July 7 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20*
*[Today, the first Sunday in July, is designated Refugee Sunday. The suggested readings for that are Lamentations 3:22-33; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43.
Theme. Quite hard to pin down this week, I think. Luke would suggest "Ministry"; Isaiah would point in the direction of "Divine Love" (or, more strikingly, "The Maternal Love of God"); and Galatians would offer something about "A New Creation" or "A New Way of Life." Take your pick. My sense is that there is something here about the fundamental importance of relationship with God, out of which everything else must flow, including lifestyle and ministry.
Introduction. I sometimes think that a good subtitle for the Book of Isaiah would be something like "The Highs and Lows of Living with God". No one draws more dramatic pictures of the "emotional side" of God's nature than this great prophet; and as his book draws to a close we see the full range of God's feelings, from his tender, maternal love for Israel through to his furious indignation against his enemies. (Typically, our Lectionary spares us the bad stuff!) St Paul is in a more temperate mood today, as he finishes his letter to the Galatians. Basically, he summarises his argument that the real issue for them to get their heads around is that God is calling them into a whole new way of life – to become a new creation. Compared to that even the centuries-old tradition of circumcision with all its religious significance is now of no importance at all. And perhaps the real point of today's gospel reading is that even "successful" ministry can be a lure leading us into false pride and boastfulness; only one thing is necessary, that we have been reconciled to God and have entered into eternal life.
Background. As I read the gospel passage in preparation for these Notes, I found myself going back to the last section of our Eucharist liturgies. All three call this section "The Dismissal of the Community", which is rather unfortunate, perhaps, as "dismissal" tends to have somewhat negative tones in modern parlance. But in each case the rubrics save the day: they tell us "The congregation is sent out with these words." They vary slightly in "these words", but the gist is clear. "Go now to love and serve the Lord. Go in peace." It's a simple and profoundly important message, but is it often HEARD? It might be too harsh to say it usually falls on deaf ears – perhaps it would be kinder and more accurate to say that it falls on inattentive ears. The service is just about over; it is time to gather up our books, recover the glove that has disappeared under the pew somewhere, check we've got our glasses, phone and car keys and discuss with our Significant Other whether or not we have time to stop for a cuppa. And all that's assuming that our foot, or some other part of our anatomy, hasn't gone to sleep or seized up in some inconvenient way and we are having difficulty in recovering our mobility. "Going now" may be easier said than done.
And then there is the next bit, "to love and serve the Lord". I was once asked, by an intelligent young teenager, why we say this bit right at the end of the service instead of right at the beginning. Haven't we just done the "loving and serving the Lord" bit in the service? Most of us don't say anything like that out loud, of course; but I suspect that he is not all that unusual in thinking that, now we have done the religious stuff, it's back to the real world tomorrow (if not today). And I'm not at all sure that today's gospel passage is helpful in addressing this issue; in fact, I think it might be one of those passages that are quite alienating for many in our churches on a Sunday morning.
The heading in my NRSV bible reads "The Mission of the Seventy", and the 70 are sent out with these words: "Go on your way. See, I am sending you out...", and it's all downhill from there. Pause and stay with this analogy for a moment. Suppose, instead of "The Dismissal of the Community" the heading in our liturgy was "The Mission of the Congregation"; and instead of our nice gentle-sounding generalisation "to love and serve the Lord", we had a much more specific set of instructions along the lines of this gospel passage. How many of the congregation would be anxious to get started right away? How many would be loathe to leave the church building after a set of instructions like that? And of those who did leave, how many would be back next week anxious to report in along the lines of verse 17? At the very least a "dismissal" along these lines might cast a bit of a pall over the morning tea – or, perhaps, prolong it indefinitely!
Okay, I'm being silly now, but there are two serious points here we might do well to ponder. There can be little argument that the ideal promoted in passages like this, of which there are many, is full-time, itinerant ministry. What possible application can they have to people who spend virtually all the rest of the week in full-time "secular" activities, with a fixed abode and address? Is there not a sort of unspoken compact between the Church and the congregation on a Sunday morning that the latter sit quietly and respectfully listening, but will not be expected to do what they are apparently being urged to do?
And the second and related serious point is this. Doesn't this play into the idea that "Ministers" are the paid professionals (aka clergy), and we can safely leave "ministry" to them? I believe that there is an urgent need for the Church to teach that "ministry" is anything and everything that advances the kingdom of God, that builds up the Body of Christ, that promotes the redemption of the whole of creation, and that speeds up the coming of the Parousia; and to bring this down to the nitty-gritty I call my first and only witness, Betty, whom I met in a North Island hospital a few years ago. She was a nurse to whom I passed on a complaint from a patient at the lack of cleanliness in the ward bathroom area. Betty was very sad about it; it was getting her down, too. It was, she told me, the all-too predictable consequence of the hospital's decision to contract out the cleaning services. Before that, she said, the cleaners were recognised as an important part of the health team, helping to care for the patients and promoting their health by keeping everywhere as clean as possible. But now, they are considered cleaners, a cost to the hospital; they are treated with less respect and react accordingly. Draw their attention to something that needs wiping and you are likely to be told to do it yourself, or asked what you expect of someone paid peanuts.
