Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances: An Installation Sermon

Dire StraitsI am very glad to be here to celebrate with you the covenant between you and Mike as you begin your ministry here together. Today feels like a homecoming of sorts for me since I began my own ordained ministry 38 years ago, just an hour up the road from here in Northwest York County, Maine.

I was privileged to worship with you this morning, and inspired and humbled by the atmosphere of worship here in this congregation. As we like to say, “We had church today!”

I was also impressed and gratified to discern the obvious affection you already have for Mike and his family after just a few months in life together.

This afternoon I want to think aloud with you about what shape your ministry together might take in the years ahead. I was at a meeting with Mike about a month ago, and we all went around the room and introduced ourselves, and Mike introduced himself as the Pastor and Teacher of the First Parish Church in Dover, New Hampshire. Mike knows that I like that title better than senior minister, first of all because it has a nice old fashioned New England feel about it, but more importantly, it better defines the role of minister as I see it. And understanding the role properly will go far in Mike and you succeeding as pastor and people.

So let me say, first of all, what ministry is not. Ministry is not a commodity. Unfortunately, the search and call process does commodify ministry for both pastor and congregation, and perhaps it has to, but it is a very bad model for ministry.

The very term “installation” further confuses the matter. It occurs to me that the word installation sounds as if what we are doing this afternoon is plugging in a major appliance! And to add to the metaphor, a little later in this service Mike will get not one, but two charges. Let’s be playful with the image of installation for a minute.  I picture a giant cardboard box arriving at the front door. In my imagination the appliance store delivery guys look something like the cartoon characters on the old Dire Straits video, “Money for Nothing:” big burly guys in sleeveless T-shirts with visible tattoos, chomping on the butt-ends of cigars.  “Where do you want it?” they ask.  “How ’bout right over here by the outlet so it can get a charge. It’s a beauty, isn’t it?  much more efficient than the old one, and with many new features. Here’s the operating manual.  It comes with a one year warranty.”  Just about the time of your annual meeting. You get the idea!

I suggest that we regard that little flight of imagination as a cautionary tale for ministry. Because in contemporary America we tend to think of everything as a commodity, which then can be bought and sold. So it is a temptation for churches to think of their new minister as the new and improved model. And equally tempting for ministers to buy into that expectation. Who doesn’t like to be thought of as valuable and more worthy than others?

I caution you not accept that image. Mike is a gifted pastor, smart, well trained, well read, committed, personable and resourceful. But he is not a major appliance! It is precisely because of his vast talents, which make him especially vulnerable to being perceived, and perceiving himself, as a valuable ministerial commodity. And, like most temptations, there is just enough truth in it to give it appeal. For in fact, from a human point of view, Mike is a valuable ministerial commodity, in an age where both the supply and morale of talented clergy are low.

So how shall we think of the role of minister, of pastor and teacher?  In the Fourth Chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians he tells the church how to regard his ministry among them: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The word translated as “servant” here is peculiar to Paul in the New Testament, and, in the common tongue, it was the name given to slaves on a galley ship. I just saw the movie version of Les Miserables, and I picture the shackled convicts in the opening scene who are pulling a great ship into a slip to be like the galley slaves of Paul’s time. It is a harsh metaphor, or it would be except the master in this case is Jesus Christ.

The second of Paul’s images, and the one I want to focus on today is “steward.” We know this word from Stewardship Sunday, when we pledge our time, talent and treasure; or at least we do when we understand stewardship at its best and not at its worst as a dreary fund raising project.

A steward quite simply was a household servant, a sort of house manager, who looked after things for the master.

What’s Paul’s point in employing this humble job description? Paul was dealing with an early version of the cult of the preacher and the commodifying of ministry. That was the pagan way, as it still is. Preaching was all about skill in rhetoric, reading your audience, moving them, engaging them, entertaining them! And there was competition to see who did it best. So some liked Paul, some liked another itinerant preacher named Apollos, and some liked Cephas, which is just another name for Peter.

Paul rejects this cult of the preacher as unworthy of a Christian community. He himself, he writes them, “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God . . . in lofty words of wisdom.” No, he said,  “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1Corinthians 2:1,2)

The good steward doesn’t have to please the crowds, only the Lord, who will ask for an accounting when he comes “to bring to light the things now hidden in darkness.” (1 Corinthians 4:5) That is the only judgment that counts for the minister of God.

But what exactly is it to which the steward has been entrusted? “The mysteries of God.”  The NIV calls them “the secret things of God.” Here’s our first hint about the proper role for a pastor and teacher. As Mike and I know a minister can spend inordinate amounts of time in meetings, making plans, reviewing budgets, and managing all matter of things that none of us ever dreamed about or wanted when we received the call to ministry. So be it, it goes with the territory. These are duties of ministry, but not the role of minister, and it is dangerous to confuse duties with role.

The role of a pastor and teacher is to be a faithful house manager of the divine mysteries, a steward of the mysteries of God. And what are the mysteries of God?

Paul says that the divine mysteries are quite simply the Gospel, the good news of God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.

