pastors were already at the breaking point, when wham! Then comes the murder of George Floyd and a social justice struggle more vividly felt and publicly shared than anything like it since the launching and growth of the Civil Rights Movement.

What a time to preach!

I was a young preacher in those late fifties and sixties of the Civil Rights Movement, and my ministry was significantly shaped by the issues raging around that movement. In my reflection and prayers, since I first saw the man in Minnesota being murdered (a modern lynching) with a crowd looking on, and the dramatic, convincing public expression of our deadly disease of racism, I am painfully aware of my failures. I have stood for racial justice and have been righteously indignant at the blatant mistreatment of our Black brothers and sisters. I have worked for justice, particularly in housing and education, which I believe are systemic issues related to the more organic justice issue. But my primary failure has been in not recognizing in myself, in our churches, and in our nation, our sin of racism. I have worked at not being a racist, but in my ministry of preaching and teaching, I have not been consistently faithful in confronting the sin of racism.

That’s not what this essay is about, but I feel I need to make that confession before addressing the subject I have been asked to write about: how do we preach in times like these? More specifically, what pastoral word might I have for pastors who, for perhaps the first time are speaking up and beginning to see the cost?

First, I speak what may be a harsh word. If you have not been preaching on issues like civil rights and racial justice, don’t try to “redeem yourself” by being bold in speaking now. Having said that, I’m quick to say, probably none of us have been as faithful as we should have been in confronting this.

Preach now we must; but let’s be humble. Admit the issues are so complex that it is difficult to speak clearly. Even so: this is a critical issue for the church. Confess that you have failed in not dealing with this issue and you intend to do so now and in the future. “I don’t know as much as I need to know, therefore my sharing may be limited. But what I do know, and what I am compelled to proclaim, is that God’s love is not limited to the white race, and it certainly cannot be withheld from anyone. Justice is for all and should be expressed equally for all races. God’s creation of us humans, and calling the creation ‘good,’ is the basic foundation for us to call for justice for those to whom justice has been denied. The nature of creation alone is also enough to express public lament for violent treatment of any of God’s children.”

Knowing that your preaching is limited in possible impact, don’t see proclamation as your primary witness. Could you do some of these? One, start a three or four week Bible study, focusing on justice and God’s love for all people. Two, find a way to listen to Black people in your community. Three, establish a small leadership group to plan how your church will move into the future, giving attention to this challenge. Resources on this website, sites like Dr. Esau McCaulley‘s, his podcast, or this project, along with people you know, can provide guidance in finding resources to assist you in any of these pursuits.

I have found that when I am honest in expressing my own limitations and my own convictions, which are clearly based on Scripture, in humility and compassion, most people will listen respectfully. If I do not come off as trying to convince folks of my convictions, and if I refuse to be defensive and argumentative, people will listen more. No other profession than our ordination, gives one the setting and the opportunity to express conviction on issues like racial justice, abortion, assisted suicide, support of those in poverty, and equity in accessing education. It’s a treasure that preachers need to value and hold lightly in clay hands that we must keep with strength and integrity.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Discussing Theological Education on the Wesley Seminary Podcast

Recently I had the joy of chatting with Dr. Aaron Perry on the Wesley Seminary Podcast he hosts; our conversation ranged from theological education to vocation to Wesleyan Accent and global Methodism to leadership and gender. He is a regular contributor to Wesleyan Accent, providing a hearty voice from the academy, and teaches at Wesley Seminary where he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership.

The Wesley Seminary Podcast, “seeks to provide relevant content to those in ministry while addressing questions of faith with intention and thought. Centered around audience interaction and listener feedback, the podcast provides an outlet for questions…and also serves to minister to those who need encouragement within their ministerial journeys.”

This was recorded before the world went on lockdown; a few mid-quarantine postscripts are included below. Click the play button to listen here:


Wesley Seminary is affiliated with Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. Founded in 2009, it offers a variety of Master’s degrees as well as a Doctorate of Ministry degree, highlighting online accessibility.

