Sermon: Ministry with Unintended Consequences

Barnabas

[Given on the June 16, 2015 (College of Presbyters), by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Peter’s and All Saints’ Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

Acts 13.2-3 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior.

For the focus of our time together, I want to focus on the Acts 13.2, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

This Saturday I will have the opportunity to travel to Atlanta, Georgia to witness the priestly ordinations of several of my friends from seminary. My Anglican Year corresponded with their first year of seminary and because each of us was new on God’s Holy Mountain called “Sewanee,” we bonded as a cohort.

I must admit, however, that this time of year is immensely difficult for me. The Diocese of Atlanta has a policy that one isn’t ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests until one has received a call and because I had not received my call to St. Andrew’s in the requisite amount of time leading up to the ordinations two years ago, I wasn’t included in the priestly ordinations on June 22, 2013. Part of me was embarrassed because it felt like I had done something wrong, like the system or the process had worked for everyone else but me. Part of me was angry with God because, once again, things had not gone as I had planned. Attending that ordination service two years while I sat in the congregation was a visceral, embodied sign that God had sent me somewhere I never thought I would go, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

A few years prior to that, while a chaplain at Emory University Hospital – Midtown, my CPE supervisor said something to me about the nature of ministry that I will carry with me forever. Facing the fear of leaving my friends and community behind me as I journeyed from Atlanta to attend seminary in Sewanee, Elwood Spackman, or “Woody” as we called him, a United Methodist pastor who knew a thing or two about itinerant ministry, looked at me and said, “You might as well get used to it. Ministry isn’t about stability and security. You’re being called to the ministry of a pilgrim. You’re being called to an intentional journey.” There was little comfort to be found in his words in the moment, only a heightened sense of urgency.

And yet, it was that statement that helped me make it through the service on June 22, 2013. Somehow I managed to keep a brave face, to smile when I greeted the newly ordained and even greeted the priests that I felt had treated me unfairly. All the while I played Woody’s words in the back of my head “You’re being called to the ministry of a pilgrim. You’re being called to an intentional journey.”

It strikes me as I reflect on the life of St. Barnabas the Apostle that he and his traveling companion, St. Paul, knew a thing or two about “journey” and “pilgrimage.” These two Apostles would literally take the Gospel of God to places where it had never been, both in terms of geography and community. It was because of their ministry, because they were willing to be sent by the Holy Spirit and to carry the Gospel outside of the box, that the Gentile community was allowed into fledgling Jesus movement. Theirs was a ministry with unintended consequences.

We have in the 13th chapter of Acts, the commissioning of St. Barnabas and St. Paul for the “work to which [God had] called them.” The Antioch church prayed for them, laid hands on them, and sent them on their way.

Their ministry began unassumingly enough. Up to this point, the ministry of the early Jesus movement was primarily focused on Jewish folk. They were the intended focus of Jesus’ message. The conversion of Gentiles was seen as nothing more than an afterthought or an accident. They were the unintended consequences. Barnabas and Paul would go into a new city, into the synagogues, into the traditional centers of spirituality, and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and some Jewish folk would hear the message of life and believe, but there was another group called “Gentiles” who heard this message and believed. As their ministry unfolded more and more of the converts identified as Gentile rather than Jewish and soon their mandate became clear – “For the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may being salvation to the ends of the earth.’”[1] They took the Gospel of Jesus Christ into new territories and communities and forever reinvented the trajectory of the Jesus movement. Theirs was a ministry of unintended consequences.

I wonder if in this time where the Church (catholic) is wrestling with the fear of decline, shrinking budgets, falling numbers, waning influence, and the shadow of death, I wonder if God might be calling us, the priests of God’s Church, to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ into new territories?

I wonder if God might be trying to shake-up the make-up of his Church?

I wonder if God might be telling us that for too long our focus has been too narrow, too myopic, too small?

I wonder if God might be trying to tell the Church to take the limits off and to dare to imagine ministry outside of the box?

I wonder if God might be calling each of us to a ministry of unintended consequences?

I know that it can be difficult to look at the present and to see past the difficulty of tomorrow. I know that it is easy to fear when we are being shaken to our foundations. I know that it is easy to turn inward when we’re closing more churches than we are planting, and we’re losing more people than we are baptizing. But I have been through enough with God to know that when God has called you to something, God has given you what you need to meet the challenge. Paul himself would write to the Church in Rome that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”[2] This doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen, that you won’t face more than your fair share of challenges, that you won’t want to throw in the towel and give up sometimes; but, it does mean that even in the midst of what seems difficult, God’s purpose wins.

In case you missed it, God has not called us into a vocation of stability or security. God sends us out as “sheep among wolves.” And when the wolves come bearing down, I am so glad that I know the Good Shepherd whose rod and staff comfort me even when I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Armed with that faith we can obey the call of the Holy Spirit to “go” and to take the church into the next frontier. We can meet the challenge of this present age because God has called each of us to this work, because God’s community has laid their hands upon each of us and commissioned us to this task. All that is left is for us to get up and go, to set sail with boldness and Holy Ghost abandon, to take the Gospel places it has never been before knowing there is someone waiting on the margins, hungry to hear the sweet words of life.

Go.

There is work to which God has called you.


[1] Acts of the Apostles 13.47

[2] Romans 8.28

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