From Everywhere to Everywhere (2.0)

This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day.  It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent.  But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.

That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.

And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there. 

Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:

“Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. 

The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.”  The people REALLY don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday.  And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…

 

And then something in Paul shifts.  His language changes.  

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation was as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.  

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and showed them where he saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

In my work earlier with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.    

 

Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily.   And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.  

65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.  

65.3 million.

And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.

One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.  

Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.

But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.

So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.  

 

The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.

The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”  (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

Our neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world.  And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.  

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

 

Two Texts: Greece, Debt, and the Jubilee

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2008 was a tough year for everyone financially. Wall Street had faltered, global markets took a tumble and nearly everyone felt the pinch. It was pretty much an accepted fact that there would be a long, tough, uphill battle to get back on track… not just in the United States, but globally as well.

Just one year later, when they had barely begun to recover, Greece admitted that they were a bit over-extended. The country had been “understating its deficit figures for years”[i] and they were having a really tough time getting back on their feet.

Just as measures were being announced to tighten the belt and get back on track, investors lost confidence in Greece, and in 2010, there was a huge pull of money out of the country. 8-10 billion euro worth of money. Some of this was from outside investors, but it also represents the wealthy of the nation who took their money out of the Greek system. As one analyst put it in February of 2010 – “If indeed the money rush out of Greece has commenced, then it is too late to save the country…”[ii]

This moment of crisis led to the first of two… and maybe now three bailouts by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the Eurpoean Commission… bailouts that have come with conditions like budget cuts and tax increases that are the center of today’s controversy.

 

Since the beginning of the crisis, Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter. Unemployment is over 25%. Almost 2/3 of Greece’s debt today is now owed to the Eurozone bailout… money it doesn’t have to start paying back until 2023…. But also money in its current situation it is not likely to be able to pay back.

 

When I look to the scriptures for a word about debt and finances, one of the first places I turn is to Leviticus and the idea of the Jubilee.

Jubilee springs out of the idea of Sabbath or rest.

Just like every seventh day we are called to rest, every seventh year, was a Sabbath year. It was a call to let the land lie fallow, release the slaves and cancel outstanding debts.

And Leviticus chapter 25 lays out a vision for us of the Jubilee, that every seventh Sabbath year was a clean slate. Every fifty years, or once in every lifetime, a person would witness restoration. Debt would not last forever.  “Economic relationships are never to be allowed to make life hopeless.”[iii]

Biblical scholars today aren’t sure that the Jubilee practice was every fully lived out or realized. But the vision of Jubilee is proclaimed by psalmists and prophets and echoed by Jesus Christ himself.

As our gospel reading this morning reminds us, Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth, with a reading from the prophet Isaiah..

“He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

to proclaim release to the prisoners

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to liberate the oppressed,

and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of the Lord’s favor is the year of Jubilee.

 

So, how might we apply this concept of Jubilee to our lives today? What is God saying in the midst of not only the debt crisis in Greece, but in the midst of a global debt crisis, where the world’s developing countries are shackled by foreign debt they could never hope to repay?

 

First, debt is sometimes necessary and it can be sustainable.

As much as we might wish to live in a world without debt at all, it is part of our economic reality.

Sometimes debt is the extension of credit or the planned payment of something… like our home mortgages, car loans, or like when our congregation took on some debt when we put on the Faith Hall expansion. This debt comes from knowing that we could pay for the project, but we need some time to do so.

Sometimes debt is the result of falling behind. Even the ancient Israelites understood that one might fall into debt as a result of bad crops or poor decisions…

In our insert on the social principals, the very first thing we note as United Methodists is that some deficits, even as nations, are necessary.

But those debts need to be sustainable.

One fascinating aspect of the Jubilee system is that the amount of debt one could take on was proportional to the time left until the next Sabbath or Jubilee year, rather than based on your status or credit. Your debt was repaid by participating in the harvests to come, so if you had six harvests worth of work to give, your debt was greater than if only one remained.

We must ask ourselves if we are carrying sustainable debts and as we loan to others, we must be careful not to lend more than the other can bear.

