I WONDER AS I WANDER. . . Encounters on the Road to Jerusalem and Beyond

 In my previous column, I pondered about our journeys as Christians, and invited us (including me) to reflect on where we have seen evidence of Christ's presence on the journey, or places where we have witnessed Christ's invitation to join in this discipleship journey towards Jerusalem. One of the lectionary gospel lessons for Lent has been the focus of some of my prayer and reflection on this theme.

In Mark's gospel it's a pivotal point between Jesus' early ministry and his movement towards Jerusalem and the cross. Just prior to this text Peter had responded to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" with the amazing insight: "You are the Christ, the Messiah." But very shortly after announcing that declaration, Peter protested Jesus follow-up comment that he would face suffering and torture and be killed, before being raised up alive. Then Jesus called the crowd to join his disciples as Jesus said these somewhat disturbing words (in the Message paraphrase):

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. (Mark 8:34-35)

Over this past month or so, I've been privileged to encounter persons and congregations that have allowed Jesus on this journey of discipleship. Jesus has taken them to places they have never anticipated. 

Some of these evidences of faithfulness to the mission of Jesus have come as the cabinets of the two conferences have taken time to go within our Episcopal area to see some of the ministries that have been happening. As part of some of our meetings we have witnessed places where pastors and people have gone beyond their comfort zones to share Christ's love and compassion. In some of these settings, it is as though, as that passage from Mark suggests, they have embraced suffering, and sacrificed so that others might hear the good news.

Let me share with you some brief vignettes. 

Consider Emmanuel Faith Community, a predominately Latino ministry in the Great Albany Area. They are currently worshipping in Rensselaer in the facility of First Church, which has embraced their presence.

One of the hallmarks of the ministry is an after-school program, which reaches out to a wide area and helps children to have a safe space in the afternoon before they can go home. During that time, among other things, they receive help with homework. Volunteers from other congregations come to assist with the program. The afternoon concludes with a hot meal for the children and youth before they go home. On the day we were there, one of the children offered the prayer of thanksgiving for the meal when asked, on the spur of the moment, by Pastor Mariana Rodrigues. It was a moving expression of gratitude to God, as well as prayers for others. 

On another occasion we visited "The Dream Center" housed in the Sarah Jane Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City, near Binghamton, N.Y.  We were there during the daytime, and so did not see the at-risk children and youth who participate in very creative programs that help them to deal with the violence in their lives and the world, give them assistance with life skills and provide computers for them to use for learning. 

The night before we were there, youth had been gathered to restart a basketball league that would use the gym that is part of this vast building. Before we left, we went to a room just off the sanctuary which has been set up as the "Maine Street Café," where there are small tables and a very hospitable atmosphere. 

"The Dream Center" emerged out of a God-given vision sensed by Patty Cardin, who had a passion for reaching out to the children and youth of the neighborhood. The church has literally given up parts of its facilities, losing their former life as it were, for the sake of following Jesus.

Often we hear about congregations that have sought to keep their doors open primarily so that they can provide a place for those aging members who have gone there all of their lives, even if they church is not connecting with the new neighbors in the surrounding community. Sometimes it seems as though they are waiting to die. 

Two congregations have made a different choice: they have chosen to die so that a new congregation might be born. While the cabinets have not visited this setting, the district superintendent has kept us informed about what has been happening. 

In the city of Wilkes-Barre, Pa, First Church and Abbott Church decided last spring that they would unite, that both of their buildings would be sold, and that a new congregation for new people would be formed in another type of setting, one where traditional church building would not be the model. A new pastor, one who speaks both English and Spanish fluently, has been appointed and is already beginning to work on the beginning steps of this first "new church start" in the Wyoming Conference in many decades. 

Another example of a congregation that has been giving itself away came as I received a request for supporting of a program growing out of the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre, Vt. This formerly robust town, at the heart of the granite industry, has fallen on some difficult times. The church has provided a variety of programs and ministries to the neighborhood. Their vision of how to connect with those who would normally be skeptical of the church keeps growing and involving new people in the non-traditional outreach into the community.

In each of these settings, pastors and people have joined together to follow Jesus' leading in unconventional ways. Even when what they are doing may look like suffering, they have embraced the possibilities. They express joy at the ways that God is providing the resources they need in unexpected ways. 

While this may seem to be a Lenten message, one of sacrifice and sometimes suffering, I hope that you see that such difficult journeys often lead to new life, new possibilities, resurrection on the other side. 

Where is God inviting you to follow Jesus for the sake of the world? What Lenten journey are you being asked to take with the promise of resurrection and new life on the other side?

By: Bishop Susan Hassinger On 3/24/2009
Topics: I Wonder as I Wander...