Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lent 1 - Call, Testing, Renewed Ministry

In the lead-up to Lent this year, I kept reading and hearing, from a variety of sources, churchly and non-churchly, all sorts of comments about what Shrove Tuesday is, what Ash Wednesday is, what Lent is all about. But what I read and heard, for the most part, left me largely unsatisfied because the explanations seemed to miss the whole point of what these next six extraordinary weeks leading from Ash Wednesday to the Sunday of the Resurrection have to teach us.Then I came upon two short articles which helped me better clarify what God might be inviting me to look at.

The first is from the article “Downward Mobility”, on the Alban Institute Weekly website, by Lutheran senior pastor and teacher John Berntsen, of Trinity Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA. It focusses on a commonplace ministry challenge for clergy, but also for lay ministers: i.e., becoming frustrated and discouraged by not being able to be “all things to all people”, something which I’m sure none of you has ever, or rarely, experienced! Berntsen writes: “The leader is humbled by the very work of ministry: by not always having the answers, by lack of giftedness for important ministries, by the need to apologize for insensitive remarks, by failure to keep anger and resentment toward ‘problem’ people, and by disillusionment with the once-held ideal of the church...Sooner or later a Christian worker has to face the reality that ministry itself is an impossible possibility -- not because it is so professionally complex and demanding, or because the minister doesn’t have all the right gifts, or even because the congregation isn’t, as they say, ‘healthy’, but rather because what God asks of the world -- and what we are charged to proclaim -- is something about which the world quite simply freaks out: dying in order to live. Nobody wants to die to self. In the same way, dying to our well-laid ministry plans calls for trust that there’s new life on the other side of their demise...

The second quote, featured in a wonderful new little volume, The Glenstal Book of Readings for the Seasons, published by Liturgical Press, is taken from a book called Christianity and Creation: The Essence of the Christian Faith and its Future among Religions, A Systematic Theology (Continuum, 2006), by James P. Mackey, honorary professor of theology at Trinity College, Dublin. He says: “Matthew, Mark and Luke place the story of the diabolical temptation of Jesus at the very beginning of his mission, enabling the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews to describe Jesus as ‘one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning’ (4:15). And since the story of that temptation is in the form of a myth, it must not be taken literally as something that happened only just after Jesus’ baptism and before his public mission began. It must be taken as a temptation that is always waiting to surface in the forefront of his consciousness, as it regularly does to all of us...

Just as a side note for clarification: German novelist, Thomas Mann, has defined the word
myth as “a story about the way things never were, but always are”, or, as a Swedish proverb puts it: “Theology is poetry plus, not science minus.” And I particularly like one Native American storyteller’s version: “...I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.

The story to which Mackey refers, of course, is Luke’s Gospel passage for today’s liturgy (4:1-13). You and I have heard preachers commenting on it for years, and probably in much the same way, more or less, each time! The devil, Satan, tempts Jesus to perform “Trick #1” on a stone, turning it into bread; then he caters to Jesus’ human side by offering him all the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus will first kneel down and worship him; finally, when that doesn’t work, he goes for “Trick #2” and double-dares Jesus to throw himself down off the pinnacle of the temple, so that God’s angels, one can imagine, in a Superman-style dive, will swoop down dramatically, catch Jesus, and soft-land him on the street below, his robe barely ruffled. The point of such commentary usually being: 1) we live by God’s spiritual nourishment, not just our own artisan bread; 2) God alone is the one we worship; and 3) it isn’t wise to test God because, to put it in a modern idiom, “
Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” Such an interpretation of the passage is well taken, but I believe that there must be much more in that passage to help guide you and me on our journey through Lent to Easter.

Notice Luke’s last sentence in the Gospel: “
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” Unless I’m imagining it, that’s an early hint that the same sorts of doubts and discouragement which you and I face in doing ministry, would plague the human Jesus for the next three years of his life on the road. Think about the difficulty which Jesus, member of the Jewish community that he was, had in communicating with the Syro-Phoenician woman. He was tempted to put this Gentile woman off because he saw God as “his” God, and in fact he rejects this foreigner at first, only later to be changed and moved by her faith from letting the temptation grow into sin. Think of the scene in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus, because of his excruciating doubts and natural human unwillingness, is tempted to “pack it in” rather than to face and accept what God was asking him to do.

What comes before and after this passage about the Temptation of Jesus might serve to frame our reflection and prayer in this first week of Lent in terms of
call; testing; and renewed ministry.

Just a few verses before this passage Jesus, along with many others, emerges from the Jordan River after receiving a ritual pouring of water by John the Baptizer. It was a simple symbol of repentance for Jews who had transgressed some or all of the over 600 Torah laws, and is in no way connected to later Christian Baptism. That being said, it’s natural and understandable that some elements in Luke’s description (e.g., the pouring of water; the necessity of
metanoia = compunction, reversal, change, translated as repentance in English; and the Spirit’s presence) seem similar to and remind us of what you and I experience in the Christian sacrament of Baptism.

