Reset: Called and Sent
January 8, 2017
Matthew 3:13-17 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[a] with whom I am well pleased.”
This was a big week for me. This past week, I finished and submitted my ordination papers to the Western NC Annual Conference of the UMC. Now, some of you are thinking, “Ordination, I thought you were already a pastor?” I am, but it’s a long, complicated road in the UMC. When you finish seminary, you go through a round of paper writing and interviews before you are commissioned as a provisional clergyperson and serve for three years. Then, you go through another round of paper writing and interviews in hopes of being ordained. For those of you in the teaching profession, I believe you have a similar provisional period when you’re starting out. For those of you in the medical profession, it’s very similar to residency. You are a doctor, but you are still practicing with some oversight and accountability so that they can make sure that you’re competent before they release you on a bunch of patients. So, over the past six months, in the midst of everything else, I’ve been working on a series of assignments around my work as a pastor, theology, preaching, teaching, leadership, and more, culminating in 70+ pages of written work that I turned in this past Monday. It was a good day. And, I’d certainly appreciate your prayers in February when I go before the Board of Ordained Ministry for my interview.
Now, I just have to be honest with you. I appreciate that it takes a certain amount of time, effort, and aptitude to become a Methodist pastor. It means that we can trust our colleagues, right? I mean, you really have to be called to it. You really have to know that this is who God has created you to be and how God has called you to serve the church. There’s a good reason that ordination for us doesn’t just mean going online and downloading a certificate. Ordination means something.
I bring this up because, today, we're talking about baptism. Like ordination, baptism means something. It’s funny, we have all of these different words for pastors: clergy, priest, elder, deacon, bishop, archbishop, reverend, the right reverend, the most reverend. I mean, we can come up with some titles! One that we use often is “minister.” When people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a Methodist minister.”
But, I wonder, when we restrict that title to clergy, whether we lose something in the church? The truth is, all Christians are ministers.
There’s a great video that we were going to show in the contemporary services before the snowpocalypse changed our plans. In it, Mike Frost, who is a pastor of a small church community in Sydney, Australia, talks about something that they do when they gather on Sunday evenings. After they eat a meal together, someone in their community will get up and share what an average week looks like for them. They’ll talk about their work, their family situation, the things they spend time doing. They’ll share their average week for less than ten minutes. And then, everyone else will reflect back to the person how they think that person’s life mirrors the work of God in the world. And, once they’ve done that, the group lays hands on the person and ordains them to keep doing that work of God in the world. And this is foundational to their community, that in the many ways they spend their time during the week, they are doing the work of God in the world.
How cool is that? What if you looked at everything you did--your work, your relationships, the ways you spend your time--as doing the work of God in the world? As something you are sent from the church community to do, so that this world might look a bit more like God hopes for it to look?
One of my favorite things about the Methodist tradition is that, in the beginning of our movement, lay people, people who weren’t clergy, weren’t experts, were empowered to be the church, to do the work of God. Interestingly, when the Methodist movement started up in colonial America, they had this problem. There weren’t enough clergy. They were starting new churches left and right. As people moved west and started little towns, the Methodists started new churches. But, they didn’t have enough clergy to keep up with demand. So, they starting empowering lay people to preach, to teach, to lead the churches, to care for the poor, to visit the sick. And then clergy would stop by churches as they could to offer communion, baptize people, and check on things. But, the laity were the ones who ministered to the community. Blacksmiths, shop owners, doctors, farmers, tanners, lawyers, teachers--these were the true leaders of the local church. They were the ministers in their communities.
You know, in that video, Mike Frost talks about Lesslie Newbigin, who is one of the most famous missionaries and missiologists of the past century. Missiology, by the way, is simply the study of mission. A missiologist is someone who studies and teaches on what it means for us to be in mission, to be sent by God into the world, and the best practices and strategies for being effective in mission. So, here’s the amazing thing about Lesslie Newbigin. He had this incredible career of almost forty years as a missionary in India. He started churches, united churches, and became a bishop of a new denomination. But, his greatest impact came in retirement as a writer and a speaker. His impact on the church and the world was more about what he did in his 70s and 80s than what he did in his 30s.
One of the core things that Newbigin focused on was the cultivation of laity as leaders. He felt so strongly about lay people taking ownership and leadership for the work of the church that someone accused him of trying to eliminate the clergy. And he responded, “I’m not trying to eliminate the clergy, I’m trying to eliminate the laity.”
We do this at times. We label pastors and church staff the “professionals” or “experts” and others the “laity.” A layperson, by definition, is “an ordinary person,” someone without expertise. But, following Jesus isn’t about being an expert. Knowing God isn’t about being an expert. At the very foundations of our tradition is this belief in what we call “the priesthood of all believers,” which means that we are all priests (which was the most common term for a clergyperson at the time) in a way. We are all called and sent to do the work of God in the world. It’s not just for the “experts” or the “professionals,” but for all members of the Body of Christ.
The passage that we read is the story of the baptism of Jesus. And, obviously, it is a major part of the passage. It is this great moment where the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove. Now, we never hear if anyone else sees or hears this, but that’s not the point I want to make. I love this exchange between John and Jesus. Jesus wants John to baptize him and John’s like, “Are you kidding? Who am I to baptize you? You should be baptizing me! I mean, you’re the expert. You’re the Son of God!” But Jesus insists. What does this say about our whole idea of experts and non-experts.
I remember going through confirmation in 6th grade and Dunwoody UMC in Atlanta, GA. For those of you newer to the Methodist tradition, we practice confirmation because we practice infant baptism. We baptize babies, because you don’t have to be a certain age for God’s grace to work in your life. But, then you have an opportunity as a teenager to go through Confirmation; to learn more, ask questions, and ultimately claim the faith as your own. Not just something you were born into but something you have chosen.
And, I remember in Confirmation making a stole to wear on Confirmation Sunday. Each confirmand got to make his or her own stole, writing the names of people who had been influential in their faith journey, drawing symbols or writing scripture passages that were uniquely significant. And then we wore those stoles as we were confirmed in front of the congregation.
Now, this is interesting, because one of the primary things that the stole symbolizes is a yoke, a duty that we have to serve Christ and the church. In our tradition, the only people that wear stoles are ordained clergy. Maybe you’ve noticed that I never wear one, whereas the others do. It’s because Mike is ordained as an elder, Virginia is ordained--originally in the Baptist tradition, and Alice wears a different type of stole that is worn across the body, because she is ordained as a deacon, a different order of clergy in the UMC. But, I’m not supposed to wear one until I’m fully ordained.
But, as confirmands, we wore stoles. Because to be a baptized member of the Church means you have a responsibility and calling to be in ministry. When you are baptized and when you then claim that faith as your own, you claim the work of the church as your own.
Now, I recognize that I’m talking to a pretty committed crowd this morning. You are the ones who will venture out in the snow to be at church. You are the diehards. Or you just had a bit of cabin fever and nothing else is open. But, we are going to do something in just a little bit in the service. We are going to have some time during which we remember our baptisms. Or, if you have not been baptized, it’s a time to consider the significance of baptism and whether you are ready to make that commitment.
You will have an opportunity to come and touch the water and consider what it means to be a minister of the gospel, someone sent out into the world to do the work of God. And, during that time, I’d invite you to consider a question.
Given your unique makeup, your role in the Body of Christ, what work is God sending you to do?