Servants of the Word

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Matthew 25: 14-30

Dedicated to the Memory of the Rev. Margie Mayson (d. 11/8/11)

I lift my voice in celebration of Jesus’ parable of the talents. (I heard WS Coffin in his first sermon at Riverside Church, autumn 1977, preach on it, and conclude by singing ‘This little light of mine”.) Life is a gift which inspires continuous giving, says the Lord. Talents are meant to be shared, says the Lord. What we have and who we are we are meant to invest in the future, says the Lord. This means risk. There is risk, always there is risk, in investment. The risk is real, and should be reasonable, and can be managed. But it is risk still. All walks of life, including yours and mine, involve real, reasonable, manageable risk. Let us apply the lesson, you and I, to our own lives and work. As OW Holmes said of a sermon: ‘I applied it to myself’. This morning, in particular, let us think about the servants of the word, ministers of the gospel, in the Methodist tradition of Marsh Chapel, and of those in that calling to whom the Lord may say: “Well done thou good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. We will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the master”.

I lift my voice in honor, defense, and happy admiration of a 32 year old Tennessee Methodist preacher, who questioned from his pulpit the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (With a congregation of conservatives, deep in a red blooded red state, he preached the gospel of truth about an action that was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, reckless, unforeseeable, immoral, post-Judeo Christian, and wrong.) “This mistaken action will haunt and shadow our beloved land for a biblical three to four generations”, he wrote in the sermon. With a wife and two pre-schoolers, and a massive seminary debt, he knew his sermon was more than generically risky: at worst, his collection plates might empty along with his pews. The DS might get some nasty email. He might be asked to move. Late one night, after putting the kids to bed, his wife gently asked him whether he really needed to speak up. He thought for a while and said: ‘Well, at least if the worst comes, I can count on another appointment, come June. That’s the way the Methodist church protects the freedom of the pulpit. I may not make much, but I have a kind of tenure. We will be able to feed our kids.’ A servant of the word.

I lift my voice in admiration for an ordained woman elder in Ohio, who had a couple coming for marriage ask if there were any man available, instead of her. The bride said, ‘We put down our deposit a year ago. We don’t want a woman to officiate. You owe us.’ When the minister explained to the administrative board that she would be going to small claims court over this, pointing to the stipulation in the wedding rules that the pastor in charge will officiate, there was a ruckus. ‘Why didn’t you just get our former pastor to tie the knot? He lives right here in town. He is retired and would be glad to do it.’ So, the red faced board chair demanded. At home that night, she promised her teenage daughter: ‘We may have to move next spring, which will be hard for both of us, but at least I will have an appointment, come June. We will not starve, you and I. We are Methodists. That’s the way the Methodist church protects the freedom of the pulpit. I may not make much money, but I will have a job somewhere. We are Methodists. We believe in the connectional, itinerant system, to protect the freedom of the pulpit.’ A servant of the word.

I lift my voice in honor of a New York district superintendent who questioned his bishop. I mean he QUESTIONED his bishop. Later he told his son how he dreaded sitting down across the table from his fellow elder, the resident bishop, and saying what he had to say: ‘Bishop, I know you are having an extra-marital affair. And while it is true that several of your colleagues have done the same, over the years, in this jurisdiction, and not looked back or been defrocked, I am not going to be still about it. You need to resign. Today.’ The son asked, ‘What will happen to us?’ His dad said, ‘I don’t know but I do know I will at least have a job in June. You can still count on going to Ohio Wesleyan next year. I may not make as much money as I could have in another denomination (like the Presbyterian or Episcopal Church), probably only a third as much, but I am proud to be a Methodist, where we protect our preachers from predatory and mendacious bishops. Methodists protect the freedom of the pulpit with the guaranteed appointment. Ernest Fremont Tittle’s great Evanston congregation, in their landmark statement on such freedom, and their defense of him, gave us a shining example. ’ A servant of the word.

