Deck Prism on Lighted Stand

One of my former colleagues displayed a painting in his office that had been presented by members of a congregation he had served. In it, my colleague was portrayed standing behind the pulpit with outstretched arm pointing toward a large cross behind him. The message was unmistakable: a good preacher draws attention not to himself, but rather to the Lord whom he serves. God’s call to serve as minister of word and sacrament did not mean that my colleague was to solve every member’s problem, or rescue the congregation from each crisis that threatened its existence. Rather, his call was to point them toward the true Savior.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we hear John the Baptizer express a similar sentiment about his role in salvation history.  John has experienced great success in ministry.  Large crowds have come down from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside to see the fiery prophet proclaim God’s judgment and the need for repentance. John has the kind of message and demeanor that give people hope for liberation from the Romans and those who aid their oppressive regime. Expectations are running high that John might be the promised Messiah.  Just as speculation reaches its peak, John steps aside and points in another direction: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

The dual emphasis of today’s worship services presents an opportunity to think about John’s message in a fresh light.  Often, Baptism of the Lord Sunday falls a week or two earlier than the Sunday during which we ordain and install new elders and deacons. But this year, the two special events are combined in the same day. The dual emphasis is a pleasant coincidence, I think, because in the Presbyterian Church, it’s not just ministers who can derive benefit from the example of John the Baptizer.

In our system of government, ministry leadership is broadly shared. Each time I listen to the vows our elders and deacons take, I am reminded how they are more alike than different from the promises I made when I was ordained a minister of word and sacrament. Some who read our constitution for the first time are surprised by how much equality there is between elders and ministers (now called “ruling elders” and “teaching elders”). They are surprised by how many functions they normally associate with the work of the pastor are described as part of the role of elder.  Just as ministers participate in the governance of the church, so elders are commended to participate in the spiritual nurture of the congregation, studying scripture, praying, even teaching and preaching as the call to do so is extended. Yesterday, during our morning of officer training, we called attention to a wonderful article written a few years ago by Joan Gray, a former moderator of our Presbyterian Church (USA), in which she makes a case for the importance of good officer training.  Because ministers are vastly outnumbered by other officers, she contends that a church’s ministries never will rise above the level of its elders.[1]

When new officers make time for training like that, they may wonder if they too casually said “yes” to the call to service. They may feel some tightness in the jaw muscles that signals anxiety, or a knot in the stomach that betrays rising anger. They may think things like, “Now wait a minute. I agreed to support this organization by having my name appear on the roster, and I don’t mind giving a few hours to a monthly meeting. But I didn’t know that I was expected to take vows to proclaim good news, be an example of faith and charity, and help the friendless and those in need. I don’t know that I have the time, energy, strength, or faith to be that kind of officer.” As the old saying goes, “Welcome to the club.” Or as we say in the church, “Welcome to this ministry.” There isn’t a deacon, elder, or minister who hasn’t felt the same way. I doubt there’s an apostle, reformer, or martyr who has ever served Christ through the Church that hasn’t experienced the same emotions.

When you feel this way, you can better appreciate the message of today’s scripture readings. Sometimes, we think it is some inner resolve that makes us worthy to serve God, but through Isaiah God says it’s the other way around. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” The God who names us and claims us in baptism also commissions us to service, and we are worthy to serve to the extent that we trust God’s provision and power rather than our own.  It’s that trust that brought Israel out of gloomy days of oppression, and it’s that same trust that officers need to lead the church into a hopeful future.  Like John the Baptizer, when others look to them for a solution to a problem, or rescue from a crisis, they will need to look beyond themselves to a higher power.

I don’t have a portrait of myself hanging in my office; I have something better.  It’s the deck prism on display this morning, a gift from the congregation in honor of my tenth anniversary of service. When it was presented to me this past February, Scott H. explained its purpose. For centuries, sailing ships used deck prisms as a light source. Its ingenious design allowed it to be set flush into the deck of the ship without weakening the construction or creating a tripping hazard. A piece of flat glass creates only a single bright spot below it. But a prism provides better illumination by refracting and dispersing sunlight, creating an effect not unlike a light bulb. The deck prism was the best possible gift I could have received, a wonderful symbol not only for me but also for everyone who serves the church, a symbol that can be explained in terms of today’s gospel lesson.

Long ago, an apostle named John was reflecting on the meaning of the ministry of John the Baptizer. Speaking symbolically, he said of John, He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. Likewise, we who serve the Church do well to remember that we are not the light, but are refractors of the light, witnesses to the light, sharing the light, stewards of the good news of God’s grace.

[1] Joan S. Gray, “Three imperatives in the life of the church,”, accessed on 8 January 2007.


~ by JohnH1962 on January 13, 2013.

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