Sermon: Ministry Matters

“Ministry Matters”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 27, 2017

Exodus 1:8-20

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.

Romans 12:4-8

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Wellesley College, my alma mater, has a motto that reads in Latin: Non ministrari, sed ministrare. In the 1950s or thereabouts, reflecting the social mores of the times, the joke was that the motto translated to “not to be ministers, but to be ministers’ wives.” Thankfully that joke no longer rings true! But what the motto really means is “Not to be served, but to serve.”

Knowing the phrase in Latin reminds me that the words “minister” and “ministry” both derive their meaning from the word “serve.” The dictionary defines this kind of voluntary service in several ways: “to help, aid, benefit, assist”; but I like this definition of service best: “Work that is done for others.”

Work that is done for others – that is service at its heart. And I would go further and say that ministry, the name for service in communities of faith, is work done for others that cares for their souls and uplifts their spirits. Work done for others that cares for the soul and uplifts the spirit. Work that welcomes, that heals, that cheers, that accompanies, that shares burdens, that builds up, that feeds and clothes and shelters, that champions the least and the lost. Work that, in the words of the apostle Paul writing to the young church in Rome, speaks prophetically, teaches, exhorts, gives generously, leads diligently, and cares compassionately and cheerfully.

Like our children this morning, we sometimes tend to think of ministry as what the person in the long robe and stole up front does. But Paul’s words remind us that there’s a whole range of ministries in which we can partake.

Did you know, for example, that listening is ministry? Yes, listening is one of the most valuable acts of work for another that we can do. On my second visit to PACC, Mandy Brush and Maureen Igoe took Chris and me on a walk near the reservoir. I later asked Maureen if I could share in my sermon part of our conversation from that day, where she had talked about her work as a financial advisor. She told me that she works with people experiencing financial stress to help them figure out a plan to regain their fiscal stability. A large part of her job is listening – giving her clients a space to share their worries and struggles and helping them feel like someone is paying attention and can help. (Providing Kleenex and chocolate also helps, she said.) “What a ministry you have,” I remarked. Maureen smiled as the thought caught her imagination. “Why yes, I suppose it is!”

Did you know that resistance is also a ministry? I love this morning’s text from Exodus. It’s often treated like a footnote in the narrative of the Israelites in Egypt – you won’t see it in the Charlton Heston version of the Ten Commandments – but it’s an incredibly dramatic moment without which the liberation of the Hebrew people would never have occurred. Worried about their strength in numbers, Pharaoh plans to curb the ever-growing Hebrew people by killing off all of their baby boys as soon as they are born, and he charges two midwives to carry out his orders. But the midwives bravely and creatively resist Pharaoh’s unjust command, an act important enough that the scribes of the time recorded their names, Shiphrah and Puah, for posterity. Risky work, done for others, that those babies and their mothers and the entire Israelite nation might thrive. I think it’s especially important to remember their example of ministry in times like these, when white supremacists kill innocent bystanders and ISIS-backed extremists plow into crowds. Resisting xenophobia and standing for what’s right, even at risk to ourselves, is crucial work done to nurture and give life to others.

So if everything from listening with care to resisting injustice can be ministry, this morning, friends, I want to ask you to consider what your ministry is. Your ministry might be through church, as part of the hospitality team or working with our children on Sunday mornings or as a member of choir. Maybe, like Linda and Tom and Ken, whom I ran into in the church office this past week, you count the church offering to make sure that Park Avenue’s gifts are accounted for and can be stewarded wisely.

Or maybe your ministry is through your work life, like Maureen, or in your role as a neighbor or a citizen or a friend. Maybe you grow a beautiful garden and share the flowers with people who need a boost or who are celebrating something special. Maybe you are gifted at fixing cars or computers and you share your talents with the neighbors or your family. The year I worked as a pediatric chaplain resident – a ministry unto itself – I had a side ministry in smiles. Walking down the subterranean hospital halls and passing a custodian or a med student, harried by job demands or weighed down by the sick kids they were serving, I would smile at them, and I loved seeing their surprised faces light up and crack an unexpected smile right back at me. My work in that moment was to shine a ray of sunlight into a dark situation, and all it took was a willingness to smile.

The point isn’t so much what our ministry is – I hope Paul’s laundry list of ministries got that point across – but that we all have a ministry – or multiple ministries! And if you think about it, by extension, that means we are all ministers.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg to remind the church that, among other things, ours is a priesthood of all believers – a ministry of all believers, if you will. We ordain individuals among us to preach and administer the sacraments, but each and every follower of Jesus Christ is a minister, called to serve others with gusto and grace.

In some ways I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, Park Avenue. You excel at doing work for others that cares for the soul and uplifts the spirit; our family experienced your talent for ministry first hand this past week. I cannot express enough our gratitude for all the ways we felt cared for and uplifted during a time of transition. From preparing the parsonage, to stocking our pantry, to clearing out the mountain of recycling in the garage, to hiding little toy animals around the house for Davie to find, to bringing us delicious homegrown tomatoes, to showing up to help Chris unload our moving truck all in one evening – that one made me cry – you all have tangibly demonstrated how well you understand ministry.  And I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg – that you care for each other just as joyfully and as well, and that you are excited to find ways to keep extending and deepening that care to our community and our world.

As I begin my formal ministry among you, I want to remind us that I may be called as your pastor, but we are all, each and every one of us, ministers, and we cannot do the vital work God is calling us to do, work to uplift and care for others, without all of us sharing our gifts in ministry, whatever they may be.