By his presence at the Jordan, Jesus is identifying himself with weak, sinful human beings, and validates and legitimizes John's preaching that people need to repent. In the midst of that scene, Luke depicts God proclaiming this human Jesus also divine: “
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then Luke makes clear, in the opening words of today’s passage, that the Holy Spirit, who’d descended on and taken possession of Jesus, now leads him into the preparation time for his ministry: “...Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness...” Thus, the call.

On the heels of that comes today’s account by Luke of the kinds of testing which Jesus experienced in the wilderness.

Finally, the verses following this passage continue on a similar note as a renewed ministry begins: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee...He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone...”

Call; testing; renewed ministry.

Baptism is our entry into the life of Jesus the Christ, and includes several “moments”:
1) acknowledging that our human existence isn’t in order and that each of us needs to be reoriented. This first step towards renewal involves a two-fold turning: away from sin and selfishness, and toward a life of grace and reconciliation;
2) being accepted into a community of people who profess faith in Jesus the Word, in the Creator, and in the Holy Spirit, whose being is Love; finding an identity, as symbolized by our Christian name; and discovering that as God’s “
beloved” you and I “count” as someone;
3) beginning a process of being set apart, consecrated, sanctified, in which we’re identified with, and indeed become one with, the God’s Holy Spirit;
4) finally, being called, elected, even
ordained to the general ministry of all the Church’s members, the ministry of reconciliation; as well as to our specific ministry(ies) which unfolds and becomes more clear over time.

Through Baptism you and I are made partners with all the saints of God in proclaiming the Good News, the Word. The first reading from the Letter to the Romans (10:8b-13) speaks of that “
living and active” Word, calling it “the word of faith that we proclaim”. You and I possess faith, it says, outwardly and internally: “on your lips and in your heart”, believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth. One of the most eloquent expressions of this living Word of faith is the St. Peter’s address to the people gathered in the centurion Cornelius’ home: “You know the message [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ -- he is Lord or God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing...for God was with him...They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear...

For one believes and so is justified, and one confesses...and so is saved.” In the very next verse, however, Paul raises some provoking questions: “But how are they to call on one whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?...” Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles answers: “[God] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God...that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name...” It’s what the Prayer Book means when it says that our call is “to represent Christ and his Church”; to “bear witness to him wherever” we are; and, using the gifts we’ve been given, to continue Christ’s mission of reconciliation.

But you and I know that, however inspiring this all looks on paper, the reality of ministry is often far different. “
Our gifts differ,” says Pastor Berntsen, “and so too do our liabilities and vulnerabilities...At some point, a reality check sobers everybody up.” Who of us hasn’t had to face the fact that, not only do we doubt that we can do a ministry that we’ve been given or taken on, but that maybe we’re not even attracted to it? Often we’re asked to be involved in things for which we have, or think we have, or come to realize that we have, no competency or desire at all. How do we deal with others’ expectations of us? If we’re the conscientious type, we might even find ourselves severely distressed over this. Yet we tough it out, telling ourselves that we’re committed, and what will “Father”, or the Vestry, or whoever, think of us if we bail out now? “If only we could get a fix on our real spiritual gifts and match them up with the right organization or project...”, all would go smoothly. “Maybe going to some Diocesan workshops or studying a little harder...”, we could grow out of our ministry deficits.

Our temptations, in the midst of living out our Baptismal call, mirror those which faced Jesus.
1) The bread which Luke refers to in today’s story is an Old Testament symbol of wisdom. How ready we are sometimes in ministry to depend solely on our own knowledge, intuition, or wisdom, brushing off that of others and forgetting that we are only beneficiaries of the One who is Wisdom himself?
2) The lure of “
glory” and “authority” and the acclaim of others, which ministry can bring, is likewise hard to resist, especially if we already think we have most or all of the answers.
3) There can also be times when we act carelessly, impulsively and thoughtlessly in ministry, insensitive to the ripple effects on other people’s lives, inside or outside the church. In all these forms of testing, God has a way of reminding us that God’s Word of Good News alone is the priority, that God is the only One to be worshipped and served.

Pastor Berntsen again: “
Death and resurrection is not only the subject of preaching, the heart of liturgy, and the spirit of pastoral care, but also the unseen influence shaping the leader’s daily professional functioning.” There’s no shame in recognizing that we’re not equipped to do everything. St. Paul reminds his Ephesian community that “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift...

If we set our hearts to live by the message of the Cross, “
the Word [that] is near you”, perhaps, in our call, we can learn through the testings which arise in our ministries to be humble enough to let go of those things which need to be left behind, so that we can, in a renewed ministry, more faithfully answer God’s call and serve the needs of others. It’s what Berntsen refers to as “downward mobility”: “dying in order to live”. “Humility leads to this down-to-earth approach to ministry...

And so we pray today and throughout the Lenten season: “
Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save...Amen.

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