Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection, Sunday, August 23

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles."

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?"

15:13 He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit."

15:15 But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us."

15:16 Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

15:19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

15:20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."

15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."

15:24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."

15:26 He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

15:27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Why is this story included in Matthew's Gospel? Matthew's Jewish audience would be familiar with the Canaanites given their frequent mention in the Old Testament. It strikes at the heart of the most ancient of animosities in the Old Testament. As the narrative in Joshua and Judges goes, the land of the Canaanites was inhabited by indigenous peoples that the Israelites displaced by murder and mayhem, in order to take the land God had promised Israel. *

Recall that Matthew is a missionary text. According to Luke-Acts, the mission has already traversed many improbable cultural boundaries, such as the development of the Gentile-Greek communities. Matthew adds a contributing story out of Jesus' ministry. Even though an Israelite healing a Canaanite's daughter is improbable, still, with God, all things are possible.**

Consider the Following Surprises
  • The woman is the exemplar in the story (not the disciples, again). She shows the pure, undiluted motivation of love, acting for the best interests of another. What else could explain her action?
  • It's the Canaanite woman first speaking faith where there was complete dismissal.
  • It's the Canaanite woman who actually does God's will and proves to be a true disciple. Recall Matthew 7:21-24.
  • Whom do I dismiss and whom do I deem undeserving or outside of God's blessings?
  • The faith of my enemy (or those I have labeled as "other") is, according to this story, authentic. Maybe more so than mine. I resist this because it exposes my entitlement and privilege.
*According to the biblical narrative in Joshua, Israel was directed by Moses to take Canaanite land and livestock, but chase down the fleeing Canaanites and kill them. Judges notes, in somewhat conflicting fashion, that Israel was unsuccessful in driving out the Canaanites entirely. While most of the surviving Canaanite people were enslaved, Sidon is mentioned in Judges 1:31-32 as one of few settlements where the inhabitants were neither conquered nor subject to forced labor.
**This is one explanation why this story of a Canaanite and her daughter is presented in Matthew.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Surviving Ministry: Choose to Finish Well

As the page turned to the last 18 months of full time ministry, I felt a real sense of freedom to create something new and needed. Initiative played a big part. I consulted with an expert in geriatric social work.* Then I reached out to CarePartners, a local group that was already resourcing a long standing social ministry in the congregation.** 

The new "Caregiver Relief Ministry" would, after a year of recruiting and equipping, begin serving its first clients. In fact, shorty before I left the congregation, the team partnered with its first two families to offer its ministry. 

Following through on such a project gave me at least two saving features of ending things well. First, it kept me focused, centered, and aligned with my core values. Second, it was an opportunity to leave behind a functioning ministry team. 

What else did I learn in the last 18 months of ministry?
I learned the importance of remembrance. One, it is important to claim the power of your ministry narrative. This is about both the last year but, more importantly, the longer witness of your service. The most meaningful ways of marking my retirement was the observance at annual conference. Those who are leaving light the candles of the those who will be newly ordained- then extinguish theirs. It was a telling event, marking both an ending and beginning. I discounted this observance in years past, until I was the one retiring! 

Too, the congregation's reception was a great opportunity to share. I was lifted by the simple and sincere words of gratitude and blessing. There were many honest words of encouragement. from those I had worked with for all or part of 16 years. (3)

I learned that ageism is alive in churches and their bureaucracy. All the more, resist it and claim the truth of your story. One of the drawbacks of downsizing tenured clergy staff (which I was) is that it minimizes the previous years of collaboration and accomplishment. For the downscaling motif to be credible, your story is overlooked, marginalized. (4) When your story is diminished, so is the congregation's. Our work together was shared and never a solo accomplishment.

Your leaving may be couched in terms of "stewardship" or "faithfulness," or "family needs." However, your life's work too is an example of stewardship and faithfulness.  There was time well shared and given, there were gifts employed for the good of others, there were opportunities to love and be loved. And, yes, there is faithful management of resources in all of that.

Tell your story, with honesty and encouragement. The official church media or gatherings are probably not the best venues- and they may not be open to you. I threw a dinner party at a favorite restaurant. I invited those with whom I had close connections in ministry and life: former colleagues, friends, family, mentors, etc. It was my best chance to express gratitude and appreciation. I will long remember the stories, joy, and laughter we shared. Your celebration will be different from mine. Still, discover what is a unique theme in your work and find ways to affirm it!

Finally, retirement is difficult work and can't be done (well) alone. Welcome the help and support of people who know you and care for you: friends, family, a spiritual director, a therapist. Ironically, we who teach and preach about God's love and peace are tempted to go it alone. Don't do it. Live out the truth that God's mercy, hope and faithfulness are available to you. 

