The following “Charge to the Ordinand” was delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jessica Palys (UCC) at First Congregational Church, Crystal Lake, IL on Sunday, August 21, 2016. Pastor Palys had previously served as an intern at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in 2012/’13. This charge drew on themes from Ruth 1:12-18, one of the scriptures read at the service of ordination.
Imagine how differently the Book of Ruth would read if, as they were heading back to Judah from the land of Moab after the death of her husband and sons Naomi had said to her daughters-in-law, “Ruth, Orpah, I am lost without you. You are my last chance at a future with hope. Do not abandon me now!” How do you suppose the story would have unfolded?
I can imagine Orpah doing exactly as she did, returning to Moab, but forever haunted by guilt over an impossible decision between caring for herself and caring for her mother-in-law. I can imagine Ruth doing the same thing, following Naomi back to Judah, but out of obligation, not choice. It’s hard to imagine her passionate declaration of loyalty — “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” — flowing off of guilt-tripped lips.
After years of hearing Kirsten Peachey talk about Peter Block and his book on community I finally sat down and read it and, she’s right, it’s really good! One thing he says about the power of community to transform lives is that it has to happen by invitation, never obligation.
“The distinction here,” he writes, “is between invitation and the more typical ways of achieving change: mandate and persuasion. The belief in mandate and persuasion triggers talk about how to change other people and how do we get those people on board, how do we make showing up a requirement, all of which are simply our desire to control others. What is distinct about an invitation is that it can be refused, at no cost to the one refusing.”
In the case of Ruth and Naomi the invitation is never explicitly made and, in fact, Naomi sets things up so that the easiest thing in the world would be for Ruth to walk away from the situation, yet it is precisely because she is free to say “no” that her “yes” actually becomes significant.
Jessica, the vocation of pastoral ministry is one of issuing invitation after invitation after invitation. You will invite people to offer their gifts and talents in worship. You will invite people to provide their vision and leadership to new projects and new campaigns that seem important, even urgently necessary. You will invite people to open their hearts and minds to ideas, to practices, to futures that they would never have dreamed of entertaining on their own. You will invite them into a new story about their lives characterized by grace, forgiveness, transformation, renewal, solidarity and new life — resurrection life.
Sometimes, they will say no, and it will take everything in your being to let their no be no. It will require a massive act of discipline to respect their right to hear your invitation, to consider well what it might mean for their congregation, for their neighborhood, for their family, for their lives, and to decide that they are not interested. You must let them — even when yes is obviously the right answer, even when no is acting against their self-interest as you see it.
When you asked me to provide the charge today at your ordination, I had to ask you how that goes in the United Church of Christ because, as you know, we Lutherans have a script for everything. Here’s a piece of our script that I love:
From 1st Peter: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not under compulsion but willingly, not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. (1 Pet. 5:2-4)
What I love about this word from scripture is that it reminds us that before we can even consider the invitations we will offer to those we are called to serve, we must first give honest consideration to the invitation God has placed before us. We are called to tend to the needs of the people God has entrusted to our care “not under compulsion, but willingly.”
Though we so often hear clergy speak of their vocations as if they are the inevitable response to some kind of persistent and irresistible voice, in reality, God does not compel us. God never coerces or manipulates us into moving with God’s vision for a world both healed and liberated. Instead, scripture is filled with story after story of invitation after invitation. And often the story involves us saying no to God’s gracious reign. But our no is never the last word.
The gift of this day, the reason we have all gathered to surround you with our prayers and our presence, is to witness your “yes” to God’s invitation for your life — and to remind you in future days, the days that must surely come when you will question the wisdom of this decision, that you have made this decision freely and that you remain a free person; that you are a minister of the gospel of liberation and truth, which can only be received as a gift and never compelled.
So, Jessica, receive this charge:
Care for God’s people, bear their burdens,
and do not betray their confidence.
So discipline yourself in life and teaching that you preserve the truth,
giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.
Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.
Give and receive comfort as you serve within the church.
And be of good courage, for God has called you —
and you have said yes to this call —
and your labor in the Lord will not be in vain.