The Gamaliel Test

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In the fifth chapter of Acts, as the disciples of Jesus are really beginning to pick up some momentum, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem gathers for a meeting.  The agenda is their growing concern with a small sect of Jews who have begun to follow the Way of a disgraced Rabbi named Jesus.  Their first response was to arrest the leadership of the Way on charges of heresy.  So, they put the apostles in jail, and overnight, and angel came, freeing them and commissioning them to proclaim the Gospel.  Next, the leaders decided to confront the apostles face-to-face.  “We told you not to preach Jesus anymore,” they said.  “We must obey God,” the apostles replied. Finally, fully frustrated and enraged, the council was ready to just put them all to death when a Pharisee named Gamaliel spoke up and said, among other things, “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

This wisdom has become known as the Gamaliel test.  It is a temperance move to avoid rushing to conclusions about the ongoing revelation of God in the world.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t much used by the Christian Church in the first four centuries as Christians became fond of declaring others heretics and putting whole sub-sects of people to death, but it is a test worth using as we who think we have a full grasp on what God is up to are almost universally wrong.  God is always unveiling something new for us to come to understand.  I cannot claim to live a faultless life in this regard, as I’ve been happy to jump up and down and shake my fist at innovations like Enriching our Worship and the growing trend of communion without baptism. It would behoove us all to practice patience and to use the Gamaliel test as our standard.

Title and 330 word introduction to the contrary, this post isn’t really about Gamaliel, however, as he wasn’t the first to utilize spiritual waiting as a tool for discernment.  In the first half of our Gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus provides for his disciples an example of the same principle.  While we stare down the barrel of 984 more Sundays after Pentecost, Sunday’s lesson hits about the mid-point of Luke as a post-Transfiguration Jesus “sets his face for Jerusalem.”  As a result of this new revelation of his ministry, old patterns of behavior were going to change.  No longer would Jesus and the disciples be taking long, meandering walks from place to place.  Now, Jesus was on a mission.  So, when they pass through a Samaritan city that would not welcome them, the disciples are ready to rain down holy hell on those poor Samaritans.  Jesus, in his wisdom, however, knows that it is God’s desire that the press on.

Rushing to judgment.  Assuming that my understanding of God is the only right answer.  Seeking violence and destruction.  These are not the ways of those who follow the Prince of Peace.  Instead, with Jesus as our guide and Gamaliel as an example, we ought to practice patience, to pray, listen, and discern, and to seek our place in God’s ongoing revelation in the world.

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Careful weeding

For a short period of time between “A Bored Seminarian” and “Draughting Theology,” this blog was called “Digging up my own Foundation.”  It was a nod, esoteric as it may have been, to my early understanding of the priesthood as one who empowers and encourages their congregation until they find themselves essentially out of a job.  When it was pointed out that the best way to shorten that too long title was “Dig up MoFo,” I decided to make a change, but truth be told, that ideal of what parish ministry looked like was a bit short-sighted anyway.  No matter how much encouraging and empowering one does, as an ordained clergyperson, there are still things that I can do that members of the congregation can’t.  The real difficulty of this vocation is learning what one should delegate and what one must do.  Or, to put it in the context of Sunday’s Gospel lesson, what can one safely dig up and hand off and what must remain in the ground.

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Invasive Torpedo Grass is hard to pull up without damaging everything else

In reading my standard preaching resources, the consensus is that Jesus’ farming technique left a lot to be desired.  The weed planted by the evil one was likely darnel, a poisonous rye grass that until it comes to seed, is impossible to differentiate from good wheat.  By the time the slaves would have noticed the problem, the solution they suggest would have been easily done.  That is, the wheat and darnel would have both been pretty well close to harvest anyway, and the damage done in uprooting the weed wouldn’t been fairly insignificant compared to the cost of the darnel seed falling to the ground, germinating, and having another year of bad crop to deal with.  Yet, Jesus instructs the slaves to wait and let the harvesters deal with it.  He is worried that to damage even one good wheat stalk would be a cost too high.  Why is Jesus so careful in his weeding?

The answer comes right at the very beginning of the parable.  Jesus starts by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”  This is a kingdom parable, a story meant to teach a lesson about what it looks like under God’s reign.  God’s reign turns the upside-down world right-side up.  It makes the last first and the first last.  It heals the blind, frees the prisoner, and reaches out to touch the lepers.  God’s reign is a world in which every tear is dried up and the oil of gladness is poured out in abundance.  In the kingdom of the world, darnel doesn’t become wheat and dead men don’t come back to life, but with patience and faith, under the reign of God, both are possible.  When we see the world through the lens of this world, we are quick to grab weeds and toss them into the fire, but God’s view is long range, God’s goal is the restoration of all of Creation, God’s dream is a field full of wheat.  And so, the slaves are told to leave it to harvesters to deal with the good and the bad.  Who knows, by the time the harvest comes around, maybe the greatest miracle of all is that by the grace of God, darnel can become wheat.

