A sermon preached by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, June 17, 2001, Pentecost 2, dedicated to the six Stephen Ministers and the 24 teens and adults who were commissioned for the mission and ministry of First Church today and always to the glory of God!
II Corinthians 1:3-4; Colossians 3:23-24;
and Luke 7:36-8:3
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Today is a significant day in the life of First Congregational Church. This is a rich day in the promise of blessing for many souls. Earlier we commissioned a great team of teens and adults who are headed to West Virginia to live the promise of compassionately caring for people who need shelter and affordable housing in the midst of rural poverty. People will be blessed by their labors!
And now, in just a few moments, our six 2001 Stephen Ministers, after long months of training by Stephen Leader Kasey Wasson, will be publicly commissioned and received in the extension of care-giving ministry for this congregation. This is a rich day in the promise of blessing for many souls!
In Galatians 6:2, the Apostle Paul writes, "Bear one another's burdens and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ." As you know, the law of Christ to which Paul refers in the double law of love - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind (and strength) and love your neighbor as yourself." In Christ's words, these two commandments summarize all scripture ever written. Later, Christ goes on to say, "A new commandment I give you - love another as I have loved you." This becomes the standard by which to measure our lives - to love one another as the Lord has loved us. This is the code by which to build a relationship, a church, and new home, and ultimately to build the world!
But, how could we possibly love one another as Jesus loved us? How could we possibly bear one another's burdens? Hanging in the midst of worship space is the cross - it is the cross which points the way to mission - whether in West Virginia or one-on-one in the care-giving ministry of Stephen Ministry. So often, the cross is the symbol of shame and pain. But, I think it provides visually, figuratively and literally the way forward in the bearing of struggles for one another. In the vertical dimension we are carried in our prayer and action from earth to heaven and in the horizontal dimension, we walk with people in their immediate needs and in the presence of their immediate burdens and pains, just as Jesus walks with us in the daily struggles of our lives. As part of Christ's body, we may each learn to carry the problems of another, and thus together to carry the burdens of all. Our Stephen Ministers have caught a vision of this way and have declared themselves willing to search it out.
Each one of us has burdens. There is not a child, teen, or adult in this sanctuary who has not carried burdens at one time or another. We find ourselves struggling at school, needing a true friend, adjusting to a new community, facing ill health, perhaps in the hospital or being treated outside the hospital setting, we struggle with losses in our lives - losses of love - of miscarriages, the death of children, of spouses, of parents. We face other losses of jobs, of dreams, of hopes unfulfilled. We face marital and family problems, we go through divorce, we look into the eyes of a loved one about to die, we find ourselves alone - sometimes shut-in, sometimes shut-out. We find ourselves in the dark pit of depression. Some people carry griefs and sorrows alone, though they might wish for someone to help. A Stephen Minister is one who has been given the heart of Christ to help, and has in addition certain skills so as to be able to be a friend in need, and thus a friend, indeed.
Often I have echoed the words I learned in my own Stephen Ministry Leaders' training - words I have spoken to persons who are in need of a care giving Stephen Minister. "The only difference, quite often, between a care giver and care receiver is the present moment." In other words, every one of us becomes a person in need of care at sometime. It is only that moment which separates the giving from the receiving. The challenge is to recognize that moment and to be able to receive the care you need in that moment.
I need to speak the truth in love right now . . . This past week, I had hoped to place all the Stephen Care givers with Stephen Care receivers. It didn't happen. As I contacted people or thought through those in our congregation in possible need of care, I either met various roadblocks. Person's I approached, either couldn't see or feel their own need for one other person to walk with them in bearing their burdens (which happened in a few instances), or they couldn't accept the thought of one other person being their partner in this journey through pain.
I have found in my first 16 months among you that often you feel "it's a burden to call in a time of need" or you feel "others must be more needy and deserving." Sometimes there is a rather stoic attitude here in the face of need. I feel as though you feel the Neshaminy Rock which surrounds and holds this Gothic Beauty together should be enough to sustain you - like rocks - in the midst of pain and hardship. It's not true! And it's not necessary. You need not be a rock, for Christ is your rock! But if you feel like a rock, please know that even rocks need mortar to hold them together!
Stephen Ministry is our mortar between the rocks! The Stephen Ministers are the gifts God has given us to hold us together in prayer and presence when we have need. I invite our class of 2001 to stand. I invite all the folks who are currently Stephen Ministers to stand with them! Now, add to that all the Stephen Leaders to stand. I invite our trained, but currently "inactive ministers" to stand. Here stands the mortar in our rock in First Church's caring ministry. (Now you may be seated!)
