One of the preachers whose sermons I enjoy reading is Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was in his prime about a hundred years ago. He was the founding pastor of Riverside Church, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Columbia. That was where John Rockefeller went to church every Sunday. For the building’s dedication, he wrote the hymn we’re going to sing at the end of the service today: “God of Grace and God of Glory”. Toward the end of his life, when he wrote his memoirs, he said that one of the things that bothered him most about having had a long and fruitful ministry was that nobody called him “Harry” anymore. It was always “Dr. Fosdick”.
That’s why it especially jumped out at me when I was listening to a podcast not long ago that another great preacher, Will Willimon, a now-retired United Methodist bishop, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, Professor of the Practice of Ministry at the Duke University Divinity School, author of I don’t know how many books, said the same thing. The interviewer was in his early 30’s and kept vacillating between “Bishop” and “Dr. Willimon”, even when he said, “Just call me Will. It saves syllables.”
Don’t get me wrong. Respect is a good thing. We could probably, as a society, do with a bit more of it. However, there is a point where Christian leaders worthy of respect have to recognize that sometimes they have to step back a bit and let other people exercise their own gifts for ministry in order for the faith to flourish. Ironically, that was the point that Will was trying to make throughout the podcast I was listening to. At one point he said this (and remember he is speaking to somebody thirty years his junior):
“The kingdom of God is not limited to one generation, particularly the older generation. And so I think y’all are going to have to do more stepping up to say, ‘Okay, we’ve done it your way. Thank you, everybody over fifty, but now we’re going to have to ask, “How is God reaching a new generation, and how can we hitch onto that?”’”
I have to say, as someone whose age is halfway between Will’s and his interviewer’s, both groups are having a hard time. It’s like watching a parent teaching a teenager to drive. It has to happen, they both want it to happen, but one is scared of taking over the wheel and of the oncoming traffic while the other is trying to be encouraging but cannot avoid the occasional obvious intake of breath and the use of the phantom brake.
It would be good for us to go back to how Jesus handled things when he was preparing the disciples for a time when they would not be able to turn to him anytime they ran into a difficulty and expect him to fix it. That did happen at times, after all.
Mark tells us of a time when a father brought his son to Jesus to be healed of what sounds like epilepsy who said,
“‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’” [Mark 9:17-19]
Jesus healed him, of course, but I hear a certain degree of frustration with the disciples. I also hear a little bit of embarrassment on their part in what followed:
“When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’” [Mark 9:28-29]
In any form of ministry, any form of service, there has to be both willingness to pass on and to take up responsibility for the work of the kingdom.
And, yes, it can be especially difficult for those who have seen others do it well before them. They only see results, not the process, which can be messy and confusing, and sometimes full of guesswork. I have no idea what went on with Fosdick on a daily basis. He does talk, in his autobiography, about having had a nervous breakdown at one point early on. As for Will, I was there in a staff meeting as a student intern when he kept jumping up and down to answer calls and find information that he couldn’t call to mind, to the point where the secretaries went to the closet while he was out of the room and got out a short length of rope that they threw around him when he sat down, and tied him into the chair. When we turn to someone and say, “We need you to organize an online outreach,” and they think, “I don’t know where to begin,” it doesn’t occur to them that nobody else knows, either, but they stand a better chance of making a good guess. Do you think I understand Instagram? I seem to have an account, but I’m unclear how that happened. I don’t know how to log on, and, frankly, don’t really see the point. But I don’t do that stuff – none of us does – for ourselves.
Nor do any of us do ministry on our own. Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs. He didn’t send anybody out as a lone ranger. And those pairs came back and reported to the whole group. They shared their successes and they talked about their failures. They had both. Later on, Paul traveled around with assistants like Luke and Silas, though he had a falling out with Barnabbas at one point and they had to split up. He also took Timothy along with him, who was a generation younger than him, and accepted help from a runaway slave named Onesimus who was probably about Timothy’s age, too.
Above all, all of us have always had and will always have recourse to a Helper who knows not only what has worked best in the past to convey the love of God in Christ to a world that needs it desperately, but what is going to work when the way we’ve always done it (or the way we think we’ve always done it) needs to be re-examined. Before Jesus left the upper room to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Romans would arrest him, he gave his disciples a whole lot of last-minute instructions. He also told them where to turn if they had questions or qualms. He said,
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:25-26]
See, for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusted them. Even though he knew they would fail him that night and the next day, he trusted them for the long run. He trusted them with the news that the kingdom of God had come near. And for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusts us – all of us – with that same message, too.
So pass it along in your own way.