Sermon from August 29: Practical Matters

Practical Matters
Pentecost XIV; August 29, 2021
I Timothy 3:1-13

Personally, I prefer Paul when he’s being theological: when he’s writing about the grace and work of God, rather than when he’s addressing organizational matters. Some of you may prefer pieces such as this one, when he’s being down-to-earth and practical. And there are those of you who don’t much care for Paul’s work at all, who will be glad when we finally get done with his epistles and turn to other Scriptures. September 19: Cindy will be preaching from the Book of Hebrews, which is not about a male barista. And also was almost certainly not, despite what you may have heard, written by Paul.

Most of the first epistle to Timothy is about leadership in the Church: the ministry of pastors, elders and deacons. Yes, verses 1 to 7 is about “bishops” or “overseers,” and the analogous office in our Church is that of the Ruling Elder. Don’t think of a guy in a robe and a fancy hat; think of your Session meeting and praying together to decide whether or not we should use wine with communion; who may use our building for gatherings; and so forth.

And please note that Paul assumed that these bishops and deacons would be men, although the ambiguity of translation of verse 11 is such that it may refer to female deacons. Just because Paul assumed they would be men doesn’t mean that God intended that they should always and only be men. But that’s another story. I thought I should point that out, given some of what it says.

Rather than expound on the qualifications for Elder and Deacon, which I could do, I feel called instead to talk with you a bit about theory and practice, about theology and polity, about the “why,” the “what,” and the “how.” Some years ago an Elder in the Church said to me, “This didn’t turn out to be what I expected. I thought we would sit around thinking beautiful thoughts.” It is a frustration of mine that we spend more time at Session meetings talking about money than talking about God, and my Elder was feeling that. It should be said, though, that what we believe is shown both by what we do and by the process we use to do it.

Some churches believe that all authority in the church resides in the clergy, and so the Pastor makes all the decisions about worship, the Sacraments, the building, and money. We Presbyterians are at almost the opposite extreme: almost all authority resides in the Session, and the Pastor has very little authority. And that is because we believe that all individuals are sinners, and even pastors are likely to be driven by self-interest, so it is better for authority to be lodged in a group of people who pray together, listen to each other, and decide together, rather than for such authority to be lodged in an individual.

When that process breaks down, there is something wrong. If people are unwilling to serve on the  Board of Deacons, then there probably should not be a Board of Deacons. Deacons can serve in commissioned ministry without being on a Board. If people are unwilling to teach Sunday School, then maybe the Church should not have a Sunday School. If people are unwilling to serve on the Session… well, then the Presbytery takes over and decides whether that Church maybe doesn’t need to exist any longer. The Church cannot function without ordered leadership.

Why? Because the Church of Jesus Christ is not a building where folks come to get a religious fix from a holy person: the Church of Jesus Christ is a community of people called by Jesus to follow him, witness to his grace, and baptize in his name. We are a group of disciples dedicated to making disciples; that is who we are, that is what we believe, and leadership is the means we have to do that. It’s both theoretical and practical; it is theology and polity.

Our public life is analogous. It has become popular to say nasty things about politics, and that’s probably because politics has become so nasty. Politicians have found that the best way to get elected is not to promote the benefits of our ideas or our party, but to convince people that the opponent is a baby-hating scumbag. Since, if you listen to everybody, our politics is dominated by baby-hating scumbags, it is no wonder that we despise politics.

But politics is simply the means by which people work together to get things done. There is good politics and bad; there is republican democracy and there is authoritarianism. You cannot have a human community without some sort of politics, some means of making decisions and getting things done. If you avoid politics then you are checking out of the community. That is the practical matter in which we express who we are and what we are about, whether we’re talking about the politics of our SID or city, our State or our nation, or the politics of the local school board or the Garden Club. What we do and how we do it are expressions of what we believe.

And sometimes it is a good idea to stop and ask ourselves why we do what we do. All human communities, not only churches, can easily fall into the habit of continuing to do something simply because it is what we do. If you know this story, please be patient as I tell it. A young man was fixing a ham for supper, and before putting it in the oven he cut about an inch off one end and set it aside to be cooked separately. His wife asked why he was doing that and he said, “That’s how my mother does it.” The next time they visited his mother, they asked her, “Why do you cut off the end of the ham before you bake it?” and she said it was because that’s what her mother does. At Christmas they saw his grandmother, so they asked her, “Gram, why do you cut the end off the ham?” and she said, “Because a whole ham is about an inch too long for my pan.” They continued to do the What, even though the Why was no longer relevant.

In the weight-management community I’m part of, we are frequently reminded, “Remember your Why.” You should read what the guys write on our message board. When one of them will moan about his tendency to binge-eat, or how sadness will drive him to the bag of potato chips, and he wants to know how to change his way of coping, at least one of the other men will say, “Remember your Why.” Why am I so careful about my health? This is what my Why reads: “I want to stay healthy for my family, myself, and the Church.” If you wonder why I avoid recreational sugar and why I make time for exercise, one-third of the reason is my love for you.

Why, What, and How are intimately related. What we do, how we do it, and why we do it: that connection is the supreme practical matter. That is true of any human community, including Jesus’ Church.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska