Mutual Ministry: The Community of Gratitude
Text: 2 Corinthians 4:15: “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
Someone once told me—I can’t remember who it was—that I would never find a larger concentration of atheists in a single place than at a clergy conference. When I first heard that I was a little scandalized, and maybe you are, too. But now, fifteen years into my ordained life, I find that this prediction turns out to be true.
Mind you, I don’t mean by this that most of the clergy folks I meet are unbelievers. That’s maybe what Professor Dennett would like to believe, the fellow who has made something of a hobby of collecting atheists among the clergy like specimens of a curious species; but he has an agenda, and people with agendas tend to find what they’re looking for no matter what.
No, what I mean has something to do with the kind of folks who end up in the clergy. Not surprisingly, I suppose, the ministry—at least the ordained, professional kind of ministry—tends to attract a certain kind of personality profile. We are, or at least we are supposed to be, sensitive, and empathetic, and pious, and serious, and reverent. We’re never supposed to seem holier-than-thou, but we are supposed to be it. We’re supposed to be charismatic and magnetic and inspiring and popular, and of course extroverted.
Instead, what we generally are is introverted, shy, insecure, and nerdy. And what we want most of all is to feel like we’re making a difference. So what happens with a lot of clergy, and especially clergy in small parishes, is that we actually come to believe that it all really does depend on us. And that, of course, is how clergy become atheists. We forget that it all really depends on God, not on us; and that the way we make this life work is to rely on each other—not just in the life of the church, but in the world generally, in a way that we are supposed to model here in the church.
The good news for me in all of this is that I am blessed to be part of a community, and particularly part of a Vestry, that regularly and lovingly reminds me that it does not, in fact, all depend on me. That is what mutual ministry actually means. And I suppose it’s why, in a lot of places, mutual ministry is a great idea that in a lot of places gets talked about a lot and never gets realized—because after all, to make it work, the ordained minister has to be willing to let go that feeling of power that comes with imagined indispensability.
This past month the Vestry met without me, chiefly because I had to be away from Newton on the tenth of May. We used my absence as an opportunity for the Vestry to do its part of our work in reviewing the terms of the covenant of ministry by which I was called to be rector, and to ask ourselves how we feel we’re doing. I wrote up my own thoughts in a report, which I shared with the Vestry, and then with the opportunity of being able to speak without me in the room the Vestry reflected on where we are at, and where we are going.
What came out of that meeting was a feeling that we really have come quite a long way as a parish in living into this idea of mutual ministry, and that it might well be time to mark that progress in some way. Of course the way that comes naturally to this community to mark anything is to make a meal out of it, and so that is what we plan to do next week, June 14th, the end of our program year and the beginning of our summer season. So, the only advice I have to offer about that is—next week, come hungry.
The Vestry’s inspiration to take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, and to claim for our own this mutual ministry that we’ve talked about for five years now, gave me a reason to do some reflecting of my own. Because I believe that we really have changed as a community of faith; not just me, and not just our ideas about what the ordained minister does, but our ideas about what all of us do, about what it means to be church.
I’ve spent a lot of my time over these past years praying and working and thinking about how to make that happen. But now, I realize, the Vestry in its wisdom has given me a reason to stop and think about why it has happened—what is it about this community, about us, that has made it possible for us to do what we have done, and what we shall do. I think there are four qualities that have shaped us, four gifts with which we have been equipped by the Holy Spirit to that have made this possible. So over the next few weeks I want to take a look at each of those in turn. They are gratitude; renewal; urgency; and generosity.
• • •
Saint Paul started a lot of churches, but you get the sense that he had a favorite, and that the church in Corinth was the it. He writes a lot to the Corinthians, and some of his most beautiful, affirming language is found in the letters he wrote to them.
For these next few weeks we’re going to be hearing from the end of the second letter to the Corinthians, the last words Paul wrote to that beloved community. This morning he teaches them something about who they are supposed to be, or what it means for them to be a church, something applies as much to us as it did to them.
What he tells them is not that they’re supposed to hand out pamphlets, or read the Bible every day, or develop a mission statement, or any of those things. Instead he reminds them of a really, really important first principle, the place where the church really begins: Everything God has done, he tells them, all of the work of creation, all of guidance of the law, all of the warnings of the prophets, all of the teachings of Jesus, and finally the sacrifice, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus that reveals him as the promised Christ—all of that was done for us. It wasn’t done for some abstract reason; it wasn’t done just for some other group of people centuries ago; it was done for us.
What in the world are we supposed to do, if that is true? We can’t offer anything back; we can’t reciprocate; we can’t really even begin to grasp the significance of that gift.
If anything, it is harder for us to make sense out of this than it was for our ancestors. Because even if they had harder lives and nothing like our technological advances, they had a vivid sense of good and evil, of the mysteries of life and spirit, of the fragility of life and the significance of our souls. We may have many more things than they do, but we are poorer in spirit than they were.
And yet here is this fact: All of this has been done for us. What can we do?
Paul says that what has happened because of all this is the possibility of something called grace. Grace isn’t a detail; grace is the point. Grace isn’t a frilly adjective; it is the highest aspiration of our humanity. Grace is the evidence of God’s continuing presence living through humanity. Grace is the sign that we have some tiny grasp of the significance of what God has done for us.
Grace is the lived expression of hearts living with an attitude of gratitude for what God has done for us. Grace is how we express our thanks; indeed, it is the only way we can. Grace is thanksgiving lived.
When new people come through the doors of this place and glimpse this in us, it may confuse them; it may amaze them; it may confound them. Because it’s a rare thing, or at least not a thing we are trained to look for. But when they have an experience of it from us, what is most likely to happen is that they will be grateful, they will give thanks, for that moment of connection with the deeper possibility of their own humanity.
None of this can be reduced to a profit and loss statement. Grace is not a business model. But it is a hallmark of this community, and it is central to who we are.
When we gather on Sunday, the central focus of what we do is the Eucharist—a word that literally translates as "giving thanks." When we bless, break, and share the bread and wine, we are not just carrying out a set of instructions; we are acting out our thankfulness to God. We are practicing our skills at shedding grace. And the more we show to others, the greater the circle of thankfulness becomes—and the more people are brought to the possibility of grace, and of God, in their own lives.
Ministry of any kind, and mutual ministry most of all, begins in prayerful thanksgiving. Even if we cannot fully understand all that has been done for us, making a gentle discipline of living gratefully has profound power to make us the graceful people God means for us to be. Meister Eckhart said it best, more than eight hundred years ago: “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough. And it will be—as long as you say it, and keep saying it, and make a life out of that prayer. Thanks—be to God. Amen.