On Sept. 12, 1965, I delivered my first sermon as a newly licensed minister at Zion Mennonite near Broadway, where I served for more than 20 years.
I’m not exactly comfortable with all of the messages I gave back in those days, but this one I would gladly repeat, on the theme “Every Believer is Called to Ministry,” based on Mark 10:35-45. In this text, Jesus is reprimanding his disciples for arguing over who should be considered the greatest in the God movement Jesus was establishing. Jesus’ answer is that in his upside-down kingdom, we become great only by becoming servants of all.
I stressed that God’s “calling” is not just for a select few, but is essentially that all believers follow Jesus together and continue the work he began while here on earth. The location and manner in which we carry out that calling — that of bringing healing and blessing to a broken world — are unique to each of us, based on our gifts and opportunities, but the calling is the same, that of each person to becoming an active part of a community of faith that lives, loves and serves others together.
This means one does not cease being a part of the “laity” (from laos, the people) when one is appointed a pastoral leader or a teaching elder in the congregation. Ideally, there should be no lay-clergy distinctions, no individuals with special titles or status in this community, but all are fellow servants under one master, the servant Jesus.
But through the ordinance of ordination, we have created an elevated and specialized system of leadership. And I became a part of that paradigm, in spite of my initial sermon. Even our church architecture promoted this kind of elevation, with pews arranged to focus everyone’s attention on the pulpit set in the center of a platform above the level of ordinary lay people, rather than our gathering together in some form of circle.
When I came to Zion, they were in the early stages of adopting a more professional model for pastoral ministry. To start with, I wasn’t called from within the congregation, but from the outside, at 27 years old. After two years at Zion, I became its first salaried (half-time) pastor and was then ordained in 1968 and served as its senior pastor until 1988. A year later, we moved into Zion’s first brand new parsonage built for us and located across the road from the church building.
For the past 27 years, I have been a part of a small house church congregation with shared leadership. We meet in a circle in each others’ living rooms each week for two hours of worship and Bible study followed by a fellowship meal. Our focus is not primarily on what happens when we are gathered, but on on our mission when we are scattered elsewhere throughout the week.
Far from perfect, but an attempt to live by the first official sermon I ever preached.
Fifty years ago.
Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.