Gathering

Mark 8:27-38 & James 3:1-17

It has been almost 22 years since I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. No, I don’t have an anniversary coming up soon, that’s in February. Rather, early in the summer I found myself reflecting and meditating on the preamble to the ordination vows that I took. While they were in a different denomination, there is a real reflection on ministry that I think we glossed over. In preparing for this morning and reflecting on both the passages from Mark and James, and how they might work together, I was struck by how those words reflect on who Jesus is and how that immediately moves into this a sense of mission and purpose.

Here’s how it reads:

“All ministries of the church proceed from and are sustained by the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our Prophet, Priest and King, the Minister of the covenant of grace. By the operation of God’s Word and Spirit the church is gathered, equipped, and sent out to participate in this ministry.

So there’s two things I want to look at: ministry, and how we participate in this ministry.

In many respects, we’ve not really understood what “ministry” really means. When I was ordained, the shorthand was “ordained to the ministry” –but the full term was “ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament” –in other words there was a specific role within the broader category of ministry that I was ordained to: teaching and administering the sacraments. Yet over time, this has been shortened to just “ministry” but that abbreviation has that has gone on to short change us in who we are and what we are as a church.

So for the next three Sundays I’m going to be talking about what ministry is, and how are gathered, equipped and sent out to participate in it. It means unlearning some things that we’ve learned, and in that rediscovering our purpose, and what it means when Jesus calls us to take up the cross and follow him.

The word “ministry” at least in English means a lot of different things. Beyond my role, we most often talk about the various government ministries… but the word, at its root, comes from Middle English and Latin, meaning “to give out, or to serve” –a translation of the greek diakonos. So ultimately, ministry is about serving. Moreover it’s about serving others in the world…

So to follow this thread out, our purpose as Christians is to participate in Christ’s serving the world. In sharing God’s love in both what we say and do. That’s ministry.

So we are gathered, equipped, and sent out to participate in this ministry, in living out and serving others in the world around us. It’s about going out there, and being out there, but so much of the focus of church has been about being in here. We’ve put too much focus on gathering.

We’ve bought in to the “gathering” as the sole purpose of ministry. Ministers like myself are intended for a pastoral and teaching role, who are supposed to equip followers of Christ to be sent out. It’s not what we were trained for, and it’s not something that we’ve done well. We’ve become so focused on the gathering point, that we forget that the whole purpose is to participate in Christ’s call to live and out and share the good news of God’s love for all people.

Instead we become focused on numbers: How many people show –or don’t show up on Sunday, and how much there is and isn’t on the offering plate. Our measure of success, and the morale that goes with it becomes tied to something it was never intended to. Those who are considered to be “successful” are the ones who seem to gather the most amount of people, rather than preparing us to go out and make a difference in the world.

Jesus said “wherever there are two or three gathered in my name, I am there.” Gathering is simply the first step, much like a meeting point where people meet to go on a hike. Remember that Jesus never really stayed in one place for long. He was itinerant. He moved from place to place to place to encounter people where they were. Much to the chagrin of authorities, he didn’t seem to be too keen on buildings either. Rather the gathering was far more fluid, and were more moments where Jesus could reach and reach people where they were. Jesus was about sharing with people that the kingdom of God was all around us, and all we had to do was open our eyes to see it.

But Jesus also knew that spreading the good news of God’s love is hard work. It isn’t measured by the successes that we often go by, but rather the long-term impact that we have on people. Remember that offered this caution:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What does this mean for us when we use survival language to talk about our church communities? This is the consequence of having gotten stuck on that “gathering” part. If our gathering does not move us to be equipped and sent out, then we are in danger of being on the first end of the equation: losing our life because we are trying to preserve it.

Jesus goes on to ask the rhetorical question: What does it profit us if we gain the world and lose our lives?

But the good news is this:

If we remember that our purpose for gathering is to prepare us to go out and participate in Christ’s ministry, it can be tremendously freeing. We can look and see that we are here because there are opportunities to serve God by serving the community all around us. We are here to prepare ourselves to go out and participate in those opportunities. This past Wednesday, a handful of us returned to Brenda’s House to lead their Treasure Trunk program. We had taken a break for the summer, but we have started with enthusiasm, engaging with the children and parents who currently need the shelter and program services that Brenda’s House provides. They’ve had a large turnover of families so many of them are new, but we also got a chance to reconnect with the staff and one family that remained there over the summer. The sense of connection was palpable, and in the giving of our time, there was the connecting with the people. It was a powerful reminder that this is where Christ calls us to be.

But it’s not limited to Brenda’s house. Wherever you go, and whatever you do, whether it is through charity events at work, community events, stampede hospitality, that’s the work of Christ’s ministry. That’s where God is calling you to be. We gather here to prepare ourselves for that, to remind ourselves of our connection with something greater, and that when we do go out, we are part of God’s vision of love for all.

Amen.

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