Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

October 17, 1999

I Samuel 3:1-9; John 15:12-17; II Corinthians 4:1-7

Today is a very important and special occasion for this congregation. I trust it will also be a wonderful occasion for Mary Jensen, even if a bit anti-climatic after the last couple weeks in her home presbytery. Two weekends ago she was duly examined on the floor of the Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery. Last Sunday she was ordained in her home church, the Yeamans Park Presbyterian Church, in Hanahan, South Carolina. However, today is more than just the final dotting of the Is and crossing of the Ts in the long process by which Mary has prepared herself for Christian ministry and received the call to pastoral leadership and service in this congregation. Today we publicly make our vows; we tie the knot, so to speak, on the relationship that began between us many months ago. This is a signal event and cause for celebration.

This is also a good time to remind ourselves of some of the basics of our life together. So this morning I have prepared a brief and basic three-point sermon. The first thing I want to say is that ministry is a calling. The Latin root has given us the word "vocation." It is a word that has fallen into disuse in our modern culture. People have jobs, they have careers, they have professions, they have occupations, but seldom do we say that they have vocations. The idea of vocation is that which you are called to do. It is that for which you are particularly well suited. It is, perhaps, your destiny. It may be regarded as your true work, or the most authentic expression of the meaning of your life. Some people think of vocation as the reason why they exist, why they are here.

The important thing about vocation is that it is not something we decide or choose for ourselves. It may be thrust upon us. It may gently seduce us. It may wrestle us to the mat, or wear us out with its insistent tugs and pulls. It may insinuate itself gradually into our lives. It may sneak up on us and surprise us. However we experience vocation, it is that which calls us, summons us, beckons us, and can only be ignored or resisted or denied to our discomfort and regret.

Christian ministry is such a calling. Throughout the Bible there are stories of people being called into the service of God. Moses encounters God's call in the burning bush. Jeremiah hears God's call to become a prophet to the nations. The disciples of Jesus heed his call to follow him in fidelity to the kingdom of God. One of the most striking and memorable of these stories of God's call is found in our Old Testament text. The boy Samuel hears the call in the middle of the night. Young lad that he is, however, he mistakes this call for the voice of the elderly priest, Eli, in whose service he is being raised. Finally, after being roused for the third time in the night, Eli discerns that Samuel is being called by Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. Eli counsels Samuel, if he hears the call again, to answer, "Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening." God's call keeps coming until we are prepared to answer.

Our understanding of vocation is not limited to God's call for some people to be pastors or prophets or priests. God calls us all in one way or another. In one way or another we are called to be God's people. We are all called to ministry. We are all called to service. The particular form of our calling is not so important as this basic conviction that we share. The ministry of the Christian church is a ministry into which we all are called. Moreover, we all are called to fulfill that calling in service to the world. Thus, we may also be called to be parents, students, teachers, secretaries, musicians, doctors, counselors, technicians, artisans, administrators or people in business. Whatever our particular callings, we are all called to be God's people in Christ and in the Church and in the world. Each of us has at least this vocation to fulfill.

Part of what this means is that none of us is here simply by choice. Mary told us in her candidating sermon that it had never been her idea to come to Indiana. It was not exactly my idea to come here either. I have heard lots of stories from others of you about coming to Indiana and to Bloomington, and staying, not because you had planned it that way but because that is how things turned out. I am not going to say that in every instance it was God who got you to Bloomington, but I am going to say that being called is different from simply deciding for yourself. Being called is being invited, or lured, or even compelled, to decide for something bigger and greater than yourself. It is being summoned to decide for something that God has in mind, whether you ever had it in mind or not. It is being enlisted by God to do something for the world that God loves.

For Christians, God's call is also a call to love one another. This is my second point. Now I suppose it is possible to talk too much about love in church. But it needs to be said that we can hardly hope to love and serve the world if we do not love one another. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" [15:12]. If we do this, if we love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, we are no longer merely servants who are doing what we are told but do not know "what the master is doing." If we love one another as Jesus loved, then we are friends, who understand the will and heart of God [cf. vs. 15]. Love opens us up to what really and finally matters. Love lets us in on the ultimate truth of living. The commandment to love one another is the sum total of what is required for us to fulfill the purpose of God.

Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once wrote a book on The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry in which he defined that purpose as "the increase . . . of the love of God and neighbor." That is why we are here, to be shaped and formed and equipped to magnify the love of God and neighbor in the world. If we do not practice the love of one another, we can hardly fulfill our calling. The world will hardly takes us seriously when we talk about love until we show love for one another.

