I recently attended a workshop about the theology of stewardship, where the speaker, Bishop Greg Rickel, shared an unexpected story. He began by addressing our discomfort with discussing money in the church (at least the Episcopal Church), why he was an advocate for year-round stewardship, and why it is a good idea to separate time and talent from the annual pledge drive.
After talking about stewardship and ministries within the church, Bishop Rickel then shared a remarkable story. As a parish priest, he had invited each member of his congregation – young and old – to leave a symbol of their vocation at the foot of the altar. A fifth-grader brought her math homework; a nurse, her stethoscope; and a grocery clerk, his name tag.
It was a mail carrier, however, who slowly approached the altar with tears streaming down his face. He carefully laid his mailbag at the foot of the altar and turned to his priest. “No one has ever suggested that the work I do as a mail carrier might be holy,“ he said.
God invites each of us to holy work. For some, that work might be within the church. For most, that work is outside the church. Our work – be it compensated or not – is to do the work God has given us to do out in the world as baptized Christians. All of our work is, indeed, holy work.
Christians aren’t commissioned to “go” to church. Christians are meant to BE the church. Yet, in many faith communities, we are taught that we need permission, or facilitation, or membership, or professional guidance to participate in Christ’s mission.
That thing you attend on Sundays? That’s not church– that’s a corporate worship service, and they are not the same thing. It is part of the thing, but not the thing itself.
Church wasn’t originally about corporate worship as much as it was about doing life together. It’s about community. Helping one another. Walking together through all of life’s ups and downs. In fact, the early church was so dedicated to this that they practically met daily– they needed each other.
They shared meals together. They prayed together. They talked about their days, celebrated in the beautiful moments, and uplifted one another during the hard moments. They were inseparable friends, because Church was designed to be a committedcommunity.
In this way, “church” has nothing to do with a building, very little to do with a worship service on Sundays, but is actually more about having a circle of committed friends who are dedicated to walking through life, together. It’s about having a group of people in your life who you know will never leave you stranded and alone, no matter how hard life gets, or how badly you screw up.
The truth is that church is the web of relationship, the community that equips us to be Christ’s body in the world. Wherever we find ourselves, our baptism means we are to stand up for what Jesus stood for: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, standing with the marginalized, welcoming the stranger, resisting injustice, and always, always embodying the love that the world thirsts for.
Being part of a church can help us do that. But anyone who chooses to stand with Jesus may do so, regardless of whether they are members of a church community. And being part of the Jesus Movement means, in the words of James the Just (Acts 15:19), “So here is my counsel: we should not burden these outsiders who are turning to God.” In addition to praying for “those whose faith is known to [God] alone” (BCP p.391), we might just want to seek them out and partner with them.
We in the Church are accustomed to making a distinction between the clergy and the laity. We do that so often and so automatically that we’ve lost an awareness of the historical context for those two words.
In The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, authors Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens offer a humorous view of how artificial that distinction is:
In common speech clergy is a term used to describe a religious official, certain members of a religious order or a pastoral leader of a church or denomination.
Its counterpart is laity – the untrained, uneducated, common members of the church. This two-people approach to the church is anachronistic and unbiblical (see Laity). We look in vain in the Bible for laypersons in the sense of untrained, unequipped and not-called. Those words available in the ancient world to describe laypeople (in the common sense) – laikos and idiotes – were never used by inspired writers to describe Christians. Instead we are introduced to the whole people of God – designated by the word laos (the people) – who, including leaders, together are the true ministers. The Greek word for clergy (kleros) is used to describe the dignity and appointment of all the people to ministry. So paradoxically the church has no laypeople in the usual sense of that word and yet is full of clergy in the original meaning of that word.
On the Fourth of July, some friends of ours hosted a backyard barbecue that included folks from their neighborhood, and I had the opportunity to meet Anna. As we chatted, I learned that she is a cancer survivor, and she shared a story about her chemotherapy experience that changed not only her health, but also her life.
