I chose this passage for our reading today, which is not part of the lectionary, because today we will be installing Larry and Duane. This passage has to do with the characteristics of church leaders. I should say here, that what I am about to read, was NOT written by Paul, we know that for a fact, but was written by a follower of Paul probably at the end of the 1st century. 1 Timothy 3:1-13
All that’s enough to humble you, isn’t it? It’s an awesome responsibility, living up to what the Bible requires of its church leaders.
You, Larry and Duane, have already been ordained, as you know but maybe some of the rest of us don’t! Today, you will be taking up the ordination mantle-- again. You will be moving from inactive elder, or the way some people refer to it--unruly elder, to ruling elder status. You will once again become a leader in this wonderful church. You ready to clean up your act?
You are following in a long line of church leaders. According to scripture, the first church leaders to be ordained were in the church in Jerusalem. We get the why and how in Acts 6. The Apostles who were leaders in the Jerusalem church, Peter, James and the rest, were spending their time reading and writing, praying and thinking great thoughts. All to say that the church in Jerusalem, was going to heck. There was no one doing the administration end of things-- required to keep the church running; Most distressing of all, the poor and the widows were being neglected.
So the apostles and their followers, talked through the problem. Their solution was to ordain deacons to (quote) “serve at tables”—which probably means more than just donning an apron and ladling soup—but we really don’t know. It was at least that, though.
Those first deacons were all men—because…well, I don’t know why—seems like women might do as well as men at serving at tables. A short time later though, still in Biblical times, women WERE ordained as church leaders. So for example, in our reading for today, Paul advises that “women deacons must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, and faithful in all things.” And in Romans 16, Paul writes to the church in Rome, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchrea.”
I say that those first seven deacons were ordained church leaders. The Greek word for ordained is Cheirotenetheis—it means to spread out hands—which is what the Apostles did—they spread out hands over those first deacons, and that spreading out or laying on of hands became a long-standing church tradition for tapping church members to serve.
You would have thought those first church leaders would have had it fairly easy. No web page to construct and maintain, no phone calls to make, no minutes of meetings to keep. But actually, Stephen, one of those seven deacons at the church in Jerusalem, was a fervent believer, as we hope all church leaders are. As a fervent believer, he professed his faith in the town square in Jerusalem. For that, Stephen was stoned to death.
The Apostle Paul was also ordained—we read about that to in Acts 13. Right after his ordination, he sailed to Cyprus to begin spreading the word—He drew huge crowds and converted people willy-nilly. Then he organized those people into churches—and laid hands on still others who then became church leaders. Paul like Stephen, put himself in harm’s way for the gospel. He too was stoned by his detractors, although he managed to survive that stoning. He was locked up in prison, though, and as we know, he was finally martyred.
All to say, being a church leader CAN be dangerous! Be careful!
I’m sort of kind of kidding here. I predict your responsibilities will lie more in the realm of administration and basic building use and maintenance. But even those responsibilities may require a tich of bravery.
So for example, at one church I served we had, not a mouse problem, but a MICE problem. Lots of droppings in the church kitchen. Our elder for church maintenance, Richard, placed some traps in the kitchen. Maybe you’ve seen the kind of mouse traps he used. They are made of cardboard. You fold the cardboard in such a way that it looks like a little house with two open sides. The floor of that cardboard house had sticky stuff on it. The idea is, an unsuspecting mouse saunters into that house, hoping to find a cookie crumb. He steps on the sticky stuff and voila, he’s stuck like bre’r rabbit—remember that story?
On a Sunday morning soon after Richard laid those traps, three of us, women all, came to church early. We were preparing for an after-worship lunch. Surprise, surprise! In the corner of that kitchen was a pathetic looking mouse. It was inside that cardboard house, stuck in that sticky stuff. He was trembling with fear and pleading in high-pitched mouse language, “Help me! Help me.”
I called Richard. “Richard, a mouse is caught in one of YOUR traps.” Without missing a beat, Richard said, “I’ll be there in a minute. Just have to load my shotgun.” Brave man, Richard.