Wesleyan Accent is unique: our site is a hub featuring voices from a variety of Wesleyan Methodist denominations, in a time when institutional silos tend to run deep. United Methodists might be surprised to learn that 85% of Wesleyan clergymembers don’t have a Master’s degree, while Wesleyans might be surprised to learn that ordained United Methodist elders don’t have to wonder if a particular congregation will provide health insurance and pension.

Theological education in North America is prone to the same pressures undergraduate institutions or liberal arts programs endure; debates about accessibility vs residential programs, in-person classroom discussions vs online engagement, bang for education “consumer” buck vs holistic development, and job preparedness vs academic rigor will surely re-emerge in the eagerly awaited post-quarantine world. Perhaps these straining values will be thrown into sharper relief as false dichotomies; likely, future debates will resound with fresh insights gained from the massive shift to remote working and learning.

Whether or not we can collectively master our moment (a deliberate higher education pun), surely our current circumstances force our attention to certain realities:

  • Modern online technology can no longer be considered an optional add-on; the internet should be approached as an essential utility.
  • Congregations, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions that are nimble and had already integrated into online existence well have had fewer hiccups adjusting to remote living.
  • There are deep inequities in accessing the internet and owning the technological tools to utilize it, from rural areas to urban areas.
  • Economic stability is fragile; many congregations and academic institutions will be affected for years to come, and some potential students weighing student loans now consider theological education from a new economic footing.
  • Theology matters; pastors and chaplains with robust appreciation for theology are well-positioned to engage with the massive wave of deep questioning on the nature of suffering; death and dying; the value of the body; missiological contextualization and the Sacraments; uncertainty and addiction, substance abuse, and trauma; Divine sovereignty and human free will; and more. Theological education isn’t a luxury; it’s essential.
  • Some things that pastors and academics thought the church (broadly speaking) in North America does well, were in fact things that organizations did well as long as circumstances were ideal; some things that pastors and academics questioned about the church in North America have proven stronger or more resilient than expected. So it goes with crisis: revelation ensues.
  • Leaning into the global nature of the broad Church is always a strength: it helps highlight our blind spots and provides insight we simply don’t have. Early in the pandemic, an American pastor asked for leadership advice from a pastor from the Congo, who had led church members through significant upheaval, including public health crisis. He gave excellent advice. North Americans don’t know everything; and we need to know that.

Are you a layperson, pastor, or professor? What dynamics of church life are you grappling with? If you’ve been to seminary, what’s been one of the most valuable elements of your theological education during the past few weeks? If you grew up outside the U.S., wherever you live now, what are your observations about theological education, infrastructure, church life, quarantine, and leadership?

Kevin Watson ~ On Pragmatism, Integrity, and Faith

The Rev. Dr. Kevin M. Watson delivers his sermon in the William R. Cannon Chapel at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 18, 2018.

Candler School of Theology “prepares real people to make a real difference in the real world. Our mission is to educate—through scholarship, teaching, and service—faithful and creative leaders for the church’s ministries throughout the world. One of 13 seminaries of The United Methodist Church, we are grounded in the Christian faith and shaped by the Wesleyan tradition of evangelical piety, ecumenical openness and social concern.”

John Drury ~ Toward a Wesleyan Theology of Ordination

Enjoy this clarifying lecture from Dr. John Drury on the nature of ordination and a distinct Wesleyan posture toward it. “To ordain is to recognize, to mediate, and to anticipate.”  Dr. Drury is Associate Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at Wesley Seminary in Marion, Indiana.

Bishop Sarah Davis ~ Attitudes in Need of Adjustment

Today, in Houston, Texas, friends and family of Bishop Sarah Frances Davis are gathered in sorrow, thanksgiving and joy. They are gathered in sorrow, because they are mourning the loss of a sister in Christ. They are gathered in thanksgiving, to celebrate a life well-lived, and they are gathered in joy, confidently proclaiming the truth that Jesus Christ has overcome the power of sin and death. At Wesleyan Accent, we join them in that sorrow, thanksgiving and joy.

Sarah Davis was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Earlier this year, she preached the following ordination sermon.

Today is special for each of you:

Candidates, you are called to reflect on your commitment to the awesome call of God on your lives and the responsibilities that come with that call.

