“Fear and trembling,” those words we heard from St Paul this morning. You can bet I’m feeling both of those at this moment.
Nonetheless, I’m Jessie Maeck, and it’s a delight, on this day we celebrate all the amazing people who do lay ministry at Redeemer, to be invited to share with you what lay ministry has come to mean to me.
A young girl named Mary might have been the first lay minister, at least to Christians.
She said “yes.”
Another person who answered a call is the first son in the parable in today’s gospel.
We’re here to celebrate lay ministry today, right?
Most of us don’t get a visit from the Angel Gabriel, and we aren’t invited to give birth to a divine part of God either. But as soon as we move just a little beyond where those paralyzed priests and elders who challenged Jesus in our Gospel reading were, as soon as we give up enough fear to be able to listen, we will be called. And usually what we’re invited to do is, in fact, to assist in the birth of something Divine.
We do get calls to do God’s work all the time, as often as the father in today’s parable must have called his sons to “go and work in the vineyard today.” A lay minister is anyone who has answered a call to “go work in the vineyard,” even if the person, like the first son in the parable, says “No” at first, but then shows up later.
For me, by now, lay ministry is the Kingdom of God drawing near. It is my chance to give birth to something Divine, to participate in God’s Kingdom right here on this earth. To me, lay ministry is a transforming experience.
And I’m pretty loose with my meaning for lay ministry by now:
Am I confusing lay ministry and mutual ministry and stewardship? Not really: all three are about doing God’s work.
For me, after more than 2 decades as a committed adult in the church, it’s all God’s work, it’s all the act of saying “yes,” instead of “We don’t know.” And since I’m not ordained, it’s all “lay ministry,”
So could lay ministry become a way of life? If it does, you become a sort of vehicle for something important, and you’re on your way to some real transformation, but on this special day when we all hold up the work we do as lay ministers, let’s just remind ourselves that there are downsides and hold them up in love and celebration too.
First, there are the sacrifices. Let’s use the priests and elders’ questions now in a different way. What if we asked ourselves, “by what authority do we do these lay ministry things, and who gave us this authority?” Well we all know the answer is “God’s authority,” but that really doesn’t help sometimes: What authority do we have to get up from the dinner table at 7:15 P.M., hand whatever child is sitting on our lap to someone else, and say, “I’m going to church for a meeting, I’ll try to be back by 9:30?” By what authority do we tell whatever young person is sitting next to us going over her Drivers Ed schedule that we’re going to have to figure out the transportation schedule later because we have to finish a report or make some calls for church? What authority do we have to go up to Lawrence for a volunteer workday with Habitat or Esperanza when we know that Saturday is the only time we can hang out with a friend who loves us?
You get the idea. We and the people who love us, and to a certain extent the people who rely on us in our work lives, we and all of them make certain sacrifices when we commit ourselves to lay ministry. Well, it’s easy to say, “I’m on a call from God,” but for your friends and family, or for your business or your job search that’s suffering from lack of attention, the joy of answering God’s call might not look so great.
Frustration with not seeing results: remember the seeds growing – you don’t get to see any sprouts until they’re ready.
Working at El Hogar has taught me it’s not my job to get God’s work finished. It’s my job to stay present and contribute my little bit and trust that God’s in charge of the big picture.
And what about those obnoxious jobs? Sooner or later you’ll answer a call and find you’re doing something that’s just plain tiresome. Maybe you just spent 25 minutes doing the last coffee mugs in church on Sunday morning after all the kids have left and the adults have finished lingering in the meeting room.
Do you think that isn’t lay ministry? Our kitchen could be a total dump. But it’s not. ‘Cause quite a few people really take the time to keep that important room in good, usable, well-supplied shape.
Steadfastness is sometimes what is required, not just courage. Most of the people we’re celebrating today are really being called up here to receive the badge of steadfastness as much as courage: they have managed to show up time after time, to make the calls, to send the e-mails. They’ve agreed to commit at that level: they’re the ones that make sure our ministries happen. Wow, what a gift to the rest of us.
courage + steadfastness:
It’s a way of life that leads to transformation
I’ve hinted twice already about transformation.
It’s when I’m given the grace to recognize I’m answering God’s call and actually doing God’s work, at that moment comes the real transformation: I’m no longer just yourself. I am myself embedded in God’s purpose.
It’s like prayer in action.
The choir is about to sing us a Gospel anthem which talks explicitly about this: “I’m gonna live so God can use me.”
“I’m gonna live so God can use me!” We’re talking about real transformation here: Imagine: I’m saying that after some time of exercising courage and steadfastness in lay ministry, in doing God’s work, we can come to actually re-focus our lives to make sure that we live in such a way that God can use us.
Don’t get me wrong: I still have to watch out for overcommitment, for saying “yes” to too many things and then letting people down, and I still have to guard against the sin of thinking I’m really the one in charge while at the same time I’m saying I’m sincerely trying to do God’s work.
But something has changed for me. I really see myself more as a servant now, not so much as a kind of agent that has individual power. And yet the irony, the unexpected thing, is that at the same time I feel plenty of power, I’m just less manipulative about it. Sure, I still want to be loved and appreciated and thanked once in a while as much as anyone, but it’s really different now: since I’m less interested in people’s response to me, I’m less like to experience failure. For me, that’s where the real peace comes in: I’m no longer afraid of failure. I’m not as likely to be disappointed if someone doesn’t think much of my efforts, or doesn’t even notice them.
Finally, I’m at peace.
But of course it’s not a restful peace; it’s incredibly active.In closing, let’s turn to our epistle today, St. Paul talking to the congregation at Philippi: Here’s his exhortation to the Philippians, and it sounds a lot like our Gospel anthem, “I’m gonna live so God can use me.” Saint Paul told the Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Do you hear what St Paul, a great lay minister if there ever was one, is saying? This is not intellectual fine points to help our understanding. He is using active and violent words here: “work out” “fear” and “trembling.” St. Paul is not talking about the fear and trembling that those priests and elders felt while they were so worried about what people would think about them, or the fear and trembling we experience when we’re afraid of judgment or rejection if we step too far outside the bounds. St Paul is talking about the good kind of fear and trembling we feel when we know God is present to us, despite our doubts and discomforts. That is the kind of fear and trembling the desperate, thirsty Israelites experienced as the Lord allowed Moses to smack a rock and bring water out into the desert. And what does Saint Paul say we should work out with fear and trembling? Saint Paul is talking about the ultimate goal here: salvation. Salvation! The peace of God that passes all understanding. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” And how does Paul say we’ll work out our salvation? He tells the Phillippians they’ll find their salvation when “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” For me, that’s why lay ministry is the Kingdom of God drawing near. Even if I fail sometimes, it’s the way I experience God working through me. That’s my best taste on this earth of peace and salvation.
Let us read Saint Paul’s words one more time, and let us make them into our prayer this morning for ourselves and for each other, as we celebrate today all the ministries we do together and all the courageous and steadfast people who do them: Let us pray, “Gracious God who calls us always, let us work out our own salvation with fear and with trembling, for it is you who are at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for your good pleasure.” Amen
– Jessie Maeck