Serving the Lord

This is the message for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 19 October 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 38: 1- 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 41.


Today is Laity Sunday, the Sunday in the year when the work of the Laity is honored. The United Methodist Church is unique, I believe, in this celebration. Though other denominations use lay persons in their services, no other denomination puts a reliance on the laity like we do.

This is partially because of our history and the use of circuit riders to provide ordained leadership to the various churches strung along country roods. It fell to the laity of each local society or early church to provide the pastoral guidance as well as the secular leadership for the church between the visits of the circuit rider.

Today marks the twelfth anniversary of the first time I ever preached. Looking back, I can honestly say that I never anticipated that my service as a lay speaker would turn into what it has become. I still remember joking on that Sunday morning that my feelings of nervousness were such that I would make coffee nervous.

I took on the challenge of organizing Laity Sunday because it needed to be done. At the time that I came to that church, it was in decline, losing members, struggling with its finances, and just generally not doing very well. Laity Sunday at that church had been a day when the pastor took the day off. But it was not a vacation for the Lay Leader who, in that church, served as the liturgist. Laity Sunday simply meant that he, the Lay Leader, had to do the entire service rather than simply the parts before the offering.

So when I volunteered to do Laity Sunday back in 1991, I wanted all to participate. It was after all a celebration of the laity and not just one person. That year, I thought that it would be appropriate if I could get members of the congregation to do various parts of the service, from the greeting through the opening prayers and the various bible readings, leaving the last step (the message) for myself. It was a model that worked and I would hope that it continues at that church to this day.

In 1993, I sought to involve one of the other lay speakers in the church. It was a sign of the changes that were taking place in that church that others were becoming involved. I had two reasons for wanting someone else to present the message that Sunday,. Things for me were changing and I wanted to let the other speakers whom the church had sponsored and nurtured present their talents. I was also fearful that people there would think that I was hogging the spotlight, much in the manner that I disliked others in the church keeping a position when others were ready to serve.

But late on the Saturday afternoon before Laity Sunday, as I was relaxing and confident that I had achieved what I had sought out to do, I got a phone call from the scheduled speaker. He told me that he would not be able to present the message in church the next day and “Would I at the last moment do the message?” So it was that I also received my “baptism” in the role of the lay speaker who fills in at the last moment for an ailing pastor or lay speaker.

The other thing that I would note is that I have not forgotten this model of participation. I have not used that model at other churches simply because there hasn’t been a situation where it was a practical application. But I would like to use it, especially on a weekly basis where individuals serve as liturgists, reading the first scriptures and offering the opening prayers.

For me, being a lay speaker is an opportunity for service. At times, it has been the only thing that I could bring to the church. And as it came to be, the opportunities presented to me have been more than just simply filling in for a vacationing pastor, the traditional role of lay speakers in the Methodist Church.

In 1995, I was re-certified in Parsons’ District of the Kansas West Annual Conference. Shortly after my meeting with the District Council on Ministries, I received a call from the District Superintendent asking if I would provide the leadership for three churches in southeast Kansas. For five weeks, in an age of automobiles, computers, and television, I took on the role of an itinerant preacher moving between three churches on each Sunday. After that assignment I was given two more similar assignments as the District Superintendent sought a pastor for the charges. I came away with an appreciation for what those early Methodist ministers and circuit riders did.

In April of 1997, I met with Memphis District Superintendent to discuss my candidacy for the ministry. As our meeting concluded, he asked if I could stay a little longer and be part of another meeting he had scheduled. In that meeting, I became the fourth of four to join in a project to provide pastoral leadership to two rural churches just outside Memphis. Both met at the same time on Sunday and shared the same pastor; since he could not preach at both, he alternated Sundays between the two churches. This meant that every other Sunday one of the two had no church service; the Tennessee conference was getting ready to close or combine the churches because of the waste of resources. The four of us provided a solution that provided pastoral leadership to the two communities.

I moved to Kentucky in 1998 thinking that I would not find opportunities like I had in Kansas or Tennessee. But in October of 1998, the District Superintendent for that part of Kentucky called me and asked if I would help the church in Neon, much as I had done before. The pastor had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was no longer able to serve and the church needed someone to lead them.

And when the plans were being made for me to move here to New York in 1999, I simply let the District Superintendent for this area (a fine young preacher from western Missouri named Dennis Winkleblack) know that I would be available if there was the opportunity. And he let me know that he might just have a place for me. That brought me to Walker Valley, and of course, ultimately to here.

I mentioned all of this because it has been the hallmark of my lay speaking career. I have been called to service in ways that I could never explain nor understand. I have never conscientiously sought rewards for what I have done; in all honesty, I don’t know that I could ever be rewarded. And if I should start looking at this role that I have chosen in terms of glory or honor, I need only remember those circuit riders of the past. The Methodist Church’s first Bishop, Francis Asbury made it clear when he recruited those early pastors that it was not a glorious job and that the rewards on this earth were limited. Peter Cartwright became a member of the early Methodist Episcopal Church in 1801 and quickly became one of this church’s early circuit riders. In a life that spanned eighty-seven years, he served as a circuit rider for twenty and an elder for some fifty years. In his autobiography, he wrote,

A Methodist preacher… when he felt that God had called him to preach, instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony of a horse, and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn Book, and Discipline, he started, and with a test that never wore out nor grew stale, he cried, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.’ In this way he went through storm of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddle-bags for his pillow, and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering. Often he slept in dirty cabins, on earthen floors, before the fire; ate roasting ears for bread, drank butter-milk for coffee, or sage tea for imperial (tea and cream); too, with a hearty zest, deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper, if he could get it. His text was always ready, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ (From The Heritage of American Methodism, Kentucky Annual Conference Edition)

For Peter Cartwright, being a circuit rider and enduring the trail through Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois in the early 19th century was more about service to God than rewards or power. It was a call from God to preach the word where no one had heard it or where people wanted to hear it.

