Though pastors often preach about the Christian concept of calling, or vocation, most members of congregations don’t feel called. That’s what Professor David Lose and his colleagues found when they surveyed churches. Lose theorizes that this disconnect happens because we so often link calling with what people do for paid work. He points out that people consistently reported finding “the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose in relationships.” And, he argues, that Jesus called his first disciples “not into work but into relationship.” That’s the meaning of the summons: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Jesus calls the disciples into a relational ministry. They go about the Galilean countryside together, meeting people, making their home among them. Personally and intimately they deliver good news. With compassion, with hope, they call people to repent, to turn around and head in a new direction. The Greek word is metanoia, or change, literally the putting on of a new mind. As Jesus and his disciples lay their hands on the people, one by one, sharing their burdens, healing happens. The ministry is deeply personal. And, at the same time, it calls them into relationship with the big moral issues of their day.
Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah, reading God’s promise of deliverance from a long-ago empire (the Assyrians) as applicable to the empire of the present-day (Rome). The land of the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali had long been colonized, its wealth extracted by far-off rulers, its people forced into lives of hard labor and sickness. “Repent for the kingdom (or empire) of heaven is near.” In preaching and teaching about God’s empire, Jesus is doing what oppressed people do in every place and time. He robs destructive language of its power by reclaiming it for good. It’s not that Jesus wants to put God on Caesar’s throne. He aims to do something much more revolutionary: he means to completely redefine power. Power, in Jesus’ ministry, is relational; it grows from love, from a deep and genuine meeting of souls. This power always gives life rather than takes it away. It is an agent of healing. In God’s empire, violent words and actions are a sign of weakness, not strength.
In a recent Christian Century piece, Presbyterian pastor T. Denise Anderson writes about her training in Non-Violent Communication. She says:
Non-Violent Communication (NVC) begins with the assumption that all people are “compassionate by nature, and that violent strategies—verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture.” NVC invites its practitioners first to consider another’s humanity when communicating with them. It challenges us not to be guarded against others when entering into disagreements with them, and reminds us that the person in front of us is just that: a person, a whole person with fears, hopes, and anxieties of his or her own who may be communicating out of those fears and anxieties. Instead of responding out of our own fears and anxieties, we are to hold the other person in our hearts as a fellow human being deserving of compassion.
At this moment in the life of our nation and the life of our congregation, let us heed Jesus’ call into relationship. Let us root ourselves in the revolutionary power of love, of non-violent communication. As we continue in our sanctuary discernment, may we open ourselves to genuine encounter the with the humanity of our neighbors: our undocumented neighbors; our neighbors who believe in stronger enforcement of immigration laws; our neighbors, in this congregation, with whom we have deep differences, for instance, about whether or not civil disobedience is at the core of our Christian faith.
People of God, who is it that you are particularly called to be in relationship with today? Bring that person into your mind and heart. What joy or sorrow, frustration or hope is there between you? Take a moment to pray for that person and for yourself in relationship to that person. Know that God is at work through your efforts to encounter him or her non-violently, with genuine listening and love.
Let me be clear.
Relational ministry means freeing ourselves from the culture of polarization, from the practice of labeling as enemies those who think differently. But it’s not Minnesota nice, “Let’s all just get along.” It involves making space for hard subjects, strong feelings, tears and raised voices. Relational ministry does not mean giving up core convictions. It is crucial that we prayerfully and peacefully resist the forces of evil. I know that many of us marched yesterday with the 100,000 in St. Paul and the millions around the country. At root, we’re not protesting an inauguration or a president. We’re rejecting hatred, the denial of our neighbor’s humanity, as a basis for politics, for our common life. We’re calling out the false and violent narrative that says, “Women are objects.” “Immigrants are criminals.” “Muslims are terrorists.” “It’s okay to mock people with disabilities” and “to refuse to make space for LGBTQ folks.”
Nancy Taylor, pastor of Old South Church in Boston, retells a story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu that captures the way of being to which Jesus calls us:
It is 1989, Cape Town, South Africa—during South Africa’s dark days. Nelson Mandela is still in prison. A people’s political rally has been cancelled by the government. Archbishop Tutu says: “Okay, then let’s have church instead.” And church he has. People pour into St. George’s Cathedral to “have church.” Police in riot gear gather by the hundreds. They surround the Cathedral while other police spill into the sanctuary and surround the pews. They are there to intimidate, to threaten. As the Archbishop preaches, the police record every word. Listening for the slightest hint of insurrection … of rebellion and uprising, this is what they hear: Tutu says, “This system of apartheid is evil. Because it is evil, it cannot last.” Then he points his finger at the police standing along the walls of his sanctuary. The tension is palpable. Everyone stiffens: police and people, black and white. Tutu says to the police, “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked.” With that, Tutu flashes his bright Desmond Tutu smile. He steps out of the pulpit and down the stairs, his arms are wide and welcoming, and saying, “So, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
The church erupts. They are singing and dancing in the aisles. They throw their heads back and laugh and dance. They dance out into the streets. The police part for them: clear a path, make a way. The police have come to fight violence with violence, hate with hate…but what are they to do about dancing? They can arrest insurrection. They can try treason. But against laughter and dancing and church? Against these they are powerless.
The relational ministry of Jesus—rooted in the concept of non-violent communication—may seem to acquiesce to the world’s evils because it doesn’t resist them on their own terms. But, in fact, this “soul force” is the only power in the universe strong enough prevail against hate, to stop violence, to mend injustice in all its forms. The community around Jesus is, according to Matthew, the “great light” the prophets longed for. One by one, Jesus’ relational ministry illuminates people. One by one, people animated by the light of Christ illuminate the world. People of God, we are called. We are the dawn that dispels death’s shadow.