When Anna began her chemotherapy, she was invited to select a beautiful hand-made quilt from a nearby cupboard. The quilt would keep her warm during treatment. At each treatment, Anna was given the same quilt, which she wrapped around herself and from which she drew great comfort and peace. She told me that the quilt was almost like a “blanky.” She faithfully returned the quilt to the cupboard at the end of each treatment.
At the end of her very last treatment, Anna went to return the quilt. Instead of accepting the quilt, the nurse said to her, “Oh, no, this is yours to keep!” Anna was deeply moved when she realized that the quilt was a gift that had been made for her. She thought about the love that went into making a quilt for a stranger. Anna reflected about this wonderful – almost mystical – bond she felt with the anonymous quilter. Anna then realized how much the anonymous quilter had ministered to her throughout her cancer treatment. She felt truly blessed.
Anna herself is a seamstress, even though she had never done much quilting. She decided right then and there that she would combine her gift for sewing with love and prayers, and that she would make prayer quilts for the chemotherapy infusion clinic. She wanted to give to others the same peace and comfort she had experienced during those long, hard and sometimes spiritually lonely months.
Anna’s story has stuck with me. When she was too weak to pray herself, she drew strength and comfort from the quilt – a gift made out of love by someone Anna would probably never meet. Anna shows us how a simple act of kindness can change another life – and can also open our eyes to ways we might minister to others.
What gift or talent do you have that you might share in order to bring love, peace or hope to someone else?
The Rev. Dr. Sam A. Portaro, Jr. retired in December 2004 after 22 years of service as the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Chicago. He was ordained in 1975 and served as Vicar at Church of the Epiphany in Newton, North Carolina, the Episcopal Chaplain to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and Associate to the Rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. Sam graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and Virginia Theological Seminary. He earned his D.Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He authored eight books, and his words continue to speak to the church.
by Sam Portaro
Given the myriad talents, skills, gifts, and passions of the diverse collective of the baptized, the scope of ministry is nearly limitless. Yet most definitions of ministry are crabbed and cramped, limited to the relatively small body of Christians represented in the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon. Moreover, an appreciation of the worth of each person as a valued, contributing component of creation suggests that just as there is no place where God is not, there is no place where ministry is not practiced. …
Still, “lay ministry,” with scant exception, is most often conceived as an extension of the work of the institutional church. Assistants in the liturgy. Lay visitors to the sick and shut-in. Lay workers with responsibility for specialized work like parish administration, education, youth, or music. With considerable fanfare and self-congratulation, churches offer training, licensing, and opportunity for “lay ministry” with no apparent awareness that limiting lay ministry to institutional tasks is selfish and self-serving. It is as though lay ministry has no validity beyond the bounded walls of “church.” …
When “enabling the ministry of the laity” means institutional control over lay energies, deploying lay gifts in service to institutional ends, furthering the work of the institutional church with volunteer and low-wage workers, then the true “enabling” in such initiatives is the perpetuation of this institutional captivity. Lay ministry is not the corralling of lay energies for the service of the institutional church. Lay ministry is the living expression of every baptized person’s vocation in daily life. … most Christians might well be surprised to learn that their whole life has been and is a ministry.
— from Transforming Vocation by Sam Portaro, Church Publishing (an imprint of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York), 2008, pp. 68-70.
Posted by Edward L. Lee, Jr., bishop of Western Michigan, retired
With belated birthday wishes to J.K. Rowling and to Harry Potter, I’m posting this because of what it has to say about the meaning of baptism. With permission, I’m re-posting a Facebook entry from the Rev. Patricia Lyons, famed for celebrating the mysteries of Hogwarts. Here’s what she offered on July 31:
July 31st…a day for Birthdays and Baptism
Happy Birthday JK Rowling and Happy Birthday Harry Potter.
[July 31] is a special day for both the Harry Potter fandom and for anyone in that fandom who has been or might be baptized. For those folks, today is more special than you might realize.
