Set Apart to Serve Within
Rev. Louis Timberlake
Well, it’s been a fun week at Christ Church. We had Vacation Bible School this past week, during which hundreds of leaders and participants come together for music, drama, crafts, and more as the kids learned about God. This year, Christ Church was transformed into the 18th century England–the time of John and Charles Wesley. It was pretty comical walking around Christ Church and seeing everyone in period costumes. They even gave me a hat to wear, so I could blend in somewhat. Which was great until one of the youth asked me who I was supposed to be, thinking that my normal clothes were actually a costume. I’m not sure what that says about my fashion sense. But, from firsthand experience, I can tell you that the leaders did a great job and the kids had a great time.
It is good to be with you this Sunday. Last Sunday, I was in Lake Junaluska attending Annual Conference. Annual Conference, as some of you know, is the “annual gathering of the clergy and lay delegates from UM churches in Western NC.” We worship, we hear reports, and we vote on matters that affect churches and clergy. We also get to reconnect with colleagues and people from other churches, which is fun.
And, truly, it was a special weekend for Christ Church. Our former Senior Pastor, Mike Bailey, was officially installed as a District Superintendent. Tom Jordan, our Lay Leader, was voted in as the new Chair of the Board of the United Methodist Foundation of Western NC, which provides investment services, debt assistance, ministry grants, and other support for churches and individuals. And, for me, it was a privilege to participate in the Celebration of Life service, which honors the lives of clergy and clergy spouses who have passed away in the past year. Among that number this year was our own Bob Ralls, who had many decades of tremendous ministry as a pastor and as a District Superintendent before retiring and worshipping at Christ Church. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
It was a special weekend for me personally, as I was ordained. Now, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t a pastor before now, but this was the final hurdle. You are a pastor as soon as you are appointed to a church, but there’s a residency period and another round of examination before you are fully ordained. So, a process that began for me as a high school student around thirteen years ago when I stepped into my pastor’s office and said, “I think I’m being called to ministry,” has come to a conclusion. It’s a good process. But, it’s good to be done.
Now, and here’s a moment of vulnerability for you, I think a lot of pastors have this secret desire for their ordination to be this earth shattering moment. Kind of like Jesus’ baptism, where the heavens split and the Spirit of God descends in a visible way. My eyes were closed during the whole experience, but I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen. All I remember was the weight. Eight people laid their hands on me. Five Bishops, my District Superintendent, and two pastors that I was allowed to choose (Mike Bailey and a mentor of mine from Davidson.) Now, I was towards the end of the alphabet, so maybe the Bishops were just tired and leaning on us by that point, but those hands were heavy.
That’s ordination for you. Unspectacular and heavy.
I read a great story that one pastor wrote about his ordination. He was at Annual Conference and was to be ordained that year, until he got a call about a pastoral care emergency and was needed back at his church. He would miss the ordination service and wasn’t quite sure what to do, so he went to find the Bishop backstage. He related the situation to the Bishop, who responded, “There are people who need you. That’s where you should be. You should go back home. So, I’ll ordain you now.” The Bishop proceeded to take him into a broom closet and there, among old mops and cheap air fresheners, the Bishop asked the pastor the historic questions asked of those being ordained. There wasn’t room for the pastor to kneel, so, nose to nose in that musty closet, the Bishop reached up, placed his hands on the pastor’s head, and ordained him. And the man went back to his church to be with a family journeying through an overwhelmingly dark time.1
Unspectacular and heavy.
Ordination, for us in the church, refers to a “setting apart.” Set apart for a particular role. It’s something we receive from our tradition and our scriptures, going back to one of the twelves tribes of Israel, the Levites, who were set apart for special roles in the religious life of the society.
But, to be honest, I struggle with this notion of being “set apart” at times. It just sounds so pompous. Or maybe it’s that it feels so demanding. Or exhausting. Or maybe even futile, at times. The needs of the world are so great. The opposing forces are so strong.
And yet, I wonder if we forget that being set apart isn’t just about pastors; it is the fundamental identity of the Church. We are those in the world, but not quite of the world. Not separate from the world. Not above the world. In the world. But distinct, in some way. Set apart to serve within.
Servanthood is what we’re to be about as the Church. Not a life of fame and glory. Not a life of wealth and comfort. A life of service. Something usually unspectacular and sometimes heavy.
This weekend, I’ve been thinking about freedom. What is freedom? Tuesday is an important day for us. It is a day in celebration of freedom. Freedom from oppressive rule. Freedom to assert the equality of all people and rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Those are good things. Worthy things.
It’s odd though. In this passage, Paul paints a distinctive picture of freedom. So often, freedom, for us, is about the self. My freedom is about my ability to do what I want, say what I want, and think what I want. It’s about me. But, that’s not what Paul says.
“When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.”
How interesting is that? Freedom is not about you, it’s about who, or what, you serve.
As Bob Dylan puts it, it doesn’t matter who you are, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
So, who, or what, are we serving? Because there are few things more dangerous than an unacknowledged master. And there are a lot of potential masters out there.
We live in an interesting time, don’t we? There is so much tension in our world. I can just mention the word “politics” and you can almost feel the collective tensing of the room. We don’t know how to navigate it. We know that our public discourse shouldn’t look the way it does, but we don’t know how to change it. We know that the current relations between people of different races, nationalities, or religions should be better, but there is this pervasive fear that we just can’t shake. We know that things like healthcare and immigration are deeply complex topics, affecting millions of lives and involving trillions of dollars. And yet, we can’t seem to rise above simplistic, inflammatory rhetoric.
And before you get the idea that I’m picking a side, I’m not. We, as the Church, aren’t about sides. We are about something much more significant. We are about a deep love for all of humanity. We are about the reverent stewardship of all Creation. And we are about an abiding, sustaining hope in the God who makes all things new. And that love, that reverence, that hope, compels us to a life of service.
It is a life that is usually unspectacular, sometimes heavy, and full of joy. Because, as Paul writes, we are “those who have been brought from death to life.”
If this world is to know true healing, then it must come from something not fully of the world. That is the role of the church. We are set apart because we have encountered something that has radically transformed us. And we are sent to tell the story of that transformation. To be a part of that transformation. We are set apart, but we are situated within. The ones who offer another way. Who share about a better master. Who live out a different kind of freedom. Freedom that leads from death to life.