We the Church (the body of Christ) come face to face with the awesome “speak now or forever hold your tongue” option that lies before these whom this Annual Conference has elected and now with the imposition of the Bishop’s hand will move from laity to clergy in our church.

And others still will have seven hands laid on them and will receive the final and highest ordained position our church has to offer.

Listen to the Word of God in Philippians 2:1-8:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. (The Message)

I want to also share with you our text from the New International Version. Listen again to the Word of God:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Evangelical Christian pastor, radio teacher, and author Chuck Swindoll suggests that our “attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. Your attitude is more important than your appearance, your giftedness or your skill. Your attitude will make or break a Fortune 500 company or a Mega and Minor church. Your attitude will break-up a home and a marriage.”

Dr. Swindoll reminds us, however, that the remarkable thing is that “we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day.” We cannot change our past – we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. Each of us is the author and completer of our “Attitudes”.

We are in charge of our attitudes!

You and I are in charge of the attitude we will live out. What will that be? What attitude are you most comfortable with? Have you ever thought about this choice that you have in this way? What attitude does God expect us to pursue and execute?

Let’s consider our text:

When Paul was a prisoner of Nero in Rome he wrote to a very mature audience in the Roman colony at Philippi about how they could advance in the spiritual life. This letter of encouragement and love is not at all like the harsh letters to the Corinthians.

Paul wants the Philippian Church to continue maturing in the Lord and thus describes in these first four verses of our text what “occupation” with Christ looks like in the life of a disciple believer:

When you are totally occupied with Christ, then Christ is your focus; here in Christ is your place of solace; in Christ is your hope; in Christ is your joy; in Christ is your happiness because whatever you need, you trust Christ to provide.

Candidates you are going to need to master this “occupation with Christ” more and more on your journey now, for the distractions are many: in the Church and out of the Church. Doing what pleases Christ must be your reason for being.

No longer is simply memorizing Scripture enough, when you become occupied with Christ the goal becomes the study of the doctrine of Scripture and the application of the doctrine in your living. You must desire that your life testifies to what Scripture teaches.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ – and you must; if you have any comfort from Christ’s love – and you do; if you have any fellowship with the Spirit of God – and you do; if you have any tenderness and compassion – and you do; THEN, Paul says, make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. And if you really would admit it, you cannot help yourself to do this for the fruit of the Spirit gives birth to these things.

Our only response to doctrine is to think the same things – to have a divine viewpoint. You see the Divine viewpoint is void of human thinking and contentious motivations; and ambitious pride. A divine viewpoint keeps us from thinking of ourselves higher than we ought and causes us to take interest in others.

In verse five Paul gives the request, which we offer today – not just to the ordinands, but to every believer within the sound of my voice this morning.

LET YOUR ATTITUDE be the same as that of Christ Jesus!

As I come this morning I want you to remember that the journey you are on is not one with many rulebooks. You have just ONE! And if you master this one book, the other guidelines on the journey will be easy. That rulebook is the Bible, the Word of God.

There perhaps already are many models in ministry you have been watching and deciding you want to emulate; there are perhaps mentors and mothers and fathers in ministry whom you have decided are the patterns you will cut your ministry by. Well, my dear friends let me caution you that greatest model for ministry is Jesus the Christ! Master his model of ministry and you will never be disappointed and neither will you disappoint others.

You see beloved, the ministry journey before you today, offers no sure things, has walking beside you “no perfect people,” provides “no absolutes” nor “right sounds.”

There are no hook ups with “The Right Reverend Father or Mother in God” or with “The Reverend Dr.” which can get you where God has purposed that you go. There are no “do it this way and you’ll have nothing to worry about” recipes on this ministry journey.

But what does lie ahead as you may have already discovered is the reality of Paradox. Paul says in our text today:

“In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others…In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”

And yet before you rise from your knees as Itinerant Deacons or Itinerant Elders in this service you will be instructed to “Take Thou Authority.” Once you rise from your knees in this service you will find yourself in a place with authority that others who are not ordained lack; once you rise from your knees in this service you will occupy a place of privilege in the clerical power structure; you will, depending on what you do in ministry, have opportunity to cast visions, lead, teach, and in some cases discipline.

