Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
“TAKE UP YOUR MINISTRY”
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Pentecost 19 B
September 30, 2018
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
Christ Lutheran Church
As I sat around the table with the church council, I announced that had a sudden change in my vacation plans. I was going to have to be out of town the coming Sunday. At the last minute, I could not find a substitute pastor. I asked if one of them might like to preach.
I think they thought I was joking. Nervous laughter swirled around the room. However, this was no joke. It got very quiet. No one would look me in the eye for fear that I would ask one of them to do it. Preaching was my job, not theirs.
This church council crisis revealed a problem that afflicts Christians everywhere. We think that ministry is only for the highly trained, seminary educated, “called and ordained” professionals salaried by the church. Ministry is not for the “lay” people and other such “amateurs” who merely play around in Sunday School, the choir, or the altar guild.
If something is ministry, it must resemble what the “professional” minister gets paid to do. So, we dress up like pastors, lead worship services and call it “ministry.” We may not preach a sermon, but it is ministry if we “witness” to someone and invite them to church.
But only a few can dress up like a pastor and lead a service. Many make excuses for not being more involved at church. Others push back saying, “Isn’t that what we pay the pastor for?” We spend endless time and energy deciding who can do ministry and who cannot.
For centuries the church has wrestled with this problem. We establish policies and training programs in order to maintain standards of quality and professionalism. We want to be able to determine who is a minister and who is not.
In today’s Gospel, John, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, complains about a man who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus but was not a part of their official band of disciples. He was not on the “official clergy roster” and had no proper, church authorized certification. John insisted that such “unauthorized ministry” had to stop.
Today’s First Reading reports a similar incident. 70 elders were appointed to help Moses lead the Israelites in the wilderness. Then we hear complaints about two young men prophesying who were not among the 70 officially authorized elders. They must “cease and desist” from acting outside official channels.
However, Jesus and Moses could have cared less about official channels. Moses is thrilled that Eldad and Medad are prophesying. He wishes that more people in Israel were doing it. Likewise, Jesus is thrilled that there is this man who casts out demons even though he was not an “official” disciple.
The message is clear. “Official channels” will bind neither Moses nor Jesus. This is not God’s way of doing business. Jesus was not happy with the disciples’ opposition to this unauthorized faith-healer. He does not mince any words. Such complainers ought to have a millstone put around their necks and thrown into the sea.
If that did not get our attention, this will. It would be better that our hand or foot or eye be cut off than to spend eternity in “hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” That is graphic!
The word translated as “hell” is actually “Gehenna,” the garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem. It was a god-awful place, filled with garbage and all sorts of human refuse. It was a place where the fires never went out and where stench always polluted the air. When Jesus warned his disciples about going to Hell, he was warning them that they might end up in a place like the Jerusalem garbage dump because they wanted to exclude some from doing Jesus’ work. They thought they could decide who was “in” and who was “out.”
How ironic! On the one hand, the very disciples who thought they were the authorized and chosen insiders are actually headed for a place a lot like the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. On the other hand, the those “little ones,” who thought that they could never get on the official roster of Jesus’ chosen, are in fact the ones Jesus most wants to join his merry band of followers.
Jesus does not want anyone to go to Gehanna or Hell or the eternal garbage dump of Jerusalem or any other God-forsaken place you want to imagine. Neither Jesus’ self-centered disciples nor we self-centered church goers will be cast out and abandoned to Gehenna. Jesus loves us so much that he is willing to literally “go to hell” for us. He just doesn’t give up his arms, feet, hands and eyes. He gives everything, his whole body, into death. If Gehenna is a cruel place, Jesus goes to another cruel place, Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place outside of Jerusalem and civilized society where those who have found themselves on the outside looking in must go. Jesus intervenes in their fate. He descends into hell for them and “for us.”
It did not look that way that dark Friday, hanging there on the cross, a place where all the unauthorized and unprofessional who dared to go outside official channels were sentenced to death. When he finally breathed his last and was buried in the tomb, it sure looked like he was a fool, a wishful thinker, a rebel who got what he deserved. But on “the third day” God raised him from the dead and declared that all outsiders, all those unauthorized, unofficial and unapproved, who trust in Jesus, now were on the roster.
Imagine that! We who were convinced we could never be authorized for ministry, . . . are on the team. The gates of Hell have been breached. God has given us Jesus’ fate and destiny. Trusting that promise, staking our lives on that good news, everything changes. We are ministers with a ministry.
Jesus uses a familiar image at the end of today’s Gospel to illustrate that change: Salt. Today experts warn us about the dangers of too much salt. However, in the ancient world, in the days before refrigeration and preservatives, salt was valuable. Salt was money. Salt was as good as gold. Salt saved!
Jesus says, “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” That is interesting because salt cannot lose its saltiness. It is either salt or it is not salt. If a substance is labeled as salt but isn’t salty, then the label was wrong. It is not salt at all. If we, who claim to be insiders, place stumbling blocks before the “little ones” and are more interested in preserving our social club or keeping out the folks who aren’t like us, then we are not what we claim to be. We are not salt. We are in trouble.
Then surprisingly, in a way that we never anticipated, God comes to us through that unexpected visitor bearing a cup of water offering to quench our thirst and declares in spite of evidence to the contrary, “You are the salt of the earth!” God comes to salt us “in the name of Jesus” . . . in the water of the font, in the eating and drinking of the table, in the tender touch, husky hug and assuring words of an unauthorized minister (God forbid!). God comes to assure us that regardless of what the world might insinuate about us, regardless of how inadequate we might feel and how unable to be what God expects us to be, we are His beloved children, His very own people, the apple of His eye.
What makes this surprising message credible, even when it comes from an unauthorized minister . . . who is ordinary and flawed just like we are? It is Jesus Christ and the amazing power of His promise! He welcomes all, even klutzes like you and me, to the ranks of his disciples and to the official roster of His ministry. Because of Him, we can take up our ministry and make a difference. At home, at school, in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, we can be the ones who offer the cup of water to those who thirst. We can be the ones who salt and flavor the world. We can listen to a discouraged friend. We can help a beleaguered colleague. We can forgive an enemy. We can befriend a stranger. We can take up our ministry and follow Jesus.
One of the ways we can take up our ministry and follow Jesus to places we never thought we could go is through our connection to the ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Four years ago the ELCA began “Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA”, a five year effort to raise $200 in support of existing and to create new ministries to reach to a world so desperate for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.