It's up to you to finish well:
  1. Focus on one important thing you can accomplish with the time you have left in full time ministry.
  2. Participate in the official observances provided by the larger church and the reception the congregation offers.
  3. Witness to your core values. With gratitude, tell your ministry story by celebrating with those most important to you.
  4. At all costs, resist the default to endure this passage alone. Keep reaching out to God and to those who know and care.  
(1) I am indebted to classes and conversations with the late Suzanna Waters Castillo, who, at the time was the Distinguished Faculty Associate, The University of Wisconsin, Madison. The certification program that she directed, "Mental Health and the Older Adult," was unique in its research-based, best practices approach to geriatric care.  
(2) CarePartners worked with us to tailor a ministry to provide limited, trained, and congregational care givers for our parishioners. In the best way, we became partners in ministry.
(3) I will long remember one member telling me, in essence, "The time before my retirement was harder than I could have imagined."
(4) There is scant research on finishing well in ministry. A piece that raises good questions is Ageism: The Real Struggle for Church Staff Close to RetirementChurch Answers, featuring Thom Rainer

Friday, August 4, 2023

Teaching and Preaching the Gospel for Sunday, August 6

Effective Gospel studies or sermons begin (and perhaps end !) with questions that open doors of hope and creativity. Here are some suggestions, using Jesus' Feeding of the Five Thousand in Matthew 14:13-41. 

  1. How do you think the first audiences of Christians would have heard this feeding story?
  2. What, for you, is a key word or phrase in this passage? Why?
  3. Note that Jesus tells the disciples, "You give them something to eat." How do you hear this directive?
  4. What do you make of the passage when it states "all ate and were filled?" (14:20a)? 
  5. How might this story's message be heard among those living in poverty vs. those living in relative wealth? Does it really matter? Why?   
  6. What does it mean for you to have enough? For our life together?
  7. How might the bread and fish that Jesus Christ gives fill you? 
  8. How might your life be changed as a result of hearing this story? How would we live and share differently? 
There is always a great temptation in answering these questions as you would a Bible quiz, such as listing what one must or should believe about Jesus and miracles. Try to resist this approach for yourself- and invite others to think for themselves too. 

List as many possible responses as you can for each question. The open-endedness will allow more space for the Spirit to speak- and so that everyone may see entirely new and different possibilities for fruitful and faithful action moving forward. 


Thursday, August 3, 2023

The Gospel Reading and Reflection for Sunday, August 6

Matthew 14:13-21

14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."

14:16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."

14:17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."

14:18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 Guided Meditation

I invite you to reflect on the Gospel story, as if you were one of Jesus’ disciples. It may help to read it slowly, pausing whenever it feels right. It can also be read in a group setting.

It’s a sunny, breezy, late morning on the lake. It’s almost mealtime and I am looking forward to breaking bread with Jesus and the others. It will be the first time since we all heard the disturbing news of John’s beheading.  John and Jesus were very close; the two respected and emulated each other. Where is Jesus?” I run out to see Jesus, who wading out to one of boats anchored off the beach. 

Quickly, he climbs in, then sails farther and farther offshore. I call to him and track him from the shoreline.  I trot along the crest of the slope and stop at a lookout point. A huge, hidden cove opens-up before me and I see a beach teaming with people. They have gathered, from the water all the way up the sandy slopes.. I stop in quiet amazement…


I walk down through the sand and rocks to get a closer look. I spot Jesus at the water’s edge, healing and curing everyone he can touch. He takes time to be with each person. From the youngest to the oldest, in families or by themselves, they come. Surely there is no one in whole world with Jesus’ compassion and dogged determination to love people. He is like a good shepherd who loves and protects his sheep no matter what.


As the afternoon light wanes, I hear someone say “It’s almost evening now.” Another one wants Jesus to send everyone away. I overhear Jesus’ reply, “Don’t send anyone away just yet. You give them something to eat.”  I notice a few around him gather a small serving of smoked fish and bread, enough to feed a small family. They hand Jesus what they have collected. I hear Jesus’ words to the crowd, “Free people sit down to eat. We are a people delivered from slavery and captivity. Everyone, please find a  place on the green grass. There is room for everyone.” Today, even though it seems everything is against us, I sense the presence of the Lord, and a peace deep down in my soul…

I see Jesus giving thanks over the food. He then starts to break the bread and says, “Blessed are you when you are kind and merciful to others.” He then tells us to share as God has shared with us. When I receive my piece of bread, I pass it along.  The pace quickens as more and more bread is passed. As far as I can see, people are eating to their contentment and in quiet.


As the crowd begins to break up and walk into the waning light, I join the volunteers collecting any leftover bread. There’s enough for me but right now, that doesn’t seem important. I’m bursting with thanksgiving for Jesus. Somehow this day has made me feel renewed, like it was the first day of my life! I dedicate myself to loving God, even my enemies. My heart overflows with love... 

Oldies but Goodies