Thursday, July 02, 2009

"The Ministry of Presence" Pentecost 5, Mark 6.1-13

The Ministry of Presence
Mark 6.1-13

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary* and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense* at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

I was 22 when I received my first pastoral appointment.

In May, of 1987, I had just graduated from Memphis State, had served for the previous couple of years as youth director at Emmanuel Church, had a new girlfriend (who would later become my wife), and was preparing to enter The Divinity School at Vanderbilt that Fall.

I moved only a couple of weeks following graduation as the appointed Associate Minister of Old Hickory United Methodist Church. Now for the uninformed, Old Hickory is Nashville. However, for those who have any sense of decency, or if you are at least a resident of Old Hickory, you would never confuse to the two.

Old Hickory is a mill town village. It sits on what was farmland which was secured by the US Government in 1917 during the war effort to establish a plant which would fabricate and produce smokeless gunpowder. DuPont was awarded the contract and built a plant there.

As it was for many companies in those days, in order to maintain a sense of camaraderie, morale – for a projected workforce with families of upwards to 35,000 people, and for a plant whose product had military implications, meaning security was an issue, they built a community. They built a village – consisting of houses, recreational facilities, school, general store, and churches.

The upshot was this – Old Hickory was a self contained world. People worked for DuPont, lived in houses DuPont built, educated their children in schools DuPont built and worshipped together in churches all within the confines of the same relative geographical area. They were Old Hickory. Not Nashville.

By the time I arrived in 1987, times had changed rather dramatically. No longer the pressing need of concerted focus of the populous that World Wars bring, the plant’s focus had shifted to the commercial application of the products they generated - things like Teflon. The houses were still there, occupied now by the residents who only decades before had labored in the plant, but were now retired having been given a favorable price to purchase the company houses they had lived in for so long.

Folks worked at the plant now who didn’t live in Old Hickory. It was a hard thing for the old timers to watch.

They were a loving, caring, gentle people. They loved their church, they enjoyed their memories and the stories they prompted in recollection of how things were. They watched over each other, and they were patient with a kid who had come to be among them for his first pastoral appointment.

As a preacher's kid who has lived all over the Conference, including the Tennessee Conference, my life is a collection of chapters. Each move is one such chapter, and I'll reflect back upon them from time to time to frame the stuff of our conversations now.

1987 was a seminal year for me. Because my Senior Pastor was in failing health, and often hospitalized for extended periods due to his severe diabetes and congestive heart failure (he actually died during that year) not only was I to work with forming and growing a youth group, but I took on all the pastoral duties for a church of folks who were, on average, more than 50 years older than me.

I loved Jesus, sure.
I was called to preach, of course.
I cared about people, but I had no experience with dealing with people who were so different than me. My story was not theirs. So, I did that which happened quite often in those days, I called my dad, then very active in minister in our Conference, and now retired, and sought his counsel.

I said, “Dad, I go and visit with these sick folks in the hospital and I try to be encouraging and they look at me like, ‘Boy, what do you know about life to tell me anything?’ (and one dear older woman actually said that to me as she lay in the hospital writhing in pain from the cancer that had consumed her ) and you know what, they’re right. What do I say to these people?”

Now with my father, life’s lessons are not long drawn out pontifications. Usually, they come in the form of a question for me to wrestle with---for there is within us all some sense of what “Truth” is, we just have to be open and honest with ourselves enough to claim it.

He said, “Son, what makes you think you have to say anything?” “Just be there. And if silence comes, that’s o.k. Silence is your friend, not your enemy. Don’t fill the quiet spaces with noise, just be present. You are there are a representative of the Church, of Jesus himself. Your presence is its own ministry.”

I learned the ministry of presence from my Dad. It was confirmed and broadened by wonderful teachers and mentors across the years. True presence with someone else is its own ministry.

Jesus was in his hometown. They knew him. That’s not always a good thing. Ever go home with people remembering only who you were and not who you are?

John Dominic Crossan’s exhaustive study on the life of Jesus talks about Jesus’ role and place within the social strata of his hometown. As a carpenter, he was of the artisan class, which means he was just above the most undesirable and expendable and many, many rungs below the upper crust. For him to come and behave in any way other than that which was expected for someone of his station was to give meaning to the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What they knew of him was not in sync with the person who stood before them speaking, teaching and behaving as one with authority.

Humanity's history is full of pejorative labels for those who achievements in life extend beyond the expected boxes those of more notable station put them in. "Uppity" is one such label.

Katie Huey makes the point this way – “does anyone really want to listen to a hometown boy, especially one whose parentage is questionable ("son of Mary" instead of "son of Joseph"), and "just" an artisan at that? (How could he possibly have the learning needed to preach to us?)

But lest we are tempted to hop on the “jump on the disbelieving hometown people” bandwagon, ask yourself this question – “What would you think about a neighbor that you thought of being nothing more than an ordinary, hardworking person, who kept his yard well groomed and did all those things that we think leads us to believe that he is only who we think he is and nothing more - and it turns out that he's a miraculous teacher, let alone the Son of God?