I wonder, as the negotiations with Greece continue, what sustainability looks like and how the conditions that are put upon the debt help to create opportunity, or take the country farther from hope.

 

The second lesson of the Jubilee is that debt cripples families and communities. The Jubilee is necessary because without it, all hope would be lost for those who are caught up in the snowball of debt and repayment.

When the prophets and Jesus describe the year of Jubilee, words like release and oppression and liberation are uttered because debt has the power to destroy our ability to get out of it.

Our social principles and scriptures call us to have compassion on those in financial trouble, to reduce interest rates or to lend without interest at all so that our fellow human beings can survive among us.

This is not only a concern for those of today, but it is a concern for future generations. The Jubilee year was to be a guarantee that children would not suffer based upon the troubles of their parents or grandparents.

Our Social Principles call us to recognize that this is not simply a financial issue, but an issue of justice for those yet to be born… that future generations can by shackled… there is that language of imprisonment again… shackled by the burden of public debts.

One of the ways that we allow people and companies to be set free, today, from the burden of debt, is through the practice of bankruptcy. We allow them to wipe the slate clean and start over. We have now see it happen as well with cities.

One of the more fascinating questions in the air right now is what that bankruptcy would look like on a national scale and how it might help allow for a release from burdens. The Jubilee movement today, calls for the cancelation of debts of many developing countries that simply will never be able to repay their burdens.

Limited debt relief has been provided to some nations and places like Tanzania and Uganda have used the resources to double school enrollment, and Mozambique and Burkina Faso have used resources to meet basic needs and provide health care.

 

Lastly, there is an underlying economic principle that must be understood in order to make sense of the idea of Jubilee.

Nothing belongs to us.

This is contrary to everything we have been taught and the very structure of the world economy today, but it is the foundation of God’s economy…

Nothing belongs to us.

It’s all God’s.

Everything that is, was created by God.

And our use of the land, our relationships with one another… it is all a gift.

We are not owners of this planet… we are stewards and caretakers.

The vision of Jubilee was a call to remember that nothing we have belongs to us.

We might work the land, we might benefit from it, we might experience a measure of success, but our very presence in this place itself was a gift.

The ancient Israelites knew this first hand, because they had just escaped slavery in Egypt. They knew how precious the gift of land and blessings were. And in all things, they were called to remember that God had made them, God had saved them, and they were to share that gift with others.

 

In our Lord’s prayer, we pray for God to forgive our debts. To set us free from our mistakes, our sins, our failings, and our financial woes. We ask God to forgive us… as we have forgiven others.

God’s blessings and abundance are meant to be shared. God’s forgiveness and grace are meant to be shared. And as people of faith, when we face the world and its people, may the idea of Jubilee… the joyous good news for those struggling in economic trouble… guide how we reach out and work with those with the greatest need.

Amen and Amen.

[i] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/business/international/greece-debt-crisis-euro.html?_r=0

[ii] http://www.zerohedge.com/article/run-greece-here-investors-pull-out-%E2%82%AC10-billion-troubled-country-crisis-escalation-here

[iii] Jubilee 2000, Sermon Helps, http://www.jubileeusa.org/faith/faith-and-worship-resources.html

Intersection Intercessions

While a student in seminary, I had the opportunity and privilege to take Clinical Pastoral Education through the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.  I was thrown into the lions den, as it were, and was invited to put my very limited skills to use caring for patients and their families in some of the most trying times of their lives.  To say I was unprepared is an understatement.  I had no idea what would be expected of me.  As borderline introvert, I was terrified of knocking on strangers doors.  I had no clue what to say to someone who was going through the horrors of chemotherapy or losing a loved one.

I remember one of my very first patients.  I had been assigned to the Immuno-suppression wing of the hospital.  All of the patients there were battling diseases like leukemia that left their immune systems compromised either because of the illness or the treatment.  Gowns and masks were required in over half of the rooms. I didn’t know how I would relate to someone with all of those barriers in the way.  I was unsure of myself and of what this person would be like and I wanted to run and hide.  But as I rode the elevator up to the 9th floor… I took deep breaths and prayed.  O Lord… I have no idea what I’m doing… please help.

