Some time ago a student came to me with a question: she was going to a Christian group on campus and they wanted her to get more involved with future Bible studies, gatherings, ministries. She was worried that this commitment might affect her studies, her life and work as a University student, and when she shared this with someone in the group, she was told that if she really loved Jesus, then sharing the Good News had to be the most important thing in her life. Studies had to come second to her commitment to the Lord.
She asked what I thought, I said, “That’s not necessarily true.” But when I read the Gospel for today, it brought it back to mind.
Jesus says, “As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”
That is the call given in the reading of Matthew we heard today. And it needs to be taken very seriously by each of us as ministers of this God. But how do we take that, how do we live it out in our days and ways? Do we need to give up everything and bring souls to Christ by handing out pamphlets in the local shopping centre? I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In fact, I think that type of heroism, linked up with a certain amount of the wrong kind of guilt, can be the worse thing for our relationship with God and Jesus, as well as our relationships with our friends, neighbors and ourselves. It has to do with trying to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason, sometimes the worst reasons!
You see there are a lot of us around who try to prepare and do great things because of a need for some official accreditation, from God or the family, or simply for other people’s praise or approval. This touches everybody to some extent. And religion can go wrong here, be very toxic, can feed off that kind of guilt, where we need to be better people, more faithful, better doers of the word, trying a little harder everyday in everyway. Better and better. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers,* cast out demons. In other words, work harder, do more. Go for the spiritual gold, those ultimate prizes! C. S. Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters, “She’s the kind of person who lives for others. You can tell the others by the hunted look.” Do you know people like that? Are you a person like that? Are you trying to do too much for Jesus? Is this really necessary?
I think that part of the Good News of the Gospel has to do with not being a hero: it has to do with forgiving ourselves, letting ourselves be forgiven for being who we are. I used to have a terrible habit that would show up three or four times a year when I’d decide that I was finally going to get into good physical shape. I would resolve go to the gym and do a very serious workout on a regular basis. And I would prepare. I built momentum! I talked to more athletic friends about regimens and aerobics and free weights, and I’d plan to lift weights in the morning and run on the treadmill in the afternoon every day! One year I joined the local college team for a nightly class to get into shape for the football season. And on the third day, I couldn’t get out of bed. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. I figured that if I had enough will, enough desire, if I really worked for it, I would get there; win the prize, get the glory, finish that race. I probably saw too many movies where will power won the day. I never got there, and I sure felt guilty that I didn’t.
Twenty-plus years later, I find that that the exercise I do is, in some ways, less important than the stretching I do before: stretching both in preparing for the workout that follows as well as identifying and easing the injuries that have come in my daily life. That has become a regular practice for me and I learn from it. Because now when I stretch I take time to listen to the recent history of my body in the world, noting where soreness and stiffness need to be honoured, limits need to be known and acknowledged before they can be moved and enlarged, if they in fact can. Then I go to do a workout that works for me based on who and where I am at the time. And that’s not too far from prayer and discipleship in ministry. We have to start where we are.
Preparing for ministry, just like stretching, takes time. Sometimes we need to take it easy, to let ourselves be forgiven in order to forgive others. We need to let our own sicknesses be cleansed over time from the toxins of time, and maybe not even cured, at least right away. We need to let our own outcasts be reconciled into communities of caring: we even need to let our own dead die and, by grace sometimes rise into new memory and meaning. This is the work of being alive to the Gospel, and it this takes time: God’s own time, time that we don’t constrain, don’t judge, don’t squelch with expectation, don’t overrun by saying, “now I need to, do this now, do this better, do this or else.” A writer named Urban Holmes wrote that Christian conversion is a "marinade rather than a glaze.” He says, “We are transformed by being soaked in the gospel." and this plain process takes time, time to be changed ever closer to the likeness of Christ.
That’s part of the rhythm, the motion, the dance we see in the Four Gospels, throughout the Old and New Testaments; times for celebration, times for rest and renewal, times for listening and learning, times for giving it all over, times for taking it all in. Certainly there are moments when we need to be agents of mercy and healing and love, but not always! And not always just for others, but sometimes for ourselves, loving the neighbour as the self. And sometimes when we even have to face the fact that we don’t know what time it really is!
Has someone ever told you, “when you said such and such” – and they will remember specific words, “it changed my life.” – and you don’t remember telling them anything like that! You just show up, be open and kind and listen to what is there, and something else happens in the middle of it all. That often comes when you give up the need to be a hero.
Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk and writer, an authority on Zen Buddhism who died in the sixties, wrote this to his good friend, Jim Forrest, who was working as a minister in the Catholic peace movement during the Vietnam War.
"Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on… you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And… gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
"The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important…
"All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
"The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth… [but to] serve Christ's truth…. [because] The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand…"
Last month I was away on an extended retreat, and one day while I was on my way somewhere else, I walked into an empty church that was crowded with a kind of pregnant waiting glory – that is, the reality of grace, of prayer and presence. It was an amazing moment: the resurgence of patience and hope and patience, where I remembered again that the tradition that I stand and the way I follow does have a heart and much room for the surprising reality of God’s love. With all the extraneous stuff in the church- the guilt, the business, all the talk and trouble we get into together, there is something newborn and true right in the middle of it.
And what I took from that, and what I remember today, in wrestling with our Gospel for this morning, is simply this. That the ultimate place we minister in is found is in a silent surrender to the reality of what is: day to day, here and now: with all the truth of who and where we are and what we can and cannot do at this moment. But all this in the light of the fact that we are created in the beginning by the Father, met and loved right through the middle by this God-with-us Jesus, and inspired to the end by the intimate breath of the Holy Spirit. That is the gift I remembered that day, that I bring to you this day. An awareness of grace, depth, and riches in everyday life, the real meaning of the sacrament of the present moment: the only place from which our ministries might proceed. How much of daily reality does shine in every fragile passing moment with love and somehow ever newborn life? How much of our ministry can begin in simply saying, “Thank you, I am glad to be here”? And that might be enough for now.