Today is a very important and special occasion for this congregation. I trust it
will also be a wonderful occasion for Mary Jensen, even if a bit anti-climatic
after the last couple weeks in her home presbytery. Two weekends ago she was
duly examined on the floor of the Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery. Last Sunday
she was ordained in her home church, the Yeamans Park Presbyterian Church,
in Hanahan, South Carolina. However, today is more than just the final dotting
of the Is and crossing of the Ts in the long process by which Mary has prepared
herself for Christian ministry and received the call to pastoral leadership and
service in this congregation. Today we publicly make our vows; we tie the
knot, so to speak, on the relationship that began between us many months ago.
This is a signal event and cause for celebration.
This is also a good time to remind ourselves of some of the basics of our life
together. So this morning I have prepared a brief and basic three-point sermon.
The first thing I want to say is that ministry is a calling. The Latin root has
given us the word "vocation." It is a word that has fallen into disuse in our
modern culture. People have jobs, they have careers, they have professions,
they have occupations, but seldom do we say that they have vocations. The
idea of vocation is that which you are called to do. It is that for which you are
particularly well suited. It is, perhaps, your destiny. It may be regarded as your
true work, or the most authentic expression of the meaning of your life. Some
people think of vocation as the reason why they exist, why they are here.
The important thing about vocation is that it is not something we decide or
choose for ourselves. It may be thrust upon us. It may gently seduce us. It
may wrestle us to the mat, or wear us out with its insistent tugs and pulls. It
may insinuate itself gradually into our lives. It may sneak up on us and surprise
us. However we experience vocation, it is that which calls us, summons us,
beckons us, and can only be ignored or resisted or denied to our discomfort and
Christian ministry is such a calling. Throughout the Bible there are stories of
people being called into the service of God. Moses encounters God's call in the
burning bush. Jeremiah hears God's call to become a prophet to the nations.
The disciples of Jesus heed his call to follow him in fidelity to the kingdom of
God. One of the most striking and memorable of these stories of God's call is
found in our Old Testament text. The boy Samuel hears the call in the middle
of the night. Young lad that he is, however, he mistakes this call for the voice
of the elderly priest, Eli, in whose service he is being raised. Finally, after being
roused for the third time in the night, Eli discerns that Samuel is being called by
Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. Eli counsels Samuel, if he hears the call
again, to answer, "Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening." God's call
keeps coming until we are prepared to answer.
Our understanding of vocation is not limited to God's call for some people to
be pastors or prophets or priests. God calls us all in one way or another. In
one way or another we are called to be God's people. We are all called to
ministry. We are all called to service. The particular form of our calling is not
so important as this basic conviction that we share. The ministry of the
Christian church is a ministry into which we all are called. Moreover, we all are
called to fulfill that calling in service to the world. Thus, we may also be called
to be parents, students, teachers, secretaries, musicians, doctors, counselors,
technicians, artisans, administrators or people in business. Whatever our
particular callings, we are all called to be God's people in Christ and in the
Church and in the world. Each of us has at least this vocation to fulfill.
Part of what this means is that none of us is here simply by choice. Mary told
us in her candidating sermon that it had never been her idea to come to Indiana.
It was not exactly my idea to come here either. I have heard lots of stories
from others of you about coming to Indiana and to Bloomington, and staying,
not because you had planned it that way but because that is how things turned
out. I am not going to say that in every instance it was God who got you to
Bloomington, but I am going to say that being called is different from simply
deciding for yourself. Being called is being invited, or lured, or even compelled,
to decide for something bigger and greater than yourself. It is being summoned
to decide for something that God has in mind, whether you ever had it in mind
or not. It is being enlisted by God to do something for the world that God
For Christians, God's call is also a call to love one another. This is my second
point. Now I suppose it is possible to talk too much about love in church. But
it needs to be said that we can hardly hope to love and serve the world if we do
not love one another. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "This is my
commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" [15:12]. If we
do this, if we love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, we are no longer
merely servants who are doing what we are told but do not know "what the
master is doing." If we love one another as Jesus loved, then we are friends,
who understand the will and heart of God [cf. vs. 15]. Love opens us up to
what really and finally matters. Love lets us in on the ultimate truth of living.
The commandment to love one another is the sum total of what is required for
us to fulfill the purpose of God.
Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once wrote a book on The Purpose of the
Church and its Ministry in which he defined that purpose as "the increase . . .
of the love of God and neighbor." That is why we are here, to be shaped and
formed and equipped to magnify the love of God and neighbor in the world. If
we do not practice the love of one another, we can hardly fulfill our calling.
The world will hardly takes us seriously when we talk about love until we show
love for one another.