Yet, you are to have the same mindset as Christ who, Paul tells us, “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant. Being made in human likeness.” What? Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, took on the very nature of a servant? Is this not a paradox?

Let’s see: a paradox is where two things seem to be opposite, but you know they are both true.

It’s a tension, a contradiction, a mystery.

It’s the fact that too many cooks spoil the broth, but at the same time, many hands make light work.

It’s the truth that he who hesitates is lost, but only a fool wouldn’t look before he leaps.

There are plenty of paradoxes in Christian ministry, and they keep those with the responsibility of serving God’s people in a healthy state of confusion.

Many of us would love to have the rules set down in black and white, where 1 + 1 = 2 and there are formulae we can apply to get gospel work done. But God, in his wisdom, made the matter of serving him a far more humbling affair.

Listen to Jesus in Luke 22 as he addresses His disciples when there was distraction at the table:

Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant. Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves.

Or – hear the word of God in John 13:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God; so He got up from the meal, took off His outer clothing and wrapped a towel around His waist. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him.

And Jesus Himself tells us:

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. If anyone wants to be first, let him be last of all and servant of all. (Mark 9:35)

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10:43-44)

These statements are echoed throughout the gospels as clear teaching to the community of followers.

The ways of the world are not the ways of God’s kingdom. Power and status are not important. Paradoxically, greatness in the kingdom of God comes through letting go of status and being willing to serve, to receive everyone for their own sake, as we would receive Jesus.

Yes, the paradoxes of ministry require daily and constant attitude adjustments.

Actively decide to adopt the same mindset that Jesus had. Specifically the one he showed when he chose not to cling to his divine privileges but took on instead, the form of a servant and poured himself out as an offering for us.

Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he himself taught: “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Isn’t that what it means for you and me to be disciples?

Don’t take your self so seriously that you lose sight of who really is in charge of your life and your ministry; who really is in charge of the flock which the Lord will send you on Sunday by appointment of your Bishop.

Don’t lose sight of who really is in charge of the ministry group you have given birth to; or who really is in charge of moving you up and out; or who really is in charge of providing what you need when you need it!

Can you do it? Certainly. But not before you completely understand and appreciate experientially what “the mind of Christ” – his kind of attitude – was toward us.

When we understand the true significance of Bethlehem, when we truly understand Good Friday, then and only then can we throw up our hands and declare, ”All to Jesus I surrender. All to him I owe!”

Then and only then will nothing remain in our lives that we count as a thing to be grasped (held on to)!

Stop holding on so tightly to your property, your family, your special child, your health, pride, dignity, reputation, congregations, church buildings, positions in Annual Conferences, jobs, protocol, your seniority and even life itself.

Only when we can empty ourselves of any of these “things,” can we serve the one who gave himself for us or serve his people.

To have the same attitude of Christ is to be able to wear these things loosely – to be able to let them go – to be able to be happy without the crowd or the accolades or the big assignments or places of distinction.

The reality of our grasping! Our “holding on to” has to do with our not giving it up in principle, in advance. We can only not “cling to” anything when we have already given it up in principle, in deciding to yield to the Lord.

We preach it, we teach the theory: “It is the Lord’s not ours to be used for his glory and disposed of at his convenience.” But we do not yet live it! We as disciples of the Lord must be willing to “die to self.” That is not how we naturally think, but that is how we must think.

This is a high calling! How can we do it? How can we let go? How can we not desire to hold on to what is God’s? How can we empty our minds and hearts so that we are desiring what He desires? How could He let it all go?

Maximally concentrate on Christ! We must learn how to “love the Lord our God with all our heart souls and mind” His love for us was the overriding power that motivated Him to give it all up for us. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son; and having loved His own, He loved them to the end.

Secondly, we must become supremely confident and secure in the love of God for us. We cling and grasp because we do not feel secure with God’s control! Jesus trusted the Father with His life and His glory! From the manger to the cross, his prayer was “Thy will, not mine be done.”

