The Secret Sauce of Ministry
A Recipe in Two Parts
As some of you know I like to cook. This time of year, when the weather gets fine, I fire up my grill and do some grilling and barbecuing. And I love to sit on my back porch near the grill with a cold beverage and read cookbooks, of which I have many, or as Martha would say, “too many.”
Many of these grilling and barbecuing books contain recipes for a “secret sauce.” I have been noticing lately that the term “secret sauce” has migrated from its culinary context and is now being employed as a metaphor for that special something that makes things work properly.
For example, I recently heard a journalist talking about “the secret sauce” that would create “a grand bargain” to overcome the Congressional budget impasse. Good luck with that.
So I started to wonder, “ What’s the secret sauce of ministry?” If I had to come up with a simple recipe for what makes ministry faithful and effective what would it be?
So here’s my recipe, which comes in two parts, which I hope you will take away with you today for your own ministry, whether lay or ordained.
1. The first part of the secret sauce is this: You can’t do it alone. Rebecca couldn’t have come to this day alone, and she can’t do her ministry alone. No one does it alone.
How does one come to know God? And to love God? And to want to serve God?
When I look out at this congregation I see so many here today who have helped to shape and influence Rebecca. I am reminded of the scripture from Hebrews we just heard that says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” The image is from the ancient stadium where the races were held, and the cloud of witnesses are the spectators who cheer the racers on.
This great crowd includes both the living and the dead, “the church militant” and “the church triumphant.”
So among the crowd present in the congregation today are many members of Rebecca’s family, let’s call them “the crowd of the proud.”
In addition to Martha and myself, are Rebecca’s brother Andrew and his wife, Jessica. Rebecca’s maternal grandparents, Art and Marianne Talis, are here. As are several assorted aunties, an uncle, and a cousin.
These family members represent a great line going back through generations of Talises and Beers, Floyds and Laffoons, and, let me tell you, there is a lot of church in these families.
We represent a great ecumenical melting pot, from the Greek Orthodox faith of Rebecca’s grandfather’s forbears, to the German Protestantism of her grandmother.
My mother’s father, Bill Laffoon, a descendant of French Huguenots, was a deacon at his Congregational Church in Wichita, Kansas. His schooling ended with the 6th grade, but saw to it that his two daughters went to college during the height of the Depression.
Granddaddy read his Bible every day, and his speech was sprinkled with scripture verses.
So when I was growing up my mother also had a scripture for every occasion, I thought she was so wise, she’d say, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And, “Do not cast your pearls before swine.” When I went to seminary I discovered that they weren’t original with my mother, but came from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Years later, Rebecca had the same experience at Yale when she learned where all my wise sayings came from.
On the other side of the family, I think today also of Martha’s grandmother, Marta Beer, which in our family is a family name and not a beverage. My Martha is named after her. She raised three daughters by herself in wartime Germany, and was another great churchwoman. How proud she would be.
This rich ecclesiastical family DNA has helped to shape and form Rebecca into a minister. They are all part of this congregation today, a part of the cloud of witnesses.
But there’s more. For as grand as Rebecca’s family legacy of ministry is, and as important as family support and nurture is, family alone cannot make a minister.
And so I look around this room and I see many people from Rebecca’s past, a number of the good people of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, where Rebecca was baptized and confirmed. I see some of her Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, mentors and supporters, who have made the trip down here today from the Berkshires.
And when I look around today I also see many other friends, Pittsfield neighbors, UCC and ecumenical colleagues, and folks from the Berkshire Association, who have been part of Rebecca’s life.
I see some of her Wellesley College roommates up in the balcony. I see Yale classmates and New Haven friends, and, of course, all of you from Green’s Farms Church, members and staff, who have so warmly embraced Rebecca in your community, and are now such an important part of this most recent chapter in her life.
