Friday, January 15, 2010

Inherently Communal

Cultivating Vitality in Multi-Point Parish Ministries

January 16, 2010
Climax Lutheran Church, Climax, MN
Luke 10:1-10

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

This familiar gospel text (which will pop up in our lectionary this summer) is about going out into God’s mission field, proclaiming God’s rule over all things, and doing so with haste and urgency. The 70 apostles are to travel light, not get bogged down with “stuff,” and keep on the move.

And that always strikes me, because I’ve got too much stuff, and I keep managing to accumulate more….and I am not alone in that.

So a text like this makes discipleship sound focused, disciplined and heroic—which it is—but it’s about something else, as someone recently pointed out to me.

The reason, you see, that Jesus can send out his disciples in such Spartan fashion is that Jesus is counting on them running into allies along the way. There may be wolves out there in the mission field—but there are also other lambs out there. Jesus’ representatives can “pack light” because he’s assuming that others will help them, supply their wants, look after their needs…

….all of which is to say that mission in Jesus’ name is always a group endeavor; discipleship is inherently communal. The seventy proclaimers of the Kingdom, as they head out “two by two” will be sustained by others, strengthened by the generosity of strangers, protected by those they will encounter on the way.

Mission in Jesus’ name is always, always, always a group endeavor. It’s a “we” thing, not a “me” thing. Following Jesus is inherently communal….

….and we forget that fact, we bypass that reality, at our peril.

One of the late great teachers at Luther Seminary in St Paul liked to say that “there are no Robinson Crusoe Christians”….which is true….and this morning I want to drive that point just a little farther and say that there is also no such thing as an autonomous congregation.

In this part of the Lutheran world, “them’s are fightin’ words.” One of the great Lutheran predecessor church bodies that used to have a strong presence in the Red River Valley, held as a central tenet of its confession that “the congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

The congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth. That stark statement has a huge element of truth to it—mind you!—but it has also fostered a most unfortunate heresy, namely that a congregation can be independent or totally “free” or autonomous. That, according to the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions and the lived experience of Christians down through the ages and all across this globe, is patently false.

The Body of Christ, the catholic/universal church of our Lord Jesus, has exactly zero—count them, zero--“autonomous” congregations. And that’s because this whole business—bringing Christ to the world, proclaiming God’s surprising and gentle Rule over all things, serving God’s global rescue mission—it is an inherently communal, you-and-me-together business.

And if that is true, then it has implications for what we’re about here today.

I don’t know about you, but the dominant image of “church” I grew up with was of one congregation served by one pastor. St Paul Lutheran Church of Amboy, Minnesota had one pastor for about three hundred members when I was a kid…and Eagle Lake Lutheran Church of Willmar, Minnesota had one pastor (that would be me!) for about three hundred members when I served my first call.

One congregation, one supposedly “omni-competent” pastor, serving enough parishioners to sustain the whole operation. That was, and I suspect that still is, the default position many of us have for what a church, a congregation is supposed to look like.

And yet, dear friends, I think we may have gotten that all wrong.

When I breeze through the New Testament, when I wander through the Book of Acts and when I read between the lines of the letters of St Paul, I get the impression of a whole bunch of fledgling congregations yoked together, networked with one another, all across the Mediterranean world, bound to one another for witness and service and mission in Jesus’ name….led by all sorts of Spirit-driven ministers and disciples.

And when I poke around in congregational histories here in the upper Midwest, I’m struck by how often our Lutheran congregations began as circuits of preaching points, collections of faith-communities that shared a pastor and engaged all the people of God in doing the work of ministry.

And as I witness the global church of today—for instance, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India where I visited in early November—I see scads of multi-point parishes, sprawling collections of lively mission outposts, sharing clergy, calling forth laity and other leaders, doing most of God’s work “in formation” with others.

What if, what if the solo congregation served by a solo pastor—what if that’s not the default position at all? What if it is the exception, not the rule, for most of the New Testament, most of Christian history and most of today’s Christian world?

What then? Might we not think of what we’re doing here in our two synods in fresh ways? What if we simply stopped acting as if multi-point parishes were second-best options or “consolation prizes”—you know: “We tried to make it on our own, but couldn’t, so formed a parish with a neighboring congregation?”

What if we started from the premise that all congregations, will be tied to other congregations—not just because “survival” drives them to it, but because mission—God’s work—calls, beckons and invites them…invites us…to embrace shared ministry as the only ministry really worth doing?

As we begin this event, I invite you to accept the following working assumptions:

  •  Mission in Christ’s name is an inherently communal endeavor—and that is God’s gift to us.
  • There are no Robinson Crusoe Christians and no autonomous congregations—and that too is God’s gift to us.
  • And the “right form of the kingdom of God on earth” might just be the congregation—the congregation that sees itself deeply interdependent, joined hip-to-haunch with one or more other congregations….all so that God’s work might be accomplished not with my hands, but always with our hands.

In the name of Jesus.



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