The Rev. Scott Murray
Preached at St. Mary's Toyama, November 6, 2011
Last month I went to St Andrews in Hitachi City in Ibaraki ken. This was my third time there. The first two times were as a volunteer. The third time was work. I went there to fix the ceiling in the chapel. After I arrived, I noticed their monthly newsletter has this headline.
The carpenter priest is coming! J[y^[iÕéI
And I'm sure many of them were a little confused. Carpenter priest? What's that? I know carpenter. I know priest. And so I get asked, as I always get asked, which is your hongyou? That's a good question. I get that a lot.
Even if I say I'm a working priest, that doesn't answer the question. Because I don't fit a pattern, it's troublesome. That's just what the previous bishop said when he met me. You have your own job and house and I can't send you anywhere. Troublesome.
Years later, following college, I made my living fixing old houses. When I decided to go to seminary, it was for the purpose of study of theology, not ordination. I wanted a mental balance to the physical work I was doing. However, I ended up seeking ordination anyway. But when seminary ended, I was still unsure if I wanted to be a priest. It seemed everyone around me had an image of the kind of priest I should be. And I couldn't see myself in the normal pattern. I wanted to change the church and I needed to be "outside" to do that. AndI so I pictured myself earning my living in the world, like my parishioners. And I would not lead the congregation from the front, but from the center.
I had a small parish as a deacon, then following my marriage, we moved to the East Coast where, while Hiroko was in graduate school, I worked as a carpenter to put her through school. On sundays I helped out as an assistant in a local church. Following that, we moved to the mountains of California where I spent 2.5 years as a true working priest. I worked 3-4 days a week as a carpenter, and the church the remaining days. It was a congregation of about 30 or so. We met at the Catholic church. The town was a ski resort, but the local population was only about 5,000. That made it very easy to see members of my congregation through out the week outside of church, in the work world. My presence in the community was very very natural. and it allowed me to be a pastor to many who were not in the church.
When we decided to move to Japan in the early 1990's, Bishop Okano was kind enough to put us into St. Stephan's Kyoto. But it was difficult for me as this was the very first time I was a full time priest! I didn't know how to live in a church! Reports? What are those? Diocesan meetings? Huh? Although I brought my tools with me to Japan, they stayed in the shed. When I did do some reform work at the church, people were amazed. "you know how to put down flooring? You can paint?"
After two years of doing both St Stephans and St Agnes International, I came to understand I couldn't do both, and more importantly, I needed desperately to be a carpenter again. I needed the balance. The bishop graciously allowed me to leave St Stephans, move to Ohmihachiman, and continue with just the Intl congregation. And here I am now, almost 20 years in Japan, a working priest.
When I say I am a carpenter, most people say, oh, just like Jesus. Yes, but I say to myself, I'm probably the better carpenter since I've been doing longer! But actually, in truth, I'm like St. Paul. Paul was known as a tent maker. He was a worker of canvas. More importantly, although he had the right to receive support from whatever church he was visiting, he made it very clear he wanted to work himself. He felt it made his sharing of the gospel very powerful if he was working just like everyone else. I look to Paul as my model for my ministry.
And one of the clear points Paul made about ministry is that it involves everyone. Paul wanted a church without full time ministers, I think. I have nothing against seminary education, etc, but Paul gives us the image of the Body of Christ. This image shows us that no single person can do all the work. No single person holds all the gifts of the Spirit. People depend on full time ministers to be able to do everything. But I have found that by leading from the center, not the front, allows people to find their own gifts and use them.
What do I mean by lead from the center? One example is in our worship. I don't preach sermons. (As you can tell. I'm not good at it). After the Kobe earthquake, I realized I needed to stop teaching from a pulpit and step into the middle of everyone and hear what they could teach me about the gospel. And so I started a discussion sermon. After the readings, I ask what people heard in the stories. I ask how they can apply it to now. We have learned that as a group, we can find amazing things in the readings, week after week, so much more than if it were just me preaching. I have learned so much. It is a blessing. People learn that their opinion and their spiritual journey is important to others, and in sharing, we become a community, the true body of Christ.
Perhaps the greatest thing I have learned in this process is this. Being a working priest has helped me to see that true ministry, for everyone, all of us, is not about doing, but is about being. For example, if someone asks you, who are you?, how do you usually respond? With your job, right? Our work/job becomes our identity. But because I do two (or more), that's helps me reflect on my own identity.
And I am more than any job I do. All things come to an end. One day I will not be working. If my job is my identity, then who am I when I stop working? If my family is my identity, who am I when they all leave? My identity must be deeper than that. So I have learned that it is not what you do, but who you are.
But that is not what you learn in seminary. Seminary teaches ways to DO things. But it doesn't teach how to BE. So ministry ends up being a job like many other jobs. And it becomes one's identity. And the identity for most ministers, I think, is they think they have to save people. It's a complex. They feel responsible for people's spiritual lives.
One day I woke up and realized, hey, I can't save anyone. That is not my job. That is God's job. And theirs. Me, why, I can't even get out of bed some days. I have no business trying to save someone else. Then what is my job then? Well, it is not doing. It is being. In fact, it's not a job. Not at all. It's not about how I earn a living, whether it's as a carpenter or if I were a full time minister. It starts by being in God. By first placing myself in God, then my ministry becomes all about being with people, not doing things for them or to them, but being next to them. And without words, people respond to this. It becomes very powerful. I no longer do things for people. I see myself as a vessel through which God moves, doing what God needs to do without my doing.
And that is what we all called to be, I think, ones who bring God's presence into the middle of each of our everyday world. We all have the various tasks/jobs we do but our true work is really just being, being in God. When we think of DOING, "Carpenter/priest" or "Worker/Christian" sounds a bit strange, does not make sense. But when we think of it as BEING, then it is not WHAT we do, but WHO we are when we are doing whatever it is we are about doing. Our true JOB is to bring God's presence into each task we have. It is not our DOING which can change the world, it is our BEING, our presence, which changes the world around us.