Scripture: Luke 5:1-11; Sacred Signposts: Ministry
When I was ordained as a Christian minister, in 1988, a big part of the service was the promises that were made. Implicit in that service was the promise of God to always be present in the life of the church. And explicit were the promises I made in return, promises I occasionally revisit as a way of keeping true to the core of my role in the church.
I promised that day to listen for the word of God in the scriptures and to let that be the core of the church’s identity. I promised to seek the peace of the church and to speak the truth in love. I promised to be faithful in preaching and teaching the gospel, in administering the sacraments, and in exercising pastoral care and leadership. I promised to keep all confidences, to regard all people with equal love and concern, and to minister impartially to the needs of all. On many levels, it was a thrilling and riveting day as I was ordained into the Christian ministry.
In the words of two of my UCC pastoral colleagues, ministry is an “odd and wondrous calling” (Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver). As Lutheran minister Peter Marty reminded a group of us clergy at a recent gathering, the word ministry itself comes from the word “minus.” The whole role of a minister is to act on behalf of someone greater. This work is not about us. The whole point of what we do and are is to serve the living Christ. The opposite of ministry would be “magistery,” in which my own personal greatness would be at the core. No, for ministers, it’s not about our worth or accomplishments or success. In ministry, when we get it right, it’s Christ alone who is at the root of our very being. Christian ministry honors and serves the “magistery” of Christ.
Peter Marty, in his talks with us ministers last month, gave us several images to remind us of the heart of our work. He said we’re to be prisms who reflect the light of God. Another way to put it, he said, is that, in a world fraught with VUCA—an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—ministers are to be those who, employing a musical image, return us to middle C. Or, in yet another image, this one from Moby Dick, ministers are to be like the lantern that hangs from the ceiling of the bridge on the good ship Pequod: no matter how awful the rocking on the boat is, that lantern always points to the center of the earth.
The wise and perceptive Presbyterian minister, Eugene Peterson, who wrote the paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, and who died a few months ago, once drew, as well, from Moby Dick, and used the image of the harpoonist to describe the minister. In chasing the whale, said Peterson, the ship’s crew rows as hard as it can to get to the whale. And all the while, the harpoonist, in order to do that job well, sits dead still at the front of the boat, watching and waiting for the time to throw the harpoon. To do their job well, harpoonists and ministers need to have the focus and the quiet to be able to listen for the word and presence of God in this shared life of ours.
You may well have heard me say before that the minister’s job is to walk into a room where the word “God” had not been spoken and to speak that word. It may be in a hospital room or next to a death bed. It may be before a wedding or during a marital crisis. It may be in the course of a council or commission meeting. We human beings—ministers included—so often forget that every moment of life is spent in the hands of God. Ministers are appointed by the church to remind us all of that deepest of truths, that God is present and alive in all of what life brings us. That’s what you appoint Susi and Mark and me to do.
Most important of all, the minister’s job is to be present with the members and friends of a congregation. Pope Francis says that clergy should have “the odor of sheep”—now there’s an image for you! Meaning, as Ben Dueholm says in his book Sacred Signposts, that clergy “must stand where the people stand and know what the people know, if only to point them beyond it” (p. 117). Which is why my work is to be present with you wherever you are—in the grocery store, at concerts and athletic events, at meals. I’m to smell like sheep!
The funny thing about ministry, though, is that it’s not just Mark’s, Susi’s and mine to do. Ministry has this strange double meaning in the church. The church ordains clergy who are your ministers. And, at the same time, we are all called into ministry. Ministry is not just for the ordained. It’s for everyone in the church. The very last words in the worship part of our Sunday bulletins are “Departing to Service.” Or we might say, “Departing to Ministry.” When you and I leave here today, our job, our vocation, our calling—all of us—is to be ministers of Jesus Christ wherever we are—in our homes, in our workplaces, in the grocery store, in our neighborhoods, everywhere.
Sometimes when people hear this—that we’re all called to be ministers—a sense of duty rears its ugly head, and people think, “Oh, no, what’s expected of me now?” Judy Bagley-Bonner, my former colleague on staff her at Federated, when the phone would ring on a bad day, used to say, quoting Dorothy Parker, “What fresh hell is this?” Ministry can hit people as a kind of obligation, with all the weight and unpleasantness that entails.
And I suppose there is a kind of obligation about it. No life is complete if all it does is seek its own happiness. If I’m out only to satisfy myself, what kind of depth and richness is there to my life? At the same time, though, ministry isn’t about engaging in tasks that are inherently unpleasant, that are simply onerous burdens.
No, I have the sense that real ministry has about it a lightness and joy. You may remember Frederick Buechner’s pithy and wise saying that vocation is “the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Ministry isn’t about morosely filling a job that somebody else says has to be done. It’s about letting our own distinctive gifts shine in such a way that they make a difference in our corner of the world.
