June 20, 2015

Mutual Ministry: The Community of Urgency


Text: 2 Corinthians 6:2c: “See, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!”

In this stretch of four weeks the idea has been to look at four qualities, four spiritual gifts, that have made it possible for us here to live more fully into our calling as a community of truly mutual ministry. There are good reasons for us to spend some time on this, to have a moment for reflection on what we have learned about ourselves and about how God is working among us and through us.

But I have to admit it is a little bit of a conceit to spend so many Sundays in a row talking about ourselves. It is a sort of self-centered indulgence. And it feels all the more so when our whole country has been so deeply affected by this past week’s terrible events in Charleston, South Carolina.

We must not in any way shy away from the ugly fact at the very center of that tragedy, the fact that racial hatred still exists in our nation. It is not for us here today to speak to why that is the case, or to prescribe a course of action for dealing with it. We need to sit for some prayerful time confronting ourselves with that basic and enduring sin at the heart of our national culture.

I wonder whether you noticed something that struck me deeply about how this story unfolded. There was the awful news of the attack, the early press conferences of officials gathered behind banks of microphones, and soon enough the first images of the man thought to be responsible. The time that lapsed between those first images and the apprehension of the young man thought to be responsible was something like six hours.

Gathered as we are in this place, we can’t help but be reminded of something like the same sequence of events that took place around the time of the Boston Marathon bombing—the images, the request for assistance, the announcement of the suspects’ names, the hunt, a tip called in from someone, the apprehension.

But at that point the stories diverge. When the visage of an unkempt Dylann Roof appeared on the video screen in a courtroom in Charleston, the families whose loved ones he is accused of murdering had an opportunity to speak to him. All of them are members of the same faith community, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, in which the attack took place.

And not one of them, not one, spoke to him in a way demanding vengeance, or retribution. Instead, they spoke of their grief. They spoke of their inexpressible sorrow. And they said to that young man that they forgave him. And they encouraged him to repent.

As horrified as we are by the events that led to that moment, we must hear in the words of those people a clear and certain grasp of the Christian message. What discipline, what strength of spirit, what mastery of will gained from lives of prayer they showed that young man—and indeed the whole world. In the midst their own harrowing loss, they extended forgiveness to the man who, by his own confession, took advantage of the welcome of their church for the purpose of murder and the incitement of hate.

It must be that those people understand something about their call to Christian witness more important, more aligned with the example of the teaching and the life of Jesus, than vengeance. It must be that in the midst of their own loss they have not lost sight of a much larger crisis, a far greater threat to all of us—the possibility that this misguided young man’s act would find followers, that it would somehow take root in the soil of a nation still too willing to nurture racism.

It must be that they grasped the urgency of that message, the power of the Christian message of forgiveness and reconciliation to stop our seduction by hate and fear, even when their own loss might easily have tempted them otherwise.

And it is humbling to remember that they had no pastor, no minister, no rector to tell them to do this. Because their beloved pastor was among the murdered.

Their words, their courage of spirit, their willingness to extend forgiveness, is proof beyond measure of how well Pastor Pinckney did his job. They are proof of how deeply he formed that community as a Christian community. And as you may know, he was a man in a bivocational ministry—and that congregation understood itself to be, like its pastor, bivocational in its call.

I can’t help but think there is a relationship between the pattern of the ministry of that church and their response to the urgency of the moment. I can’t help but think that because they worked over long years to pattern their lives in ministry in ways that have challenged the comforting boundaries we build around the structures and roles in “church world” and in “real world” that they were so prepared to respond in Christian love when the real world brought its violence and hate right into the doors of their church.

Mutual ministry and bivocational ministry are deeply, inextricably linked. It is not possible for me, by myself, to be a bivocational minister. I am; I have a role as an ordained minister in the church, and at the same time I have a job in the secular world.

But no one can do bivocational ministry alone. I can do it because our parish has become a place where our whole ministry is characterized by this idea of bivocational ministry. We are all ministers in the church. It is no small thing that I address all of you as fellow-ministers, because that is what you are. And just like me, whatever your ministry here in the church may be, you—all of us—have a ministry to serve in the world as well, not just a job to do.

I do not lightly draw this parallel between ourselves and that brave and historic church. Our challenges are different; our history is vastly different; our resources are different. But our pattern of ministry here is growing in a direction very much like one they have been following for many years.

The lesson for us in this might be that one reason this works is exactly because we recognize the urgency of the message God has entrusted to us to our community, to our culture, to the world we inhabit.

We do not face the problems they do. But when we look with the eyes of Christ, we see around us other challenges of injustice, of despair, of callous indifference, of the deprivation of human dignity and the possibility of the sacred. And those challenges demand of us a response no less urgent, no less disciplined, and no less demanding of all of us, not just the one who wears a collar and is called a minister.

Mutual ministry works best under conditions of urgency. The irony is that those are exactly the conditions in which the whole church finds itself—and we are the ones best prepared to respond, because we have all taken hold of our part in this work. The terrible story of this week sets before us a reminder that we, too, must be prepared to respond as Christian disciples when the brokenness of the world tries to break us. May God give us the grace and strength in that day to respond as bravely, and as faithfully, as they have. Amen.