Everyone knows that Harry’s best birthday present came just a few minutes into his eleventh birthday (July 31,1991) along with a cake from his newest friend and fan Rubeus Hagrid. Hagrid handed Harry his Hogwarts acceptance letter — the proof in writing of Harry’s magical identity and miraculous destiny.
But what many people do not know is that when JK Rowling was nine years — until around 12 years old – she had a Saturday job cleaning the Anglican Church down the road from her house. She and her sister were paid one British pound each week to clean up the church and prepare it for Sunday worship. Joanne fell in love with that church, the sight and smells of candles, the stories depicted in its colorful windows and the words of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer that she re-organized in the pews every week.
According to Rowling, after a few years of cleaning the church, she wanted desperately to join it. Although her family practiced no religion, Rowling presented herself to the priest to be baptized. She wanted to be a member of the Christian faith. Her parents did not object and Joanne Rowling was baptized at the font of St. Luke’s church.
For those of you who wonder how impactful that baptism was on her life and her imagination, consider this: Joanne Rowling was baptized on her 11th birthday. So she shares with Harry not only an annual birthday, but they also share the experience of their eleventh birthday as a day that revealed magical identity and miraculous destiny. Rowling has never commented on the fact that her baptism and the reception of a Hogwarts Letter both come on one’s 11th birthday. Rowling is one of the most intentional writers of our time, so the thought that there is no symbolism in a Hogwarts Letter arriving on the age of her baptism is hard to believe. I trust she wants us to think of the identity that opens for us at baptism as easily and truly as opening a life-changing letter on our birthday.
Just like the Snitch, every baptized soul will open at the close.
NEWS FROM THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH’S GENERAL CONVENTION!!!
Among the many great things that happened at the recent Episcopal Church’s General Convention was the passage – and funding – of a resolution that will hopefully put flesh and bones to a somewhat dormant canon (law) putting into action the Church’s calling to empower all the Baptized in their daily life. It directs the church’s leadership to appoint a task force to work to provide ways and means for dioceses, parishes, and seminaries to “equip the saints for ministry.“ (Ephesians 4) You can read that resolution here. The task force appointed will work during the next three years, and bring a report to the 2021 General Convention in Baltimore.
Aside from that, EBM’s efforts at General Convention included a daily drawing to give away a copy of the book Radical Sending, Go to Love and Serve; giving stickers (Think Outside the Font), Dove chocolate (“the Spirit at work!”), and beautifully designed large Baptismal certificates; and publication of Faith at Work articles in the daily edition of ISSUES, (a publication of The Consultation, of which we are a member). You can read all of the ISSUES articles from 2018 here.
“How do we teach love?” was the provocative question posed by 16-year old Maria Gonzalez as she addressed the House of Bishops during General Convention. Despite her soft-spoken voice and age, Maria’s wise words are powerful and reflect her passion as an advocate for others. Not only was Maria part of the Official Youth Presence, this past spring Presiding Bishop Michael Curry had selected Maria to represent The Episcopal Church at the 62nd Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York City in March.
Maria tells us that her baptismal promises have strongly influenced both her worldview and beliefs. Her promises ground her when she observes the lack of love she sees, especially in human rights abuses in the world around us. They also inspire her to challenge injustices by urging The Episcopal Church to be more loving and inclusive in order to change the world.
How do we teach love? Maria’s impassioned address reminds us that our children and youth learn not only from what they specifically are taught at home, in school, or in church, but also from what they hear and see around them – love, hate and indifference. It’s apparent from Maria’s words and actions that she has been nurtured by adults who witness God’s love by living into their baptismal promise to continue in the Apostles’ teaching. As Maria reminds us, in order to walk in love and to share and teach God’s love, we need to be loved and be loving – in word and actions. In other words, love and compassion teach love and compassion.
Maria’s life-giving words reflect her baptismal ministry of transforming our world into a more loving place. Her address reminds us that we, too, make those same promises: to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to love our neighbors; to strive for justice and peace among all people; and to respect the dignity of every human being. These promises are borne out of God’s love for every human being.
