2020 Ordination Sermon: Order My Steps

Below is the text from the sermon I gave for the Services of Licensing, Commissioning and Ordination in both the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences in recent weeks. Video from these services are available on the conference websites.

Will you pray with me and for me now?

Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter in the storm of life, and our eternal home. Teach us, lead us, help us order our steps in your word as we live into the call that you have placed upon our lives. Grant it in these moments that those who are gathered here will hear you and not me, will see you and not me, and when we leave this place that we give you all the praise. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Church said, Amen.

Well, you have been on my mind this summer. I’ve thought a lot about you. I’ve thought a lot about this service, you who are being licensed and commissioned and ordained this morning. You’re stepping into leadership in the church at a most unusual time. You are aware of the unusual time into which you are moving, right?

You’re stepping into this chapter of your journey when your colleagues and friends must support you at quite a distance. Amen? You’re stepping into leadership in the church when the future of the United Methodist Church is at best, a little shaky. You’re stepping into leadership in the church when the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism have controlled the news cycle constantly for the last five to six months and, oh yes, did you notice  that there is a Presidential election during this season? I’ve prayed for you. I have worried about how we would be able to offer an in-person service of commissioning,  licensing, and ordination in a protected way.

As a thought about that, I remembered this beautiful Black gospel hymn, Order My Steps. It began to echo in my mind, and I began to just sing it over to myself, order my steps in your Word, order my steps in your Word, order my steps in your Word. When I was down on the Mississippi Gulf coast, I went to this rural church and there was this beautiful rendition of a particular gospel song that day. And after the service, the choir director came up to me and said, if that don’t warm your heart, your wood’s wet.

So, you’ve been on my mind. Did I mention that you’d been on my mind? I’m a last minute kind of guy. I don’t recommend doing life as I do it, but I’m a last minute kind of guy. I don’t want to peak too soon. I want to be pumped up right when it’s game time, this is game time for a Bishop. Ordination day, commissioning, licensing. It’s game day. And so, I was just getting myself really revved up last night and I spilled my big drink on my keyboard of my computer in the midst of my rewrite, the 14th rewrite, of this sermon. Has that ever happened to anybody else? I need somebody to order my life. Amen? But in this anticipation of this service, I even left my script for the service in my wife’s car, and she’s gone to Hermitage this morning. Has this ever happened to anybody else? Lord have mercy on a Bishop!

In my anticipation, this disrupted out of sync season of annual conference in September and moving day in July. It’s just been a strange season for the church, for our conferences. It’s just been weird. I mean, my life has been patterned. My steps have been patterned for 40 years with annual conference in June, moving day the end of June, and then I’m free. We got a little respite. But, we’re ramping up in August/September towards the big event. My life is out of step. What do you do when you’re out of step?

I usually need to go back to the source. When I find myself walking out of step, I have to go back to the source of my call, the source of my strength, the source of my very being. So, I started thinking about my call to ministry, about the place scripture and the Holy Spirit in my life, in your life. I don’t know if you’re a follower of the great preacher, Fred Craddock. Some of us were blessed enough to have Fred teach us a little bit about preaching. He said, “no one is ever called loud enough for everyone in the family to hear. No one is ever called loud enough for everybody in the family to hear the call.“

And so as I lean in, and I tried to listen to the still small voice of God and reflected on all that’s gone on in this summer, I started thinking about my why.  My call.  Why?  Why I’m in this work?

It’s a simple question. Simon Sinek wrote an entire book about knowing your why. Why are you here? Really? Why are you sitting here preparing to be licensed, commissioned or ordained? Do you know why? Why did you answer your call? In 1989, Steven Covey published his bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Sometime around 1982, I took the now famous course, Franklin Covey’s Seven Habits. Maybe you did that as well, somewhere along the way. You may ask me, why did you take such a course? I took the course because I wanted to be effective in my steps. I took the course because I wanted to know my why, I wanted to write a mission statement, I wanted to live into who God had called me to be. I wanted to get clarity about that. I wanted to get my steps ordered in those seven habits. One of them was remember to begin with the end in mind. We’re going somewhere, brothers and sisters. We’re not there yet. Well, God has us on a mission and we’re going toward what God’s calling us to. We’re not there. I think Martin said that, didn’t he?

Hold on. I’m just stepping into mine. I wish I’d of had a Fitbit when I started my stepping into the ministry. I’d love to know how many steps I walked in the name of Jesus in the last 40 years.

