On Laity Sunday

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This Sunday for the first time in a long while (perhaps ever?) we will be celebrating Laity Sunday in our morning worship service.

What does that mean? What is “laity” anyway?

In church lingo, everyone is either clergy or laity — clergy are those who have been ordained by the church and set aside to do the specific work of serving communion, baptizing, teaching and preaching, while laity are … well, everyone else! Laity comes from the Greek word “laos,” which simply means people, crowd, nation, or congregation. When we use the word “laity” now, it generally means not just any random group of people, but God’s people, the new people who have been brought into the community which Jesus Christ formed.

However, there’s a dirty little secret about clergy and laity; there is no Biblical basis for this division! The idea that some people are supposed to do God’s work while everybody else has to get on with living ordinary life is not something that Jesus would have taught. In the early church, everyone had a role to play; everyone participated wholeheartedly in the work of spreading the good news of Jesus.

Of course, as the movement grew it became clear that some people needed to dedicate themselves full-time to the work of leading specific faith communities.

But over time, church leaders became more and more elevated in status over the rest of their congregations. They began to accumulate wealth, take on big titles, and enjoy social and political power. This is especially unfortunate because Jesus would never have approved of the kind of status and privilege that these church leaders enjoyed.

In fact, he is recorded as saying to the disciples, “You know that among the Gentiles the rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so with you” (Mark 10:42). Another time, he explicitly orders them not to give themselves big titles: “Don't let anyone call you 'Rabbi,' for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matt. 23:8).

Eventually, ordinary churchgoers began to believe that there were two kinds of Christians — the good Christians, who became priests, monks or nuns, and the ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christians, who had to live ordinary lives in the real world, and thus could be forgiven for living less-than-holy lives. Or to put it another way — clergy and laity.

Fortunately, Martin Luther and the Reformers exposed this thinking to be inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching. They began to introduce “ordinary Christians” to the idea that everyone can be a serious disciple of Christ, and that every one of us has spiritual gifts and talents to use on behalf of the common good.

John Wesley continued this emphasis by encouraging laypersons to preach and teach, as well as perform other tasks usually left to clergy. His teaching on sanctification and Christian perfection clearly implied that laity and clergy alike were called to holiness.

That’s your brief history lesson on the clergy/laity division in the church. Fortunately, we United Methodists have attempted to keep Wesley’s teaching alive. In our Book of Discipline, one of the first sections is titled, “The Ministry of All Christians,” and it includes this critical sentence: “All Christians are called through their baptism to this ministry of servanthood in the world to the glory of God and for human fulfillment.”

Notice the phrase all Christians.

Not just the preacher. Or the children’s minister. All Christians.

That means you.

Lest you think I’m overstating the case, here’s a line from the very next paragraph: “Every layperson is called to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); every layperson is called to be missional. The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.”

Again, I would point out that this text says that the witness of the laity is the primary evangelistic ministry through which the church will fulfill its mission. Not the pastor’s ministry. Not the staff’s ministry.

But yours. You, the people.

We clergy aren’t here to do all the work. Rather we’re here to assist you in recognizing the work to which you have been called as God’s people.

We clergy aren’t here to do all the evangelism. Rather we’re here to help you tell your faith story so that others might come to know Jesus.

We clergy aren’t here to do all the pastoral care. Rather we’re here to teach you how to care for your neighbors.

We clergy aren’t here to do all the teaching. Rather we’re here to give you the tools you need to teach.

We clergy aren’t here as missionaries. Rather we’re here to teach you how to be missionaries.

How are we doing?

The Parable of Living Water

The following story comes from a sermon preached by Bishop Michael McKee on Monday night at the Clergy Retreat, which Kay and I attended. I don’t remember who originally told it, but I thought it was worth stealing:

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Once upon a time, a holy man discovered a spring of water that had magical powers. The waters healed those who were sick, inspired those who were depressed, and gave immortality to those who drank it. The man built a little hut next to the spring and spent all his time there. Soon word began to spread of the living water, and other people began to build huts nearby. A thriving community built up around the waters.

One day, as yet another family moved into the area, someone suggested that they build a fence around the village. A fence with a door and lock was hastily constructed. But as soon as the fence was built, the water stopped flowing.

