Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mission Field Musing

Lectionary Readings for Sunday June 23

"O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving­kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen." BCP

The Gospel Reading for this week takes a very interesting turn in what most people have come to expect from Jesus. Here's the story from the New Revise Standard Version

Luke 8:26-39

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
 There is just one point I want to draw your attention to in this passage.

The instruction Jesus gave to the man is a command to acknowledge publicly "how much God has done". In healing ministry terminology, this is a command to Glorify God, for what God has done. Give public testimony to the people who already know how far away and far gone he was. Instead of the comfort of staying close to the one who liberated him from his bondage, he was to stay in his own community.

Throughout my years in ministry this story has come up again and again as a place of personal challenge as well as confirmation of my own place in ministry.

Let me explain..

Since I took my first staff position within a congregation, I've been involved in providing support, emotional, spiritual as well as financial, to others who've responded to God's call to "go and make disciples". While thoroughly enjoying that position, I've also periodically dealt with a sense of being engaged in something "less than" fully faithful. In my head I understand that the Spirit of God is at work through my ministry, bringing comfort, encouragement and support as well as challenging members of the body to hear and respond to the needs of neighbors within our midst. I've reminded people that peace, justice and reconciliation occurs in local as well as global contexts. But, I have also felt some deep desire to be "sent" to a place of "unreached people".  I was like the man who begged to be with Jesus. While I prayed to be shown other places, the Spirit reminded me that my field was already in front of me. Even now, at this time in my life, I can still revert to the prayer asking to be shown to another place, rather than to continue in ministry where I've landed.

The work of telling people you already know how much God has done for you is just as difficult as it is to walk into a new environment. Maybe even harder. The foreign mission field offers everything new which is an excitement in and of itself. It is challenging to learn the culture and language of the people. Anonymity makes proclamation an easy task. Credibility and incredulity both are set at zero. However, I think it is far more difficult to continue in the same place, particularly if your past contains a checkered history.

Come to think of it, we don't read about Paul being successful at proclaiming about Jesus as the Son of God, and his Lord within Tarsus, his home town. Paul surely spent those many years in between his conversion on the road to Damascus and his first mission trip practicing day in and day out living life in relationship with the people of God in his own town before it became clear to Paul that he was being prepared to serve as the Apostle to the Gentiles.

From what I've heard from many missionaries after their return from the field, only the most mature members in the Body of Christ are capable of enduring the extra trials of foreign missions.

Here is my take on the whole of the story in the Gospel of Luke. Being made into a new creation, through the healing power of God places a new obligation on each person. We are not "saved" and invited into a cozy retreat or a bouyant adventure without obligation. We are made new creations and expected to put our weight into the work of increasing the Kingdom of God. That man had to prove and reprove day after day that God had fully transformed him into a new man. He needed to continue to grow in wisdom and maturity with God dwelling within the now vacated spaces where "demons" dwelt.His testimony was his every day living without the  "Legion of demons" that controlled him.

It is my opinion that some of us become so indebted to God for the transformation in our lives that we must strive to share in daily practice a living testimony to God's transforming power. Eventually, some of us become so completely regenerate that God does indeed move within us to also carry the Gospel into new places. But not until we have practiced telling others our transforming story enough times to gain credibility among those who knew us before the spirit transformed us from the inside out. All of us are called to preach that sermon with our actions, even if words fail to form on our lips in eloquent speech.

May your demons be conquered and your life transformed.

Tell the story of God's work in your life where you've been led, called, planted or drawn. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Song of Ancestors

You can find the entire Lectionary readings for this week here

This is one of the Sunday Lectionary combinations that really work for me as a preacher. I love the pairing of the Hebrew Bible's tradition of Elijah with the Widow Zaraphath with Luke's Gospel account of the restored life of the son of the widow. It makes the ideal apologetic pair. For preaching you don't get much better story telling connections than this.

AS great as those texts are, for today I'm going to spend time on the Psalm that has been selected. The Book of Psalms is often considered the oldest complete collection of ancient worship texts. It represents a sample of the oldest known worship music for Christianity. It's also a shared worship resource with the Jewish community.

Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them

When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish.
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
whose hope is in the LORD their God;
Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;
who keeps his promise for ever;
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,
and food to those who hunger.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
The LORD shall reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
Hallelujah!   Psalm 146
When I read this I can imagine that this Psalm helped form the mind and message of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not Jesus remembered with perfect memory that he had shared the Divine mind, co-eternally and had participated in the inspiration of the Psalm in prior centuries I can't say. I can imagine that this psalm helped form the message Jesus preached to later generations. I can even imagine that the people who flocked to hear Jesus teach out in the fields, on mountaintops, or at the shoreline, also were reminded of this psalm.

Here is a poem and song that carries hope, confidence, and a theology of liberation. It echoes the prophetic message of Isaiah  and recites the sacred history of the story of the creation. There is also the sound of warning and caution against placing any trust in the rulers of the world, a recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible. Yet, while there are words of confidence, I am confounded by the denial of community that comes from the text. Do you see it?
"Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them"
Given my own understanding of power dynamics and the frequency of abuses of power by rulers, I can see the merit in withholding trust in rulers of nations. But not any child of earth? Is there no one that can be trusted? Is no one able to provide help? Surely that isn't so, God. Aren't we to care for one another, and do for one another in the Name of Jesus? Maybe this is one of those places in time where YAHWEH could see that the message was getting all bungled up and would need a corrective measure centuries down the road.

In fact, this psalm creates tension the more I meditate upon it. That tension is present in the contradiction of the value and connection which I believe we are to draw from one another. Christians are called into a specific form of community. We are called to be the people who follow the way of Jesus. The gospels all make it quite clear that there is an interdependent relationship which forms when one follows the path that Jesus marked out.

The psalm forces me to shake my head:  what are we to do?
Look to God for relief?
Look to Community?

Well, it's not an either/or answer. It's a both/ and answer. The best is to take the middle road which recognizes God as the source of all good. Inspiring humans to reach out in care and compassion is how God delivers.

Here is why:
God is the source of all good inspiration.
Let me repeat that. God is the source of ALL GOOD inspiration.
Jesus, being the incarnation of God, gave sufficient instruction to the disciples that caring for one another is how we are to demonstrate our love for God. Christians really must put their hands and feet into action to fulfill the promise of the Psalm. And perhaps the best way to reconcile the contradiction is to look within the text for where the church, the community is within the psalm.

Look to what the LORD loves.

The Righteous are the Children of God. These are the ones who must be the deliverers of the message of hope and deliverance.

The message still carries significance. It is left to us, the readers to grasp that the psalm describes the natural man rather than prescribes what the redeemed in Christ are called to do.

In many ways as a people called to follow Jesus,  it seems that the project of modernity has decieved us into believing that each of us can live full and complete lives without any concern for the future of others. For several centuries, with the advent of Nation-States, during the gradual decline of Christendom, many leaders of the church have been handing down a message that misled the people of God. Instead of maintaining awareness that being bound together in the Body of Christ meant that all believers held an important role in manifesting God's concern for the broken world. It was left primarily to the religious (those who made life-vows dedicating themselves to God) and to the clerics.

If I stopped at this point you would miss hearing the exciting changes that are taking shape as the Holy Spirit has been stirring things up. SHE has been cooking up a renewal, a people who take on the life of service as bearers of the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

This psalm starts the song of praise but it took Jesus to correct and complete the story.  .....

 Are you searching for understanding and the richness of the life of Christian discipleship in community? 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Who sent you?

And how do you know?

Anyone who has spent time studying the New Testament usually come to the conclusion that the Apostle Paul was a very humble servant of Jesus Christ. ;-)

NOT :-)

Actually the Apostle Paul makes huge claims in his letters. He, of all that are called Apostles, was actually the only one who never personally met or listened to the flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth.

Still, what Paul wrote has influenced the development of our theology, our understanding of who Jesus was as part of the Godhead as well as what it means for all the people who gathered together as followers in the new way.

Paul's letters, which now form the largest body of writings in the New Testament, establish the theology of what it means to be ekklesia, a word which literally means "called out". That Greek word has gained common usage as "Church". He also makes it abundantly clear that he understood that he was engaged in work that was under the direct guidance of God with a very special purpose. His vocation was proclaiming the Gospel which brought life to all who accepted the message. He wasn't engaged in the enterprise for the purpose of garnering human approval. In his own words he wasn't prone to people pleasing activities. 

Here is the section assigned for this week: 

"Paul an apostle-- sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead-- and all the members of God's family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Galatians 1:1-12


What a rich text, full of description about who Jesus is, what the relationship is between Jesus and God, as well as some beautiful language to build an identity on for anyone that follows the path instruction that Paul claims Jesus has handed down to him for all other followers.

