Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pentecost 19 Year A

“Do intentional mission” was the class project.

I and a couple of my classmates Steve and Dwight decided to collaborate on this project but we couldn’t decide what we wanted to do.

“What do you mean by ‘mission’?” we asked our professor, Dr. Oz Cole-Arnal?

“Whatever YOU think mission means,” he replied. Not terribly helpful.

So, over the weekend, the three of us separately pondered the assignment.

On Monday we met to discuss what we were going to do. Either it was a HUGE coincidence or the work of the Holy Spirit, but we all had the SAME idea. We were going to minister to the folks at the most infamous, the dingiest, most dangerous bar in town – the Station Hotel. “That would be really cool,” we thought.

So, on Friday afternoon, we strapped on clerical collars, and the three of us, young, shiny, seminarians, wandered into the Station Hotel.

At 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, the place was remarkably full. The music was blaring over an already loud hockey game, and folks, under the influence of probably too many beers that should be drank that early in the day – or ANY part of the day - were shouting over the music and the game.

But once we came through the door – silence – I think even the music shut down. People stopped and stared at these young guys dressed up - for all they knew - as priests.

We sat down. Ordered from the waiter. And then we said to each other, “Okay, now what do we do?” Not being the planning types, we hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“Maybe we should talk to people,” Dwight suggested.

“I don’t know about that,” said Steve. “They might think we’re trying to ram religion down their throats,”

“Well, what ARE we trying to do here?” I asked.

Silence again.

“Oz might call this a ‘ministry of presence’” Steve offered.

“Ministry of presence?” I asked. “You mean to say that we are so super spiritual that we just have to sit here and we will glow with Holy Spirit so much that these folks will fall on their knees in repentance?”

“So, if we aren’t going to talk to people, and we aren’t just going to sit here, what exactly are we going to do? What will be our ministry?” Dwight asked.

Good question.

Just then the waiter came over with three mugs,

“These are from the guys over by the window,” he announced.

We looked over. They waved. We waved back.

“Now what do we do?” I asked.

“Let’s go over and thank them,” Dwight said.

So we did. And so our ministry began.

These guys were regulars. They asked us who we were and what we were up to. They introduced us to people who came in. They seemed to know EVERYONE. And chatting with folks for a few hours.

We ended up doing ministry there despite ourselves.  Folks were brutally honest with us. Many weren’t shy in telling us what they thought of church. Steve heard a man’s confession in the bathroom. I prayed with an alcoholic who said he hadn’t seen his kids in twenty years. Dwight got to know a fellow who said he’s a former professional hockey player, but now lives in the hotel upstairs, the victim of his own addictions and mental illness..

We chatted, listened, prayed, and listened some more.

We learned a lot those Friday afternoons. Stuff they definitely didn’t teach in seminary.

Bill Huras, who was bishop of the Eastern Synod at the time, somehow learned of our Friday afternoon activities. While Bishop Huras didn’t haul us into his office demanding an explanation, our Friday afternoon bar ministry became a topic of scrutiny for Steve’s yearly interview with the Committee for Theological Education and Leadership or CTEL, the pastoral candidate screening committee.

“”Y’know, the bishop could take legal action against you and your friends because of this ministry?”

“What!?” asked Steve, with a sweat bead dripping from his brow.

“If you are telling these people at the Station Hotel that you are rostered clergy, such an admission would constitute fraud. And the synod would have to protect its interests, since you and the others are seminarians, not pastors.”

In other words, they were asking, “Who said you could do this? Who gave you the authority to doing these things?” They wanted to make sure that boundaries weren’t crossed, that protocol wasn’t transgressed.

Steve assured the committee that “Yes”, we told people at the bar we were seminarians and “No” we were not ordained pastors.

The three of us met for lunch to digest Steve’s experience with the committee. We had a good laugh over it. But I think our laughing was a mask for our frustration. We couldn’t wrap our heads around the fact that the church hierarchy thought that the drunks at the Station Hotel gave a rip whether we were rostered or not.

Patting ourselves on our backs, feeling really good about ourselves, kind of like OT Prophets – giving it to the establishment, we invoked this morning’s gospel reading, where Jesus enters the temple and some of his leading critics, learned bible scholars and religious leaders confront him.

You could almost taste the venom in their words.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

In other words, “Who told you that you could do this?  Where did you go to school? Who’s sponsoring you? Who on earth do you think you are!?”

But Jesus turns the question around on them. “You remember my cousin John, don’t you? Part wild man, part TV preacher. Ate bugs. Baptized people. Hugely popular among a whole whack of people. Said some harsh things about your boss and his wife. When he baptized folks, did God smile or did Satan?”

They were caught. They loathed John almost as much as they loathed Jesus. But regular folks, folks outside the official religion LOVED John. These leaders and scholars knew that if they said anything bad about John then they were going down – people wouldn’t tolerate bad talk against one of their favourite holy men.

But if they said that John baptized with God’s blessing, then Jesus would ask why they stood by idly by while John lost his head to Herod’s brainless promise. He would ask them why they didn’t protect someone who, by their own admission, was God’s messenger.

They were trapped. And they knew it.

“We have no idea,” they said.

“If you’re not going to answer my question I’m not going to answer yours,” Jesus replied.

Jesus could have stopped there, walked away, and still called it a win. But he had to take it a step further. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he had too much caffeine for breakfast. Maybe he just had his fill of these narrow, small minded, little people, who couldn’t see God’s plan for the world if it bit them in the….

So Jesus tells a story about two brothers. Fairly innocuous. One brother tells his dad that he won’t go work in the field, then goes anyway. The other brother tells his dad that he’s on his way to work, then heads out and has fun instead.

But the punch line comes out of nowhere. “Y’know what?” Jesus says, “Traitors and thieves and prostitutes are going ahead of you in God’s kingdom - yes I said prostitutes -. John came to tell you what God is all about, but those who REALLY needed to hear him understood what he was saying. You didn’t. Even after you saw peoples’ lives being changed after hearing God’s message, all you could think about was yourselves, how to protect your interests, your livelihoods, your jobs.”

Tough words. Maybe they deserved it. Maybe they didn’t. But I kinda feel for the religious leaders. They were only doing their job – protecting their Jewish faith and heritage against pagan Roman beliefs. They had seen hundreds, if not thousands of people they thought were just like him – self-proclaimed saviours looking for money, or power, or fame. These religious leaders were just protecting what they believed to be true.

I don’t want to be come down too hard on Bishop Huras. I really don’t mean to insinuate that he’s a Pharisee. He’s a good man and a devoted servant of God. He led the church through some pretty rough waters. And CTEL was only doing their job as well. As highly as we thought of ourselves, Steve, Dwight and I - we weren’t and aren't Jesus. And yes were well within our rights to wear our clerical collars to minister to the good people at the Station Hotel.  

We wore clerical collars to say that, yes; we had some authority to do what we were doing. But maybe we were a little confused over what authority that was. The authority we had is the same authority that you have. John’s authority is that God called him by name and gave him a job. Jesus’ authority came from a voice from heaven that called him beloved. Your authority comes from the same place. You have the authority to love, to share good news, to offer comfort to hurting people, to pray, to offer praise, all in Jesus’ name. You who have died with Jesus in the waters in baptism were raised with him to new and everlasting life. That’s where you get your authority.

And that authority doesn’t come from human origin. It comes from God.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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