Archive for July, 2010

Listening for God’s Word…Sitting at Jesus’ Feet

July 20, 2010

I sometimes wonder if we often really pay attention to what we’re saying in liturgical churches like ours.  For the last two Sundays, we have had positively frightening Lessons from the Book of the Prophet Amos. Last week, the Reading ended with these words:

“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” (Amos 7:17) Then our lector said, “The Word of the Lord.” And we responded, “Thanks be to God.”

And today, we heard, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

And at the end of that Reading too, the lector said, “The Word of the Lord.” And we responded, “Thanks be to God!”  Thanks be to God that Israel went into exile? Thanks be to God that they could no longer hear the Word of the Lord? What are we giving thanks for? Sometimes, maybe it’s just better to say, “Here endeth the Reading!”

Now, as a matter of fact, it’s perfectly possible to thank God for times of stress and stain, for times of judgment and failure. Because it may be in times like those that we actually draw closer to God. But I’m not sure we really ought to be giving thanks for other peoples’ stresses and strains, for other peoples’ failures and judgment! Because Amos is telling his people that their God is not pleased with them!  Why? Because they were: trampling on the needy…bringing poor people to ruin…

They were neglecting the worship of God so that they could make a profit – not by honest labor – but by cheating in selling less than they advertised and overcharging for that! By using false balances, which were scales rigged in the merchant’s favor. They were engaged in the slave trade in at least two ways – by actually selling people into slavery, and by keeping people so much in debt that they were virtual slaves to those they owed money to. Sort of like Third World debt today in which it is mathematically impossible for some countries ever to get out of debt

So it was for that reason, for those reasons, that Amos was thundering God’s judgment upon his people. That’s why they were going into Exile. That’s why they were unable to hear the Word of God. Because they were too busy feathering their own nests to listen for God’s Word! (Pause)

But you know you don’t have to be a notorious sinner to be deaf to God’s Word. Sometimes, you can just be too busy…or too timid…like Martha in today’s famous Gospel story of Mary and Martha. Scholars tell us that this is actually a companion story to the one about the Good Samaritan that we had as our Gospel last week. In that story, the young lawyer had correctly identified that the two most important Commandments were loving God and loving neighbor, but he needed the Parable of the Good Samaritan to get clear about just who his neighbor was!

This morning, Martha is clear about serving her neighbor as she bustles about to make sure all is in readiness for Jesus and his disciples…but she was unable to see that it was she herself (and her sister Mary) whom Jesus was calling to listen and to follow, and to be disciples

Most of us, I know, feel a good deal of sympathy for poor Martha, but let’s see what’s really going on here! Jesus and his disciples are living out what he had told them previously about “whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.” And Martha is working hard to see that happen. Her sister Mary, on the other hand, is sitting at Jesus feet, which is the place of a disciple! An old rabbinical teaching stated, “Let your house be a meeting-house for Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst…but do not talk much with women!”

By sitting at Jesus feet, Mary is pushing the envelope, acting like a disciple, and probably bringing shame on her family by neglecting her socially-mandated duty to help her sister in the preparation of the meal! So, Martha’s protest is probably justified by the standards of her day. But Jesus gentle rebuke to her is a reminder that nothing must “distract” us from hearing the Word of God. After all, “One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus had once said.  Like the disciples, Mary had left everything – even her expected subservient role – to follow Jesus.

So neither the story of the Good Samaritan nor the story of Mary and Martha is complete without the other.  Each makes its point – the Samaritan loves his neighbor and Mary loves her Lord. But the model of a good disciple is that we must do both. To the lawyer, Jesus had said “Go and do,” but he praises Mary for sitting and listening.  The life of a disciple requires both.

In both stories, Jesus is protesting the rules and the boundaries set by the culture of his day. Both stories expose the social barriers that categorize and restrict and oppress various groups in any society – Samaritans, victims, women — you name it!  To love God with all our hearts and all our souls and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves means that, then as now, sometimes we have to reject society’s rules in favor of the code of the Kingdom – which is a society without distinctions and boundaries between its members. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, page 232)

If the Prophet Amos’ original hearers had understood that, perhaps they would not have had to go into Exile.  Perhaps they would not have had to experience a “famine” of hearing the Word of God.

If WE understand it, perhaps we can invite the Marthas of our day to join us…with Mary…where we all belong…at Jesus feet!

Not “Lay” Ministry…Just Ministry!