My Bible says that this same God did not let corruption overtake our Lord, but exalted Him and gave Him a name that is above every name. We are called to the same radical faith and trust because we have the same Father, and therefore we may believe that if we submit ourselves under His right hand, He too will exalt us in due time.

Actively decide to adopt the same mindset that Jesus had. Let the attitude of Jesus Christ be your attitude.

Take thou authority! Over your attitude!

Candidates for ordination: today is your day, the beginning of many things to come as you are entrusted as God’s mouthpiece for the church, your community and the world. You need to decide now that you will undertake an attitude adjustment:

To walk in humility as you serve.

To love the unlovable and pursue unity in the Body of Christ.

To let go of selfish ambition and vain conceit.

To believe that every appointment you receive had to go by God for His stamp of approval before it could get to you.

Take on the attitude of Christ! Block out the lies being sent to make you believe that:

You’re not old enough for where God has shown you He’s taking you.

You’re not experienced enough for the church and the flock He’s giving you.

You’ve not been in here long enough for the responsibility that’s just been put under your supervision.

Attitude adjustment time!

Believe that you can lay hands on the sick and they will recover. Believe that with God all things are possible.

 Attitude adjustment time!

Know and believe that you cannot allow any relationship to get in the way of your God relationship.

Attitude adjustment time!

Be in unity with the Spirit. Keep the focus off of self and focus on others.

Let your attitude be the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Candidates for ordination, if you will adjust your attitudes I promise you that you will get to know joy and have peace as you travel the paradoxical roads of ministry. You will be able to:

Preach the Word – in season, out of season – when others want to hear and when they won’t.

Preach when they shout and when they don’t.

Preach truth – wait on the Holy Ghost for your power – power is in the Holy Spirit’s leading, not in your position, your title; your associates, your membership, your church address, or your name.

Servant of God – the servant “called out” from among other servants. God wants you to lead his people, teach his people, serve his people.

Take thou authority to give time and energy to your ministry, even when no one may notice your sacrifice or give you compensation.

Take thou authority to nurture your spiritual person which comes from reading and meditating on the Scriptures.

Take thou authority to apply yourselves wholly to this “one thing” PRAY to God the Father for the heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost – that you may grow stronger in your ministry

Take thou authority to actively pursue the attitude of Christ in all you do.

Let us pray:

Holy Father, the noise around us tends to drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit you have sent to guide and comfort us. Make us sensitive to your calling, as we take moments from the hurriedness of our lives.

Sometimes we get all caught up in our personal successes and enjoy the hearing of our name and the calling out of our titles. Remind us daily Lord, that if we choose to walk in our own way, led in our own thinking, then we will become self-centered and insensitive. Bring us back Lord to the mind of Christ.

Lord remind us that if we will take on Your mind we will be fulfilled by living for others and You; we will grow up in Your counsel. We will receive instruction from the Word of Life and gain strength from You to do right.

Convict us Lord to know that we cannot walk in two opinions. Convict us to take on Your Mind. Convict by your Spirit; give us boldness and courage Lord, to take thou authority to have the attitude of Christ Jesus!

In Jesus name, AMEN.

Bishop Michael Coyner ~ But If Not…

This sermon was preached at the 2012 Ordination Service of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver usfrom Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”                                                                          Daniel 3:13-18

The past few months I have been haunted by three names and three words. By “haunted” I mean that I have dreamed about them, I have found myself daydreaming about them, and I have even reflected on these during my driving time to the point that I suddenly realize I am many miles down the road without knowing it!

Three names and three words.

When I shared with our worship team for this Annual Conference about my being “haunted” by these three names and three words, the chairperson replied, “Maybe God is trying to give you a message. And maybe it is a message for us.”

I believe she is right, and my message is primarily for those being commissioned and ordained today, but all of you can listen.

The three names are:  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three young leaders who were a part of the Jews who had been taken into captivity into Babylonia. They were brought before King Nebuchadnezzar and accused of not worshiping and bowing down to the false idols and statues of that king.

They did not “spin” or evade or compromise – they simply said, “No, we won’t do that.”

