the mysterious challenges of our calling for those who listen...

It may be that in addition to sharing encouragement and grace with the people of my faith community in everyday and ordinary ways, God might have one more significant task for me to be a part of: helping our community transition physically, emotionally and spiritually from a "big" congregation to a small place of faith, hope and love. As I've written before, I knew that there was something that needed to change after returning from sabbatical last fall. And while a few of my uber-linear leaders grew frustrated that I was in a discernment mode - and refused to rush the Holy Spirit - by about Advent 2015 three things had become clear:

+ First, thriving small churches share a few things in common:  worship is a shared 
primary priority, deep caring and compassion happens better with a smaller size, mission must be focused and mutual, the gifts of the laity are honored and nourished, adults and youth are serious about deepening their spiritual journey, and thriving small churches are much more concerned with being living community of faith than surviving institutions. (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide to Smaller Churches)

+ Second, we won't make it unless we are tender and intentional:  Ministry, not money, must guide how we compassionately revision and restructure. It is an illusion to think we can simply shrink what is currently taking place to fit the pledged dollars. Rather, as the former Mayor of Cleveland used to say, "Learn to make poverty your friend." That is, with diminished revenues, reshape your activities with care and intentionality to do the ministry this moment in history needs.

+ Third, trusting God to redefine our ministry is crucial:  This morning in worship I interrupted my series on Palestine/Israel to open a conversation about discernment, change, trust and our congregation's future. Two fascinating comments bubbled up from the congregation:  1) nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles' text is fear mentioned; confusion, frustration, anxiety and uncertainty, yes, but not fear. And 2) even when St. Paul claims a vision - which he only partially understood - the leadership for implementing the new ministry was a total surprise. In this case, it was a wealthy Gentile woman (Acts 16)


Some of my notes from this morning put it like this:

Here's my take on this story:  confusion is one of the ways God gets us ready for a radical change, it takes the whole community to discern new directions rather than one person, sometimes we get parts of the vision wrong so we need to be open to surprises, and the ministry God calls us to is always about a life-changing alternative to fear, hatred, bigotry and the ways of death in our culture, because ministry comes from God.  

I concluded with an oblique connection with today's alternative reading from the gospel in John 5. The presenting issue is the way Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath only to be confronted by some of the rabbis. My point was that during times of stress it is all too easy to give in to our fears or habits or rituals. Clearly that is part of what happened in the group of people who came out of the Johannine community in Palestine.


Most of us don’t know that by the time the gospel of John was written between 90 and 110 CE, there were a variety of small house churches throughout the Middle East and moving into Europe that embraced boldly different theologies about Jesus – often in profound opposition to one another – that still found ways of celebrating koinonia – fellowship – with one another so that no one was barred from Christ’s radical table of grace and Eucharist. No one. Think about this:  according to the late Raymond Brown, the American Jesuit scholar who advanced our modern knowledge of the gospel of John more than most, by the start of the second century there were:

+ Three clusters of churches emphasizing different insights about Jesus that came from the Apostle Paul.

+ There were two geographic groups of congregations inspired by the teaching of John.

+ There was one group that honored the wisdom of Peter.

+ And another Jewish/Gentile mix following the more conservative path of Matthew and James


In some of these churches there was practically no difference between Jew and Gentile – both were accepted and trusted and welcomed in synagogue and ecclesia alike – while in others there was animosity, fear and eventually expulsion from one or the other.  In some churches women held positions of great authority, but not in others. And in some churches there was a grassroots internal organization while in others there was a top down hierarchy that called all the shots. In John’s community, which began in Palestine but fled to what we now know as Syria and Lebanon during Rome’s brutal attack on Judaism that began in 68 CE and culminated in the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70, they began with love and cooperation between Jews and Jewish Christians. And this trust continued for a few generations. 

But as oppression from Rome against Jews increased – and as the small church following the way of John welcomed Samaritans and Gentiles into their evolving congregation – antagonisms broke out that eventually led to John’s people being prohibited from interacting with the synagogue and the dispersed people of Israel.  And that is why we read over and over again words in John’s gospel that are anachronistic to Jesus and portray him in opposition to the Jews. You see, by the time John’s stories were collected, there was a full blown family feud taking place between synagogue and church – and you know how ugly family fights can become, yes? Some of that venom was codified in the gospel where it continues to do incredible damage adding fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism all over the world.  

It took 400 years after the ministry of Jesus to finally cause an irreparable schism
between Judaism and Christianity because Jesus was a Jew who did NOT abandon his tradition and the early church knew it.  Please remember... even while John’s people were fighting their Jewish cousins, in other parts of the church they were breaking bread together – finding ways to share compassion and conversation in the real world – even learning how to agree to disagree in love.

That is to say, in all things biblical and theological, there is never simply ONE true way of being faithful – and our own theological history teaches this if we’re willing to listen.  After all, the deeper truth that both Jesus and the Jewish rabbis celebrated about Sabbath comes from the prophetic poetry of Isaiah 58:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you make the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you respect it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs then you shall take delight in the LORD and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… so remember: Is this not the fast that I choose: to lose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free  and to break every form of bondage?  

In my 35+ years of ordained ministry my calling has shifted:  at first it was engaged with peace-making and young people, then it was grounded in making the gospel real in urban Cleveland, while in Tucson my ministry included music and spirituality as well as outreach in solidarity with the GLBTQ community. And when we arrived in Pittsfield, I was certain that worship renewal and celebrating a journey as an Open and Affirming congregation was going to be the core. It has been SO much richer than that including jazz, mission, lay empowerment and now... perhaps... a bold new restructuring that resonates with God's vision for us in the 21st century.

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