I lift my voice in deep love and regard for an older Florida preacher, shepherded to his last assignment at age 64. The Staff Parish committee chair asked, ‘Don’t you have somebody younger, someone with kids in school, with a Dodge caravan, and a dog and an eagerness to please and a dislike of conflict?’. A year later, at age 65, the minister had to get up in the pulpit and point out that the congregation’s laziness, stinginess, shallowness, narrowness, meanness and arrogance were not working excessively well in evangelistic terms. (He dreaded doing it, for many reasons, one being that because he had started late in ministry, and needed as many pension years as he could muster.) He loved the younger people in the town, along the lake nearby, and the handful of good, loving, retired school teachers whose tithes kept the church open. But in his heart he knew he had no choice. And the DS had said, when he was sent there, ‘Speak lovingly, but truthfully. They have been coddled, dodged and lied to for years. I want them to hear about salvation. But I want them to hear about sin too. And if things get bloody, I’ll have a church for you in June. After all, we are Methodists. We stand for the freedom of the pulpit. We watch over one another in love, in connection and in itinerancy. We would not expect you to go anywhere you are sent without guaranteeing you a job somewhere. That would be cruel. That would be cruel to require you to move annually at the direction of a bishop, on a very modest salary, and not to commit to providing you some job, however humble.’ A servant of the word.
I lift my voice in concern for a 29 year old, newly minted United Methodist elder, who gave a strong sermon in West Virginia, in support of the full humanity of gay people. He did not sleep a wink the night before. He could feel the deep disappointment and anger in the eyes of the women and men—few enough already in number—with whom he would worship and for whom he would preach in the morning. He mused: ‘For all the visitation and counseling, all the weddings and funerals, all the long days and late nights, all the genuine friendship and pastoral care, they still will not forgive this. It means they have to re think their dysfunctional relationships to family and to the Bible. But silence, avoidance, and dishonesty are not helping them, as far as I can see. Ours is a gospel of truth. For it to be gospel it has to be true. Gay people are people. Gay people are people, not fractions of people. I know my voice may be muted, but it will not be silenced. I will be gentle, brief, humble and kind. I will visit later to listen in love. But I will preach. I am a traveling elder, an itinerant minister, a Methodist preacher. My college teacher (Howard Zinn) had tenure and could teach the truth as he saw it. I have an annual appointment to preach as fully and faithfully as I can. And I wilI. I can, I will, I promise, So help me God. I agree to go and work where I am sent, and the church promises a pulpit, however modest, and a salary, however meager. I can provide for my family. I am proud of our connection, our history, our birthright, our defense of freedom.’ A servant of the word.

I lift my voice in praise for a quiet, gentle, middle aged northern preacher, who disagreed in love with her resident bishop. ‘What he was quoted as saying in our city paper, after conference this summer, is just not right, just not true. I have to say so. I read a sermon once, ‘The Truth of Our Lives’ (M Mayson, AFUMC Rochester, 3/05) that gave me courage. I will do so personally, with respect, with grace, with humility, and in genuine love. But I have a pastoral responsibility too. In one paragraph quotation he did a decade’s worth of damage to our evangelism here in our struggling conference, by what he said. People will not darken the doors of churches whose leaders say such things. Bishops in our church are general superintendents, servants of the servants of God, servants of the servants of the word. They are consecrated not ordained. They are elders like the rest of us. Some of them hear so often what great people they are that they start to believe it. I know a few who can strut sitting down. He may not like my voice, or my view, but he will have to appoint me, even if it is to a tiny church in the north country. I will still be able buy rice crispies and cat food come June. I love my church and am proud to be a Methodist preacher. Only one thing would eject me from my cradle denomination: the trashing and elimination of the security of appointment.’ A servant of the word.

In the last sermon that I heard my father give, in Sherrill NY in 2008, he quoted the following passage from Timothy Tyson’s memoir, BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME. If you ever have any doubt as to the birthright, precious worth of the freedom of the pulpit, protected in our denomination by the security of appointment (now under attack by, of all people, the Bishops whose job it is to serve these very servants of the word), buy and read this book. Tyson, an historian, remembers growing up under the leaky roofs of many North Carolina Methodist parsonages, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. His father, an itinerant minister, a traveling elder, a servant of the word, was very effective and beloved from church to church, until he began, once trust was established, to preach about race and race relations—the full humanity of black people. To his white congregations this white man said something like ‘people all people belong to one another’ (H Thurman). Every three years or so, the DS called, and Bishop reappointed the family. On the road again. Once because he invited Dr Samuel Proctor, a fine African American Preacher, and then President of North Carolina A and T into his pulpit. Once because he organized an interracial memorial service following the death of ML King. Once because he preached a particular sermon on racial equality. Once because with his brother, the author’s uncle, he went to court and sat on the ‘wrong side’ of the courtroom. He said to the judge: “If you can tell me where to sit, you can tell me what to think, and what to say, and…I don’t believe you have that authority.’ His parishioners told him he was no longer welcome in any of the six pulpits on his circuit. He reminded them that ‘he’ didn’t stand in those pulpits at their invitation…but by the calling of the Lord and the appointment of the bishop.’ His wife was eight months pregnant. People crossed the street to avoid him. Threatening phone calls came, after which he sent his wife and kids to live with his mother. Then this, the passage my dad cited: “Lying in bed alone at the parsonage a few nights later, he heard a knock at his back door. He thought it might be the Klan coming to make good on their threats, but saw what appeared to be a white woman standing near the back porch. It was too dark to tell who it was, and the figure had moved back away from the house after knocking. He opened the door and reached for the light switch. ‘Please don’t turn on the light’ a female voice stammered. ‘I just wanted you to know how proud I am that you are my preacher. I just wanted you to know that.’ And then she hurried away into the darkness. (Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name, 194) A servant of the word.

I lift my voice this morning to echo the ancient wisdom of the Apostle Paul, in whose words we again receive the call to preach (are you so called?), the risk of ministry (is this adventure yours?), the gospel investment in history and mystery (is this your path?): ‘How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him…Faith come from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.’

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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