I see joy in ministry all over Federated. There may be no better an example than the people who sing and ring and play in our choirs and our band. They do it not because they ought to, but because their lives are enriched by it. All over, though, people here serve not because they need it to pass some test, but because they are filled by the work they do. Just this week, two different people have said to me, “I’ve found something I can do to contribute,” and both of them said it with a gleam in their eyes. People here knit shawls and deliver meals and prepare cookies for memorial services and take flowers and communion to people who are homebound and write notes to those in our Fellowship of Prayer and answer phones at the Angel Desk and serve delectable meals at Wondrous Wednesdays and advocate for justice and maintain a significant and ongoing presence with the people of St. Paul’s UCC not because they have to, but because they know their lives are richer when they do it. These ministries are their own reward. And, at the same time, in a happy blessing, at their core they touch others’ lives and provide freshness and hope.
In Luke’s gospel, after Jesus has begun his ministry with some amazing deeds, at the shore he comes across a fisher of the seas named Simon. Simon has worked hard all night, and it has not gone at all well. He has come up empty-handed. So Jesus gets into the boat and says to him, “Push out into deep water and let your nets out for a catch” (5:4, The Message). Whereupon the haul of fish is so great that it nearly rips the nets and sinks the boats. Simon and his friends are totally overwhelmed by this astounding catch and, right on the spot, they leave everything and follow Jesus on the way.
Simon and the others clearly leave everything, not out of a heavy sense of obligation, but because they can’t see any other way to really live life. If they don’t live their own ministries, they know their lives will be impoverished. So off they go.
And as they go, part of what’s striking in the story is that they have no idea where this journey will lead them. They’re not promised any particular results; they’re certainly not assured any obvious success. They go simply because they can’t not go. And the journey, of course, will be far from being all sweetness and light. As their life together unfolds, they’ll face persecution and rejection, and their leader will be killed by the governing authorities. And yet they go. Somewhere deep within, they know that they’re not called to be successful. They know that they’re called only to be faithful. Not successful, but faithful: that’s what it is to minister.
Ministry, of course, is more than a series of tasks to be done. It’s more like a way of approaching life. Am I oriented to the joy and fulfillment of others? Do I lean toward offering myself for the sake of something larger? Am I grounded in love? And if I’m living that way, the results are less important than the way of life itself.
It’s easy to get caught up in statistics when we do our ministry. How many come to the events we’ve planned? Are we growing in numbers? Do we meet all our goals and objectives? For Jesus, though, the job of the minister—ordained or lay—is not so much to create successful programs as it is to “catch people” (5:10).
What a strange phrase! Catch people? Really? We’re supposed to hook people, bring them into our boat, and eat them? Not quite what we pictured as disciples, is it? The phrase, though, means literally, as one scholar says, “saving men and women alive”—that they’re to be saved, in other words, from “the peril of death” so that they can “live the life of the good news in all its fullness” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume I, p. 335). Peter is to catch people so they can thrive, so they can flourish.
And, as we say, the results are out of his hands. He is to give himself to the work regardless of whether it yields the dividends for which he had hoped. As one scholar says, “The disciples leave their boats, their workers, presumably even this astonishing catch, and go off after someone they cannot comprehend on a mission they do not understand” (Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C, p. 140).
Jesus invites us only to do the work of ministry. The results are up to Jesus. Sometimes our work is a booming success, and the world says, “Wow!” At other times, though, the work yields modest or negligible results. And yet we’re to engage in that work anyway, with all our energy and passion. Our church moderator, Maren Koepf, is fond of asking, “In what ways do our words and actions to one another, to our community, to the world proclaim the love and tenacity of Jesus Christ?”
Or, as a Lutheran minister (Lauren Dow Wegner) put it recently, “Cast your nets, write your papers, teach your students, balance financial accounts, design the buildings, pour the concrete, make the lattes, lead the meetings, administer the IVs, answer the phones, sing the arias. Do what you know how to do, and Jesus will use it to draw others into the [dominion] of God.”
And she goes on to say, “Rarely does God reveal to us our destination. Instead God reveals to us the means through which we are called to participate in God’s end result. While we do what we are created, equipped, and skilled to do, we entrust the result to God.
“Because when it comes to God’s call, there’s always a catch” (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/february-10-epiphany-5c-luke-51-11-isaiah-61-8-9-13).
In the movie, The Help, the African-American servant Aibileen reminds the little white girl Mae, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” That is our work as ministers: to remind the world what it may have forgotten. The poet Galway Kinnell says, “sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness” (“Saint Francis and the Sow”). All ministry is essentially that. We are here to reteach ourselves and each other and the world that we and it are lovely, lovelier than we ever really know.
How great it is, on this the day of our Annual Meeting, to be reminded again of the beauty and magnificence of ministry. You and I are called into a rich life of service and love. Indeed, we are called into a ministry of reteaching everything its loveliness. And in it all, Christ walks that journey with us. What a joy! What a privilege!