But it was clearly not service that must have been going through the minds of James and John, the “sons of thunder”, who either by themselves or with the encouragement of their mother (as described in Matthew’s account) when they sought out Jesus. They wanted and sought positions of honor and glory in God’s kingdom. The one seated at the right hand of the king said without speaking that he or she was the second most powerful person in the kingdom; the person on the left was just below in rank, honor, and glory.

It is noted in both Mark’s account and Matthew’s that the other disciples were displeased with the actions of James and John. It could only be because they themselves were thinking of the same thing. They wanted to share in the earthly power that they believed awaited Jesus. Clearly, they were either not listening to Jesus or understanding what He was saying about His life ending in shame and not glory. None of the disciples could conceive that what Jesus was offering was offering something other than political or religious power. They saw His preaching through the scope of their own needs. (Adapted from “Sharing in the Glory”, from “Living the Word” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourner, September/October 2003.)

Society teaches us to see our role in life in terms of the power it offers and the power it brings. Power is where it is at and if you do not have power, you are not there. We see that in so many ways in society and that includes the Christian church. Especially in today’s Third World, people see the Christian Church in much the same way the early Christian Church saw the Roman Empire, imperialistic, domineering, and arrogant. Others want the church to have a role of power and domination, attempting to control lives instead of allowing lives to develop to the fullest. But Jesus pointed out that the Kingdom that he would bring forth was not a kingdom of this world and the rules that applied to this world would not necessarily apply to the New Kingdom of heaven. Power for power’s sake would not apply.

We have equated power with leadership and leadership with power. If we are not powerful, we cannot lead. If we do not lead, we cannot be powerful. Yet, Jesus said that those who would serve would be last, a complete reversal of what we seek in this world.

Let us put ourselves with our desires for power in the place of Job. Job is asking God many great questions about suffering and divine justice. But God chooses not to answer those questions. But He also humiliates nor condemns Job for his actions. Rather, he asks if Job has sufficient knowledge about the world. In doing so, God vindicates Job, a vindication that will be later affirmed. But this discourse also shows Job that his role is that of a servant and not that of a king.

God essentially has challenged Job to teach him; and since Job cannot, he should be aware of what the consequences are. Job must be willing to be the servant of God since he can never be God’s equal.

The consequences are the same for each of us; they have been the same since the time mankind sought to build the Tower of Babel. We have a responsibility to learn but our knowledge will never surpass that of God’s, we should not expect to be at that level. It does not mean that we should not learn more about this world but that our ability to match the knowledge of God can never be reached.

That is where it is critical that we understand the difference between leadership defined by power and leadership defined by servanthood. Those who seek power (such as James or John might have wanted) care nothing about the institution that they seek to lead. All they are interested in is their own well being. But those who seek to lead by servanthood empower those around them. As the writer of Hebrews points out, we do not need a priest to lead us as the Israelites needed Aaron. For we have Jesus. And in Jesus we are able to transcend the differences between power and powerlessness, leader and follower, agent and victim. Jesus had the power to heal, to transform and to influence others. But He also suffered at the hands of the state, organized religion, and even His closest friends and allies. Jesus had the ultimate power, yet He gave it away.

In this world where power has mostly negative connotations, should we seek it? Not if it takes us away from what we should be doing. Is it the task of the church to adjust to the world or to change it? If we seek to stand in the faithful line of those who would change the world, then we need to reclaim the positive potential of power as well as the gospel’s capacity to influence, to change lives, and to renew communities.

It will begin with us. That is what today is about. Laity Sunday is a reminder that is we who serve, without the rewards that society has taught to expect even when what we do is what we are supposed to do. How shall we serve? That should be the question we are asking. There should be no limit to the number of volunteers seeking to serve the Lord. But, because others have sought power through their service, the volunteers are limited.

“Who shall serve?” is now the question. And for this church it is an important question. At this point, we need a chair for the administrative council, someone to serve as lay member to the Annual Conference (a job that has more to it that was first thought, as recent events have shown), and if not a financial secretary, at least an assistant financial secretary. I hope we have the person to fill the three-year term on the board of trustees. But we could always use a couple more individuals just to give some depth to the board. I hope I have the nominations for the church treasurer’s position, the chair for stewardship and finance, and the PPRC chair. At last year’s Church Conference, we stated that we wanted more people involved. At this year’s conference, the question is whether more people will attend. If more people do not attend, then it is very difficult to get more people to serve. If more people do not serve, then we have to hope that the same individuals serve again. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like things will have changed.

Service is never just loving humanity or simply caring about the masses. Service proceeds slowly, one person at a time. And ultimately service is about community. Often, when we are engaged in charity, there is no real community. The poor remain segregated from those who dole out some goodness for a few brief moments and then return to their own comfortable lives. Service brings people together in one community. Service means that we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.,” and then work to make the reality of heaven here on earth.

Today is the day we recognize the work of the Laity in serving the church throughout the history of the church. It has been and will also be service for the Lord. As we look to the coming year, one must ask how you will serve the Lord?


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