Eighteen Sunday after Pentecost 18 September 2016
(Isaiah 6:1-8 Psalm 147 Ephesians 4:7, 11-16 Luke 4:14-21)
“Caring for Each Other!”
This past Friday I received an email from a staff person at SpiriTrust wondering if I might have a Stephen Minister for an older woman whose son just died and whose husband is not in good health. This woman is sad and lonely and sits alone in her house most of the day. I talked with the daughter of this woman and will identify a Stephen minister for this woman within the next few days.
This past Wednesday I sat with a mother who had recently lost her son through illness and I talked with her about the Journeying Through Grief program we now have here at St. James where many of our more than 55 previously-trained Stephen Ministers (and others) are ministering to family members who have recently lost a loved one through death.
Also, on Friday, I received a note from a care receiver here in this congregation. I’ve removed the names, but I want to read the note: “Hi to you folks! Hope you are all enjoying the peace of this day. Yesterday I had communion carried to me by my Stephen Minister after we had coffee and a good old fashion “sticky bun.” Wouldn’t know what to do without Stephen Ministries. We have now melded together just like a family.” Signed, “with love.”
These exchanges have all taken place within the past week. Each one speaks for a relationship of support in the midst of a difficult situation—and there are so many more that take place each week.
Stephen Ministry was first begun here at St. James with a class of 20 individuals being trained in 1985. Since then we have trained nearly 40 more individuals from this congregation. In 2007, we began working with, at that time Lutheran Social Services, as well as other congregations in the area. There are currently monthly supervision groups here at St. James, at St. John Lutheran, Hampton, at Gettysburg Presbyterian and Gettysburg United Methodist. Very often we are in conversation together in order to find an appropriate Stephen Minister for a specific care receiver. Stephen Ministers do not take the place of pastors; rather they work with the pastors of the various congregations to make sure everyone gets the care they need.
We have been holding training opportunities on a bi-yearly basis, the next one to begin soon after the New Year. Several years ago Barbara Schmitthenner and I were trained as Stephen Leaders, Susan Hill, soon after, and this past August, Jennifer Bradshaw and Pastor Andrew. Pastors Ed Keyser and Marty Carlson are also Stephen Leaders.
I clearly believe that the work of Stephen Ministry is the work of the Jesus, who is so clearly described in today’s Gospel text. We pick up the story as Jesus arrives at Galilee, directly returning from his 40-day stay in the desert. We are told he is ‘filled with the power of the Spirit,” He is teaching in synagogues along the way and finally arrives at his hometown of Nazareth, goes to the synagogue on the day of Sabbath and reads what many today consider to be his mission statement.
This text, quoted from the prophet Isaiah, announces who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists, and what his church will be and do. According to The Interpreters Bible, Jesus’ reading and interpretation of the words of Isaiah in this scene become the key to the entire ministry of Jesus.”1
From the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke emphasizes that the work of Jesus is to be the work of the church : to witness to the poor and impoverished, to those held captive by pain, tragedy, fear, anxiety and so many other ways we become isolated and locked in on ourselves.
The question raised by this text is not so much what does God demand from us in order for us to become righteous; but rather, how do we care for each other?
You don’t have to go very far in any bookstore these days to find a whole section on self-help. So many of these books emphasize our knowing and clarifying our purpose in life and how we can work toward fulfilling that purpose. One of the most popular books several years ago was a book by Rick Warren entitled The Purpose-Driven Life. It was really popular for Sunday school classes to read and discuss. It was on the best seller list. It was very influential in many mega churches. It is filled with lots of scripture passages and verses. I know several Sunday School classes used it here.
And I know I will step on a few toes when I say what is next. Here’s the rub: It has always been very troubling to me that in the entire Purpose-Driven Life book, not a single verse from today’s text from Luke is mentioned. It troubles me because I don’t know how our lives find purpose in the Good News without these challenging words of Jesus!
I’m not saying this was a terrible book to read, but only to point out how subtle can be the movement away from a challenging Christianity in a society that wants to make following Jesus excessively popular and exceptionally persuasive.
When Jesus announces that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [vs 21], He proclaims that the liberating work of the Spirit of God is now present through him. By means of our Baptism into Jesus and into his life and mission, we are called to this same work to bring Good News to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and new beginnings to all those who have fallen short.
Today we are called to stand together and declare to God and to one another that God gives us no other day than today to go forth in the power of the Spirit as an agent of God’s mercy to all those pushed down by the difficulties of life. [Let’s get one more look at a story of a Stephen Minister!] Amen.
- 1. Alan Culpepper,” The Gospel of Luke.” Interpreters Bible. 1995. Vol 9, p. 102.