February Sermon Series: What do we really believe . . . about ministry?
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Mark 10:43-45
In this series we are going to try to look at what people really believe about the church; what they believe about the church as they see it. It might not what they should believe, and their ideas about the church might be very far from what we find in the Bible, but we need to recognize where we are if we are going to be able to move on. Thinking about what people really believe about ministry, it is useful to begin by looking at what most ordinary people understand as “ministry” the work of their minister, or priest, or pastor.
Four years ago, I was interviewed for a post and the very first question was, “what do you know about conservation?” It seemed an astonishing question, but when I reflected on it I realized that this person believed conservation was an important part of ministry. Perhaps it was not such an unreasonable question, I had spent time that week writing a report on the activities of a committee; fighting with the county council over water rates; photocopying handouts; typing up service sheets for Sunday; checking that the church central heating boiler was working properly; changing the time clock for the churchyard lights; and a plethora of other tasks, not one of which required six years of university education. Conservation would probably have been a more spiritual exercise than arguing over water rates.
In most places, most parish ministry could be managed more efficiently by partnership of a good clerical assistant and self-motivated janitor. There are no real skills, nothing that could not be done by anyone who had a bit of practice, and nothing that would be transferable to another occupation. It’s not like Peter and Andrew and James and John, who were able to go back to their boats in Galilee; or like Paul, who could earn his living as a tentmaker.
It is always odd that people seek priests for roles which appear nowhere in any programme of theological training and which require no knowledge of anything taught in any seminary. The interview was a far remove from the parochial nominators in my first parish who wanted a priest who would teach their children and visit their sick and bury their dead. Perhaps, in the minds of many people, the pastoral parts of ministry are secondary to being a good administrator and a good organiser.
One of my favourite books is Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel ‘Gilead’; the central character of which is the Reverend John Ames who is probably the most gracious cleric I have met in the pages of fiction.
“A woman in my flock called just after breakfast and asked me to come to her house. She is elderly, recently a widow, all by herself, and she has just moved from her farm to a cottage in town. You can never know what troubles or fears such people have, and I went. It turned out that the problem was her kitchen sink. She told me, considerably amazed that a reversal so drastic could occur in a lawful universe, that hot water came from the cold faucet and cold water from the hot faucet. I suggested she might just decide to take C for hot and H for cold, but she said she liked things to work the way they were supposed to. So I went home and got my screwdriver and came back and switched the handles. She said she guessed that would do until she could get a real plumber. Oh, the clerical life!”
“Changing the handles of the taps?” I thought, when I read it, “the Reverend John Ames has a considerably greater skills set than I have. He might have got a job as a plumber’s mate”.
Aside from all the things that clergy often end up doing, and sometimes doing badly, I think that if people were challenged as to what they really saw ministry as being about, they would talk about serving others; and service not just by the clergy, but by every church member.
The Biblical word for a servant is “diakonos”, a word which we translate in a technical way as “deacon”, but a word that Jesus uses when he talks of the ministry of all of his people. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus’ words aren’t just about the ministry of clergy, they are about the ministry of every Christian.
In the autumn of 1992 in a small country parish in Northern Ireland I was in a confrontation with a local doctor, whom I had called to the house of a parishioner I believed to be very ill. He glared at me across a very dimly lit room, “I want to make it clear that I am calling an ambulance purely for social reasons and not for clinical ones. He has a chest infection, he does not need a hospital bed”.
I nodded meekly. I had been brought up to believe doctors, policemen and schoolmasters, ranked only slightly lower than God himself, and I was not about to argue. Bob, my parishioner, lay in bed looking bewildered; his breath came in short, sharp rasps. He was eighty-eight years old, a widower with no family. He lived in a three roomed cottage. The room was so dimly lit because he worried about having enough money to pay the bills; he had a single, bare 15 watt bulb in the socket that hung from an old and frayed black flex.
The paramedics could have taught the doctor about bedside manner. They put Bob in a chair and gently carried him to the ambulance outside; Bob’s front door opened directly onto the country road. Bob died from pneumonia the following afternoon.
“What did he die from?” asked a neighbour that evening.
“Social reasons according to the GP”, I said.
Had we been more assertive at an earlier date; had we demanded that something be done before he had become so weak; he might not have ended his days gasping for breath at home and then frightened and alone in a country hospital. A few weeks previously, the local social services office had reduced his home help hours from three hours to two hours a week: the home help could only come for twenty minutes a day instead of half an hour. A man of 88 in poor health, living alone, and with no family, did not merit more than 20 minutes’ assistance a day. We live in times when the story of Bob could be told many times over.
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”, says Jesus; to fail to serve those in need is to fail the ministry to which we have been called, the ministry to which each one of us is called.
Why is this so? Why must we be servants? Why can we not just do all the ordinary things of parish life? Why must we get involved in the awkward business of people’s rights and people’s welfare? Why get involved in arguments? Why risk being unpopular? Isn’t it much easier to be nice to everyone; to be benign and never to give offence? Isn’t it easier never to raise a voice? Isn’t it easier never to ask difficult questions? Of course it is, but servanthood is about God’s truth and God’s righteousness, and servanthood is at the heart of what we believe.
Our God is a servant God, he gives himself as a servant to others. The most famous line in the Bible is Saint John Chapter 3 and verse 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son”. Jesus comes to us as a servant, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” When the Holy Spirit comes down on the believers in Acts Chapter 2, they are empowered to serve others, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need”.
Service is at the heart of the way we understand God. Ministry not rooted in servanthood is ministry that is not rooted in God.
We are the first generation in centuries where the church has nothing with which to confront the world except the Good News of Jesus. We can no longer compel, we should never have been able to do so; all we can do is to try to persuade.
People will look at the church and ask, ‘why should I believe what you say?’ And all we have to offer in response is the story of Jesus and if we do not live out that story, if they do not look at us and see us living as Jesus lived, if they do not see us as servants, they will say to us, ‘No, thank you. If you cannot live by the standards you preach, then why should we listen to you?’ If people do not see us as servants, then they will attach no credibility to our ministry, or to our church, or to our faith.
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
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