Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Several years ago, when I was serving another church, I had a discussion with the leaders of our Family Ministries Group. It revealed an understanding of ministry that I found troubling.
Our parish was on retreat and I happened to get sick on Saturday afternoon. And I felt there was a pretty good chance I wouldn’t be much better by Sunday morning, so I decided I needed to limit my responsibilities for worship and that this was a good opportunity to lift up one of the lay preachers in our group. So I suggested that if I didn’t feel well in the morning, one of the lay members of our parish could preach.
At first, they thought I was joking. But after a few moments, everyone got very quiet and visibly nervous. They avoided eye contact with me and said nothing. It was clear that nobody felt they were up to the task. As it turned out, I felt fine on Sunday, but this little crisis revealed a problem that afflicts Christian congregations everywhere.
That problem is that we not only have trouble taking ownership of visible ministries of the church like preaching, we have trouble taking ownership of the church’s ministry as a whole! Too many people think that ministry is only the responsibility of those who are professionally trained to do it, for the seminary educated, called and ordained professional pastors. When we speak of being “called to ministry,” we usually think only of a full-time professional who is salaried and paid by the church. If lay people do ministry, the logic goes, it must be the kind of work that church volunteers do – like teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, serving on the Vestry, or volunteering to cut the grass or clean the Parish Hall.
Those, of course, are all ministries of the church. And they are important work. But we rarely call them that. The only jobs that people want to call parish ministry are the ones that resemble the work that professional ministers do. In fact, the only lay people who are usually referred to as “ministers” are the ones we dress up in robes like clergy so they can assist with the liturgy. The “ministry” of the Church—preaching and teaching and counseling and talking about Christ and raising money—that’s what the priest is supposed to do, right?
Well, maybe not.
I think we should ask the question—is ministry something reserved only for those who are registered professionals? People certified and approved by the church? Or is ministry more than that? Couldn’t it be something given to all of God’s people at baptism? And if so, just what is ministry and what is not?
In today’s Gospel, John, one of the disciples in Jesus’ innermost circle, complains about someone who was casting out demons but was not one of Jesus’ select group of twelve disciples. Today we might say he was not properly certified to serve in that ministry. It seems that for John, breaking those institutional guidelines was not acceptable. But Jesus responded in a way that was remarkably unconcerned with following institutional authority. He said that such unauthorized activity was not only okay, it was to be expected! God does not always work through officially approved channels. In fact, Jesus said, the work this man was doing was as important and as legitimate as what the group of twelve was doing.
That’s a pretty clear message. It’s a message that God will not be bound by or only work through “official channels.” The Spirit of God works where the Spirit chooses to work. Ministry, the work that God has given the people of God to do, can be carried out by a variety of people and in a variety of ways. Ministry—the proclamation of God’s Word, the expression of God’s love and forgiveness, the lifting up of God’s children, is not something bequeathed to only a select few. Ministry, the work done in God’s name, is given by God to whomever God chooses. In fact, sometimes the recipients of that responsibility may include those who we thought were least qualified.
Look at Esther.
If you don’t know the story of Esther, it’s one you should read to your children. If for no other reason than the fact that it’s one of the few stories in the Bible where a woman is the hero. The story of Queen Esther is a story of how the Jewish people were almost destroyed. In the story, the Queen of Persia refused to obey the King of Persia, to appear before his guests. So the King searched the country for a new queen. From among hundreds of applicants, Esther, cousin of Mordechai, who is Jewish, is chosen. The King’s Prime Minister was an evil man named Haman. Haman hated the Jews, who were being held captive in Persia, and so he decided to kill them. He convinced the King to issue an edict which ordered the destruction of all Jews in the land. Mordechai pleads with Esther to save her people by talking to the King. At the risk of her own life, Esther, this unlikely heroine, appears before the King without being summoned by him and reveals both her Jewish identity and Haman’s evil plan. The King, outraged at Haman, issues a decree that Haman should be the victim of his own infamous plot. Haman and his sons are killed, and the Jews are saved.