When I walked into Amanda’s room, she cracked a joke about how all of us should have called ahead and planned better because in our gowns and masks we were all dressed alike.  My muscles relaxed, my spirits lightened, and I laughed right along with her.

Over the next few days and weeks we talked about the absurdity of a thing like leukemia.  We talked about how she was feeling as they prepared for a bone marrow transplant.  We talked about gratitude for her friends and family who were pulling behind her in her hometown.  She showed me pictures of the coffee cans at the gas station where folks were contributing money to help pay for treatments.  And she asked me to pray with her and for her.  We prayed for faith in the tough times.  We prayed that she might find ways to reconnect with the God she had long forgotten about.  We poured ourselves over devotional books and I answered her never ceasing stream of questions about the faith… sometimes by simply giving her more questions to think about.

Amanda was my first patient during CPE and she was also one of my last.  Her course of treatment kept her there in the hospital almost the entire summer of my clinical and so we regularly kept in touch.  I missed the few weeks when she wasn’t there because she was finally able to go home and be with family and friends again.  On one of my last days, she was there once again, for her final treatment.  Things were looking good.  We praised God with laughter and singing and ate cake together.

I did not have the resources to minister to Amanda.  I had never done this kind of work before.  I didn’t know what to say or what to do or where to sit or how to act.  But God did.  God knew what both Amanda and I needed in that moment, and through the amazing work of the Holy Spirit, both of our lives were ministered to that summer.

There are so many times in our lives when we come to a crossroads.  When our lives intersect with the lives of other people and we have the unique and awesome opportunity to share the love of God with them.  In those moments, it is not always what we have done or said, but it is how the Holy Spirit has moved in the midst of that intersection that has given the moment and the relationship power.

Sometimes it is a homeless man on a street corner who asks for some money.

Sometimes it is a new neighbor who moved in because she and her husband just divorced.

Sometimes it is a person at a gas station whose car has run out of gas.

Sometimes it is sitting down at the dinner table with extended family and reconnecting with an aunt or a cousin on a new level.

In these intersections… where our lives cross the paths of the lives of other people, it is extraordinarily common for us to feel out of our element.  We might be anxious  We might feel ill-equipped to truly meet their needs.  We might fear rejection or for our own safety.  We might simply be comfortable with remaining strangers and don’t want our lives to really change.

But through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, sometimes we find the strength to act… like I did with Amanda in that hospital room.

More often than not, however, we come to these intersections and we brush up against the life of someone else and we move on.  We fail to act.  We fail to speak.  We fail to truly touch that person.

What we fail to do, is to draw upon the power of the Holy Spirit that can transform all of our lives.

Art by: “Stushie” www.stushieart.com

If we doubt that power of the Holy Spirit, then maybe we need to be reminded of what happened on this festival day we call Pentecost.

Let’s set the scene and take ourselves back 2000 years…

10 days ago, Jesus rose up… was carried off into heaven.  And the disciples returned to Jerusalem and spent the next few days praying and worshipping God in the temple and fellowshipping with the other believers.  For the next ten days, they remained a small group of faithful men and women – content to love God and love one another.  There are just over 100 of them… the size of a nice little church today.  We don’t hear any stories of miracles.  Nobody is saved during this time.  They don’t go out into the streets proclaiming the word of God.  No… they remain with their own little community, they take care of some business and elect a new apostle to replace Judas, and that is pretty much it.

Did their lives intersect with other people in those 10 days?  Probably.  They probably were out in the marketplace to buy food.  They rubbed shoulders with folks in the temple.  They would have met all sorts of folks coming into town for the Jewish celebration of Shavout… or the Festival of Weeks.  But nowhere does the book of Acts tell us that they did anything about it.

They let those countless intersections and moments of crossed paths pass them by.  They kept their heads low.  They stayed with their friends.  They took no chances.

