by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Is not this the fast I choose, / the fast that pleases me: / that the bonds of injustice / be removed, / undo the thongs, / the rope of the yoke! / Let those who are oppressed go free, / and break every yoke you encounter! / Share your bread / with those who are hungry,…” — Isaiah 58:6-7a.
I have often said the Rev. Carol Anderson was one of my mentors in ministry. Carol was in the first class of women ordained in the Episcopal Church. In the sequence of those, she was the third ordained, the first in the New York Diocese.
In a newspaper interview around that time she was asked how people might address her: Reverend? Father? Mother? She responded, “My name is Carol.”
The interviewer pressed: should you not now be addressed with some title? She said nothing has changed with me, with who I am, with what I do. I have been working in ministry for years and my name has certainly not changed. I’m just a woman from New Jersey. And my name is Carol. (Slight pause.)
Carol was always clear about something else. She understood ordination is, or at least can be, a recognition of ministry someone is doing already or has done.
What had Carol already done? She had, for instance, gone to the South one Summer in the 60s to work on voter registration. Carol would be the first to say she made a small contribution to a larger effort. She helped at most a little more than hundred people whereas tens of thousands were registered.
One more item: Carol understood that, not for centuries but for millennia, many women felt called to ordained ministry and were not afforded that recognition. Since she did feel called to ordination she understood she was privileged to live in a time that afforded her recognition. But she, herself, felt the sum total of what she did was infinitesimal compared to what had been done by the many who had gone before her and were not allowed ordination.
And she also understood ministry is about doing one thing at a time, taking one step at a time. And, most importantly, she understood she was… simply… just… Carol— no… big… deal. (Slight pause.)
And so it came to pass that Carol served as Rector— that’s Episcopal talk for Pastor— Carol served as Rector at All Angels Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I was a member. And when I say Carol was a mentor as I said earlier, I tied to take to heart her lesson that ministry is about doing one thing at a time, taking one step at a time.
And so it came to pass that All Angels Church that we started a Sunday afternoon lunch for anyone who wanted to come. Mostly people who lived on the street, those without homes, showed up. But also some folks came who simply wanted companionship, social contact.
And so it came to pass that I would arrive at church around 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday, grab a push cart, go around the corner to Zabar’s Deli and pick up their day old bread— boxes and boxes of it. It was good bread but bread they would no longer sell to the public, it being a day old, bread which we would in turn serve with the meal on those Sunday afternoons.
Usually I could not hang out to help with those meals. But I could get the bread at 8:00 a.m. when no one else could. And every Sunday afternoon we, the members of the church, fed hundreds.
So I came to understand ministry is about doing one thing at a time, taking one step at a time, thereby being a part of something larger. And, by the way, I’m a guy from Brooklyn who has come to understand I’m simply… just… Joe— no… big… deal. (Slight pause.)
We hear these words in the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I choose, / the fast that pleases me: / that the bonds of injustice / be removed, / undo the thongs, / the rope of the yoke! / Let those who are oppressed go free, / and break every yoke you encounter! / Share your bread / with those who are hungry,…” (Slight pause.)
In my comments a couple of weeks ago I said we are a society that likes big. After all, our American baseball championship is not simply a championship between leagues. It’s called a World Series. Our American football championship game is not simply a game between conferences. We call it a Super Bowl.
And, as I said in those comments a couple of weeks ago, we live in a society that is used to big. Big is how we think. Our culture is uncomfortable with small. (Slight pause.)
You see, in the reading from Matthew Jesus says (quote:) “You are the light of the world.” In our modern way I believe we tend to think of, perhaps, artificial illumination when we hear those words. And we think it’s a bright light, a large light, an intense light.
However, Jesus goes onto say (quote:) “No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it under the bushel basket but on the lamp-stand,….” Jesus could just have easily said, “You light is like the Sun which breaks forth from the clouds on a dreary day.”
But that is not what Jesus said. Jesus said, “No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it under the bushel basket but on the lamp-stand,….” Given that era, how bright would that light have been?
Given that era, there are three things that lamp light would not be: bright, large, intense. But it would have been a light to the world because, as dim as it might have been compared to the Sun, it would be a light to help people see. And it would have been small light, a tiny light. (Slight pause.)
Now to reiterate, we are addicted to big. But I want to suggest ministry is small. Ministry is one person at a time doing what they can, when they can, where they can, as well as they can.
Equally, let me address what ministry is not. Ministry is not hiding in the shadows. Ministry is not being afraid of the night. Ministry means tackling problems.
The problems may be big. Indeed, problems may be and often are systemic, problems which are ingrained, so ingrained we may not even recognize them as problems. But ingrained problems are, by definition, big problems. And the only way to tackle something big is to start small, one step at a time.
Carol may have helped a little more than hundred people register to vote that Summer she spent in the South. And as those things go, that’s not a lot of people. But Carol did her part.
When I scooted around the corner to Zabar’s I picked up 8 or 10 boxes of bread and it took, maybe, a half an hour. As those things go, that’s not a lot of time, not a lot of effort. But the church fed hundreds every week. I did my part.
Ministry, you see, happens in these small steps. And therefore, ministry requires humility— let me say that again— ministry requires humility— the humility to say I am willing to do something small as a part of something larger. Ministry is, hence, often not valued by our society. After all, our society is used to big, likes big, thinks big and is quite uncomfortable with small. (Slight pause.)
Confession: I may not know a lot but I know this: every time I’m tempted to think ministry is about big I remind myself of a basic truth. I’m a guy from Brooklyn who has come to understand I’m just… simply… Joe— no… big… deal. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “There is no question about this: there are systemic problems, big problems. But I do not care who you are or how important you think you are, you cannot fix the system from the top/down. But you can help make things work from the bottom/up. And bottom/up is the basic definition of two things. Bottom/up is the basic definition of who we are as a church: Congregational. And bottom/up is the basic definition of ministry.”
BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry the peace of God into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of the Word of God in our actions. Let us recognize that the transforming power of God is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.