So, what does the story of Esther mean for us? Again, it means that God chooses to act through whomever God chooses to act. It means that the ministry of the church is not just the purview of the clergy or the officials of the church. Ministry is something that belongs to the whole people of God.
And, and here comes the scary party . . . . that means you!
God has called you to be a servant in the world. God has given you time, God has given you talents God has given you abilities and God has given you resources like money or possessions. The work you do on the job, in the community, in your homes, at school, in our community, that is all God’s work! By seeking to be faithful in your vocations, by seeking to be faithful in doing what is right and just and true, you are doing God’s work. You are a servant of God. You are one of God’s ministers in the world. Because being faithful does not just mean standing up in church and proclaiming your faith . . . it means getting out into the world and living your faith. Being your faith.
You see, through your work in the world, outside the walls of this church, the kingdom of God begins to take root. As you care for those who are in need, as you clothe the naked and feed the hungry, as you show compassion for a neighbor or a co-worker or even a rival, even perhaps at the expense of your own interests and well-being, as you forgive a wrongdoer and love your enemy, as you visit someone who is lonely, as you do these things you begin to embody in the world the reconciling love of God that we have come to know in Christ. You begin to make a difference in this world, and the world begins to change—one person at a time.
I may be the Rector of this parish, but you are the ministers.
My influence is confined to the people who are members of this parish. But through your lives, through your influence, through your jobs, through your families, this congregation impacts the whole community of Sausalito and Marin City and beyond. Not through me! Through you, God ministers to and heals the world.
Now I suspect that some of you might see this as a lot of idealistic dreaming about what Christian ministry should be. You may feel that to speak of work like cleaning the house, disciplining the children, shuffling papers in the office, cleaning patients’ beds, staring into a computer screen for hours, as ministry, as the work of God healing the world, seems a little silly! Well, maybe not. Because the thing about Christian ministry is that it happens whenever we encounter other people. The context may change, but the opportunity is always there.
In a world where everyone has to constantly deal with competitors and rivals, where advancement and promotion are all that seems to matter, where it always seems that you had better look out for your own neck because no one else will—in a world where everyone seems to be guarding his or her own turf, like John in today’s Gospel—a person or a group of people who are not only willing but are called to always see the human face in our daily dealings is a very powerful symbol for the love of God.
I’ve seen it in the lives of people who have had some horrible wrong done to them and who, in the midst of their tragedy, freely forgive. A family whose daughter is murdered and who advocate against the death penalty. A man who is wrongfully imprisoned for years, and whose first words upon his release are words of comfort for those who must be feeling so guilty for their mistakes.
These are extreme examples, but a thousand other day to day stories can be told of people who live out their call to ministry simply by the way they faithfully lives their lives. Because, you see, you may have thought you were on your own, slugging it out by yourself in this competitive world. But you are not! Because it is at those times that God comes to us through that unexpected visitor or that unexpected phone call. Or on Sundays when we are reminded of the power of the waters of the baptismal font, or in the eating and drinking of bread and wine blessed on a holy table, in the touch of a friend, in a hug, or in the assuring words of an “unauthorized” minister. God comes to remind us that regardless of what the world might insinuate about us, regardless of how we might be accused by our own conscience, we are nevertheless God’s beloved children, God’s very own people, the apples of God’s eye — and yes, dare we say it? – God’s very own ministers, God’s chosen servants, God’s people sent to heal the world with the love of God in Jesus Christ. And there is absolutely nothing in this world that can take that promise away from any of you here today.
There is a wonderful a capella hymn that I sing sometimes that speaks to this promise. It goes like this.
I was made in the image and the likeness of our God
It’s not something they can take from me.
It’s not something I can deny.
Cause I was made in the image and the likeness of our God.
That is who you are. And because of who you are, you can make a difference in this world.
God is with you.
God is in you.
God is using you (you) to be a minister.
All God needs . . . . is for you to believe it.