Duane has agreed to assume primary responsibility for building maintenance which, sadly, DOES include mouse entrapment. I tell you this, as Richard knew, it helps to have a sense of humor. Building maintenance is a constant challenge, and it’s all in all a thankless job. Already, in the three short months since Bob took ill, Duane has fixed a leaky toilet, helped get our bell repaired, and fixed our outside light so that it doesn’t blink anymore. Remember that blinking light? One little church, so many maintenance issues. Maybe Duane won’t get an award for bravery, and hopefully he won’t have to pick up a gun, but climbing ladders which he has done often, despite Trev’s protests, is either bravery, or foolhardiness. Thank you Duane.
Larry has graciously agreed to serve as assistant treasurer and check signer for the church. That too is a big responsibility, although again, it might not win him any medals for bravery. Still, Larry, you will have financial information about each of us, and that will require that you abide by the rules of confidentiality. We are hoping that you maintain personal integrity too. After all, we are entrusting our giving to you.
Not all elders have integrity, sad to say. A dishonest, self-serving elder can destroy a church.
In Northern Virginia, not too very far from the church I served, was yet another Presbyterian Church. We actually competed for members. During the Civil War this other church, an historic church, served as a stable for Union soldiers’ horses.
Sadly, though, back in the 1980’s that historic building was in such disrepair, that it had to be demolished. Again, Duane, we are counting on you so we don’t have to go that route.
The elders at that historic church in Northern Virginia voted to at least salvage the sanctuary’s lovely, historic overhead beams. Those beams would then be installed in the new sanctuary. Alas, when time came for the installation, those beams could not be located ANYWHERE. And so the sanctuary was built minus historic beams.
Lo and behold, they reappeared several years later, in a restaurant—owned by a church elder who had served on Session during the demolition of that historic church sanctuary!
Can you imagine what that did to the church membership? That elder’s actions almost destroyed the church. Feelings of betrayal. Anger. The silver lining is that the church I served gained some of those angry members! Ok, I say silver lining, but not really. That’s not the way you want to grow a church!
So bravery and integrity are key characteristics of church leaders. But the writer of First Timothy writes that other things are required of them, of you.
You must have a good marriage, only married once, obedient children, well managed personal finances and of course you must practice sobriety. The writer is insisting, or at least I fear he is insisting, that when you assume the role of church leader, or even before you assume the role, you must maintain a proper decorum.
I don’t believe that anyone, anywhere, at any church, can honestly check off all the boxes we read about in our scripture passage for today. We may fool some of the people some of the time…
Unfortunately, but also fortunately, our biggest mistakes, our failings, our problems are what most define us. We can paper over them or we can share them. If we share them, then the church (hopefully) will grow in compassion and in mutual love.
In some of the most memorable Session meetings I have been blessed to be part of, members have peeled off their public faces, and revealed a different self. At one meeting, a successful businessman, his eyes red-rimmed and moist, shared that his teenage daughter was creating havoc for the family—he and his wife were at wits’ end. We stopped our meeting, held hands and prayed for him. At another Session meeting, different church, a member shared that he had lost his job, and that finances would be extremely tight moving forward. Again, we held hands and prayed for him. Still another time, before a Session meeting got underway, I commented on a Session member’s lovely broach. It was pinned to her sweater. Looked like it could have been an heirloom. The Session member, laughed, and said, “It’s covering up a spot. My (baby) granddaughter threw up on me, just before I had to leave for this meeting.” That’s not proper decorum, but that’s real life.
So, I choose to break with the author of First Timothy here. In the church I want to be a part of anyway, church members enjoy an abiding kinship —It’s where when you go there, they have to take you in—like family. Indeed, we ARE family. And that way of framing ourselves, starts with our church leaders.
Larry and Duane, as your sister in this church family and also as a sister in Christ Jesus, I am thrilled and, yes, honored to be working with you these next three years, and I am sure that Cathey, Judy and Tom share these sentiments.
I will end this sermon with a Celtic prayer: In your term on Session, May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft upon your fields. Amen