I find that the most intriguing aspects of Paul as a leader of the early church, is that he represents a continuation of the tradition found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul might be as much a mystic as a prophet if we take him at his word. Paul shot to the top of the missionary endeavors on the basis of his mystical engagement with the Christ Consciousness.-(of course he wouldn't have called it that.) He also went out to specific locations to do the work of proclaiming the gospel acting entirely out of his own agency and the call that he perceived having been charged with. I can clearly imagine that Paul listened to "still small voices" in order to perceive and receive instruction from the resurrected and ascended Jesus.Experience with the holy is what marked and changed Paul from being and enemy of the disciples to the first missionary and apostle to all nations. Experience, the fourth leg of the stool in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, was what changed Paul and turned his world upside down and thrust him onto the roads of the Roman Empire to proclaim the gospel.  

Over the centuries there haven't been many people who claimed direct revelation from Jesus. On the whole, the church is highly doubtful of anyone that makes a claim of such a thing. The reluctance is grounded in genuine concern and perhaps some fear that such claims will have actually been deceptions that will cost many their entry into eternal rest.

I can imagine that the reaction of people to what Paul had to say went something like this:

MEN: Who are you? 

PAUL: Paul, Apostle of Jesus

MEN: What? Who are you to say you're and Apostle of Jesus

PAUL: I'm Paul, student of the Law and Prophets. I studied with the best of the best teachers. And I saw Jesus. Jesus sent me to tell you about his sacrifice and the gift he offers to all.

MEN: Oh man, you're crazy, out of your mind! 

ONE MAN: Wait... say that again..what are you here for?

PAUL: To tell you about Jesus, the resurrected Christ

MEN: Go away, you're crazy! We heard about Jesus. He was a criminal, crucified by the Imperial Guard. 

PAUL: Sure, your right he was crucified but he was also raised from the dead. Resurrected! And reigning in heaven with God

MEN: Wait a minute. You have no authority to speak here. Are you a teacher? Who sent you? 

PAUL: Who sent me? I Told YOU! Jesus and God the Father sent me to tell you the Good News

I wonder how many people just walked away incredulous.
I wonder what it's like to have such a sure and direct connection with God...How long did it last? How often?

What a joy it must have been to be able to write with such absolute confidence.
No wonder Paul comes off as arrogant, lacking in humility.

My own experiences of absolute certain connection have been just brief glimpses interspersed with prolonged periods of deafening silence...(Hello.. God speak up, I know you're there but I can't hear you! Will you be just a little more explicit PLEASE!?!) But, the times that were DC direct connect with the Holy there was such a powerful certainty it still remains as a source of encouragement. But I want more. I need more and I think it comes from time spent in community that desires to grow in the same relationship.  

Are you in the same boat with me? Do you want to have that confident relationship with God?

I think there is a world full of thirsting people, yearning for that same confidence.

What about you?

Speaking only for myself, I desire the deepest most confident relationship imaginable.

I don't expect to be like Paul, but I'm on a journey to grow in Christ connection. To bring myself closer to that goal I'll be exploring a course in Ignatian Spirituality for the next twelve weeks. If you're still sitting in this same boat named Yearning, what will you do?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Of the Elephant and Faith

The complete Lectionary readings can be read here

The Gospel reading presents one of the most often debates issues around the healing ministry of the Church in the present age. The issue is the question of the importance, or significance of faith for the manifestation of healing to occur.^1

Here's the text.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,' and he goes, and to another, `Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:1-10)
So, let's just get down to brass tacks of this passage shall we?

What I mean is, there really is an elephant, not just one, but two elephants in the room. Not only do we have some sort of healing manifestation, but we also seem to hear a message that conditions the actual healing to the amount of faith that the person demonstrated.

As far as this passage goes, there is a just too much super-naturalism and fodder for bad theology for most people to take the text to heart; such a pity.

