Not “Lay” Ministry…Just Ministry!

As our nation celebrates her birthday as a free and independent country today, our Gospel reading is about a kind of birthday and celebration of the expansion of Jesus’ ministry by the calling and sending of “the seventy.” Jesus had called his original disciples one by one and two by two, eventually ending up with “the Twelve,” with twelve followers.

We believe he chose that number because of the original 12 tribes of Israel, indicating that his mission was to “renew” Israel and expand the message even beyond in a kind of “new Israel” including the Gentiles. But, of course, it didn’t stop there with “the Twelve.” In today’s Gospel we are told that he “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” (Luke 10:1)

And just as the number “twelve” reminds us of the Twelve tribes of Israel, the number “seventy” hearkens back to the book of Numbers when Moses is counseled to “gather…seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down (God says) and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself,” (Numbers 11:16-17)

This was the beginning of a kind of “shared leadership” among the children of Israel, and I think Jesus must have had something of the same kind of thing in mind in the appointing of his “seventy.” If you’ll notice, he gives them a very similar kind of charge as he had given to the original twelve disciples, recorded just one chapter earlier in the Gospel of St. Luke (see Chapter 9:1ff). Namely, they were to:

Go “out like lambs in the midst of wolves, to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and to greet no one on the road.” In other words to travel light and to be single minded in their purpose. And their task was just the same as the Twelve: to build real relationships with people, to heal the sick, and to announce that the kingdom of God has come near. They were to announce that the Reign and Sovereignty of God was already beginning to dawn in this world in and through the ministry of Jesus.

So, the calling and sending forth of “the seventy” was not just an example of the expanding AUDIENCE of Jesus like the crowds of hundreds and even thousands to whom he preached and who heard his message. No, “the seventy” – like “the Twelve” before them – were to have a share in that ministry. They too were to be empowered by the Holy Spirit (like those earlier ‘elders of Israel” under Moses) who were to be given “some of the spirit’ that was on Moses so that they could “bear the burden of the people along with” him!

I used to say that “calling of the Seventy” was the beginning of “lay ministry” in the Church but, in recent years, I have become less and less fond of using the word “lay” in connection with ministry. In our common usage, “lay” often is understood as meaning “un-professional” or “amateur-ish” rather than “professional” or “competent.” I think we should increasingly just speak of “the ministry” of the Church. The Catechism of The Episcopal Church asks, “Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?” and the answer is: “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” I think that’s right…and it’s about all that needs to be said really, about ministry!

Now, if we turn our attention to “the Church” and to “churches,” and to “this church,” a kind of old-fashioned way of “sizing up congregations” was to speak of “family sized churches” of about 50 active members, “pastoral sized churches” of about 150, “program sized churches of about 350 active members, and “corporation sized” churches numbering 500 and above. By that kind of reckoning Trinity Cathedral would be a “program church” and as such falls into a funny category.

We’re too large for everyone to relate equally to the Dean, or pastor, or for the Dean to know, or reach out to, every member of the congregation. But we’re too small to hire a large and multi-talented staff to meet everyone’s needs in that way. So, the old counsel was for the priest to function as an enabler and chief administrator and to be supported by a cadre of elected leaders and program leaders who are responsible for the various program areas in the life of the parish.

That’s actually pretty much the way we function. With a relatively small staff, the parish depends upon active and involved Vestry members, pastoral care visitation teams and Eucharistic ministers, “lay” as well as ordained teachers of adults as well as children, people involved in outreach and service to the community in the name of our church, that’s how we really need to be organized as we move ahead.

Now we need to do a better job in most of those things. We need more people visiting the sick and shut in, more teachers, certainly more people relating to PUNCH and Angel Food Ministries, and Salvation Army meals, and all the rest of it. You need to know that the clergy do not provide all the ministering in this congregation, and that, if you are visited by our parish nurse or one of our fine Eucharistic ministers or visitors, you HAVE been visited by the Church…by Trinity Cathedral.

But the point I want to make is that I don’t think that’s just the way so-called “”program sized” congregations ought to function. I think it’s the way the Body of Christ is intended to function! By virtue of your Baptism, and of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit you’ve all been given you ARE “the ministers of this Church!” Just like those “elders of Israel” who were given a portion of that spirit which was upon Moses; just like the 12 apostles who were called and sent out; just like the “Seventy” in today’s Gospel, you and I are to go outside these doors, knowing that though “the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few,” we ARE those laborers.

And it is our duty, and our joy, to do what we can to prepare the way for the kingdom, the reign, the sovereignty of God in this place – in the Quad Cities, and beyond. Which is why we say at the end of every service: “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit!” And you respond, “Thanks be to God!”

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