(Isaiah 61:1-2a, 6b; Gospel of John 1:12; Gospel of Thomas 24)
Let me call your attention to the top of the first page of our bulletin. Here we name the folks involved in making this service happen. There’s a “Preacher”, which means that I have the privilege and responsibility of holding your attention right now, and, God willing, moving us together in this time in a way that cares for the soul. JW is named as our organist and pianist – a wonderful musician, who is also serving us right now as the choir director, until JJ returns in Advent. The members of our choir aren’t named in the bulletin, but, Wow, how we are grateful to them for their serving our service with such moving and elevating expressions of devotion to God. Then there’s the Liturgist: SK, which means that he serves us by helping to shepherd us through the service. “Liturgy” is the old Greek word that means “service,” worship service – the way we share sacred time together in service of God and of each other through our worship, our praying and singing and contemplating and hearing scripture and sharing the sacraments. Coffee hour, our time of fellowship after the service is this week courtesy of Dana & the McQueen Girls – which, by the way, would be a great name for a band. Not named are some others who are helping us this time together: LF, who’s running our sound board, and FW and AD who are our ushers for today, and DW and JD who are doing the very important work of teaching our kids right now at Sunday School.
You’ll notice then what I saved for last, the most important thing: The Ministers. Who are the ministers of this church? The Ministers are everyone. Everyone. Each and every one of you. Whether you’ve been an official member of this church for decades or whether you just happened to show up here this morning. You are called. God is calling you to minister in your way, according to your gifts and your situation of life, and according to where you’re at in your journey of faith. The ministry of this church is the ministry of each of you and all of you. It extends way beyond these walls to all that you do through your lives. And I must say, it’s beautiful to witness how you each do that, the ways that your souls get activated.
That’s what it takes to do church together.
An important quality of the ministries of this church is how they invite in the ministries of many others, who may not be affiliated with our church. Many of our volunteers at the weekly soup lunch are part of this church, but many are part of other faith groups, or no faith group. When we open our Fellowship hall for the emergency winter shelter, many of the volunteers who make it all happen are from all different corners of life in Walla Walla. We are hosting the ministering of many.
Morning, noon, and night, every day, we host recovery groups – AA, NA, and the like. These are real, legitimate models for people ministering to people, in an honest, direct, and humble way. It changes lives. And it’s all without formal leaders or any formal institution, but a culture and a structure of how to be together to support each other through the journey of recovery.
You know, as a matter of fact, the model of these recovery groups is probably really similar to how the early groups of Jesus followers organized themselves. No formal hierarchy, but circles of folks from all walks of life who came together as equals and grew organically around the shared experience of healing that can come when we admit how we are enslaved to destructive forces and cannot free ourselves except through surrender to the higher power of the merciful God of merciless Truth.
I’ll remind us of what this word “Christians” means. It means “Little Christs”, or “Little Christlings” you could say: those who, like we hear about in the reading from the Gospel of John, accept the light of Christ and thereby live into their ministry as children of the Living God. Now, some of these earliest groups of Christlings when they gathered for worship services they would draw lots to determine who would preach that day, and who would have the roll that time to tell the scripture and who would lead the prayer and lead the singing and so forth. They didn’t have formal roles for these things, much less bulletins with the names printed out.
To this day there are groups of Little Christlings who do things in a similar way – the Quakers, for instance, the Amish, some monastic communities, Catholic Base Communities among campasinos in Latin America, some Evangelical house churches these days … These are groups where there is no formal title of Minister because they are very clear that everyone has ministerial powers.
Now, I gotta be careful here, or else I’ll preach myself out of a job.
But the most important part of my job is to minister to the ways that you each and all have of being ministers yourselves, of ministering to others in this world in the unique way that God is calling you.
This is central to the Congregational way and to the United Church of Christ. We’re allergic to hierarchy – there’s no ring kissing here – we don’t have bishops or archbishops. What we do have is all kinds of different kinds of ministers. We do recognize that it’s important that some have the kind of role that you all are entrusting to me – but that’s just one particular way of being a minister, among many. We believe, we know that everybody who comes together as a church has the capacity to minister in their own way, according to their gifts and limitations and unique calling from their Creator.
There are some things that different ways of ministering all have in common.
Praying for each other is ministering to each other.
Listening to each other, really hearing each other, is ministering to each other.
Bearing each other’s burdens is ministering to each other.
Weeping together, celebrating together, singing together, is ministering to each other.
Sharing the story of what God has done in your life is ministering to each other.
Wrestling together with the big questions of our faith, the puzzles and the mysteries, this is ministering to each other.
Encouraging each other through the struggles and joys of life as people of good faith in a world that can be so mean and cynical, this is ministering to each other.
Inviting each other to offer our gifts and discover how our gifts meet a great need, this is ministering to each other.
Being honest with each other when that’s hard, being real with each other, being weak and broken with each other, passing through conflict together, and holding on and loving each other throughout all our human messiness, this is ministering to each other.
Simply being together, in silence, abiding together in the Holy Mystery that surrounds us and fills us and moves us beyond the boundaries we’ve drawn for ourselves, this is ministry.
This is what we are called to, each and all.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered September 18, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)