Elizabeth Michael Ross
Sermon for the Ordination of Nancy Myer
November 12, 2023
It is a deep honor to be here today,
to be one of the voices raised in full-throated gratitude to God
for the gift of Nancy Myers and her ministry,
to be worshiping again among a community whose life together remains
an indelible mark on my own heart.
Being tasked with seeking a gospel word for today gave me the chance
to call Nancy a few weeks ago and say, “Tell me again…
Why do you want to be ordained?
I remember the five years of Saturday seminary courses,
the persistence through every dotted “I” and crossed “t” of the Presbyterian process,
the long wait with bated breath and a heart full of hope
that the calls to ordained ministry and to the people of University Presbyterian Church
would indeed prove to be one and the same.
But tell me again, why ordination?”
And Nancy, you said, “Well, the last straw was baptism.”
Which made me laugh, and ask you to say more.
And you explained that,
through all these years of loving and nurturing the youngest among us in their faith,
more and more your heart wanted to be right there, at the beginning,
within splashing distance of the baptismal waters,
ushering God’s beloved through the sacrament
that welcomes and cleanses and claims and calls.
The last straw was baptism, you said,
and you confessed that you had wondered
whether that was a good reason to pursue the pastorate.
But then our wise friend Margaret said to you,
“If that isn’t a call to ministry of word and sacrament, I don’t know what is.”
So some six years later, here we are.
Beckoned by the Spirit to lay hands in the Church’s glad affirmation of that call.
Beckoned by you back to the waters where it all began.
A reading from the epistle to the Romans, chapter 6, verses 3 and 4:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It’s a beautiful font that adorns this sanctuary,
one I’m sure that many a soul gathered here has had cause to gather around.
Its steady presence is a reminder, week in and week out,
of the sacrament that initiates Christians into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But as the modern church has moved baptism indoors
and confined its waters to a font,
there has come a great challenge to the imagination,
one we might take seriously as we read Luke’s story.
Because when Jesus offered himself up to the water that day at the Jordan,
he did not step into a small bowl full of warm tap water.
He walked into a river.
Rushing waters that pushed and pulled at him as he planted his feet in the ground.
Murky waters—at least on the one occasion I had to stand in front of the Jordan,
they were brown, impossible to see for sure what you were stepping into.
A body of water that refused to stay still or contained,
but was ever shifting, sometimes unpredictably.
These river waters feel to me a more fitting picture of Jesus’ incarnation into this world
than do the fonts that tend to grace our sanctuaries today.
His life among us was not a quick splash of sanitized water.
It was a full immersion into the human condition.
In the ancient worldview,
waters were often the realm of chaos,
the purview of unpredictable powers.
Dark and mysterious,
they were as much a threat to life as they were a necessity for it.
Some Eastern Christian icons show Jesus standing up to his neck in the Jordan,
with ancient gods and river monsters clustered under the water.
It is an image of how God in Jesus was immersed into the life of the world,
with all the threat and powers and unknown things of the sea that come with it.
Later in the gospels, baptism is the word Jesus uses to speak about his death.
There is a sense that this project of being fully human and fully committed to the faithful life
meant that Jesus would be drowned or swamped by something.
And so the earliest understanding of baptism in the Christian community
was as Paul articulates in Romans:
a baptism into Christ’s death,
a descent with Jesus into the place of suffering.
Which, let’s be honest, is a heavy word on a festive day.
Sometimes at the font, I’ve had the impulse to cover the ears of innocent infants
when we get to this part about being baptized into Jesus’ death.
It feels so ill-fitting for the occasion.
I bear some of that same self-consciousness today,
cringing a bit at dragging suffering
into this space suffused with the red of Pentecostal promise.
And yet this is the baptism Christ chooses.
And as best I know you people of University Presbyterian Church,
this is the commitment you have made:
to step into the churning waters
and to walk amidst the river monsters
that always accompany those
who pursue whole-hearted allegiance to the kingdom of God.
It is a commitment that feels more crucial by the day
in a world where so much is fragile,
and where chaos is yet a formidable power.
And still, it is not a task we undertake by ourselves.
It strikes me that the stories of the Christian faith, by and large,
are not those of people being snatched out of the dangerous rapids
and placed on solid ground.
More common are the river stories:
times when the waters surge and shift and cloud
and somehow we find ourselves companioned in them,
somehow carried through.
After all there is a further truth about baptism.
As Jesus emerges from those dark and murky waters,
it is words of divine assurance and promise that greet him:
“You are my beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
The church has heard the echo of those words throughout the ages
and fall upon the ears of every child of God.
So what has long been true in the Bible’s river stories proves to be so yet again.
That the abiding love of God makes a way even through the realm of chaos….
Right here where the perpetual tide of human ache and need
is met by the fierce current of God’s unending love,
right here Jesus takes his place.
He spends his life standing chest-deep in those waters,
and those who wade in behind him do the same.
I learned this most vividly from Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury.
He writes, “[This] surely is one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian.
We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory:
in the middle of the heart of God,
the ecstatic joy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit;
and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin and pain.”
It just so happens that—at least in my experience—that’s a pretty good description
not just of the Christian life,
but of the life of a pastor.
Nancy, all those seminary courses and all those years of churchwork
and Lord knows how many children’s sermons under your belt…
your credentials for this call are many,
your faithfulness on the long road is admirable,
the wider church’s blessing of your gifting for this ministry is abundantly clear.
And still I can’t help but think
that the thing that has best prepared you to be a pastor in Christ’s church
is all your years of living the baptized life.
And maybe that is a word for all of us,
all of us who are called to bear our baptisms
into the world as followers of Christ,
no matter the setting of our individual ministries.
Do you know that Nancy marks the date of her baptism every year?
Every September 25th she remembers the waters she was brought through as a child,
the promises made,
the love that continues to claim her.
Every year she rereads the sermon her father, the Reverend Norman E. Myer,
preached on that occasion.
It’s an annual reaffirmation of the baptism she continues to live into.
In so many ways, Nancy, this ordination day grows out of all those September 25ths.
So to quote your dad, albeit in a new context:
“What is happening here today is important for you, yes.
But it is [also] important
because this is an act of God’s people called the church of Jesus Christ.”
Church, those waters and this day yet beckon us
to holy acts and holy lives and faithful “yeses” when the Spirit comes calling.
Let us make haste to play our part.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.