And there he was. Preaching and teaching. And he wasn’t being received well. Sure, he cured a few people, but it wasn’t the fullest measure of his capacity. There’s a lesson here about the efficacy of God’s power in the face of unbelief. The problem is not God, it’s us. Barbara Brown Taylor’s image is a helpful one. It’s like trying to light a match to a pile of wet sticks. “It doesn’t matter how strong your flames is, you have got to have something that will catch fire.”

So if the message isn’t taking hold in the places of the familiar, you go out and spread the news of the Kingdom wherever you can, and that’s what Jesus and his Companions did.

Jesus’ evangelism course consists of several key elements, and one in particular.
• Don’t go alone.
• Call out that which bends us toward self preoccupation and injustice whenever you see it.
• Travel light..that is, don’t be so encumbered by your things that you can’t be effective
wherever you’re called to serve.
• And then, this. “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.” Or, as I
read it…enact “the ministry of presence.”

Be fully present in the moment you spend with any in the name of Jesus.
Look, we all know how easy it is to be somewhere, but not be there…you know? But presence fully realized communicates care, it communicates God’s loving steadfast presence that resides regardless of what we’re going through.

The best definition of hell I ever heard was this – “being completely isolated from everything that bespeaks life. “ Too many living on earth right here, right now are living in hells of all kinds for which the loving, steadfast presence of God shared by your ministry of presence can abate.

Too many of us focus on the last of Jesus’ instructions…that is, if folks are not receptive to that of God you're attempting to offer, shake the dust off your sandals and move on…or, “well, I tried.”

I would argue that we go to that way too quickly. It gives us a convenient “out” when things don’t go quite they way we think they should. And I would contend even further that the pursuit of such an option is more an indictment of us than it is the people with whom we’ve attempted to share the milk of human kindness. In those moments the first questions to be asked are not, “what’s wrong with those people?” but, “Was I really present or not?”

It boils down to this question in such a moment..."what is the motivation for my care?" Am I being present on my terms, or on God's?

Well, I started this homily in 1987. Let’s fast forward to 1992. It was my first Sunday at Asbury Church, in Fox Meadows, as Associate Minister. And yes, there’ll be more than a few stories rise up in me from those days, too. But I only want to focus on a couple of moments.

My first Sunday there was much like ours last week. Many, many people introducing themselves. Tying to employ all those name association tools are tough for me. Names, faces all a blur. Except for one. At the end of the service there was a reception in our honor and a man came up to me and said, “Hi, Johnny, I’m Pat, and I’m going to die while you’re my pastor.”

Not the typical first Sunday greeting. Unsure of where to go with that, I said, “Well, Pat, I don’t think I’m going to have trouble remembering your name!”

He said, “I’m glad you’re here, I look forward to knowing you.”

Pat was a great guy fighting the good fight against cancer. He had a brutal sense of humor, which I liked. He and his wife, Judy, were very close to Kristy as they were to the Senior Pastor’s family. He was the flesh and blood example that healing, sozo, is more than physical healing. The disease may have claimed his body, but he was healed, whole and free. Of that I am convinced. I bear witness.

He missed very little church as the battle was ebbing toward an inevitable conclusion. Toward the end, there were extended absences from worship, and when he came we could see there was a little bit more of him gone. The ministry of his presence in our lives gave evidence of God’s grace in the face of pain and dis-ease.

I was the last person to serve him Holy Communion, only days before he breathed his last.

Pat always sat in the back on the pulpit side of that sanctuary. It was a Sunday that I was preaching, so I was on the pulpit side to serve the sacrament. I was fully prepared to take the sacrament to him, thinking that there was no way he could get down to the altar rail.

The whole room watched as he rose and with some assistance, slowly made his way to the rail. And then he knelt, and placed his hands outward to receive the body of Christ.

I think everyone of us in the sanctuary that day knew we were watching something holy. Something sacred. It was then that I shared with him that enduring, never failing expression of the presence of Jesus to, with and among us – Holy Communion.

Which is why how we celebrate Communion matters so much. When you come today to receive, that is what we’re doing, receiving. We are receiving the ministry of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. Let our posture be like that of Pat, hands and hearts open to receive the living presence of our Savior.

The question is no longer being held captive by who you were, but is one of acknowledgement of who you are, and by God's grace, who you are becoming.

And from this moment, let us leave this place different than we came. Challenged, commissioned and prepared to be present in someone’s life this week. Someone who’s story may be as different from you as can be.

But be there. Be open. Be present.
And when you do you'll discover hearts and lives changed.
Maybe even yours.



Marcia said...

Amen! It's funny that for the second time today I heard the words "be present". Think someone is telling me something? And yes, thank you for having a sermon with a point! (Literally this time!!)

David White said...

Johnny, I'm not exactly sure what I expected to hear on your initial sermon at Covenant, But am so glad that I was there to hear it. It was a perfect message for me "Get up. Don't fear. and Have faith". I look forward to our journey together at CUMC. Let me know if I can help in any way. Regards, David White (email