When the holy man discovered what had happened, he packed up his things and left the village. He wandered through the countryside until he came upon another spring with living water. Once again, he constructed a hut and moved in to stay. Soon word began to spread, and other people followed him. A thriving community built up around the spring.

As the population swelled, again someone suggested that they build a fence around the community. Again, a fence with a door and lock was built. And again, the water immediately stopped flowing.

When the holy man saw what had happened, he packed up his things again and left the village. This time he wandered farther and longer, but again he found a spring of living water. Once again, he built a small place to live.

You can imagine what happened — word got around, and the people came. They built a thriving community again. And once again, someone suggested they build a fence around the village.

This time, however, the holy man said, “No. We won’t build a fence, or install a door, or put in a lock.”

To this day, the holy man still lives in that place, in the midst of a thriving community, for the spring of living water still flows.

How are we constructing fences around the living water of the gospel?

The Parable of the Church on the Hill

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The little church on the hill was a happy place for many years. The people who established the church had built a beautiful building. There was gold trim, exquisite stained glass windows, and marble floors. The place perpetually smelled of lilies and roses.

For years, the church was the tallest structure in the area. The steeple could be seen for miles away. The people remembered fondly that Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hid.”

Over time, other people moved into the area, and began building new buildings. Some were bigger and taller than the little church. Some were shinier and flashier. Some had bigger signs, and others had more contemporary flourishes.

But nothing was as beautiful as the little church. It sat on the hill proudly, proclaiming its good news.

As the taller buildings began to press in on the little church on the hill, the people who built the church began to worry. They worried that they couldn’t be seen anymore.  They fretted that their steeple wasn’t as tall as the newest cell tower or the nearest department store billboard. Fewer people came into their doors, even though the church was still beautiful.

One day, someone read that Jesus said that those who fed the hungry and gave shelter to the homeless were serving him. They wanted to serve Jesus, so they decided to invite hungry homeless people to their beautiful building. A line soon formed in front of their doors.

But there was a problem. The homeless people didn’t have shoes, and their feet were dirty — what would happen to the church floors? They didn’t smell very good either — wouldn’t that be an offense to the sacred space? They also didn’t speak or behave logically or rationally. In fact, they were more trouble than they were worth.

So the church closed its doors and said, “Never mind.”

The church members didn’t feel good about what happened; they sighed loudly with regret.

One day, someone read that Jesus once said, “Let the little children come to me.” Another person said, “Children are the future of the church, so let’s welcome them.” So the church invited all the children in their village to come. A line soon formed in front of their doors.

But there was a problem. The children were rowdy. They were loud when they got into the building and the sound ricocheted off the walls and down the stairways — how could anyone hear themselves think, much less pray? They were messy — who would clean up the paper off the floors? They also didn’t speak or behave logically or rationally. In fact, they were more trouble than they were worth.

So the church closed its doors and said, “Never mind.”

The church members didn’t feel good about what happened; they sighed loudly with regret.

One day, someone read that the Bible directs people to welcome strangers, aliens, and immigrants. Another person said, “We should invite immigrants to our church, especially families who have been separated at the border.” So the church invited all the immigrants in the village to come. A line soon formed outside their doors.

But there was a problem. The immigrants spoke a foreign language — who would translate them? Some of them were also illegally in the country — should the church support lawlessness? Some needed legal support. In fact, they were more trouble than they were worth.

So the church closed its doors and said, “Never mind.”

The church members didn’t feel good about what happened; they sighed loudly with regret.

One day, someone reminded them that there were a lot of young single adults moving into the village. Another person said, “Let’s invite them to our church. They’re professionals without children, so they’re likely to be easier to manage. They smell good and dress well. They speak English. They also have jobs in the big city so they can help us pay to keep our building beautiful.”

Everybody thought this was a fine idea, much better than the ones they’d had before. So the church invited all the young single adults in the village to come. A line soon formed outside their doors.

They threw open the doors and the young single adults came in and filled the building. They served fancy coffee with long names and gave everyone access to free Wifi. 

But there was a problem. One of the young single adults asked, “Where are the homeless?” Another asked, “Where are the children?” And another asked, “Where are the immigrants? This doesn’t seem like much of a church to me. Why does everybody here look and speak and smell exactly the same?” The rest of the young single adults nodded in agreement.

Slowly they filed out the door and returned to the village.

Questions to ponder: What does the future of the church on the hill look like? What does it do now? What will restore the church’s beauty and dignity?