In my sermon yesterday I spoke about Sara Miles, who came to St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, ate bread, drank wine, and fell in love. She then turned around and began feeding thousands of other people through a food pantry she began at St. Gregory’s. It’s full of the “wrong” people, who are doing “bad” things like putting potatoes on the altar and yelling in the sanctuary. It sounds like the kingdom to me. Now, Miles has written a second book. It’s called Jesus Freak, and it’s about her continuing life and growth and ministry at St. Gregory’s. Frankly, if you read the first book, Take This Bread, you know the story. But it’s a fun and moving read nonetheless.
What I really love about Miles is that she’s not ordained. She feels a call to ministry, she lives it out wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t mean she needs to wear a collar and get herself certified. She is a powerful example of the potential of lay ministry. She runs around feeding people, blessing them, anointing them, chanting prayers, preaching, all without a license. Who does she think she is?
She’s a beloved child of God.
The Episcopal Church has an interesting dilemma. Our total population is declining, but the number of priests continues to grow. In the face of the reality that many if not most priests will not be employed in parishes, candidates still come forward. Why is that? Call isn’t about prudence or job markets – it’s about something in us that needs to express itself. But that doesn’t explain why so many Episcopalians feel this call.
The reality is that we remain a very clergy-centered church. Because we are liturgical and sacramental, we maintain a (more-or-less) clear line between clergy and laity. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that we set up so many lines and funnels and gates for ministry. Want to read the lessons in church? Sorry, you need a license. Want to feed people? Wait for a training session. Do you think you have something to say? Submit three sample sermons to the bishop. If your parish priest doesn’t happen to ask or invite you for these ministries, would you push your case? I doubt it.
I think we have so many priests because we have a shrunken view of the laity as assistants to the clergy, or as the business managers of the church rather than partners in ministry.
Sara Miles has broken through that line. She had sympathetic priests, but she also had her own enthusiasm. Enthusiasm – literally, having God within, being filled with God. Sara Miles is an enthusiastic Christian.
Sara Miles will be in Newark in October. Come hear her. Go read her books. But most importantly, let the Spirit of God fill you as she let it fill her. Go into the world, healing, feeding, reconciling. Don’t worry about whether your papers are in order.