What Is It About ‘Do’ We Don’t Understand?

Post a Comment » Written on June 25th, 2007     
Filed under: News
By Don Meyer

PORTLAND, OR (June 25, 2007) – What is it about the word “do” that we do not understand?

That question was at the heart of a challenge delivered to ordinands and others assembled for commissioning to ministry during the concluding worship service of the 122nd Annual Meeting Sunday morning.

StenbergThe question comes out of the Luke 8:26-39 text used by the preacher for the morning, Phil Stenberg, which tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with the demonic man in a graveyard along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

To create a sense of context for his message, Stenberg recounted the activities surrounding Jesus’ ministry at that particular time. “Jesus is on the move,” Stenberg observed. “Luke 8:1 recounts: ‘Soon afterwards, Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.’ Jesus is on a mission from God,” Stenberg quotes from the popular Blues Brothers movie. “He’s come, not just to save the orphanage, not just to save my precious soul, but to save the world! To take back the neighborhood that belongs to God, the world that God loves! Jesus comes to announce and inaugurate God’s reign. This kingdom –  God’s kingdom – comes in opposition, comes to replace the variety of kingdoms of this earth, the empires that relentlessly seek to dominate and control our lives, to seduce us into allegiance.”

Recalling Israel’s troubled history punctuated with domination by foreign empires and kingdoms – at that time controlled by the Roman Empire – Stenberg notes that the writer Luke goes to great lengths to make certain the reader understands that Jesus’ mission was taking place in an oppressive environment that had no room, no reverence for the one, true God. It was an environment dominated by the power of its military – legions of soldiers who dominated with force and violence; its economic power – the monopoly of labor and production and money; its political power – control by aristocracy of institutions, puppet neighborhood rulers; and its ideological power – the Roman imperial theology. The Roman coins that controlled commerce, that bought food to feed one’s children, that paid burdensome taxes, were inscribed with the image of the Caesar, and the inscription: “Divi Filius” meaning “Son of God!”

“By the time Luke’s story arrives at Chapter 8, Jesus has been active, pro-active,” Stenberg notes. “Jesus . . . has contended with his adversary in the wilderness and (reciting the ancient prophet) has made his inaugural address in his hometown, announcing his mission: ‘He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ At first, all were amazed at the gracious words that fell from Jesus’ mouth. But when Jesus went on to say that this good news was also for widows in Zarephath, all the way up into Gentile Sidon – and also for not just lepers, but Syrian lepers – the congregation boiled with rage, rejecting Jesus. They tried to throw Jesus off the cliff!”

Jesus Kept His Focus

Jesus nonetheless remained focused on the mission – “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” Jesus described life in God’s kingdom like this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you . . . do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“Later he would ask: ‘Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord and do not do what I tell you?’ Surely an alternative lifestyle! A subversive kingdom. What is it about ‘do’ that we don’t understand?”

Along his way . . . Jesus began calling disciples, followers, men and women who would be his apprentices in living into this alternate Kingdom, later to participate in God’s passion to save the world, Stenberg noted. “It is likely that this group of women and men walked with Jesus through the words and deeds described in Luke 8, for in Luke 9 Jesus calls the twelve together and gives them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sends them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.

Vestments“So, the events in Luke 8 are intense preparation for the mission of being sent out to proclaim in word and deed the presence of the kingdom of God – an obvious connection for our purpose gathered here (ordination). Like prodigal sowers, the disciples are sent to broadcast the precious seed with magnanimous excess. Jesus tells them a parable to assure them that not all preaching and teaching will be fruitful. There will be failures, but some seed will yield profusely. This is the miracle of God’s abundance! The call is to sow the seed.”

Stenberg went on to recount four episodes in which Jesus demonstrates what Stenberg described as the gracious, life-giving power of the new kingdom: stilling of the storm, the freeing of the demoniac, the healing of the woman with the 12-year flow of blood; and the raising from death of the 12-year-old daughter of a synagogue leader named Jairus. “These powerful episodes take place on or near the shores of the lake called Galilee. So . . . Jesus decides to go across to the opposite side of the lake, and while he was sleeping . . . all hell broke loose. A raging storm overwhelmed them. The disciples were sure they were going to die.”

“Master, master, we are perishing,” the disciples cried out, and Jesus rebuked the wind and raging waves. “Jesus addressed their fear, which is the opposite of faith,” Stenberg declared. “And the disciples, even after all these months of following, wondered out loud: ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ The question is out in the open! The truth of who they were – disciples paralyzed with fear – was met by the truth of who God is – the one with them in the boat with the power and authority to save.

It is on the other side of the lake – in Gentile country – that Jesus demonstrates the truth of the kingdom, that the Good News he came to preach is to be preached to all, regardless of cultural differences. Gentile country – “to Jewish sensibilities, this was an ‘unclean’ place, a place of defilement,” Stenberg emphasized. “It is bad enough that the hillside is covered with repugnant pigs; but then, here comes this buck-naked man, obviously very strong, fierce, unkempt, a wild-eyed homeless man, who has been living in the graveyard, the kingdom of death.   The disciples must have stood there with their jaws dropped to their knees, looking at each other and wondering: What has Jesus gotten us into now?”