They sound like a rather boring, small-town church, that gathers together for worship and food and fellowship and has some really deep connections with one another, but who aren’t doing anything out in their community.  They sound like a lot of the churches we have in the United Methodist tradition.  Churches that just plod along, doing what they have to in order to get by.

This was the church for 10 days.  A lifeless, boring, safe little group.

In fact, on the day we call Pentecost – 50 days after the resurrection of Christ, 50 days after the Passover, they weren’t out in the community celebrating with others.  The people who had come from all corners of the world would have been celebrating the gift of the Torah and reading together from the Book of Ruth and sharing in festive meals… but no, that group of 120 were all gathered together in a house, doing their own thing.

God had something else in mind that morning…

They might have been safely tucked away in a house, but the Holy Spirit rushed into that place and stirred them up.  A holy fire was lit in their hearts and they began to shout and speak and sing and the voices of those 120 people carried beyond the walls of the house out to the streets where people had been passing by.

Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine our joyful noise here in the walls of the church being so loud and exciting and exuberant and that people who are walking by stop and stare and maybe even come in?  There might not be that many folks outside our doors this morning, but on Pentecost in Jerusalem, the streets were full.

And out there in the streets, people stopped and stared.  They stared at this house where the commotion was so great.  They came closer and peeked in the windows.  A crowd started to gather out there in the middle of the road as people were intrigued by what they were hearing.  As they looked around, they saw folks who looked nothing like them, but each began to realize they could hear in their own native language.

I sometimes wonder how long it took for Peter and James and Mary and Salome and others inside that house to realize that they were attracting attention.  How long did it take for them to open their eyes and see all of the faces staring back at them through the windows?  How long did it take for them to work up the courage to open the door and walk out into the street and to speak?

They were ill-equipped and scared.  They were anxious and hesitant.  They weren’t quite sure they were ready for their lives to be changed.

But there at the intersection of their lives and the lives of those gathered, the Holy Spirit was present.  For the first time in 10 days, probably even longer… since much of the time after Jesus rose from the dead they were huddled together afraid also… they found the power and the courage and the words to speak the good news of God.

Within hours… that intersection of lives turned a small group of 120 believers into a church of 3000 persons.

In the book of Romans this morning, we were reminded that there are times in our lives when we cannot see God’s future.  We don’t know who is waiting just around the corner.  We don’t know what we might be asked to do next.  Just like this whole creation, our lives are pregnant with hope and anticipation and yes, sometimes fear and trembling and trepidation…

As I rode up the elevator on that day six years ago to the ninth floor of the hospital, I was full of that kind of expectation.  I didn’t know what to do or what to say or how to act… but God was already there, in that moment, ready and waiting for me.

Romans 8:26-28 tell us: the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

The Holy Spirit intercedes at those intersections in our lives.  The Holy Spirit can and does give us the power we need to reach out with the right words at the right time.

She reached out as I stepped off that elevator and created laughter and conversation out of my wordless heart.  She has moved us to stop and talk with the homeless guy on the street corner and to buy him a sandwich.  She has interceded with you as you carried a plate of cookies to the new neighbor and listened to her heartache.  The Holy Spirit has been present at the intersection when you give the guy with his gas can a ride back to the car.  And she has been by our sides as we have hard conversations with family members about the skeletons in our closets and the reconciliation we need.

The Holy Spirit was there as Peter stepped out of the comfort zone of familiar community and safety and spoke to the crowds gathered outside the house.  The Holy Spirit gave him words and power and purpose… none of which had been there before.  At that intersection of a new and an old faith, a church was born.  Lives were transformed.

We are going to leave this place today and each go our separate ways.  Whether it is off to the campground or lunch with friends or back home… pay attention to the intersections in your lives.  Pay attention to the paths you cross.  Pay attention to the other people you encounter.  And although you might not know what to say or how to say it… and even if you don’t WANT to… take a deep breath and pray….   “O Lord… I have no idea what I’m doing… please help.”

May the Holy Spirit intercede in every intersection of your life… Amen.