Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Surprises in ministry . . .

To whom are we called to minister to in Davenport or, for that matter, in the wider world?  It is by no means an academic question as we prayerfully engage in discernment as a parish.  It is, quite frankly, an attempt by us to discern God’s intention for us and to live as fully as possible into His plan.  And let me say this clearly . . . AGAIN . . . so far, there have been NO wrong answers in our discussions.  None.  Every suggestion that I have heard from parishioners wishing to speak in private really COULD BE God’s call on us.  It is not like anyone is suggestion we do something antithetical to the Gospel.  Quite the contrary.  Most people have come in well considered and advocating a mission that I have no doubt God would bless, and bless well in its season.  The question for us to consider as a parish, though, is which mission does He desire us to undertake in the here and now.  Or, as one person said this week, it could be “which missions.”  Maybe He wants us doing three or four things well and leave others to other parts of the Body.  That’s why this involves lots of prayer, significant fasting, and lots of talking.  And even then, despite our best intentions, we may still “miss the mark.”  The great thing about today’s Gospel reading, though, is that it reminds us of the absolute freedom and joy we should have when trying to discern and making a decision and a commitment to parish focused ministry.

Our reading from Luke overlaps last week’s reading.  Jesus has gone to Galilee, gone to synagogue to worship Yahweh, and has informed those listening that the prophesy of Isaiah, the anointing of the messiah, has been fulfilled in their hearing.  He has gone on to preach about the lesson or lessons that day, and people are amazed at His gracious words and spoke well of Him.  Rather than accept His teaching, however, those listening start asking themselves and one another how His teaching is possible.  Isn’t Jesus the son of that carpenter that married the pregnant “virgin?”  Isn’t he a tradesman?  How could Jesus know this stuff, he didn’t go to seminary or university?  How can such a man of well-known humble and uneducated origins be all that is described by Isaiah?  If you have never heard this story before, you now know why it is axiomatic that clergy never return to their sending parishes or hometowns!

Jesus’ initial response to the people is interesting.  It is interesting precisely because it could be taken in two senses.  Physician, heal yourself.  In one sense, this citation of the proverb could be a demand for proof.  Put in our vernacular, or the words of doubting Thomas, “We have heard these claims about you.  Prove it.  We want to see and judge for ourselves.”  This claim is legitimate.  If Jesus could not do the works of power in their midst, the “neighbors” have every reason to wonder whether He is who He claims to be.  In another sense, though, the proverb could be cited because they think Jesus is a mental case.  Put in our language, if He is the son of Joseph the carpenter, he cannot possibly be doing these works of power.  There has to be some trickery or misunderstanding involved.

Rather than arguing with His people or demonstrating His power, Jesus takes an interesting tack.  He reminds His hometown people of the way God works, particularly when His people are rejecting God.  His first example is the story of Elijah and his ministry with the widow at Zerapheth in Sidon.  To remind you of the story, Elijah believes he is called to call Israel, and especially Ahab and Jezebel, to repent and return to God.  Keep in mind, in what you and I call the Old Testament, Elijah is the second greatest prophet.  He, along with Moses, will appear at the Transfiguration.  And, while God is punishing Israel with a drought due to their refusal to worship Him, this great prophet is sent not to a widow in Israel, but to a widow in Sidon.  When he meets the woman, he asks her for a drink and some bread.  She replies that she is gathering some sticks for a fire.  Then she is going to use the rest of her flour and oil and make her son and her some bread so they can lay down and die.  Elijah ignores her complaint and instructs her to cook for him.  She does, and Scripture teaches us that the flour jar and oil jar never ran out of either for the entire time that Elijah stayed with the widow and the son.  Pretty cool miracle, huh?

There’s another one, even better, buried in the narrative.  During the course of Elijah’s stay with the widow, her son dies.  Elijah intercedes with God on her behalf, and the son is restored to life.  In our modern American society, where women have tons of options, we are likely not to understand the desperation of this widow’s situation when her son dies.  Their life together would have been tough until he came of age.  But there would always be a distant hope.  One day, he would grow up and take over the family farm or family business.  If she could make it until that time, he would provide for her.  But, faced with his death, her prospects are worse than dim.  Her joy at Elijah’s miracle is not just the joy of a mother’s grief of her son’s death, though that is significant.  Rather, it is also the joy of hope being restored in a time of hopelessness.  And Jesus is reminding the people of His hometown that all this, the miracle of feeding and the restoration of hope and the healing of the dead, was given to a foreigner.  A foreigner, not an Israelite.

Similarly, Elisha’s greatest miracle was bestowed upon a foreigner rather than an Israelite.  Elisha was the inheritor of Elijah’s mantle.  His big miracle, though, was the curing of leprosy.  In the story, Naaman the Syrian is diagnosed with leprosy.  Fortunately for him, an Israelite girl has been captured as a slave.  As he is complaining of the disease one day, she offers advice.  “Oh, master, if you only new Yahweh and His prophet Elisha.  He could cure you of this disease.”  The idea of leprosy being cured was unheard of in the ANE, and still is today.  But Naaman decides to find this prophet and see if he can cause his God to help.  He loads up a caravan and sets off to Israel.

Prophets of God were not hard to find in ancient Israel.  The authorities usually kept great track of them, and the people constantly cared for them.  Naaman comes to Elisha and offers whatever Elisha wants in order to intercede with the God of Abraham.  Elisha rejects payment and tells Naaman to wash in the river Jordan 7 times.  Naaman is furious.  He has travelled all this way, embarrassed himself by making obeisance before Elisha, and for what?  To be told to bathe?  Furious, he begins his return.  One of his servants, however, speaks up.  You were willing to do whatever the prophet required.  Why not try what he suggests?  Eventually, Naaman bathes and is cured of leprosy--a miracle never seen before in the ANE!  And which son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah is the beneficiary of this miracle?  Ooops.  It is a Gentile, an enemy of God’s people.