This good news tells us that whoever we are, whatever we have done, wherever we have been, wherever we are going, God’s love will not let us go. This love is as deep as the ocean, as fierce as the cross, as powerful as the resurrection, and as forever as time and beyond time.

The Good News about this love, Paul says, was once hidden but is now revealed by the Spirit, which is a good word for this Epiphany Sunday.

Let us think of the many glorious aspects of this Gospel as the secret things of God, secret in that they are not apparent to the eyes of the world, but only to the eyes of faith.

Now we are at the heart of the role. For it is the pastor and teacher’s responsibility to keep the eyes of the congregation on the horizon of eternity, rather than on the wearying preoccupations of the world. The steward of the mysteries reminds us again and again that the church is not our project, but God’s project. This is not easy. The cult of the preacher is easier and more fun. The cult of the preacher lets us assign success and blame depending how the numbers go. Every pastor is pleased when the numbers, members and money, look good, but the smart ones know they don’t control them. Unlike me, Mike with his economics background, actually understands numbers, and he’ll tend to that part of the job, but again that is a duty and not a role.

Too many clergy and congregations today are focused on the numbers, how much money and how many people. It’s a great temptation, and it can be deadly for a church because if the pastor is not a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God, then the congregation may get disconnected from the Gospel, and lose its way. It happens! And when it happens you may find yourself doggedly presiding over a frenetic activism that is all movement and no substance, what P.T. Forsyth once called the besetting sin of the church: “the sin of bustle.”

Too much of what passes for religion is not about what God is doing among us, but what we are doing ourselves. In this regard we have absorbed from the culture the misguided utopianism that thinks humans can control all things. The Czech dissident poet Vaclav Havel called modern utopianism

an arrogant attempt by human reason to plan life. But it is not possible to force life to conform to some abstract blueprint. Life is something unfathomable, ever-changing, mysterious, and every attempt to confine it within an artificial, abstract structure inevitably ends up homogenizing, regimenting, standardizing and destroying life, as well as curtailing everything that projects beyond, overflows or falls outside the abstract project. What is a concentration camp, after all, but an attempt by utopians to dispose of those elements which do not fit in.” (Interview in Times Literary Supplement)

A steward of the mysteries of God looks for height and depth as well as movement. What might that look like here in Dover?  Part of your role, Mike, is to keep the church in Dover a place where God’s story is not an ancient tale, but a present vibrant reality; a place to expect miracles, because the world is full of them for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. There are divine presences in every mundane transaction, and daily epiphanies around every corner. Keep that sense alive here. Gerard Manley Hopkins was right when he wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

A steward of the mysteries of God believes that all things are possible when God is involved, and helps others to believe it too. And when people believe God’s Spirit and power are among them, who knows what might happen?  Do you remember Thomas Merton’s comment about a Shaker chair?  “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” (From the Introduction to Religion in Wood by Edward Deming and Faith Andrews, 1966.)

The other piece of the role of pastor and teacher is the context: the congregation and its life together. Mike is gifted in this regard with a great deal of personal authenticity, warmth and humanity.

Are there any homiletic teachers in the congregation today? No, good, because I want to break a rule? Oh, what do I care, I am retired!? So I’m going to be personal and confessional and say that I met Mike about ten years ago during a particularly difficult time in my life, as I was struggling with the challenges of a new disability. Mike’s response to me was so empathic and tender without being in any way condescending. No one has been a better friend to me these last years, no one, and you are and will be blessed to have him as your pastor.

Mike embodies what the great preacher Gardner Taylor was after when he advised preachers “to look beyond the peripheral signs of preaching greatness to the real source of pastoral insight–the common bond with one’s hearers provided by suffering.” If you let him, Mike will share your lives, will rejoice when you rejoice and weep when you weep, and become your pastor. Gardner Taylor continues:

Now you may tickle people’s fancies, but you will never preach to their hearts, until at some place, some solemn appointment has fallen upon your own life, and you have wept bitter tears, and gone to your own Gethsemene and climbed your own Calvary.  That is where power is.’  The power of preaching is “not in the tone of voice.  It is not in the eloquence of the preacher.  It is not in the gracefulness of the gestures. It is not in the magnificence of the congregation. It is in a heart broken, and put together by the eternal God.

In conclusion, despite the fact that we are “installing” him today your new pastor and teacher is not a major appliance, neither is he a ministerial commodity, nor a quick fix or a paid Christian so everybody else doesn’t have to be one. No, Michael Steven Bennett is a minister of Christ’s church, a servant of Christ and a steward of God’s mysteries.

Mike, if you accept that role you will find that it will be shaped by the cross more that by the judgments and expectations of people. But the only judgment that really matters is the one whose ministry it is anyway. Those who remember their identity and their role as steward, who anticipate the return of the master, look forward to hearing the master’s praise: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Lord.” Amen.

(I preached this sermon at the installation of Michael Steven Bennett as Pastor and Teacher of the First Parish Church (UCC) in Dover, New Hampshire on Epiphany Sunday, 2013.

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