Daniel Sylvester Tuttle was the first missionary bishop to the Missionary District of Montana, Idaho, and Utah. It was an area of 340,000 square miles (by comparison, Oklahoma is about 70,000). As Montana was my sending Diocese, Tuttle was a hero of mine while in seminary, and still is. The very first evening he crossed the Montana line, coming up from Salt Lake City, he woke up to two inches of snow on the ground. It was July 18th. Ministry can present some interesting challenges. After a period of time there, he learned even more what it was to be like. Writing home to his wife, he told her about the vestry at St. Paul’s in Virginia City: “Of the vestry of St. Paul’s church which we got together, one vestryman, high in civil office, got into an altercation with a lawyer over some matters retailed by gossip, and would have shot him dead had not a friend near by struck up the pistol. One was a Unitarian. Another, the most godly of them all, and the one on whom I most leaned for Christian and churchly earnestness, became involved in a dispute, and missed, by the smallest margin, the fighting of a duel. Still another was an appallingly steady drinker.” Of that same vestry, he later wrote: “We mean to cut down the number [of vestry members] from nine to seven. We mean to throw out at least drunkards and violent swearers.” Jim… welcome to ordained ministry. And, if you think the laity are a bit rough around the edges, just wait until you find yourself in a room full of clergy! And… one more and… if you begin to think that you are better than any of them, hang up your stole and find yourself another profession, for there really is only one Good Shepherd.
Our role as clergy is not to think or even pretend that we are the Good Shepherd that John spoke of in the Gospel, for the truth is, we can easily say with St. Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Instead, our role is the same role as it is for every member of the Church and that is to point to Christ Jesus and make Him known.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is considered to be Matthias Grünewald’s masterpiece. In the center is portrayed the crucifixion of Jesus. On the left is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostle John, and Mary Magdalene. On the right is John the Baptist. John holds the Holy Scriptures in his left hand and his right hand is pointing to Jesus. The Latin words next to John are those of John 3:30: “He must become greater, I must become less.” That is the role of the priest: point to Jesus and get yourself out of the way. Why?
Perhaps I’m not supposed to, but I really enjoy the teachings of the former Roman Catholic priest, Brennan Manning. He died in 2013. At an event in Missouri he gave one of the most inspired sermons I’ve heard—no, I’m not going to read it all to you, but he said, “Do you remember the famous line of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal? ‘God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment’? We often make God in our own image, and He winds up to be as fussy, rude, narrow minded, legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, unloving as we are.”
Why do you need to point to Jesus and then get out of the way? Because so many people think of God in just that same way. He’s just up there looking for ways to smite me! In addition, so many people are hurt, doubt their faith, believe they are unworthy, unsaveable, and unloved and it is not your voice that is going to bring them to a place of grace, forgiveness, healing, faith, worthiness, love… it is His. It is his voice. It is his voice that they need to hear and in hearing it, they will know that they are loved by a God who truly desires them and wants to enter into a relationship with them. Jim, point to Jesus and get out of the way.
And for those who Jim will work in the midst of… show him a bit of grace. He ain’t perfect and he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is faithful—I wouldn’t be up here today preaching if I didn’t believe that. He is a faithful man, who like you, is trying to navigate this world, and the grace you show and the prayers you support him with, will go so much further than any bit of criticism of him you will ever speak. Through Holy Orders, he is being set apart to serve God, but just as you will ask him for prayers, forgiveness, healing, mercy… you must remember that he also needs all those things as well.
Ultimately, we must all—laity and clergy—remember that this work of the ministry of the Gospel is not about any single one of us. It is about us all, for as St. Peter teaches, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Not just Jim or just me or even just the Bishop… we are the royal priesthood and we are the ones called to make Christ Jesus known.
I’ll conclude by saying to for what St. Paul said to Timothy, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.… keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all.” Amen.