I started stepping into this call when I was in high school. I was very active in conference youth work in my local church.  I spent a lot of weekend retreats in summers at our conference camp. We had this beautiful hillside with these three crosses on the hill and you could look out over the valley and I would pray fervently, God I’m listening. Show me, show me what to do with my life.

Show me. I found myself stepping into the call one Sunday morning at Grenada First United Methodist Church, Grenada, Mississippi. The preacher happened to be my father, who offered the invitation and the closing invitational hymn was Oh, Young and Fearless Prophet of Ancient Galilee. I wanted to be that prophet who would not be afraid. And I stepped in and made a public confession of my call to ministry. I stepped into my call again when I walked onto the steps of Candler School of Theology, walked into the halls of Bishop Hall and sat at the feet of Fred Craddock and Leander Keck who taught New Testament. I remember clearly the night I stepped to the alter at First United Methodist Church, Columbus, Mississippi, and Bishop C.P. Minnick put his big hands on my head and said “take thou authority to preach the word and administer the sacraments.” I can still feel the weight of his hands on my head.

Fast forward to 25 years later, August, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf coast of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. The Friday after Katrina hit, I was on my way to Guadalajara, Mexico on a medical and work mission trip and our work team had to make a decision. Were we going to go on and go to Mexico? Are we going to hang out and worry about our home state that had been ravaged by a hurricane? We finally concluded that we couldn’t do anything in that moment on the Gulf Coast. So, we went to Mexico because we knew nobody else will be going to Mexico that week to do what God had called us to do. So we went. As soon as I returned from Mexico, I loaded up my car with all the supplies I could muster. And I drove to Bay St. Louis, where Rick Brooks was the pastor of Bay St. Louis United Methodist Church. Rick’s home had eight feet of flood water. It was the parsonage. I got there in time to take that big wide scooping shovel and scoop out the mud and the muck, and the smell was wretched.

I began to take trip after trip, after trip. Our church decided to take on the task of rebuilding the parsonage. And I began to feel God doing something in me in that moment. And I said to my Bishop. (Be careful what you say to your Bishop, by the way.). I said to my Bishop, “if you need me to go to the Gulf Coast, I feel that might be what God is calling me to do.”  And Lynn and I spent six years helping the people of the Seashore District recover after that devastating storm. All of those steps, every one of them is rooted in my why.

So the question that I want to put before you this morning is, are your steps being ordered in the word? In God’s word? Do you remember when God first called you? Do you remember when the phone rang and God said, I want you? Do you remember when it was?

Do you remember the last time God called you?

God doesn’t just call you one time. Hear me now. That call has to be heard over and over and over again. I can’t tell you a hundred percent the first time I got that call, but I can tell you the last time.

Last week I received a text message from Embra Jackson. Embra is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, Tupelo, Mississippi, and Embra sent me a text that said, “can you do a grave site service in Nashville Thursday?” Dr. Swan Burrus has passed away.

Swan was an OB/GYN. He was 90 years old. He was a beloved member of the church. He was the permanent president of his Sunday school class. He had four children who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ. I had known two of his children since camp days when we went to Camp Lake Stephens together and later two of them, his oldest two daughters, were at Millsaps College with me. I had not seen these friends for 40 years, these two sisters. Last week I learned this is just how God works these things out. This is the beauty of our United Methodist connection. Swan grew up at Inglewood United Methodist Church, then Methodist Church.

It’s now Home Church. His family grew up in that community. Marianne, his wife’s, father, get this, was the Reverend Frank Calhoun, an Elder in the Tennessee Conference. He met Marianne when her father was appointed to Inglewood and they started carpooling to Vanderbilt together at the request of her father and the rest, as they say, is history.

Did I mention, did I say I’m wondering why I was asked to step in to this season of life and death with these long time friends? While I was giving the message at the Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison on the hottest day of last week, Thursday two o’clock in the afternoon. Think about that.

I remembered my why. In the midst of all the conversations, all the prayers, all the sacred words. I found myself remembering my why. I remember that in my heart of hearts, at the very core of who Bill McAlilly was created to be, and who God called, is that I’m called to be a pastor.

I wasn’t called first to be a Bishop. My first call was to be a pastor. To bring good news to all God’s children, to care for the broken, the wounded, to offer Christ to those who are lost, and confused, and alone, who need a second chance? Do you know anybody right now who needs another chance? Our God is a God of second chances, friends, and you’re there to help them hear that message of hope and promise and possibility.

Do you know your why? If you are not crystal clear about your call, when the challenges get big, grow large, mount, you will want to quit.

