Where Ministry Takes Place


A sermon preached on January 26, 2014 based upon Matthew 4:12 – 23.
My suspicion is that most of us find it hard to connect with this story.  Jesus appears by the sea shore where four fishermen are in the midst of their daily chores and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and immediately, they leave everything behind, and follow him, becoming his disciples.
There are two common responses.  One is to say, “If I had been there in their sandals, I wouldn’t have been able to do it — leave everything behind — my family, my jobs, my friends – to follow Jesus.”  We feel badly about ourselves for not having what it takes to be a real disciple of Jesus.
But I think if we had asked those fishermen whether they could have imagined doing what they did that day; I suspect they would have said, “No way.”  The consistent testimony of the Gospels is that the twelve men Jesus called to follow him around Palestine weren’t exceptional men in the least; on they contrary, they were quite ordinary.  What happened that day at the seashore wasn’t about the men themselves – that is, about some innate ability they had to respond to Jesus’ call.  It was about an extraordinary grace that was present in that moment with Jesus that made it possible for those ordinary men to do something they otherwise couldn’t have imagined doing.
But a second common response to this story is more ornery.  It involves critiquing the implied demand in Jesus’ call, as in, “That wasn’t very responsible of either Jesus or the disciples for them to suddenly abandon their commitments to their families and communities so they could go wandering about the countryside with Jesus.  It wasn’t right for Jesus to demand absolute allegiance.” 
There is a legitimate point in this reaction, but it assumes that leaving behind families and jobs is what Jesus requires of everyone who would follow in his way.  Which I don’t think is the case.
In the course of his ministry, Jesus encountered a great many people, and there were only a handful that he called to literally leave everything to follow him on his preaching mission.
There is this misconception that has been passed down that “the ministry” refers to the activities of people like me who are ordained clergy.  But as it says in our bulletin, ordained ministers are only a part of the ministry of the church.  Who are the primary ministers of our church?  You are.
From time to time people ask me about my “call” to the ministry.  It’s a question that harkens back to this morning’s Gospel story; Jesus called the fishermen into his service, how was it that I heard Jesus calling me to be a pastor?
But I want to ask you today about your “call” to ministry.  Tell me about the ways you’ve heard Jesus calling you to follow him.
The essence of this story, I would suggest, is not that the fishermen left their old job for a new job.  The essence of the story has more to do with a change of focus – of what, moving forward, became the ultimate value for these men.
“From now on you will be fishing for people,” said Jesus.  Your focus will no longer be fish, which is another way of speaking of “profit,” your focus now will be people.  Relationships with people will be the thing.
People often say to me, “you have the hardest job in the world.”  I appreciate the sentiment expressed, but in a certain sense, it’s not true at all.  My ministry mostly takes place within the walls of the church itself, where we are trying to live out the Gospel; trying to live out of the belief that every human being is of sacred value.
Your ministry takes place in a much more challenging arena:  outside the walls of the church… in your homes, in your workplaces, in all your community involvements.  And often in these settings there is little or no appreciation of the sacred worth of human beings.
And God loves this world – wants to redeem this world.  And when ministry is seen as something that happens only inside the church, then what we’re saying is that we’ve essentially abandoned the world.
The significance of my ministry is to help you go back into the world to make a difference.  The measure of my success or failure is based on the degree to which you do, in fact, make such a difference.
In the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will say to those who would be his disciples:  “You are the light of the world!”  You are supposed to be in the world providing illumination of what truly matters.  “You are the salt of the earth!” You are supposed to in the world in such a way that you give it flavor, and preserve it from the forces of decay and destruction.
And more often than not, this will involve your actions more than your words.  Like St. Francis said, “Go into the world and preach the Gospel; use words if you have to…,” because actions always speak louder than mere words.
What would it mean for you to take seriously the notion that you are called to ministry with whomever it is you find yourself relating to?
At TroyHillsCenter where he is receiving physical therapy, Fred was fortunate enough to be blessed with a roommate who not only has all mental faculties in tack, but is also a devout Christian.  Ron lost his legs from an illness brought on by smoking, and after three back surgeries, can’t bear to sit upright for more than an hour at a time, and so he resides permanently now at the age of 64 in this nursing home where he can receive the level of care he needs.
He considers TroyHillsCenter to be a blessing, which is not a response commonly found by people compelled to stay in such a place. He spends a lot of time relating to people on the internet (which is a new arena for ministry,) as well as those present in the nursing home. He gave me something he had written, on the top of which these words were printed:
 “All encounters in life with other people are not the result of happenstance.  It is a direct result of a divine appointment.”
