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Call to Ministry

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

January 22, 2006
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Our texts from Jonah and Mark illustrate very different responses to the call to ministry. Jonah first of all did not want to go to Nineveh to preach repentance. You know the more famous story about how he tried to flee by boat, but was thrown overboard by the crew when they thought a perfect storm was God’s punishment of Jonah for his flight. He was rescued by the great fish and reluctantly went to Nineveh. His preaching was spectacularly successful, however, and everyone repented, from the king to the peasants, and even the animals. Jonah, however, was furious, because he wanted the Ninevites destroyed; he did not want them to repent. After our text for today, God had to teach Jonah a lesson about why mercy is a good thing.

Mark’s story is just the opposite. Simon and Andrew, James and John, left their boats where they were, dropping everything to follow Jesus. They were like enthusiastic puppy dogs. James and John were probably teenagers, because they had their mother speak for them when later they wanted Jesus to make them his chief staff members. Unlike Jonah’s successful evangelism, Jesus’ disciples nearly all ended up as martyrs. The Bible does not record Zebedee’s attitude when his two sons left him, and the work, in the fishing boat with the hired hands to follow their new guru.

Today I do not want to dwell on the sense of called ministry that was taking shape in the ancient Christian world, although that is a fascinating topic. I want rather to lift up some of the issues of ministry today. My reflections are much shaped by years of my own ministry, forty two as an ordained deacon in the Methodist Church and thirty nine as an elder. For fifteen years I was dean of the Boston University School of Theology which educates people for ordained ministry, and during that time I served on a nearly infinite number of denominational committees that defined various elements of ministry. The Methodist Church in which I was ordained, now the United Methodist Church, represents the Roman Catholic-Anglican tradition of ministry, which is somewhat different from conceptions of ministry in free-church Protestant traditions. Most basic issues are the same, however.

In our tradition, two orders of ordination exist, deacons and elders. You will remember from the Book of Acts of the Apostles that in the earliest days after Jesus’ ascension, his own disciples, the apostles, led the growing Christian community, teaching and healing, and deciding directions for development. These are the people whose office eventually came to be called elders, although the New Testament is not consistent with regard to titles. Early on in the Church, however, a dispute arose between widows who spoke Greek and widows who spoke Aramaic, concerning who was getting the most help from the community. Doesn’t that kind of thing sound familiar? So the apostles appointed several people, among them Stephen, to be deacons, that is “servers,” whose job was to “wait on tables.” “Waiting on tables” probably meant community management and service of all sorts, but particularly financial management. The deacons would take care of the community while the apostles or elders attended to “more important things.” Stephen, you remember, did not limit himself to managing the day to day life of the community but went to the Temple to teach in public, just as Peter and John did. He got himself in trouble with the authorities, and was stoned to death for it. To this day, many deacons think they really ought to be elders, though without the educational requirements, and with disastrous results. But I’ll not burden you further with church politics!

In our time, ordained ministry means leadership in the Church for which there are both educational and spiritual requirements. In Protestant denominations, all laypeople are regarded as having ministries, a doctrine Luther called the priesthood of all believers. But not all laypeople are held responsible as leaders who are certified because they have fulfilled requirements. In fact, precisely because all people are regarded as ministers, and not all people are capable of fulfilling educational and spiritual requirements, the Church expressly limits leadership roles so that all people can participate somewhere in corporate ministry. Of course, some laypeople are far better in leadership roles than some ministers, but even when they are better, they are not accountable to the discipline of the Church as ordained people are.

Ordained deacons lead in the ministries of service. All Christians are supposed to serve in one capacity or another, and for this ordained deacons provide specialized leadership. Sometimes this means service within congregations, such as in religious education, music, or liturgical leadership. Often it means Christian service in the world, in health care, for instance, or social justice movements. When I was a young man, everyone who wanted to be ordained an elder had to be ordained a deacon first, because leadership in ministries of service was taken to be basic to all other forms of ordained ministerial leadership. Now in the United Methodist Church, deacons and elders are separate orders of ministry. I suspect, however that few elders can be successful with their specific ministries of leadership without also attending to leadership in service.

The ancestor denominations of most contemporary mainline American Protestant churches now were powerfully affected by the formation of the American democracy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For many congregations the heritage of that democratic ethos is that the members take on the identity of a kind of legislature which, through various committees, determines what the congregation’s ministries should be. Then they conceive of the ordained ministers as hired hands to carry out the ministries decided upon. This has often had three disastrous effects. First, the lay members of the congregation are removed from the actual ministries of service in which their Christian life consists, leaving that to the ministers. Second, the ordained ministers who are trained and vetted by their peers are given nearly impotent leadership roles within the congregation, thus weakening the expertise needed in a complex world. And third, the people attracted into ordained ministry of the hired-hand sort tend to be followers who want to be told what to do; they conceive their ministries as performing Christian exercises as defined by their congregation and culture rather than as leading in the formation of those ministries. The Boston University School of Theology has been assiduous in pursuing leadership types rather than “servant ministers,” as the recent jargon calls it, but it has had to row hard against the cultural tide.

