Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Scripture for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jesus wants to take his disciples on a retreat. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Does that sound good to you? Want to go along?

Or are you enough of a Type A person that you might need talking-into going on retreat, even though it’s Jesus who’s inviting you? Type A’s might say, “Last night’s sleep is all the rest I need—I’ve just got too much to do! Put me in a place without electronics for a few days? I’d go nuts.” While some of us might say, Sign me up!

Isn’t it worth noticing that once the apostolic band arrives at their destination, their plans are hijacked? In its own way, this comforts me: that I who often have good intentions to pray more and scurry less, have a Savior who knows what all that is about.

And he is remembered as being eminently accessible. Ahead of time, I mark a day off in my calendar with a great slash, steer clear of the office, and let my calls go to voicemail— but he sees a great crowd, and has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd, and poof, he’s calling the circle together, revealing to them the centering presence of God.

And the twelve? “Forget it, boys,” I hear Simon Peter say, in a hushed voice: “No rest for us today.” Blessed are the flexible, for they shall inherit… much more to pray about.

But, you know, retreats come in all shapes and sizes. Our summer Sundays @ 9 offer a short hour of gaining some degree of perspective on ourselves and how we live. And even if a scant hour may not seem to deserve being called a retreat, these gatherings have blessed participants with an opportunity to go deeper in discerning what is essential for living a compassionate life, and to feel the support of kindred spirits in community.

So too did Thursday evening’s sampling of Servant Leadership, a model of adult Christian formation for ministry. Nicole, a lovely young woman from St. Stephen’s, Pittsfield, led us in two hours of reliance on the divine presence to be at the center of our circle, about fifteen people, eight or nine from here, one from All Saints, three or four from St. Stephen’s.

She led us into a centering upon God by some guided deep breathing. She modeled attentive and compassionate listening, and attentive and compassionate silence. She invited us to speak intentionally. She wasn’t leading us by expertise or careful scripting, as much as by trust and courage. She got us talking about our lives, and though sometimes we reverted to talking about our opinions, she kept returning us to our lives.

And when I say “she”, I mean both Nicole and the Holy Spirit she often gently invoked.

This was no small thing, that a perfect stranger should get a roomful of people talking about their lives, not to compete but to support and collaborate.

She introduced us to a concept of serving that goes something like this: If I relate to you by assuming that you are weak, I will set out to help you.

If I relate to you assuming that something in you is broken, I may set out to try to fix you.

But if I want to serve you, I will start with the assumption that there is wholeness in you, and I will respect that becoming wholeness.

I take this to mean that the service to which Christ calls me draws me into relationship that starts with my openness. This was symbolized, that evening, by a gesture Nicole made with her hands. It is an engaging but mysterious gesture (the very same one we make in receiving communion, our hands open to create a place and a moment of meeting).

This was felt by some to be a controversial gesture. Am I begging, when I extend that gesture to you? You could read it that way, even if I mean to commune with you, that is, to communicate my openness to meet your openness, to enter the mystery of giving and receiving that defines our common life in Christ.

If you experience the gesture as begging, you may retreat (as in beat a hasty retreat), for who likes being begged-from?

But Nicole stood her ground, allowing the mystery in what is already a familiar gesture, at least among sacramental Christians. And what does it matter? We’re trying to express an attitude.

You have made this gesture countless times. Approaching Jesus’s table, you have made a table of your hands, an open space for communion through your senses of sight, touch, and taste. If someone makes that sign toward you, you become the priest or the minister of communing, communicating, community-building. Which makes me think Nicole is right to use it as an effective symbol of servant leadership.

Let me quickly dispel the impression that Servant Leadership is about navel-gazing. At Thursday’s gathering, someone said that this model of ministry resembles the Dream Center. Have you heard of that? The Dream Center could be seen as a good example of where Servant Leadership, broadly understood, could take the church. Here is the Dream Center’s story.

Pastor Matthew Barnett assumed the pastorate of Bethel Temple in Los Angeles in 1994 at the age of twenty. After a life-changing encounter with God, he helped Bethel Temple transition from a traditional-style church to a servant driven ministry that grew into what is now known as The Dream Center.

Compelled by a vision to impact all of Los Angeles by addressing people’s physical and spiritual needs spiritual needs in unique and practical ways, The Dream Center has grown into a phenomenon that now reaches more than 40,000 people each week through its multiple church services and various need-centered outreach ministries.

Services and programs offered include residential rehabilitation programs for teens and adults, a shelter for victims of human trafficking, a transitional shelter for homeless families, mobile hunger relief and medical programs, and a foster care intervention outreach. Programs such as adult basic education, job skills training, and life skills counseling continue to establish The Dream Center as a vital community development resource.

The Dream Center’s record of success has led to the launch of over 100 independent Dream Centers nationally, as well as internationally. I hear there is one in Pittsfield now.

The Center’s mission is to directly impact the issues that afflict the community, one square block at a time, by reconnecting isolated people to God and a community of support by providing free human services that address immediate and long-term needs in the areas of homelessness, hunger relief, medical care, mental health and education.

Its vision is a community of resilient people whose lives have been redeemed by God’s love, who share that love with others to transform and restore broken lives to wholeness.

Servant Leadership… the Dream Center… these make me think also of The Friendship Center in North Adams, founded and supported by North County residents (including a growing number from St. John’s), providing food assistance to more than 600 families, instilling this outreach with respect for the wholeness of each person.

When King David proposed building a house for God, a proper temple, it is said that God asked where that idea had come from. A tent had been good enough for many years, that and a traveling tabernacle (you remember that last Sunday we heard the story of David escorting that holy object into Jerusalem with his ecstatic dancing). Besides, says God to David, the whole point of this relationship is that I am making you a house, a people, an ongoing community reliant on my presence.

This is also the apostolic vision we hear in Ephesians, that the holy temple God desires is the reunited human race, a reconciled community with all its warring factions cooperating as one new humanity which has already become flesh and blood in Jesus Christ. His call to serve invites us to recognize and respect the growing wholeness, to participate in the becoming of all God’s people.

This wholeness, this becoming, is fed by the abundance of God’s grace. Still, we may wonder where does it call come from, all that free stuff and food and volunteerism vitalizing the Dream Center and the Friendship Center?

We like to say, Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Where there is God’s will being done, there are many ways— as many as there are servant leaders willing to rely upon God and each other.