July 6, 2010

As our nation celebrates her birthday as a free and independent country today, our Gospel reading is about a kind of birthday and celebration of the expansion of Jesus’ ministry by the calling and sending of “the seventy.” Jesus had called his original disciples one by one and two by two, eventually ending up with “the Twelve,” with twelve followers.

We believe he chose that number because of the original 12 tribes of Israel, indicating that his mission was to “renew” Israel and expand the message even beyond in a kind of “new Israel” including the Gentiles. But, of course, it didn’t stop there with “the Twelve.” In today’s Gospel we are told that he “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” (Luke 10:1)

And just as the number “twelve” reminds us of the Twelve tribes of Israel, the number “seventy” hearkens back to the book of Numbers when Moses is counseled to “gather…seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down (God says) and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself,” (Numbers 11:16-17)

This was the beginning of a kind of “shared leadership” among the children of Israel, and I think Jesus must have had something of the same kind of thing in mind in the appointing of his “seventy.” If you’ll notice, he gives them a very similar kind of charge as he had given to the original twelve disciples, recorded just one chapter earlier in the Gospel of St. Luke (see Chapter 9:1ff). Namely, they were to:

Go “out like lambs in the midst of wolves, to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and to greet no one on the road.” In other words to travel light and to be single minded in their purpose. And their task was just the same as the Twelve: to build real relationships with people, to heal the sick, and to announce that the kingdom of God has come near. They were to announce that the Reign and Sovereignty of God was already beginning to dawn in this world in and through the ministry of Jesus.

So, the calling and sending forth of “the seventy” was not just an example of the expanding AUDIENCE of Jesus like the crowds of hundreds and even thousands to whom he preached and who heard his message. No, “the seventy” – like “the Twelve” before them – were to have a share in that ministry. They too were to be empowered by the Holy Spirit (like those earlier ‘elders of Israel” under Moses) who were to be given “some of the spirit’ that was on Moses so that they could “bear the burden of the people along with” him!

I used to say that “calling of the Seventy” was the beginning of “lay ministry” in the Church but, in recent years, I have become less and less fond of using the word “lay” in connection with ministry. In our common usage, “lay” often is understood as meaning “un-professional” or “amateur-ish” rather than “professional” or “competent.” I think we should increasingly just speak of “the ministry” of the Church. The Catechism of The Episcopal Church asks, “Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?” and the answer is: “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” I think that’s right…and it’s about all that needs to be said really, about ministry!

Now, if we turn our attention to “the Church” and to “churches,” and to “this church,” a kind of old-fashioned way of “sizing up congregations” was to speak of “family sized churches” of about 50 active members, “pastoral sized churches” of about 150, “program sized churches of about 350 active members, and “corporation sized” churches numbering 500 and above. By that kind of reckoning Trinity Cathedral would be a “program church” and as such falls into a funny category.

We’re too large for everyone to relate equally to the Dean, or pastor, or for the Dean to know, or reach out to, every member of the congregation. But we’re too small to hire a large and multi-talented staff to meet everyone’s needs in that way. So, the old counsel was for the priest to function as an enabler and chief administrator and to be supported by a cadre of elected leaders and program leaders who are responsible for the various program areas in the life of the parish.

That’s actually pretty much the way we function. With a relatively small staff, the parish depends upon active and involved Vestry members, pastoral care visitation teams and Eucharistic ministers, “lay” as well as ordained teachers of adults as well as children, people involved in outreach and service to the community in the name of our church, that’s how we really need to be organized as we move ahead.

Now we need to do a better job in most of those things. We need more people visiting the sick and shut in, more teachers, certainly more people relating to PUNCH and Angel Food Ministries, and Salvation Army meals, and all the rest of it. You need to know that the clergy do not provide all the ministering in this congregation, and that, if you are visited by our parish nurse or one of our fine Eucharistic ministers or visitors, you HAVE been visited by the Church…by Trinity Cathedral.

But the point I want to make is that I don’t think that’s just the way so-called “”program sized” congregations ought to function. I think it’s the way the Body of Christ is intended to function! By virtue of your Baptism, and of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit you’ve all been given you ARE “the ministers of this Church!” Just like those “elders of Israel” who were given a portion of that spirit which was upon Moses; just like the 12 apostles who were called and sent out; just like the “Seventy” in today’s Gospel, you and I are to go outside these doors, knowing that though “the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few,” we ARE those laborers.

And it is our duty, and our joy, to do what we can to prepare the way for the kingdom, the reign, the sovereignty of God in this place – in the Quad Cities, and beyond. Which is why we say at the end of every service: “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit!” And you respond, “Thanks be to God!”