Jesus’s Idea Of Ministry
Jesus said to the twelve, “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. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:7-16
The Daily Office is a marvelous tool. For example, one can learn that today is St. Barnabas’s Day. The Gospel reading, printed above, I find fascinating in particular because I, for one, think the end is nigh for the “Learned Professional” model of ordained ministry that came to the fore in the 19th century in Germany in particular, migrated to the United States, and has dominated our mainline denominations a bit too long to be welcome. Speaking as one married to a clergywoman, I can say that we, particularly in the United Methodist Church, are spoiled, what with our minimum salary requirements, all the expenses we can write off and have someone else pay for, our housing provided and utilities paid for. Shoot, the UMC even has a requirement that if you are an ordained elder in full connection you are required to be appointed somewhere. Which means, of course, job security even if you are coasting toward retirement or as incompetent as epileptic turtles. Clergy and families are coddled, often over-educated for the tasks to which they are sent, and rest far too comfortably in the bosom of a church that protects, provides, and promotes them.
What a difference with the way Jesus sends the twelve on their first mission. “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.'” Now, sure, we still proclaim that, yet we tend to get bogged down trying to explain what that means. What it means, Jesus explains in the next sentence: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” This is the kingdom of heaven coming near. We moderns and post-moderns tend to turn a jaundiced eye toward allegations of faith healing; it has had far too close a relationship with grifters and con men. Would any of us be willing to step forward and cure the sick? How about raising the dead? Now, Scripture scholars tend to take these as part and parcel of the author of St. Matthew’s Gospel eschatological vision, a beat in one of the literary tropes that runs throughout the text. Taking Jesus’s exhortation literally, we are often told, is to miss the point of the larger narrative point of this particular story. And I sympathize with this view; I really do. All the same, throughout this passage, Jesus is telling his disciples to be audacious, bold, to present the world with something new in their ministry. He offers them next to nothing in terms of comfort, companionship, or that marvelous Wesleyan word, conferencing. He tells them, “Get out there, get busy.” That’s it, and that’s all.
The ending, in particular, I find fascinating in the midst of our discussions about declining membership and attendance numbers. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” In other words – preach the Good News, do the work of the kingdom, and if folks aren’t impressed, keep going. Because not everyone is going to be impressed. Not everyone is going to hear the Good News the same way. Not everyone will fall on their knees praising God. I have often mused about the real, historical Jesus, and the effect he had upon the groups of people he encountered. He had a reputation as a drunkard and whore-monger, because he spent his time with drunks and prostitutes. I have little doubt that some of these people left these encounters with their lives changed forever. Yet, as we look around our world, how can we deny the reality that there were those who encountered the Living Word, sitting right there, talking to them, and went about their business, the memory of the encounter with Jesus fading as what seemed to be more pressing concerns kept them in their life.
We in the churches just have to realize we will not reach everyone, even some of those sitting in the pews. Why? Who knows? Jesus knew the disciples would encounter not only violence but worse – apathy. He could only know this from his own experience. We must do what we can; that includes shaking the dust off our sandles as we go about the task assigned to us. The message of salvation, the Good News that God’s love is among us, offering us the opportunity to help make the world what it is supposed to be, just won’t be received by everyone.
It is the middle section I find most interesting: “You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” I keep trying to picture an Annual Conference in the United Methodist Church in which the Bishop stands up and quotes these words. We spend so much time and effort on salary and benefits for everyone involved in ministry. We have committees on Equitable Compensation, on Pension and Health Benefits; most conferences have money budgeted for Salary Support for small churches that can’t even afford to pay a part-time minister a stipend. Jesus told the Twelve to head out on the road with what they had, not to expect payment except for hospitality from those who would welcome them, knowing that not everyone would welcome them. To say this would cause an uprising is probably understating the matter.
Yet, we have become far too soft, looking to other places, such as Acts 2, in which all shared together what they all had, as a model for compensation for ministry. We call them “Apportionments”, and it’s basically a tax on churches to support everything from our mission work to paying Conference staff. We ask our churches to provide a building in which to worship, and a home for the clergy, yet legally this property belongs to the Conference, not the local congregation, no matter how much debt they incurred to purchase and maintain the property. We only ordain as elder those who have a Master of Divinity degree (or whatever it might be called), with required courses in things like specialized interpretation of Scripture, detailed reading seminars in theologians old and new. We force clergy to incur tremendous debt in the process, to learn so much, then enter the local church where the needed skills are leading committees, soothing fragile egos, and visiting the sick and homebound on a regular basis. Creating a bulletin is really important, too. Trying to get across the details of the theologies, say, of James Cone or even John Wesley gets squeezed in to the 12 to 15 minute sermon, with some members checking their watches while you talk.
The life of the professional clergy looks nothing like the instructions Jesus gave the 12 as he sent them out as sheep among the wolves. How many of our clergy are wise as serpents and innocent as doves? Most of our clergy are too busy to be anything more than exhausted middle managers in a world awash in middle managers who have their own cares, and very little time or energy for the Good News that God’s Love has come and lived among us and is with us still. We may wish to reach those who may have yet to hear the Good News, yet are received with either scorn or a shrug, “church people” either despised or ignored because of hypocrisy or self-righteousness. We preach the Good News, sure; do we trust God enough to cure the sick or raise the dead? Are we willing to risk ridicule as we demonstrate the signs of the Kingdom being near? Are we willing to do all this without a guaranteed minimum salary, health benefits, a pension, and housing provided?