When threatened with being burned alive in a furnace (the typical form of execution in Babylonia) and even taunted, “Which god will save you from that?” – these three young leaders responded with great faith, “It may be that God will save us from your furnace, but if not, we still will not serve the false gods you have set up.”

If you know this story from the Book of Daniel, you know that it has a happy ending – the three young men survive the fire, and in fact the observers see a “fourth man” with them in the fire – a “fourth man” that many have associated with Christ or at least with God’s Holy Spirit.

In some ways the happy ending is not necessary. The real power of this story is in their words, “But if not.”

Three young leaders … and those three haunting words, “But if not.”

That is the message I have to share with you.

In November of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a famous sermon entitled “But If Not” – based upon this same story from Daniel. It was just a few months before King was assassinated in 1968, and his sermon can be found online in audio version.

It is a powerful sermon. It is a sermon about the Civil Rights movement and King’s belief that ultimately that movement would succeed. But it is a call to his followers to keep on being faithful even when they were not seeing as much progress in the movement as they had hoped. It is a sermon in which King hints that he may not live to see the conclusion of the Movement, but he pledges to be faithful no matter what.

Martin Luther King, Jr. points out in his sermon that a lot of people live an “If” faith:

– If things goes well, then I will have faith

– If God performs as I want, then I will praise God

– If my faith is rewarded, then I will continue on with faith.

He contrasts that “If” faith with the “But if not” faith of these three young leaders, who say that even if things don’t turn out well, they will still hold onto their faith.

That is the real message of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

So, let me ask all of you today – new clergy and old clergy, laity, family, visitors, friends – do you have an “If” faith, or do you have a “But if not” kind of faith?

One of the real blessings of my ministry is that I have known many people who share this kind of “But if not” faith:

Ruth Ann was a member of the first little church I served here in Indiana. She was on kidney dialysis and waiting/hoping for a kidney transplant. It finally came, and I remember receiving a phone call from her husband Bob who shared with me the good news, “Ruth Ann just peed!” Sometimes the most simple and basic things are a joy to celebrate. But the real power of Ruth Ann’s story is that often she said to me, “Whether I get a new kidney or not, having this disease has brought me closer to God.”

Todd was a 13-year-old boy in one of my congregations who battled a rare form of cancer. Even after a bone marrow transplant, he did not survive that battle. But in the midst of the battle, as I visited him through the “bubble” of his protective environment in the hospital, Todd showed an amazing amount of faith and insight. One day Todd said to me, “Even if I die, there will be one good thing that happens. Every parent who hears about me will hug their children a little tighter and tell them how much they are loved.” Todd was right, during and after his funeral I heard so many parents – me, too – who hugged their children tighter and told them how much they are loved.

So here is my prayer and my hope for your newly-commissioned and newly-ordained clergy today:

I hope that every church you serve and every ministry you lead is filled with people who are responsive to your ministry and faithful to God … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry. 

I hope that every sermon you preach is well-prepared and well-received by people who are eager to listen and to respond to the Word of God … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that when you offer pastoral care to people, sometimes over many months, and when you have given and given of yourself to those persons, I hope that their families appreciate you and value your ministry. I even hope that they don’t insist on inviting some other former pastor to come back to do the funeral when you are the one who has provided all the pastoral care in recent months … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that the people you serve respect and appreciate your families, encourage you to take a day off each week, appreciate your need for vacation, and value your own personal growth through continuing education and spiritual renewal times … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that every one of your Vital Signs meet and exceed the goals you have set for your church, and that your congregations see those goals as opportunities to grow and expand ministry, to reach new people for Christ … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I hope that every appointment you receive from the Bishop and Cabinet is a perfect fit for your ministry gifts and skills, that it meets the needs of your family, that it fits the geography you prefer, and that it comes at just the right time in your ministerial career to help you grow and develop … but if not, I hope you will still be faithful in your ministry.

I even hope that I will be your bishop for the next four years and I get to watch your ministry grow and expand and be fruitful … but if not, I want you to know that I will still be watching and praying for your ministry.

Three names … three words.

There is a message there for you today. And I hope that those three names and three words “haunt” you and bless you for your entire ministry. Amen.