So that you know, the Stephen Ministers have been trained for over 50 hours to gain particular insights and skills developed over recent years regarding distinctively Christian caring. For example, in order to bear burdens, we must learn to do three important things: share feelings, listen, and be confidential.
Sharing Feelings is one area of life where hurt often takes place and where healing has the greatest chance to take place. Many folks have never learned to share feelings - or at least share them healthfully. Some of us have been taught not to share feelings. Fear, anxiety, sadness, sorrow, disappointment, frustration, despair, distrust, and guilt are feelings which burden us and they are heavy to bear. Confidence, joy, trust, fulfillment, composure - these are God's gifts as burdens are lifted. Our Stephen Ministers, all of them, have been learning to recognize feelings. We have been learning to respond to our feelings, as Christ responded both to His feelings and ours.
Good listening is not only a gift, it is a skill. Often, it is hardest for us to listen to others' feelings when we are so filled up with feelings of our own. The Stephen Ministers have learned that listening is an essential part of their work. Listening is hard work, yet it shows concern for the person. We try to listen as Christ listened to his friends on the Emmaus Road after his resurrection. He asked, "Why are you so sad?" They answered, "Because these things have happened." "What things?" he responded. Then they began to pour out their hearts to him. Not everyone has the patience to listen. Not everyone knows how to listen. The Stephen Ministers know how and they are willing to try to listen to you.
Confidentiality is critical to the success of the Stephen Minister one-to-one and the Stephen Ministry overall. The best Stephen Ministry is one in which no one knows the Stephen Ministers are doing their job! They are quietly, effectively listening and helping heal folks, and only the Stephen Minister and the care receiver know this relationship exists. All caring relationships in this program are kept absolutely confidential. We guard each one dignity and save each one's pride to paraphrase the hymn. Any Stephen Minister soon comes to realize: if confidentiality is ever broken, not only has that person's ability to be of help been forfeited, but the whole program has been thrown into jeopardy. This is a responsibility and a trust that needs to be understood up-front. So that you know, currently, I am the person most significantly involved with placing and matching Stephen Ministers to care receivers. So, if you call me or speak with me, I am the only other person in the church who should ever know that you are receiving Stephen's care - unless you as a care receiver tell someone. But, that is your choice.
Finally, you may ask, in what situations is it appropriate to have a Stephen Minister? Earlier, I mentioned a number of times and situations in our lives in which we feel overwhelmed and over-burdened. Aging, (especially alone), unexpected surgeries or long-term illnesses, and especially the whole realm of losses and their often devastating aftereffects - whether loss of loved ones, loss of pregnancies, loss of jobs, loss of marriage, loss of health due to long term health related illnesses, and sometimes you have been caring for a family member or loved one with Alzheimer's disease, cancer, AIDS, or other long-term health problems - you, the care giver, may find yourself in need of care - all of these are situations and times when a Stephen Minister is a great asset to healing. Stephen Ministry is a wonderful answer when you need a partner to walk with you on the journey of overcoming burdens.
While Stephen Ministry is an extension, and an augmentation of pastoral ministry, it is not a replacement. Stephens adds hearts and hands to the caring ministry of First Church. In fact, through the years, I have often been invited into the Stephens' relationship when needed. Now I should say, Stephen Ministers will not be quick to give advice, they are not trained for fixing your problems - although some of them are quite gifted in this way. But, they may help you in seeking advice from those who are so trained. Mostly, they will be a presence to you and with you as you make decisions, or simply heal from life's hurts.
As we grow as a congregation, we are deepening our relationships with Christ and with one another. Our Stephen Ministry and the mission trip which calls us to the roads south to West Virginia are ways in which we not only grow together in Christ's love, but we learn to share his love with others. We extend our reach of compassionate caring through ministries such as these.
Perhaps you are saying to yourself at this moment - "He has been speaking to me about my burdens and I have never been able to share them with anyone. Could I do so now? Would I be able to accept a Stephen Minister?" I very much hope so. Or you may be thinking of a friend, a neighbor, a fellow employee, who is in need of a hand and heart of support, such as Stephen Ministry provides. Are you free to suggest Stephen Ministry to that friend, or free to suggest that friend's need to me for this ministry? Absolutely. That is why we have come here today - confident of such blessings from God and from one another.
We are building houses and hearts for Christ Jesus. We are not rocks, but clay in the Potter's hands. We need the mortar in the rock of our faith - mortar that supports the Rock of Salvation. Jesus Christ, our Lord said, "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." May God bless you and may the spirit of Christ help us as we become part of this exciting and promising tool in the Savior's hands. Amen.
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