My third point is that this ministry, this vocation, this calling, is by the mercy
and power of God. It is, first of all, a gift. A gift is not an imposition but a
blessing. A gift is not an achievement but an endowment and a favor. The
apostle Paul begins the passage that is our text from II Corinthians this morning
by saying, "since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we
do not lose heart" [4:1]. If you go back and read the preceding chapters you
will find that this ministry to which Paul refers has proven to be anything but a
piece of cake. The stresses and strains of Paul's ministry with the Corinthians
are plainly there, you do not have to read them between the lines. So what Paul
is saying in this passage is not a commentary on how wonderful it has been
working with the Corinthians. It is a commentary on how heartening it is to be
given a ministry to accomplish, a message of good news to proclaim, an
ultimately significant and meaningful work to do. The gift is in the calling. It is
a mercy of God to be engaged in a work that matters, that gives purpose to
one's actions, that promises some enduring satisfaction. This is a word to
remember when things are tough and a word to celebrate when things are going
well. Our calling is a gift. "It is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this
ministry," and so it is, and only so it is, that "we do not lose heart."
Paul also says, "we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear
that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us" [4:7].
He might also have said that those who are given this ministry have clay feet,
but that is not quite what he is saying here. Rather, he is saying that the
ministry of the Gospel does not depend for its worth upon the strength of those
to whom it has been given. It is not by our power or our might that the truth of
the Gospel is to be maintained. It is not by our power or our might that its
riches are to be secured. This precious treasure of God's love and truth and
light is not saved or lost upon our ability to withstand the challenges and
afflictions of life.
In other words, it is never what we are able to do with the Gospel that proves
and preserves its worth. We who are like fragile clay jars can hardly be counted
on to preserve this treasure. Rather, it is this treasure, when it is present and at
work in us, that holds us fast and lifts us up and demonstrates the power of
God. The extraordinary power that then enables us to go on is hardly our own.
We are called by God to love one another, and so to love and serve the world.
By God's mercy we have been given this calling and are engaged in this
ministry. But without God's power we are unequal to the task. Only by God's
power shall we be sustained. AMEN.
Mary, about a month ago in the PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK there was a
short article titled "Surviving and Thriving in Ministry" [September 20, 1999].
It was written by Joan S. Gray, a Presbyterian minister in Atlanta, GA, who has
been in ministry for 23 years. She wrote it as advice to recent seminary
graduates, and I want to borrow some of her words in my charge this morning,
and add a few of my own.
Joan says, "When you meet new people, smile, look them in the eyes, and offer
them a firm handshake. Most people will decide whether or not they like you
initially within five seconds of meeting you." I would add, that's probably true,
but what happens after the first five seconds matters more. Ministry is not a
short-term affair, but a long-term commitment, and the person you are with the
character you have will ultimately count more than those first impressions.
Joan says, "Assumptions are dangerous. Just because they did things a certain
way in your home church or at seminary does not mean they do it that way in
your new congregation. When you don't know, ASK!" That's great advice. I
would also add, don't make assumptions even after you have been here a while.
The way they did it here last year may not be the way they will do it this year,
because the "they" is always changing. Trust, but verify!
Joan says, "Find out early on who really knows which closets the skeletons are
in and where the land mines are buried, and pump them for all they are worth.
This information will come in handy down the road." I would say, that all
depends. It is good to know the lay of the land, but you don't want to be
paralyzed by the past. If you are always watching your step, you won't see
very far ahead.
Joan says, "Spend time developing your lay leadership. Time invested in officer
training and in mentoring leaders and potential leaders will pay rich dividends."
That is certainly true. We never minister alone. A good part of your ministry
will be to equip and enable and empower and encourage others to minister
within the church and the world.
Joan says, "Find your easiest way to connect with God and do it often. This
one thing (or the lack of it) probably makes or breaks more ministries than
anything else. If you can, find a spiritual mentor or friend to hold you
accountable and to support you along the path of growth toward God." Yes.
You will need this centering, or the demands of ministry will pull you apart.
Joan says, "Learn to receive criticism gracefully and to deal with it
appropriately. All critics are telling you something important about themselves.
Some of it can help you to be a better pastor; some of it is garbage that should
go immediately into the round file. It is good to find some people in the church
who like you, but can also be honest, to help you tell the difference." Amen.
Joan says, "Find someone wise outside your family with whom to process
things related to ministry. . . This is where counselors come in handy. Again,
don't wait until there is a crisis. Find someone early on and develop a
relationship for the long haul." I would add that you might find this person
within the congregation; or this person might be a ministerial colleague; or this
person might be outside the congregation. But you need to have someone with
whom you can let down and let out.
Joan says, "Work on knowing when it is time to go home. There is always
more that could be done, and nobody at church will tell you to hang it up and
go home. It is important to keep reminding ourselves that the church and its
people are in God's hands and that when we take a vacation or a day off or
when we block out time for our families, God still has things under control. We
do the congregation, our families and the pastor who will follow us a disservice
if we don't model good boundaries and have a life outside the church." I
would offer two amendments. First, there may actually be a few people here
who will have the goodness to tell you if you are working too hard, and I hope
I can be one of them. Also, even if God doesn't always seem to have things
under control, that doesn't mean you have to take up all the slack. Sometimes
you will fail, and sometimes the church will fail. The important thing is to keep
things in perspective, and remember that we are here by God's mercy and
From what I've seen so far, you probably don't need most of this advice. But it's free, and as the months and years go by, I am sure others will give you more. Take it for whatever it is worth, and carry on as best you can, and God will go with you. AMEN.