Then we are told by Luke that His own people carried him to the top of a hill, intending to cast him of in order to kill Him.  Although it is not my intended focus this morning, you may be asking why.  Think what Jesus has done.  He has reminded them of their own spiritual emptiness before God.  Just as God shut up the heavens in those days, He has shut up His voice until the emergence of John and Jesus.  Israel is once again being compared to a period in its history that no one wants to hear.  Worse still, just as in the days of Elijah and Elisha, it is the Gentiles, the foreigners, who are more worthy of God’s ministry and grace than are His chosen people, the Jews.  Talk about a spiritual wedgie or bloody nose!  Jesus has caught them right where it hurts the most, and deservedly so.  Jesus embodies the choice that all people are given with respect to God.  Follow Jesus and enter God’s kingdom and blessings; reject Jesus and live in the outer darkness.  Those who think they now Him and His family best lose the opportunity presented because they refuse to see how God works in history.

There are others lessons to talk about in this pericope, but I want us to focus particularly on the surprising way in which God works in our midst.  You and I might have an idea of what we think God is calling us to do, but we might be wrong.  More difficult to grasp is the fact that we might be correct, but for the wrong reasons.  But if we really stop and think about it, there is a tremendous freedom in our efforts to discern.  What happens if we are wrong?  Who pays the price?  That’s right.  He has already died for our willful, sinful behaviors.  If we choose something which glorifies us and not Him, He has already paid the price for our sins on that cross.  And get this, He chose to hang there knowing we would one day screw up!  That, brothers and sisters, is the love He bears for each one of us and for this community.  Better still, the empty tomb reminds us that He can redeem any of our circumstances.  Just because we choose poorly does not mean that He cannot bring us around.  Like I said earlier, nobody has come to me with an unbiblical calling.  All the ideas have been rooted in God’s word.  My guess is that each of the paths would be blessed to a degree, but we are trying to discern His will for us and live into the fullest extent possible of His blessings on earth.  WE want to glorify HIM to the best of our abilities knowing He will in turn bless us for faithfulness.  And so we have a tremendous freedom to discern His will.  If we screw up, He we redeem us.  And if we discern correctly, He will bless us in unimaginable ways, perhaps in ways lie Elijah and Elisha.

I also spoke that we might choose rightly but for the wrong reasons.  By that, I had in mind the ministry of Robin and Connie in Human Trafficking. . .  Those in the parish know their ministry.  If you are not part of this parish, we apologize for the interruption.  Their ministry, however, is not for public consumption right now. . . . A funnier example might be my ministry in World of Warcraft.  Many of you know I played very little for about six months last year.  In the beginning, I played for entertainment and stress relief.  When one of you drove me nuts and God refused to smite you, the game gave me that wonderful opportunity to call down the lightning bolt that hurts and then continues to burn over time.  Wrong reason, but right idea (hey, you guys are not the only ones who get angry some times!  lol).  How many sermons have you heard about teens and their struggles thanks to my ministry on that game?  How many individuals have we helped through prayer and encouragement?  How many individuals have been given a freedom to as questions and to struggle honestly with their faith?  And that ministry was not limited just to me.  Ask Sue or Nathan or Robin or Martha or Sarah or any of the others who ended up joining us in that world where art imitates life.  Is it just a game like they hoped, or is it something far more important in God’s plan of salvation?  God took something I chose for the wrong reasons, redeemed it, and has blessed it incredibly.  Now that I am back and playing more often, those questions continue.  Heck, in some cases, they are far deeper.  And our ministry in human trafficking gives us an even deeper footprint into the lives of many.  That we play like we work, or work lie we play, inspires them.  It causes them to re-evaluate what they were taught and believe about Jesus.  And they worry.  Have I missed my opportunity to enter into His kingdom?  Have I locked myself outside the feast?  And we, those of us who play, get to be heralds of the Gospel.  The imaginary powers we use in a game are replaced by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and we do, in some cases, get to be that hero that points them to the One who saves, our Lord Christ.

I could go on and on about how ministries around here are used in different ways by God to advance His kingdom.  Community Meal is about feeding people, not about letting male trafficking survivors call us to action, right?  AFM was about feeding people, not about forging community, right?  Winnie’s place is all about helping battered women and their children, not about helping survivors of slavery, right?  Bikes are meant to pass through my office quickly, not linger, right?  We work to reach slaves for their sakes, not for all of those around us enslaved by sin, right?  I could go on and on and on.

Brothers and sisters, what lies before you is an incredible opportunity.  It is the choice of the redeemed!  There is no bad choice.  There is no “unGospel” choice being suggested.  So those anxieties and fears ought not weigh on our decision making process.  Instead, through fasting and prayer, we should be asking God to make it clear where He wants us to go, and then to follow cheerfully as He leads.  Throughout salvation history, when God has opened up new ways of being His people and serving Him, His people have almost always needed to be convinced.  What He is asking of us is no different.  His message never changes, only its ambassadors and its format.  To you has been given a wonderful charge.  How can we reach the lost in our community even better?  What hinders us?  What supports us in that effort?  How might we do a better job?  That, brothers and sisters, is our job right now.  The heavy lifting stuff?  He took care of that a couple thousand years ago that we might live into our inheritance and the freedom He offers.  So, where do you think He is calling us?  And where do you think He is asking you to serve?  And, if we are wrong, whom might He still reach through your faithful efforts?


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