A sermon preached on August 5th, 2018 based upon Ephesians 4:1-7; 11-15, following a week of rest and renewal, entitled “Full Time Ministry.”
So I want to start off by telling you “what I did on my summer vacation.” My wife Sarah has an ability to meet strangers out in public and quickly strike up an in depth conversation. Six months ago she was in this clothing shop and a woman was there trying on a dress. Sarah proceeded to offer some advice regarding what did and didn’t look good on her. One thing led to another and Sarah mentioned that she was married to a Methodist pastor, and the woman told her about a Christian organization she was a member of called “The Daughters and Sons of the King” – (mostly daughters.) Apparently it’s been around for 130 years doing various service projects and one of the things they do is offer an all expenses paid for clergy renewal week in a beautiful summer community called Chautaugua on Lake Erie in western New York where they own a house.
Concerned about the fact that clergy spend so much time caring for others and often don’t get enough opportunity to be cared for, they host ten clergy with their spouses each summer. Chautauqua offers this wide range of cultural opportunities – lectures by authors, concerts, theater, as well as worship opportunities. Ordinarily it would be quite expensive to go to Chautuaqua – beyond our budget – so this seemed life a gift fallen straight from heaven, so when Sarah came home and told me about it I went online and filled out an application and was happy to find out I was accepted.
So this past week from Saturday to Saturday Sarah and I relaxed, choosing from the myriad of offerings while Lori – a retired speech pathologist with the heart of a servant prepared food for us and cleaned up after us – giving the other clergy and spouses opportunity to converse and reflect. It was pretty wonderful.
I will get back to Chautauqua in a moment, but first I want to tell a little story I once heard that I was reminded of by our scripture reading. Apparently Mother Theresa was in an airport once and one journalist in a crowd of journalists was being particularly obnoxious, calling out over and over, “Mother Theresa, are you a saint?!” Finally, she responded. “Yes I am. And so are you.” Which is to say, at our deepest nature, that is who we are created to be – people who shine the light of Christ.
In our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus Paul begins by emphasizing the unity that we are called to live out in the church. But then Paul goes on to say that though we are one, God has given us different gifts in order to serve different roles in the church. This verse in particular caught my attention:
“The gifts God gave were that some would be… pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”
Who are the “saints”? We are the saints – you are the saints – we ordinary people Christ has called to be a part of his church.
Occasionally people will say to me in appreciation of the work pastors do, “pastors have the hardest job.” I appreciate the kindness of the sentiment, but I would say that the idea being expressed is wrong – or at least it should be wrong. As a pastor, Paul tells me that the setting of my ministry is the church – that my job is to equip you – supervise and support you — as you go about the work of ministry.
Typically the word “ministry” is misused. People refer to pastors and missionaries and such as being engaged in “full time ministry” with the implication that other Christians are only part timers.
But every follower of Jesus is called to full time ministry. My setting is the Church, but yours is out in the world, which is where Jesus was always found – with the “sinners and tax collectors” — to the dismay of the holy people.
I hear stories about churches that are full of dysfunction – demonically possessed in some sense – chewing up pastors and others by their toxicity and spitting them out. But you all aren’t one of those churches which one of the reasons I’ve stayed here for over 29 years. If a church really is Jesus’ Church than the love of God that he revealed has made inroads into our hearts, and though we are far from perfect and mess things up on a regular basis at least at our better moments we get it that love is the thing. To serve as I do as a pastor among people who get this is a lovely thing indeed.
But your full time ministry takes place primarily in this “hostile and hurting world” as our mission statement puts it, often among people who don’t get it that love is the thing.
Often when we think of being in ministry to this broken world we think of serving in hospitals and prisons or with the homeless and such, and these are certainly important Christ-like ministries. But what we often overlook is that whatever the work place you find yourselves in – that is your primary setting for ministry. And it can be a real challenge sometimes.
I’ve been talking to a number of people lately who describe workplaces – working in an office in a company perhaps – where people can be really brutal to one another sometimes. I hear about people taking the power and authority they’ve been given and using it to humiliate the employees beneath them. I hear about back-biting and dishonesty and gossip and work atmospheres that can wear a person down.
When you find yourself in such a setting, what would it mean for you to view your work as a ministry?
At Chautauqua a preacher talked about how when he was a 25 year old seminary student going through training to be a chaplain in a hospital, he had to deal with this profound sends of inadequacy. Who was he to think he had wisdom to share with people two or three times his age?
His supervisor said a helpful thing. “Each time you put your hand on the doorknob to enter a hospital room,” he said, “say to yourself, ‘I am representing Christ.’” His initial response was to feel even more inadequate, but as he thought about it he realized that this wasn’t about any personal wisdom he might bring to the table, but rather to the nature of God, who chooses to be present with fallible people like ourselves. He learned to inwardly surrender himself to the presence of God rather and let go of the pressure he felt to be wise and profound.
The preacher pointed out that this is the calling not just of pastors and chaplains but of all Christians.
What would it mean for you to think of your work place as your setting for ministry – a place to love people who at times can seem pretty unlovable?
This inward surrender won’t necessarily lead us to speak particular words about Christ as it will involve the manner in which we are present and the vibrations of love we give off.
One of the joys of the week was the opportunity to hear peoples’ stories. There was this African American pastor named Brenda who had tried to retired, but a local church had asked her to serve them. She told Sarah and I a story about how when she too at the age of 37 was undergoing the seminary training that places students in institutions to serve for a time as chaplains, her setting was an institution for severely handicapped adults – the sort of people my wife has worked with as a speech pathologists. Brenda described feeling at the outset totally thrown for a loss as to how she was supposed to be a chaplain to people who could barely understand language at all. But her supervisor challenged her, “Go be their chaplain!”
Eventually Brenda began to understand the language that is beyond words. She described this moment when this woman who weighed about three times as much as she did came and sat down in her lap, reaching down with her arms to take Brenda’s hands and wrap her arms around her. The woman had needed someone to rock her in their arms – to be a stand in for God – and she had sensed intuitively that Brenda was a woman from whom she could receive such a blessing.
Lori, our housemother at Chautauqua told a beautiful story from her days working as a speech pathologist. She describe making for the first time a house visit to the home of a little girl she was beginning to work with at her school. The girl lived with her mom in this broken down trailer park. Lori said that she wasn’t usually particularly sensitive to smells, but when she entered the trailer that was their home she was overwhelmed by the stench of urine and feces. They had a cat, and apparently the cat had been allowed to relieve itself freely in the house. The floor was covered with clutter. Lori managed to make space for her self to take a seat in a chair. On this occasion she happened to be better dressed than was her normal professional attire – she was wearing an expensive Pendleton skirt. The little girl immediately picked up the cat and placed it Lori’s lap, which in turn led the mother to yell at the little girl and yank the cat off her lap, which inspired the cat to place its claws into the fine wool of the skirt.
Lori was feeling overwhelmed with a sense of revulsion and a desire to flee, but suddenly she caught sight of a picture of Jesus that was lying among the clutter of the floor. And she remembered – I am here to serve Jesus, and inwardly she surrendered herself.
Lori went on to work with the little girl and in time the girl progressed nicely with Lori’s gentle affirmations and encouragement. Eventually the girl advanced in grade and Lori was no longer assigned to her for speech pathology.
The girl’s birthday came around and her mother said to her, “You don’t have to go to school today. This is your special day. We’ll do whatever you want.”
And what the little girl wanted was to go visit Lori. Which is what they did.
The words old Apostle Paul wrote to the ordinary saints that made up the church in Ephesus are addressed to us and a good way to wrap this up: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…”