Speaking from my experience in seminary, most mainline churches don't like dealing with the healing ministry of Jesus. We live in an age of science after all, and miracles performed by faith healers are simply not the prescribed modality. In fact, the introductory Preaching Course practically outright banned the use of the healing stories or "miracle" stories of the Gospels.  To add to that, the Pastoral Care courses only emphasized development of a theology of Suffering. It felt to me that by the end of the course we had entirely neglected the concepts of developing a holistic ministry of caring and compassion that took on the troubling healing texts. Perhaps that was the best way the professor could navigate the diversity of theological traditions that sat within the room. We did conclude with a fair and liberal understanding of the vast complexity of possible issues one might encounter within the congregational setting, and tools to spot red flags of issues which should be properly referred to professionals fully trained and credentialed in therapeutic methods psychology and medicine.   

Sadly, it took me 3 years in parish ministry to begin to unpack the idea of having any form or resemblance of a healing ministry. Although the long continuous tradition of priests and pastors providing presence and support, prayer, confession, absolution and blessing for members at times of crisis and prior to death,  we simply weren't schooled in this tradition, in the more liberal framework. Sacramental  Theology did not actually fit within the framework of those pastoral care classes. We were coached and guided to place within our toolbox of intellectual material a sufficient introduction to pastoral care in a manner that most closely paralleled the counseling fields. At the same time we were strictly cautioned that we should never attempt, within the framework of pastoral ministry, to engage in anything other than "brief counseling". I have eventually come to a place within my ministry that I do indeed have a significantly broader theological framework, not just a vague and somewhat impotent theology of suffering, and death, but also a deeper and fuller theology of healing. And, rather than run for cover from a text like this gospel passage, I truly embrace it as a story that contains hope, and insight into the spiritual path available as a follower of Jesus Christ. In a very explicit sense this story helps me inwardly digest a deeper understanding of what it means to activate a  "healing" ministry in the world.

Enough about my contextual framework and back to the reading and marking of this Gospel.

When I start to really analyze a piece of scripture from the New Testament, particularly from one of the Gospels, I run through a few things in my mind because it helps me as I look for the salient message.

First; I remember the general rule of all ancient writers, the center of the book really represents a turning point. The drama usually is gradually building up steam before the middle of the book but will truly shift in the dynamics of the story after the center of the story.

Second; What came before the text is often an illuminating factor for the present text.

Third; What is the setting (location) of the story

So, just to demonstrate with this passage, the Gospel of Luke is coded into 24 chapters.
What came before this story in Chapter 7 was the teaching Jesus gives out "on a mountain" in chapter 6. Jesus has just really started becoming pretty darn popular and building a public reputation. Not so much to have yet acquired any ill will among any of the real Power Brokers. Jewish Leaders and Roman Authorities are not yet feeling any sense of antagonism from the following or teachings of the itinerant former teacher.

Present location: reflects movement, from outside of the town, where many were gathered, to within the town of Capernaum, with the disciples and possibly still some of the larger crowd following him,

I ask, finally:
Who are the characters in this cast?
The Cast of this Story
the people (close enough to hear)

Centurion **
Jewish Elders
"the crowd"
"Those who had been sent"

Well, here is what I took note of:

Notice that the Centurion, while being a person with great power and material authority, maintained an attitude of humility toward the power which Jesus represented. The Jewish rulers made the point that he was worthy, but in fact the Centurion, declines any claim of worthiness. The petition for action came never came from the person (the slave) who was to be the object of the restored health. In fact, we cannot tell how many people were actually a part of the delegation. There was communal action to bid the restoration of strength to the servant's body so that the servant could resume duties in the household of the Centurion.

So, really, we are compelled to recognize that faith in and of itself is not at all a factor in the consequent healing. What may be far more important is the role of the community coming together, interceding on behalf of the one in need.

Also, in the end, the healing which occurs serves as demonstration that the grace and mercy of God boundless and available to all. There is no outsider to the grace of God. Servant, Centurion, Jew, Gentile. No longer are the only chosen people of God those who come from the Tribes of Israel. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, God's grace is available to all. Healing is a spiritual wholeness far more than simply a physical cure. Healing is experienced by many people that may or may not acknowledge that what has occurred is the result of a series of actions performed by a variety of people on behalf of one person in need. It is the work of the Holy Spirit manifested in diverse ways which result in a communal response of thanksgiving to God.   

^1. One organization, the Order of St. Luke the Physician, requires associates to the order to complete a 25 week study on the major Gospel Healing stories to help nuance this issue, quite well.

**Art from Brooklyn Museum by  James Tissot.

Note: Are you interested in the PROCESS I employ? See the page tab PROCESS at the top of this blog to learn more.