Sermon for Carlynne’s Ordination

Sermon for Carlynne’s Ordination

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Mark 10:35-45

‘Faithful is God, who has called you and will not fail you.’

We are here today to confirm and celebrate God’s call of Carlynne to the office and work of a minister of the Word. This is a day of celebration, but given Australia’s current religious context no one would blame Carlynne if she followed in the footsteps of the great prophets in her response to God. When called, Moses reminded God that he stammered; Jeremiah said that he was only a boy; and Jonah fled to the farthest known point in the West when God tried to send him to the East. Carlynne could quite justifiably have said to God: no, not me, not now, when her call came. There have been times and places when and in which ordination has led to authority and respect, but those places have seldom included Australia and those times were not the twenty-first century.

At this moment in Australia’s history possibly the best that churches can hope for is to be seen as irrelevant, rather than negligent or criminal. Christians live in a post-Royal Commission society. Australians know that the Royal Commission heard ‘more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other management type’.[1] We live in a country that knows that more than 4,000 survivors talked to the Royal Commission in private sessions about abuse occurring in 1,691 different religious institutions.[2] The Royal Commission argued that: ‘the central factor, underpinning and linked to all other factors [leading to the sexual abuse of children in religious institutions] was the status of people in religious ministry’.[3] According to the Commission people in religious ministry in some churches have in the past been seen as ‘sacred’ and so have been given levels of power and trust that some easily abused.[4] Carlynne today is joining a profession that has been deeply besmirched; the recent guilty verdict against Cardinal George Pell was simply the icing on an already-poisonous cake.

Even before the Royal Commission reported, the step Carlynne is taking today would have been considered a strange one. Christianity has always been seen as a bit weird in modern Australia. One of the reasons that it has been devalued here is that it has always been feminised; as historian Hilary Carey writes: ‘Religion was part of the woman’s sphere and the Christian soldier, as some parodist put it, was happy to be represented by his wife.’[5] Religion is women’s work in Australia, and women’s work is just not as important as the work of men, as the continuing gender pay gap reminds us.

So, given all that, why on earth would Carlynne have answered God’s call to the ministry of the Word with a ‘yes’ and why are we here today to celebrate? Why will we be able to say with such conviction, later in the service: ‘faithful is God, who has called you and will not fail you’?

It is a good thing that Carlynne is entering an order of ministry that is no longer automatically respected by people within and outside the church. It is a very good thing that Carlynne, like all ministers, will have to earn the respect of those among whom she ministers by the integrity of her beliefs, words, and actions. It was, after all, Jesus who warned us of the dangers of clericalism long before the Royal Commission did. He told his disciples:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

There is no room in the community that Jesus founded or the kin-dom that he inaugurated for hierarchy, or for the clericalism that the Royal Commission found so dangerous. Those of us called to particular ministries in the church must always remember that ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’. In our leadership we are to take Christ the Good Shepherd as our example, doing our best to imitate the one ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’. There is no place for clericalism in that.

Today Carlynne is being called not only to challenge any lingering culture of clericalism by imitating Jesus, she is also being called to proclaim God’s universal, abundant, scandalous love as revealed by Christ. One of my favourite Christian authors, the American Marilynne Robinson, has written that identifying as a Christian in America today

can be taken to mean that I look favourably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperilled by a sinister media cabal.[6]

In Australia the list is shorter. Christians are just thought to oppose marriage equality; no one, as far as I’m aware, asks about our attitudes to the death penalty, health care, and the media. Just as Carlynne is not being ordained into a hierarchy, so she is not being called to proclaim the powerful and wrathful God lurking behind the attitudes Marilynne Robinson describes. Carlynne is called to proclaim Christ crucified; the God who out of love took on all the weakness and frailty of humanity. In Jesus the power and wisdom of God was seen in the life, death and resurrection of an obscure and powerless human being. In the light of that truth we know that in every single human being, particularly the most obscure and powerless, we see the image of God.

We have seen over the past day how vital it is for us to proclaim the true gospel, because the world is full of preachers of hate. The hatred preached by racists and white supremacists and neo-Nazis, including Australian politicians and media identities, led to the gunning down of innocent worshippers in mosques in Christchurch; the slaughter of people at prayer by a white Anglo-Celtic Australian who claimed to be committing terror in the name of those of us who are also white Anglo-Celts. I am sure that I was not alone in feeling my heart break yesterday as I listened to the news. As Australians, New Zealanders are our closest and dearest neighbours. As Christians, Muslims are our cousins; like us, People of the Book, children of Abraham. When they hurt, we hurt with them. For that hurt to be inflicted by an Australian is devastating.

It is in the light of this evil that we must proclaim the gospel we have been given with all the strength and skill we have: that every human being is made in the image of God and to harm any one of us is to harm God; that God reveals Godself particularly through those who, in the words of Paul, are ‘despised in the world’: asylum seekers and refugees; people living with disabilities and mental illnesses; the frail elderly in aged care; LGBTIQ people; the victims of clerical abuse; people of colour; Muslims. Carlynne, it is absolutely vital that you preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in opposition to the deadly hatred we see spewed by so many.

‘Faithful is God, who has called you and will not fail you.’ Carlynne, you are entering into ministry in a difficult time. But God’s faithfulness is still to be relied upon; Jesus the Good Shepherd is still the model for all ministers; the Holy Spirit still inspires and equips us for the road ahead. Today we are able to celebrate your ordination with joy because we are absolutely certain that the God who has called you is faithful and will never fail you.

I do have one piece of advice before I finish, from Henri Nouwen. Of ministers he writes: ‘amidst so many “useful” people we should try to keep reminding ourselves of our basic uselessness and so bring a smile and a little humour to all we do’.[7] This is a difficult time for everyone, not just for ministers, but as far as you are able do try to bring a smile and a little humour to all that you do.

Carlynne, we commend you and your ministry to God, knowing that in God’s loving hands both are safe, and for that we give thanks to God. Amen.

[1] Volume 16, Book 1, p. 11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 28

[4] Ibid., p. 43.

[5] Hilary M. Carey, Believing in Australia: A Cultural History of Religions, St Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 1996, p. 111.

[6] Marilynn Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays, London: Virago, 2015, p. 159.

[7] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder, Goldenbridge: Gill and Macmillan, 1984, p. 54.

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