Sunday, September 27, 2009

Turf Wars - A Sermon

I have to tell you something rather distressing. I spent an unfruitful hour recently searching for Altar Guild Humor. The internet, with all its vast resources, found nothing humorous about the Altar Guild. Instead, I found this:

I’m afraid she looks like she’s saying, “Touch my vestments, and you will pay! And don’t even think of moving that chalice!” You and I know that this is unfair to OUR altar guild - people who are humble and kind and who DO share a sense of humor. But perhaps it speaks to the subtile temptation and danger of all positions of authority in church. TURF.

We take on a postion, and pretty soon, WE are in charge, and you had better not get in my way. In fact, now that I’m in charge, it’s my way or the high way. We start to guard our turf at church so much that sometimes we make a mess. I remember the senior warden of St. Peter’s, Peekskill - Ron Ashton. A great guy who loved being involved in everything. But two weeks before my boss was to go on a 6-month sabbatical in South Africa, Ron died. Well, we had a junior warden, so my boss went. On Sunday morning a month later, in January’s subzero temperatures, the boiler blew.

As it turned out, Ron had been taking care of the boiler, bleeding it with a method he did not even let the new sexton know about. He had guarded his turf so jealously that he took his knowledge to the grave, and it cost the church dearly.

Guarding our turf seems to be a time-honored tradition in the church. Even before it was the church, we people seemed to think that “Once I get a position, it is MINE. And woe betide anyone who sets foot in my domain.”

In today’s old Testament reading in Numbers, Eldad and Medad did what was not their turf. They had not been set aside as one of the 70, yet they prophesied. Joshua was outraged. But Moses knew they had the spirit and did the work God wanted. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that they had authority - only that Moses saw what others couldn’t. He saw that there is something more than just authorized leadership. Perhaps that ALL can take their share of leadership - and that all have a role in the community.

We see the same thing in today’s Gospel. The disciples were outraged that a guy was casting demons out in Jesus’ name -- even though he was not part of the official entourage. He was stepping all over their turf! But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Now, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that we shouldn’t have some order in the church. It’s good to know who to go to when we need to set up for a baptism or when we need to have a potluck or teach a class. But perhaps it means that more of us can take a leadership role than we dare think possible.

Did you note that part in the Gospel about causing anyone to stumble, about parts of your body causing you to sin? Too often, perhaps, the church has done that -- causing people to stumble, by making the Body of Christ impotent - by teaching that only the special folks can preach, teach, evangelize. That is not “official” teaching - officially, as we talked about last week at baptism - we are all ministers. The priesthood of all believers. Perhaps we don’t stress that because we like our special status - our turf.

Of course, there is danger is marking out your turf. Aside from practicalities, like passing on knowledge when it’s time to move on or in case of emergency, (Ron and the boiler), there is the spiritual danger of arrogance.

When I was in seminary, one of our professors beat into our heads that it is a sin not to take a day off or not to take a vacation. First, because we need it, but just as importantly, he said, because priests tend to think the church will fall apart without them. The church needs ME. The world needs me.

No, the world needs God, but God has placed all of us here. Both clergy and the church need reminders of that. We need to remember that it's time for all of us to pick up our mantles and prophesy or heal or evangelize.

Yes, there are specialized ministries - but they are subsets of the main ministry, and they are not unique. There are lots of priests and deacons, lots of organists, lots of people capable of being altar guild and Sunday school and acolytes and lay readers and lectors. None of us owns the position. The church will not cease without us.

And yet, the church IS us. And it does need all of us in order to fulfill its mission. We are -- ALL OF US -- here to work together to make the Kingdom of God reality. We are here -- all of us -- to make Christ known. As a community, we can do this by serving on the Altar Guild (and I bet our leaders would LOVE to have you join), the choir, the Vestry, the Youth Group -- you name it. And we can do it by sharing God’s love at all times everywhere.

The point is, if you are part of the church, YOU are one of the ministers. Don’t let anyone make you think you don’t have a piece of the ministry of Christ. The world is your turf - let’s get out there and share it. Amen.