I often think of this incident: cleaners are part of the health team, not just in hospitals, but everywhere. Cleaners, we might say, are health professionals. Or, to use religious language, cleaners have a very important ministry. And here's another flashback from my previous existence. The then Director-General of Health asked me to give priority to the drafting of some Plumbers and Drainlayers regulations over what to me seemed a far more important piece of legislation about medicines. When I checked with him that he meant what he said, he assured me that good sanitation had made a far more significant contribution to the health of the nation than anything the medical profession had done! Plumbers and drainlayers are health professionals, too, - they are part of the healing ministry.
So perhaps today's gospel passage needs a good bit of translation, into a language that makes sense to the people who are listening, who spend their time feeding others, cleaning up behind others, teaching others, serving others in all manner of ways – and probably never thinking of themselves as "ministers" sent out to love and serve the Lord and doing just that in those multifarious ways. So this week, if you are leading a service somewhere, what about a more intentional "dismissal"? Perhaps a pause, a moment for everyone to collect their things, their thoughts, and their stiff joints, and then an exhortation to "Go now, and continue to love and serve the Lord in all you do for others, whether at home, at work or at play. Go in peace." We are, after all, in the culture-changing business, aren't we?
Isaiah. I am a rather late convert to the teaching of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI); and I am presently reading his book Introduction to Christianity, which in large part is centred on the Apostles Creed. He devotes one whole chapter to the expression "The Father almighty", which most of us probably say without thinking about it too much. His point is that this is an extraordinary composite of two quite distinct images of God's nature. On the one hand God is "Father", essentially a figure of love and care and vulnerability – capable of being hurt and even abandoned by his children. On the other, God is "almighty", a figure of unlimited power, able to do anything he wants to. The author suggests that in that phrase is the true nature of God that Jesus Christ came to teach us and show us in himself. This isn't the place to go further into all that; but it came very much into mind with this extraordinary passage from Isaiah. Here is an image of God that is almost too human – and feminine at that! Okay, God is NOT shown as the mother figure – but as the midwife (or lead maternal carer, as we call them today). Try putting "almighty" alongside this image, and you will begin to see the point that Ratzinger was making. And when you have done that, read on to verses 15 and 16!
Taking It Personally.
· A passage to savour; read it through slowly, phrase by phrase.
· Notice how positive the language is: "rejoice", "glad", "love", "joy", "nurse", "satisfied", "consoling", "delight". Then reflect on your own present image of God. Do you think of God as the Divine Midwife, bringing forth new birth and delighting in it? If not, why not?
· Mirror time. Tell yourself, "God delights in me." And give thanks.
Galatians. St Paul is not best known for his ability to hide his feelings; particularly when he is exasperated! This whole letter trembles with it, and it does not seem to have abated much by the end. He is so sick of the subject of circumcision! By verses 14 and 15 we can almost hear him shouting and stamping his feet. It's a whole new ball game, folks! All that stuff is so yesterday – all that matters is the NEW CREATION! Verses 9 and 10 are most helpful to my argument about daily service, above. We are working towards an objective (the "harvest"); it requires day-by-day commitment. We must take each opportunity to work for the good of others.
Taking It Personally.
· Are there any subjects you are sick of hearing about in the Church – money, earthquake-strengthening, declining numbers, Te Pouhere, sexual orientation, inclusive language, or any other bugbear you wouldn't dream of mentioning in church circles? Why wouldn't you dream of mentioning it?
· Focus on verses 9 and 10. Make them your guide for the week.
Luke. A few more brief points. Notice how much of this teaching is about receiving, not giving. "Ministers" can easily see themselves, and be seen by others, as the strong one, who has no needs of his/her own. Jesus sets them up in such a way that they will be dependent on others for their upkeep. (Rather like clergy, now I come to think of it!) Notice, too, that the message they are to proclaim to those who welcome them and those who reject them is the same: the kingdom has come near. But there is a subtle difference: it has come near "to you" (those who welcome the disciples) in verse 9; in verse 11 it has still come near, but not to those who reject the disciples. To reject the disciples is to reject Jesus, and to reject Jesus is to reject God. The reporting back section is particularly interesting. First it emphasises that all this is in the context of a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6, and so on), and is therefore of eternal significance. And secondly, the disciples should not be congratulating themselves on their successes: collectors of church statistics please be extra careful here!
Taking It Personally.
· Think about the coming week. What is there in this passage that may guide you in your ministry – given the wider definition of ministry suggested in these Notes?
· How easy do you find it to let others minister to you – to be (even for a few moments) dependent on others?
· Reflect on the more menial tasks you may be doing this week. In what way can they be considered "ministry"?
· How would you feel if your priest or minister sent you out from the church with the words of dismissal suggested above? Would it make any difference to the way in which you went about the week?
· How would you feel about being asked next Sunday to give a "report back" on your ministry during the week?