It was Pentecost at Trinity Church. The priest arrived only to find the altar guild uncertain what color frontal should be placed on the altar. "Why, red, of course," the puzzled priest announced. There was a quick flurry of activity, with several people changing the hangings and the frontal. People even came from the pews to help. The red hangings were produced and placed, and the Pentecost festival was duly celebrated. After the liturgy one of the older members remarked, "It takes a village to raise a child; and it takes a small church to do the altar!"
The woman's amusing remark was more than delightfully humorous - it pointed to the hallmark of the church, the body of Christ, at work.
In another church the liturgy was under way when a woman crept into the back pew with two small waifs. She sat there quietly crying throughout the service. At the end of the liturgy, before the priest could get to the back to greet her, several members had already introduced themselves and were talking with her. "Father," said one member, "This is Katie, and her children Jimmy and Julie; they need our help." Katie said her husband was abusing her and her children were dirty and hungry. Within a few minutes she was taken across the street to the rectory, someone was bathing her children, while others talked with Katie about her needs. The rectory phone rang with parishioners calling to offer help: clothes, money, whatever Katie needed. About all the rector did was organize the relief plan. Others cooked meals, visited and kept in touch with Katie in the weeks that followed. Eventually Katie and her children moved out of state, and she re-married, went to college, and became a teacher.
This, too, is an example of the varieties of gifts for ministry being expressed. You can probably think of examples from your own experience when the community has responded to a need, a crisis, or an opportunity for ministry that needed everyone's cooperation.
You can probably also think of a time when you were on your own, and you had to do it all. Others who might have been helpful were unavailable or not interested. Perhaps they sat and watched, or even made critical comments instead of pitching in. Maybe you heard things like, "Oh, but you do that so well" -when you wanted to hear, "What can I do to help?" The church can be a very uneven place when it comes to expressing the varieties of gifts: and, sadly, in some places they are seldom expressed at all.
It all begins with our Baptism. Over the last twenty-five years the Episcopal Church has been engaged in a rediscovery of the central act of Baptism. This great event in which we are made one with Christ and his body by water and the Holy Spirit, is more and more being understood as the sacrament which empowers us all for ministry.
Each of us needs to rediscover the power of our own Baptism, and Pentecost is a very good time to do that. In most of our churches today there will either be baptisms or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows will be recited. As that takes place, pay particular attention to the words of the Baptismal Covenant. There are two parts to it: belief and behavior. The part expressing our belief is contained in our accepting of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and the reciting of the Apostle's Creed. Then come the vows when we say how we will behave as a result of our belief.
First, we promise to continue in the apostle's teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in the prayers. This is a commitment to the community of believers. It is made to strengthen each of us in our faith, and to remind us that we are not in it all alone. People who gather with the community regularly know they have a strength on which to draw, and also sense they are there for others, not only themselves.
Somebody once said, "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar!" What the church needs is people who take seriously their covenant to be present in study, worship, and prayer when the community is gathered. Recently a widow who had been away from church for years started to return. One day she remarked to a friend, "Why did I ever leave? I've missed so much."
We also promise to persevere is resisting evil, and to repent and return to the Lord. We live in a culture that less and less understands evil as a potent force, and fails to see sin in any way other than "making mistakes." Christians know that evil has a name: Satan; and that evil is a powerful force that can only be overcome by God. Believers also know their own proclivity to turn to that negative force for many reasons, and their constant need to repent and return to the Lord. The point of this promise is that it is made in community: we are not saving ourselves, but are part of the community that is being saved. We contribute our own gifts to it by our presence, and others make us stronger in covenant with us. Resisting evil alone is very dangerous. Being in the community that places itself under the rule of love is a potent way to resist the works of the devil.
Not long ago a small mid-western city learned that the Ku Klux Klan, under the guise of a family-values seminar, was planning a major rally in the community. Nobody seemed to know quite what to do. A group of churches met together and decided to talk with the hotel that was hosting the event. Upon learning the true nature of the seminar the hotel canceled the booking, and the event was not held.
When it comes to proclaiming the Good New of God in Christ most people think that refers to ordained people. But all of us who are baptized live our daily lives among people who need to know about God's love for them. These people include our families, friends and neighbors, the people in the work place, and all others among whom God has placed us. Proclamation is not limited to people who wear collars. It is the joy of all believers to share their sense of salvation. "Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord," says the virgin mother. We need to ask God to help us tell the greatness of God to someone in need of hearing it. God will show us how, and the way which is appropriate for each of us.
Jeff was a foreman in the local bakery. He had several people he worked with who were suffering from drinking problems and family stress. One day he decided to organize a simple Bible study at work during the lunch hour. He even boldly invited the people he worked with-and to his surprise several came. The Bible study has been going on now for ten years, and Jeff can tell many stories about the difference it has made in his co-workers' lives.
We also are asked to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. The great leaders of faith have always known that their power was directly related to how they found Christ in others. The great peacemakers in our faith have always sought Christ in all people, not only in those who agree with them. It is the act of SEEKING and SERVING Christ that changes our lives and attitudes. Acting out this principle has changed churches and people. Putting it into practice has healed people.
The family was tired and sleepy as the car drove through the night. Suddenly there was a sputter, and the car came to a stop. The driver groaned, realizing he had run out of gas. The family waited on the lonely stretch of road. A car stopped and a man came over to the anxious family. He was dirty and disheveled and the car he drove looked like it had come from a junkyard. Much to the family's surprise the man produced a can of gasoline and refused any money for it. As he drove off into the dark the mother said, "He was a real character." From the backseat the little girl remarked, "I think he was Jesus."
Finally, striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every person are norms for Christian behavior. Again, we are less and less congruent with the culture that says, "You have to earn my respect." Christ teaches us the dignity of all persons is a given of their creation. If people are treated with dignity they usually respond in kind. A law enforcement agent once remarked that the hardest part of his job was arresting someone and then having to address them as "Sir" or "Ma'am." "But," he said, "I know when I do this I am treating them as I would want to be treated."
You have heard some examples of connecting our gifts for ministry with the Baptismal Covenant and our bonds with one another. In these promises you should hear God speaking to you about what it is God is calling you to do. As a member of the Pentecost Community, renew your promise to work WITH others around you, FOR others among whom God has placed you, and you will know the power of the Holy Spirit in your life.