Maria’s message of love and of hope for the future – not only of the Episcopal Church, but also for our country and for humankind – is one that we all can learn from. I encourage you to watch Maria’s thoughtful and inspiring YouTube presentation. Her blog offers a summary of her talk.
*The members of the 79th General Convention Official Youth Presence are Georgia Atkinson, New Hampshire; James-Paul Forbes, Connecticut; Anthony Baldeosingh, Long Island; Wentao Zhao, Long Island; Alexander Ward, West Virginia; Andrew K. Kasule, Washington; Justin Mullis, Diocese of North Carolina; Helena Upshaw, South Carolina; Claire Parish, Western Michigan; Alexander Koponen, Indianapolis; Emily Jetton, Iowa; Luisa Van Oss, Minnesota; Michaela Wilkins, Texas; Cecelia Riddle, Kansas; Angela Cainguitan, Hawaii; Maria Gonzalez, Olympia; Diana Marcela Abuchar Sierra, Colombia; Fernando Jose Aguilar Sanchez, Honduras.
During Sunday services, following the heart-breaking news of children being separated from their parents at the border, we renewed our baptismal promises as we baptized a three-year old boy. Jake, his family, and his sponsors were seated together, filling the first two pews in the church. As the liturgy began, I was struck that Jake was on a border, too: He was about to cross the border into new life in Christ – and he was surrounded by his supportive family and church community.
Baptism is life-changing and is not to be taken lightly. We make promises to God, or promises are made on our behalf, as to how we will live our lives as faithful followers of Christ. We, the church community, not only promise to do everything within our power to support the newly baptized in their life in Christ, we also renew our own baptismal promises, one of which is:
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
This past Sunday’s baptism was particularly poignant. After the preacher assured us that Jake, strengthened by his participation in the Body of Christ, will grow in his faith and become an instrument of God’s grace and love, he reminded us, the congregation, that our own baptismal vows obligate us to put our faith into action. When we say that we will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being, we are promising to participate in God’s work of reconciliation and to help heal our world’s brokenness. We are promising to stand up for just treatment of the most vulnerable among us, especially those who are oppressed.
Today, the most vulnerable are innocent children who have been separated from their parents.
Putting our faith into action is serious ministry, and it takes place outside the doors of our churches. It takes place when we share our concerns with our neighbors; when we speak up against abuses of power; and when as citizens we engage with our civic and government representatives. Putting our faith into action is our baptismal ministry.
How will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being – today?
Adolph Eichmann, one of the Nazi officials who supervised the murder of countless human beings during the Nazi regime, was blinded by a systemic effort to eradicate certain groups of people. God was not a part of his equation.
Unlike Eichmann, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were each confronted by a system of laws that was unjust, and each had their eyes opened, factoring God into the equation of their lives.
So too with Jesus. He and the Pharisees had an ongoing conflict. One of many contentious occasions (Mark 2:23-3:6) focused on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were guardians of an intricate system of laws governing the Sabbath. To some extent they had reduced the practice of religion to following a set of laws. But here comes Jesus in a bit of civil disobedience, helping his followers glean the grain fields to resolve their hunger. Then Jesus goes on to restore a man’s withered hand. Both events took place on the Sabbath, contrary to Sabbath laws. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus was not blind to human need – he was factoring his own divinity into the equation of his daily life.
During my ordained life part of my pastoral ministry has been to visit members in their places of work. The conversation begins with what do you do here. Then the second question: What is the faith connection with what you do here, the Sunday-Monday connection? I must tell you that for the vast majority – like 85% – this is the first time that that question has come to their consciousness. What an indictment of the church! For that work place is where they are spending most of their God-given time and ability. After some continuing conversation, most come to an “aha”: Their eyes open and they begin to see that their work – as a contract lawyer or a mortgage broker or a governmental official or a homemaker – is indeed their baptismal ministry. The “aha” comes as they factor God into the equation of their daily life and work.
The question is the same for each of us – for you and for me: How do we, as the Baptized, factor God into the equation of our daily lives?