There are others, too, I must mention, who are neither related to Rebecca nor have ever met her, who she knows from the books she loves and the scriptures she studies. Those many other witness, men and women of the church: prophets, apostles, martyrs, evangelists, theologians, reformers, writers and thinkers down through the ages. They are part of this great crowd, too. They were all witnesses to God, and to God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.
So all of you here, and all the unseen but present, make up the great cloud of witnesses, who cheer us all on as we go about our several ministries, and especially cheer Rebecca on today. I thank God, for you and for them.
So to take nothing away from Rebecca, who as you know, is a remarkable young woman and certainly gets much of the credit for us being here today, she hasn’t done it alone. Because this ministry business is a team sport, and I have just described to you just how really big the team is.
Nobody gets to ministry alone, and nobody does ministry alone, because you can’t do it alone.
So that’s the first part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry.
2. The second part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry is this: It’s not about you. To do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ you have to get out of your own way.
What does this mean? Recall how Jesus was always confusing the disciples by saying things like “the one who would gain his life must lose it.” And “The one who exalts herself will be humbled, but the one who humbles herself will be exalted.”
And the disciples never quite understood what he was trying to teach them until after Easter. Their hopes had been dashed on Good Friday as they fled from him and his cross. But after Easter all those things he said made sense. He was showing them a way, a way of selflessness, of servant-hood, a way to be a person for others.
And recall also how our brother Paul kept writing to churches that were fighting, and saying in one form or another, “It’s not about you!”
To the Corinthians he wrote, “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4,5). And a couple of lines later in that same letter he wrote them, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7).
What was he trying to tell them about ministry? That “it’s not about you.” To be a minister you have to get out of your own way. And the reason that you have to get out of your own way is first to make space for God to work in and through you. And you have to get out of your own way, secondly, to make space for the other, the ones you minister to.
I was with Mary Luti at a meeting the week before last and I told her how excited I was that she would be laying holy hands on Rebecca and doing the prayer of ordination today. I said to Mary, “It is so fitting because it was under your ministry that Rebecca started discerning her call.”
And Mary demurred and said, “I really didn’t do that much.” And I thought she was just being humble. But as I started pondering the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry, I realized she was quite right.
And you know why she was right? Because it wasn’t Mary who called Rebecca into the ministry. Mary was just doing her job, which is how ministry works. Rebecca was a questioning young woman in a pew in Cambridge, and Mary was doing her job, which was to share the God she knows and loves. And Rebecca was in the right time and the right place with the right person, and God’s Holy Spirit works like that, in what seems mundane, but can at the same time be quite marvelous.
Our society cultivates a cult of personality, a cult of celebrity, but ministry is not about that. There are celebrity ministers, but the good ones, the faithful ones, know it is not about them.
The word minister actually means one who represents another. The Europeans use it this way in describing their government officials: the minister for finance, or the foreign minister. These are the ones who represent the government in their particular area of expertise
Likewise, a Christian minister is one who represents Jesus Christ. And representing Jesus Christ means taking the form of a servant. Jesus once told his disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28.)
Not to be ministered to, but to minister. Not to be served but to serve.
This is counter-cultural in our self-obsessed society. To tell people to get out of their own way for God and for others is not a particularly popular philosophy today. When I peruse the magazines at the super-market checkout there are titles such as Self, Us, People (meaning famous self-absorbed people) but I don’t see Servant or Ministry magazine.
There was a fascinating interview with director Sofia Coppola in last Sunday’s New York Times about her new movie, The Bling Ring. The movie is based on a true story about five teenagers from the San Fernando Valley in California, who were so obsessed with the culture of personality and the trappings of celebrity that they started breaking into celebrity’s homes and stealing stuff.
They would often just walk in through an unlocked front door, or climb in an open window. They robbed people like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.
In the course of a nine-month spree they looted more than 3 million dollars worth of jewelry and designer clothes. I found the story shocking, but part of it got me chuckling to myself. Apparently they broke into Paris Hilton’s home six times before she even noticed. “She had so much stuff that it took awhile for her to realize someone had broken in.”
Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “The one who dies with the most stuff wins?” A better, truer one would say, “The one who dies with the most stuff dies.”
Sofia Coppola said she chose this subject for her movie because she has two small daughters, and she fears for them growing up in this glittery world of celebrity culture, a culture that sends the message that it really is all about you and your stuff. She describes hearing some of her daughter’s 6 year-old friends talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and a couple of them said, “I want to be famous.” She asks, “Where does that come from?” I don’t think we knew about that when we were six years old.”
And that is a challenge for ministry these days. I am particularly thinking of parents and youth ministers. How do we raise our children in a society that tells them it really is all about us?
When we were driving through the countryside in France we would sometimes see vast fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see. The sunflowers would be facing East toward the rising sun in the morning, and as the sun moved through the sky the sunflowers would turn toward it, so that at dusk they would have turned completely toward the West. In fact the French world for sunflower is tournesol, which literally means “turn to the sun.”
Sunflowers do this because they are heliotropic; they need the sun to live. By analogy, we are theotropic, we need God to live, and we are made to bend our love toward God and others. But we too often bend our love toward ourselves, and that is where we get in trouble, for instead of living for God and others we try to love ourselves and control things as if we were God.
And that is what is so beautiful about our second reading today from Philippians; it turns the equation entirely upside down. God in Christ bends toward us, and shows us what love looks like.
The late British theologian Colin Gunton said,
Sin is for the creature to think and act as if it were the creator. But here in Philippians 2 Jesus is godlike precisely in going the other way.
Here Jesus empties himself even of his divinity to become a servant, “a man for others” as Dietrich Bonheoffer described him.
And it is this humility, this self-emptying, this relinquishing of privilege, that Paul wants the church in Philippi to emulate. He writes them to “let the same mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus.”
The church in Philippi was having one of those squabbles that have been known to happen in congregations, even in our own time. Paul admonishes them to get out of their own way, and have the very same mindset as Jesus, the mindset that let him to empty himself, and in humility take the form of a servant, the mindset that ultimately led to his death on the cross.
But it’s not so easy to have the same mindset as Jesus. Remember those WWJD bracelets, that stood for “what would Jesus do?” Some people criticized those WWJD bracelets for being overly simplistic. Because asking, “What would Jesus do? doesn’t really solve the problem. It usually isn’t that hard to know what Jesus would do. People talk about the hard passages in the Bible, and there are some, but the parts that really challenge and convict me aren’t the parts I don’t understand, but the parts I do. “Love your enemies.” “Freed the hungry.” “Welcome the stranger.” “Share your possessions.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” Just to name a few.
So the hard part, after you figure out what Jesus would do, is doing it.
To “practice what we preach,” to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk” is where we pretty consistently fail, and why we need grace and forgiveness to keep trying. And the good news is that is exactly what we get from our God, grace and forgiveness.
In the cross of Jesus Christ, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and saves us from ourselves, among other things, such as sin and death.
All ministers, you and me, lay or ordained, even Rebecca, fail at being consistently Christ-like. But the wisest ministers know that our ministry is at its most faithful when we realize that it is not about us, when we get out of our own way, as Jesus did, to be a servant, as he was a servant, to serve as he served, to love as he loved, and to be a person for others.
And here’s the beautiful thing: if you follow this recipe you don’t really lose yourself at all, you will actually find yourself. Only the empty can be filled with the new life God wants for us. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)
Because this self- emptying doesn’t mean we lose our personalities or our personal identities. On the contrary, when our love bends toward God and others, as those sunflowers bend toward the sun, when we lose ourselves in service, when we live for others, we are most ourselves, our own true best selves as God intended us to be.
Just as Jesus’ exalted lordship is ultimately revealed in his humble servant-hood.
Let us listen to it again:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
And let the people say: Amen.
I preached this sermon at the Ordination of my daughter, Rebecca Megan Floyd, on June 9, 2013, at the Green’s Farms Congregational Church, UCC, in Westport, Connecticut.