Jesus Goes to Work

No doubt consumed with discomfort and perhaps fear, “they watch Jesus go to work. Who is this Jesus? It made such an impression that all three Gospel writers tell us the story. Jesus has chosen to enter an alien geography, a locality any good Jew would avoid. Jesus wades into the swirling vortex of raw human need and pain. He does not remain aloof, safe, in an ordered, comfortable world. We aren’t told why, except that there is a demon-possessed man, hell-bent on self-destruction who needs to be healed and saved.”

The disciples kept their distance as this wild man, obviously a Gentile, came directly at Jesus. But Jesus was not afraid, Stenberg pointed out. “Jesus has no fear of being ritually contaminated. Jesus comes to minister the power and the grace of God’s kingdom on the margins of society – there he finds the lepers hiding, the blind begging, the possessed raging, the fearful cowering, the grieving weeping.”

The possessed man in the Luke passage answers the disciples’ earlier question of who Jesus is that wind and waves obey him.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” the demon-possessed man asks Jesus. “The demons recognize the presence of God,” Stenberg points out. “They attempt, by pronouncing his name, to gain power over him. But the fearless Jesus demonstrates who is in charge – Jesus asks him his name. The man responds: Legion.” Whatever the number of demons who possessed this man, “in this power encounter of enormous proportions, they submit to Jesus!”

Realizing that Jesus is capable of relegating them to the abyss – the prison reserved for the punishment of demons – they begged Jesus for a transfer to a herd of swine on the hillside, which Jesus allows. “Within moments, like the demoniac before him, the pigs are driven into self-destruction,” Stenberg notes. “The pig herders ran to town to tell everyone what happened, making sure everyone knew it was not their fault, but that this guy named Jesus was the culprit. So, when the people came out from the city to check out their story, they discovered a great reversal had taken place. Seed sown had yielded a remarkable harvest. The wild man they had so feared . . . was now sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus.”

Blue“And they were afraid,” scripture tells us, a fear perhaps born, Stenberg suggests, “out of their dread that Jesus might further disturb their economy. But more likely the fear was the common response to the presence of the holy – the fear that accompanies God’s presence . . . They asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear. Fred Craddock observes: ‘It continues to be a painful part of the education of young ministers to discover that the reign of God has its enemies, that those enemies reside not only over against us, but also within and among us, and that no one is untouched by the conflicts that follow. Being asked to leave by those you seek to help is a pain unlike any other.’

The Call from Jesus

“So, Jesus leaves, but not without leaving his witness. The quiet, clothed, delivered, sane man begged to be with Jesus. Surprisingly, this earnest request is denied. Jesus instead says: ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ This is not only the story of one man’s healing – it is the story of one man’s calling. Jesus does bid the man to follow, but in his case the following, the call to ministry, involves staying rather than leaving. Jesus has his first appointment ready – he points the man to his congregation gathered behind him. The Gerasene demoniac is ordained the first Gerasene preacher. He is called to testimony, to be a living witness of God’s life-giving power – that he, once as good as dead, is alive, to embody God’s healing grace, to announce God’s loving reign. And this man, who heard these words of Jesus, did them!

Stenberg proceeded to recite a list of what he called today’s demons – materialism, consumerism, militarism, racism, sexism, addictions of all kinds. “The demons are killing us – killing others,” Stenberg declared. “We live in a world that . . . has been dominated by the empire of greed, violence, and ultimately death. God is all about a regime change!”

Then, drawing on a painfully personal note, Stenberg shared an experience seven years ago. “I came to the ordination service in St. Paul like this possessed man, desperately running to Jesus. Once again in my life, I had been dragged through the valley of the shadow of death. The day before, my wife, Evonne, had died early in the morning at Mayo Clinic – her disease came suddenly and ruthlessly. It seemed like Evonne, her four lovely daughters and I were overwhelmed by invincible legions of destruction.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the most high God?” – it is a cry from the depths, a cry I screamed at age 21 when my dad died far too young. I screamed it again the day I arrived in Lindsborg, Kansas, from seminary to begin learning to be a pastor – and someone came from the congregation to tell me a little baby had just died of a spider bite. Seven years ago this cry from the depths was raging within me, and I decided to come to ordination worship. With my resources of faith exhausted, I yearned for the Body of Christ – I came to be carried by the faith of the church. In the face of death, I needed to hear once more: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. I needed to be reminded that those who are baptized into Christ’s death are also raised with Christ.

“The truth of who I was needed to be met by the truth of who God is. I needed to be reminded whose I am and why I am here, that in a world so filled with death, I have been called to be an apprentice in his kingdom, a harbinger of hope!

“How oddly wonderful that God has chosen ordinary folk like us to help take back the world,” Stenberg said in closing. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Stenberg said, reciting the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Deliver us from evil until that day when the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.

“Until then, in this meantime, we live, we work, we preach, we testify as apprentices in God’s kingdom, listening to the words of Jesus and making it our hearts’ desire to ‘Do Them.’ ”

Following the sermon, candidates for ordination and commissioning received bibles and were vested with stoles (center photo), followed by the traditional laying on of hands and prayer.

The ordination service also served as the occasion to formally install Debbie Blue (lower photo) as the first executive minister of the newly formed Department of Compassion, Mercy and Justice, approved by delegates to last year’s Annual Meeting. She assumes her responsibilities September 1.

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