A Very Long Walk

As I mentioned yesterday, Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a tricky one.  It is a lesson full of apocalyptic imagery, difficult teaching, and enmity.  I’ll deal with that portion of it more in the days to come, but what I’m drawn to this morning is a glimpse into what brings Jesus to this point of seeming frustration.  Jesus gives us a clue as he begins this diatribe by turning his attention to himself, saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

This journey from Mount Tabor where Jesus was Transfigured and enjoyed fellowship with Moses and Elijah to Jerusalem where he will turn the tables in the Temple, engage in intense debate, and ultimately be arrested, abandoned by his closest disciples, tortured, and killed has been going on for quite some time, and there is a pretty good hike left to go.  For days on end, Jesus has been thinking about what is to come, wondering how it will all play out, but certain that death on a cross is just over the horizon.

Jesus has been stressed out for as long as he can remember, and here lets his disciples know that he is ready for this period of intense pressure to be over.  Here we find Jesus in his full humanity; feeling the effects of long term stress just like we all do.  High blood pressure, lack of sleep, upset stomach, headache, trouble focusing, irritability, and even a speeding up of the aging process are all effects of ongoing stress in someone’s life.

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Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem was probably not unlike seven years as President of the United States.

Jesus is clearly ready for this very long walk to Jerusalem to be over, but there is still more to come.  More teachings.  More healing.  More parables.  More encounters with the least and the lost.  More controversy with the religious powers-that-be.  The road to Jerusalem is long and winding, and today, we see Jesus at his most vulnerable and yet his most determined.  He may wish the fire was already kindled and the waters of baptism already troubled, but he can read the signs, he knows that his hour has not yet come, and so he will continue on, faithfully proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

Patience is a Virtue

Brian McLaren, in his 2010 address to the 187th Commencement of the Protestant Episcopal Seminary in Virginia (VTS) warned the graduates of two equally deadly ministry dangers.

“You will learn that there are two paths of martyrdom – one leading into the den of ravenous lions and the other through the valley of nibbling ducks. And as all the veterans of ministry will tell you, unless you guard your heart well, unless you pay careful attention to your own soul, you will be nibbled and hobbled and worn down by the ducks at your ankles just as effectively as by the lions at your neck.”

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Anyone who has been in full-time ministry for more than about 15 minutes will know that McLaren speaks a difficult truth, especially as religious interest wanes in the 21st century, the threat of death by nibbling ducks is ever-present.  Of course, this really is nothing new.  Even Paul knew of the dangers to the Gospel that everyday life poses.

As he opens his letter to the Church in Colossae, Paul gives thanks for their faithful ministry, while offering prayer for their ongoing struggles, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”

Patience can be hard to come by when the world seems hellbent on pecking you to death from the ground up, but in Christ, we are able to endure even the most mundane of hardships.  As congregations around the globe prepare themselves for another program year, may each of us be made strong with the strength that comes from God alone, that we might each be prepared to endure every trial with patience and joy.

Waiting as Holy Time

Most Monday mornings, I find out what Old Testament lesson is assigned for Sunday by reading the daily God Pause email from WorkingPreacher.org. This morning’s reflection was based on Exodus 24 and the holiness of waiting. It is worth a read.

In seminary, we talked a lot about a seemingly made up word called “liminality.” Liminality is the space in between the old and the new. Seminary is a liminal space, especially for an MDiv student, between one’s old life as a lay leader and one’s new life of ordained ministry. There are myriad other examples of liminal time and space: the 40 weeks of pregnancy is a liminal time; second semester senior year is a liminal time; two-weeks notice is a liminal time. The author of today’s God Pause noted that no matter how long that time of waiting is, it a) feels like it will never end and b) ends too soon. Moses must have thought those six days of waiting would never end, but as he went further up the mountain on day seven, I guarantee, he wished he could wait just a little bit longer.

Today, I sit in waiting. The recommendations of the We Dream of a Diocese Committee were referred for further study – convention decided to kick the can down he road for a spell – until a special convention can be called prior to next year’s Annual Convention. The merits of our report seem to not be the issue (at least for most people who live outside of the City of Mobile), though a three hour parliamentary quagmire kept us from debating that much. Instead people worried about the timing as we prepare to elect the 4th Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast: a problem that won’t be fixed before the special convention. The other issue is clarity of language. We missed some obvious questions that needed to be addressed before final canonical language could be adopted.

As we wait and work, I’m reminding myself that waiting can be holy time, but only if I allow it to be. I can make waiting miserable time, if I want to, by being bitter and frustrated, but thanks be to God that the first lesson I get to read on the first day of waiting is a call to be patient and wait on The Lord.