In our tradition, the ministries of elders are defined by three notions, Word, Order, and Sacrament.

The ministry of the Word, of course, means preaching, primarily but not exclusively pulpit preaching. All Christians share the ministry of the Word, usually not in pulpits but surely in families, at work, among friends, and in participation in Christian communities. But ordained elders have the leadership in discerning what that Word is. To understand the force of this, let me call your attention to a distinction between two kinds of expressions of the Word. One is that, in which you believe and say things because that is what acculturated people in our community believe and say. Such belief and speech performs the act of affirming solidarity and inculcating a culture. You do not have to think very hard to perform the Christian Word in most circumstances. You just say what Christians say in those circumstances. The other kind of expression of the Word is tied to genuine inquiry when you have to ask, not what do we usually say, but what should we say. Is it true? Discerning the true Word of God for our situation is extremely complicated and difficult. It requires being able to see things in a fresh light, and to have the ego strength to admit that what we have “usually said” might be mistaken. For years the Christian Word was that women ought to keep silent in church and to play subordinate and merely domestic roles; that Word was wrong. For years, the Christian Word was that slavery was inevitable and that Africans and some others deserved to be slaves; that Word was wrong. Many people today, including the official voices of the United Methodist Church to which I belong, say that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with the Christian gospel; having examined every argument I can find, I have to say that so-called Word is wrong. Preaching the Word of God should always be prophetic, that is, willing to ask whether the words we so easily perform are really true. The leadership in the Word of God that comes from inquiry rather than custom is intellectually difficult, emotionally tense, and spiritually humbling. But would you not rather have a preacher who wrestles with the Word than one who merely rehearses Christian things, especially these days when yesterday’s Christian commonsense turns out to be today’s bigotry?

Elders’ ministries of Order have to do with acquiring, collecting, and deploying the wisdom to make good decisions about the shape and future of Christian life, especially the life of Christian communities as they relate to the larger world. This leadership ministry is ill-served by the supposition that decision-making for Christian life is sheerly democratic, however important it is to hear every voice and include everyone in the process. The appeal of democracy in all walks of life comes from the very profound truth that each of us is responsible for what we do and cannot excuse our mistakes by palming off responsibility on some authority. Nevertheless, we cannot assume that merely by voting we are exercising our responsibility, for the outcome of a majority vote might be an atrocious decision to which we would have to defer as an authority. Ordained elders are also ill-served by supposing that leadership should be hierarchical, with decisions coming down from themselves at the top (or from bishops in those denominations with an episcopacy). Rather, elders are responsible for developing not only the collective wisdom to make good decisions but also for developing the leadership skills to operate within a large community of people, all of whom have a stake and should be involved in ways that respect their personal responsibility. Such leadership requires energy and intelligence, as well as the people-skills we sometimes see in charlatans who have no real wisdom.

Elders’ ministries of Sacraments relate to baptism and the Eucharist, for most Protestant denominations. A certain amount of expertise is required to administer the sacraments, and good theology is required to explain them. Expertise and theology are not what make the sacraments the special ministry of elders, however. Our sacristan, Mr. Ames, a layman, is more expert and theologically acute on sacramental matters than most ordained elders, I wager. The reason the ministry of sacraments is especially assigned to elders is because of their representative status. An elder represents the whole church, through the whole of its history. An elder does not act on his or her own behalf or on that of the congregation only, but on behalf of the whole body of Christ. To be baptized and to participate in communion is to be a member of the Church Universal, however that Church is fractured in practice. Because of the processes of ordination, elders are given the status of being tested and approved representatives of the whole church. That representative function also adds a dimension of authority to elders’ ministries of Word and Order.

I have spelled out these complicated issues defining ordained ministry because they are important for everyone to understand who is interested in the Christian life. I apologize for the lecture-style of this sermon so far. You deserve more juice. Here it is. Just as Jesus called people to ministry who became deacons and elders, so his representatives now call some of you to ordained ministry. I have sketched something of what this calling means: that you would be designated representatives of the whole Church, which is Christ’s body, exercising leadership in the Service by which God brings redemption to the world, in the articulation of the Word by which we understand the presence and guidance of God, in the Ordering of the community’s life, and in the administration of Sacraments by which the Church hosts God in its midst and hosts the people in God’s presence. These ministries of ordained people can all be dumbed down. Ordained ministers can be turned into hired hands. But I do not call any of you to dumbed-down servant ministries. I call you, as Jesus did Simon and Andrew, James and John, to ministries where your leadership in Service, where your intellect in expressing the Word, your skills in wise Ordering of the Church, and your holiness as representative administrators of the Sacraments will be worthy of the God you represent. If you heed that call, despite your personal failings, misgivings, and pains, you might just save Nineveh: God does that sometimes.


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