You’ll want to quit. If you haven’t already had that experience, stay tuned. Bishop Bob Tullis told us many years ago, in an ordination sermon, “if you are not spending time daily in scripture, reading, and prayer five years from now, you will not be in ministry.”

If you are not aligning your why with scripture, you will wake up five years from now and wonder where you are and how you arrived at this unfamiliar place. Luke 4, what a great text for an ordination sermon. Luke 3 and 4, remind us that it was at Jesus’ baptism that he got clarity about his call. Jesus heard the words, “Thou art my beloved son with whom I’m well pleased.”  It was in the wilderness, “immediately,” the text says. He went into the wilderness immediately.

The Spirit led him into the wilderness and he worked it out. He had to figure out what kind of leader he was going to be.

What did God really need from him? It wasn’t power. It wasn’t sitting up high and holy on a throne lifted up. No, it was down in the valley. It was down where the people were, where the pain was, where the suffering is. That’s where Jesus heard his call.

Have you been tested this week? Last week? When was the last test? Oh, some of you say, well, I got tested by the Board of Ordained Ministry. That’s not the worst test you’ll ever have friends. Trust me. There will be more difficult and challenging tests. Stay tuned.

I remember Craddock, in his Preaching 101 class, say “what you want to do and what you have to do will occasionally line up.  What you want to do and what you have to do will from time to time be in sync.“ So, follow this Luke 3 & 4 text. He’s led by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is this guiding staff. Luke wants to make clear that we understand the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of Jesus. These three things occur:  his baptism, the wilderness, and then in our text today, he goes home. Anybody ever go back to their home church to preach?

They remember you when you do and they will tell you what they remember about you. And it’s not all good. Trust me. I served my home church in my first appointment out of seminary. And my mother-in-law was the choir director.

Lord have mercy.

When Jesus came back home, he stood up and he read from the prophet Isaiah. I want to suggest to you this day that the prophet Isaiah, the text from which Jesus read, was Jesus’ why. It helped him know what his why was. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “because he has anointed me to preach release to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.“ Listen again to what it means to order your steps in the word.

Soloist Sings:

I want to walk worthy, walk worthy Lord, My calling to fulfill. Please order my steps Lord, Order my steps and I’ll do your blessed will. The world is ever changing, it’s changing Lord, But you are still the same; If you’ll order my steps, I’ll praise your name. Order my steps in your word. Order my tongue in your word. Guide my feet in your word. Wash my heart in your word. Show me how to walk in your word. Show me how to talk in your word. If I need a brand new song to sing, Show me how to let your praises ring, In your word, your word. In your word, your word. Please order my steps in your word.

How are your steps ordered today? As you step forward into this covenant life? Earlier, I mentioned Katrina recovery. That experience reframed my life. It did not change my why, but it did reorder where I walked. Last week, the simple act of offering grace to a family broken by the loss of a dear loved one reminded me of my why, of my call. It wasn’t dramatic. Lightening didn’t flash and I didn’t hear a voice from heaven, but it was a reordering of what mattered most. So to each of you, I invite you this very day, this day— go home tonight and take your Bible and in the front of your Bible on a page write the story of your call. Just write it out.

And go to the internet and copy the words of Order my Steps and paste that beside your call story. And when the storms come, when the seas are raging, when the negative voices are biting at your feet, and they will, go pick up your Bible and read your story, read the text of the hymn, listen to it, hear the words, pass them into your heart in such a way that you will never forget them. Find that one verse that you hang your whole life on, find it and write it there.

Then remember, if you’re ordering your steps in the Word, here’s what I know:

I know because of what Jesus taught me that racism is real right now in our country. And if you don’t find a way to speak a word of grace and hope to dismantle racism, then you’ve got to go back and read it again. The COVID-19 pandemic is real and people are dying every day and they’re dying alone and families are broken because of the loneliness, and frustration, and horror of what it means to lose a loved one, separated by a hospital wall. If you don’t know that’s real, go read Luke chapter 4 because Jesus came to speak into that moment.

And if you hadn’t noticed this whole world of ours is fractured and it grieves my heart more than I can say in words, that some of the fracturing comes out of the mouths of Christians.

The rhetoric coming out of Christians in this moment needs a word of Gospel spoken into it and a Word of peace, so that those who are oppressed can be set free.

Let me Close in this way:

The spirit of the Lord is upon you because he is anointing you to preach the gospel to the poor. He is sending you to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind and to set at liberty those who are bruised. So let your steps be ordered one more time. Not just today, but every day you wake up and call yourself pastor.

Every day.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.