What would our lives be like if we thought of every person we met — the sales clerk who waits on us in the store, the guy who pumps our gas — as somebody give to us by God to relate to with love?
Many of you spend a great deal of your lives at your jobs, and it is important to catch hold of the idea that this is one of the primary settings for your ministry.  What would it mean for you to help shape these environments with Gospel values?
I’ve lived a sheltered life.  Pretty much my entire adult work life has taken place inside of churches.  You all haven’t had it so easy.   I don’t have first hand experience of what it is to work out in the business world, so I rely on the stories you all tell me. I had a conversation a while back with two church members who were describing what it was like to work for the companies that employed them.
Dominick described a recent incident in which a manager screamed at one of her employees, humiliating, literally abusing the person. Why did the manager do this?  Who knows for sure?  Perhaps simply because she could — getting the kind of perverse pleasure that the King-Herod-part-of-us finds in Lording it over another person.
Perhaps if you had asked the manager why she did it, she would have said it was because the employee had done shoddy work, and she wanted to make the employee afraid to ever put forth shoddy work again.  In other words, she wanted to create a climate of fear in the theory that it would promote a stronger profit.
Who knows her reasons for sure?
I was struck by the response of Monica who works in a quite different company.  She said that where she works it would be highly unlikely that a manager would ever abuse an employee in the same manner, because a culture had been carefully crafted where such behavior simply wouldn’t be seen as acceptable.   Human Resources would be there on the spot to put the manager on some kind of probation.
How did this second company get to be this way?  It didn’t happen by chance.  Consciously or unconsciously, people crafted a work environment with Gospel values.  A culture of respect and encouragement rather than one of fear was intentionally constructed; a culture where employees are encouraged to work in collaboration with one another, rather than in competition with one another.
Interestingly, the latter company is a far more successful company than the one that allows the abuse of employees, because ultimately people do better work in a setting where they are respected and encouraged than in one where fear and back stabbing are the norm.
To be called to ministry in the work place means that you intentionally work to create a positive work environment.  It involves things like giving people a fair wage and opportunities to develop themselves, as well as a commitment to creating a product that has integrity.
The sports world is an interest of mine.   I coached my son Bobby in soccer for his first three years.  I tried to be an encourager, not a screamer. But I saw a lot of screamers in those days; parents caring more about winning than caring about the kids.
After three years Bobby outgrew my expertise and I had to turn him over to coaches who knew more about the game.   I watched as some of those coaches screamed when errors were made on the theory that the players would concentrate more for fear of being yelled at again.  Mostly though all the screaming seemed to do was create more anxiety.
Football is a sport that is notorious for creating a culture of abuse, which particularly came to the fore earlier this season when a Miami Dolphin lineman abruptly quit the team because he couldn’t take the endless hazing that the team permitted in the theory that it created “toughness.”
I read a fascinating article about the Seattle Seahawks, one of the two teams that have made it to the Super Bowl.   Their coach, Pete Carroll is in his second go around as an NFL head coach; his first run began about 25 years ago, and it wasn’t particularly successful.  He left the NFL for a decade, coaching in the college ranks, where he successfully led USC.  Along the way he began to imagine a different way of coaching, and sought to implement his vision when he returned to the NFL.
In Pete Carroll’s football culture, coaches don’t scream.  If a player isn’t working hard in practice, instead of screaming, coaches will take him aside and ask if there is something troubling him. They have a psychologist on staff that helps players deal with the intense stress that goes with playing in the NFL.  Players are encouraged to use meditation techniques to relieve stress and enhance concentration.
Although a commitment to the team as a whole is preached, conformity isn’t pushed the way it often is on other teams. People are given space to be who they are.  I don’t know if Pete Carroll would identify his style of coaching as deriving from Gospel values, but I think that’s what he’s teaching.
This kinder and gentler approach has been mocked by old school coaches and players, but the proof is in the pudding.  The Seattle Seahawks are in the Super Bowl.  Hopefully the example set by the Seahawks can begin to filter down through the ranks.
Public discourse is another arena where the world needs us to be light and salt.  Here in Parsippany politics has to often been characterized by an absence of civility and respect for people with whom one disagrees, and it’s not much different on every higher level.  “Bridge gate” is the most recent example of incivility and disrespect for political adversaries.
There will always be disagreements by well intended people on questions of policy.  There is a need for Christians called into the public arena who can model what it means to treat people with respect and demonstrate how complex issues with diverse opinions can be worked through without venom entering the equation.  In this regard I’m grateful that our own Alison Cogan is now on the school board.
What would it mean for you to embrace the various settings in which you live your life out as the place where you are called to ministry?

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