My third point is that this ministry, this vocation, this calling, is by the mercy and power of God. It is, first of all, a gift. A gift is not an imposition but a blessing. A gift is not an achievement but an endowment and a favor. The apostle Paul begins the passage that is our text from II Corinthians this morning by saying, "since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart" [4:1]. If you go back and read the preceding chapters you will find that this ministry to which Paul refers has proven to be anything but a piece of cake. The stresses and strains of Paul's ministry with the Corinthians are plainly there, you do not have to read them between the lines. So what Paul is saying in this passage is not a commentary on how wonderful it has been working with the Corinthians. It is a commentary on how heartening it is to be given a ministry to accomplish, a message of good news to proclaim, an ultimately significant and meaningful work to do. The gift is in the calling. It is a mercy of God to be engaged in a work that matters, that gives purpose to one's actions, that promises some enduring satisfaction. This is a word to remember when things are tough and a word to celebrate when things are going well. Our calling is a gift. "It is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry," and so it is, and only so it is, that "we do not lose heart."

Paul also says, "we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us" [4:7]. He might also have said that those who are given this ministry have clay feet, but that is not quite what he is saying here. Rather, he is saying that the ministry of the Gospel does not depend for its worth upon the strength of those to whom it has been given. It is not by our power or our might that the truth of the Gospel is to be maintained. It is not by our power or our might that its riches are to be secured. This precious treasure of God's love and truth and light is not saved or lost upon our ability to withstand the challenges and afflictions of life.

In other words, it is never what we are able to do with the Gospel that proves and preserves its worth. We who are like fragile clay jars can hardly be counted on to preserve this treasure. Rather, it is this treasure, when it is present and at work in us, that holds us fast and lifts us up and demonstrates the power of God. The extraordinary power that then enables us to go on is hardly our own.

We are called by God to love one another, and so to love and serve the world. By God's mercy we have been given this calling and are engaged in this ministry. But without God's power we are unequal to the task. Only by God's power shall we be sustained. AMEN.


October 17, 1999

Mary, about a month ago in the PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK there was a short article titled "Surviving and Thriving in Ministry" [September 20, 1999]. It was written by Joan S. Gray, a Presbyterian minister in Atlanta, GA, who has been in ministry for 23 years. She wrote it as advice to recent seminary graduates, and I want to borrow some of her words in my charge this morning, and add a few of my own.

Joan says, "When you meet new people, smile, look them in the eyes, and offer them a firm handshake. Most people will decide whether or not they like you initially within five seconds of meeting you." I would add, that's probably true, but what happens after the first five seconds matters more. Ministry is not a short-term affair, but a long-term commitment, and the person you are with the character you have will ultimately count more than those first impressions.

Joan says, "Assumptions are dangerous. Just because they did things a certain way in your home church or at seminary does not mean they do it that way in your new congregation. When you don't know, ASK!" That's great advice. I would also add, don't make assumptions even after you have been here a while. The way they did it here last year may not be the way they will do it this year, because the "they" is always changing. Trust, but verify!

Joan says, "Find out early on who really knows which closets the skeletons are in and where the land mines are buried, and pump them for all they are worth. This information will come in handy down the road." I would say, that all depends. It is good to know the lay of the land, but you don't want to be paralyzed by the past. If you are always watching your step, you won't see very far ahead.

Joan says, "Spend time developing your lay leadership. Time invested in officer training and in mentoring leaders and potential leaders will pay rich dividends." That is certainly true. We never minister alone. A good part of your ministry will be to equip and enable and empower and encourage others to minister within the church and the world.

Joan says, "Find your easiest way to connect with God and do it often. This one thing (or the lack of it) probably makes or breaks more ministries than anything else. If you can, find a spiritual mentor or friend to hold you accountable and to support you along the path of growth toward God." Yes. You will need this centering, or the demands of ministry will pull you apart.

Joan says, "Learn to receive criticism gracefully and to deal with it appropriately. All critics are telling you something important about themselves. Some of it can help you to be a better pastor; some of it is garbage that should go immediately into the round file. It is good to find some people in the church who like you, but can also be honest, to help you tell the difference." Amen.

Joan says, "Find someone wise outside your family with whom to process things related to ministry. . . This is where counselors come in handy. Again, don't wait until there is a crisis. Find someone early on and develop a relationship for the long haul." I would add that you might find this person within the congregation; or this person might be a ministerial colleague; or this person might be outside the congregation. But you need to have someone with whom you can let down and let out.

Joan says, "Work on knowing when it is time to go home. There is always more that could be done, and nobody at church will tell you to hang it up and go home. It is important to keep reminding ourselves that the church and its people are in God's hands and that when we take a vacation or a day off or when we block out time for our families, God still has things under control. We do the congregation, our families and the pastor who will follow us a disservice if we don't model good boundaries and have a life outside the church." I would offer two amendments. First, there may actually be a few people here who will have the goodness to tell you if you are working too hard, and I hope I can be one of them. Also, even if God doesn't always seem to have things under control, that doesn't mean you have to take up all the slack. Sometimes you will fail, and sometimes the church will fail. The important thing is to keep things in perspective, and remember that we are here by God's mercy and power.

From what I've seen so far, you probably don't need most of this advice. But it's free, and as the months and years go by, I am sure others will give you more. Take it for whatever it is worth, and carry on as best you can, and God will go with you. AMEN.