NEWARK: Brueggemann calls disciples to leave their 'comfort zone' for ministry of transformation

October 27, 2009

Christians are a subversive lot, biblical scholar the Rev. Walter Brueggemann recently told a gathering in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. "Every time the church prays, 'Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it in heaven,' it is praying for a new order. And from time to time in the long history, the prayers and the hymns and the meals take hold, and newness erupts."

An ordained United Church of Christ minister who worships in an Episcopal church, Brueggemann spoke about the call to ministry and disciples' "transformative energy" during the keynote address at an Oct. 25 workshop on Becoming Disciples -- How Will We Create a Culture of Call? at St. Andrew and Holy Communion Episcopal Church in South Orange, New Jersey. A prolific author, he formerly served as professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

"He's an academic prophet," Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith said in introducing Brueggemann. "[He] takes the Old Testament Scriptures and presents them to a modern audience with a sense of urgency that has compelled me and compelled many others I know to respond with a different level of intention and orientation to how we do our ministry."

We create a "culture of call" by telling stories, Brueggemann said, "stories of all those incredible people that the world does not want to remember but we continue to draw life from them because they continue to be alive with their energy and expectations of us."

For his lecture, he mostly focused on Elisha, beginning with his call by Elijah. "To become a disciple, somebody has to find you," Brueggemann said, adding, "when Elijah found Elisha, he didn't say anything to him. He threw his cape over him. He threw his mantle over him, and that defined his existence.

"So the question that I want you to think about while I talk is: Who threw the mantle over you, and what did they expect of you, and how are you doing? And if you've been at this faith business for awhile, you are permitted to ask: Over whom have you thrown a mantle of empowerment and expectation? Because the matter of apostolic succession is not just with bishops and priests. The matter of apostolic succession concerns the whole body of believers, and it is an intergenerational thing in which we are always casting the mantle on somebody else."

Having received the call, Elisha had to leave home – his "comfort zone," Brueggemann said. The knowledge of that reality is causing much of the anxiety in the church that leads to quarrels, he said. "We are all of us being called to a new place, and it would be wonderful if liberals and conservatives in the church understood together [that] we are all wrapped in anxiety about having to leave home and go to a place that is outside of our comfort zone."

Disciples also must find resources among themselves to be faithful, he said, noting how Elijah leaves Elisha soon after calling him and how Jesus also leaves his disciples.

"The amazing thing of the whole history of the church, the Book of Acts and then on through the centuries, is that the church has always been surprised that the Spirit does surge among us and the church is capable of doing more than we ever thought we could do," he said.

He described several stories of Elisha's ministry, including helping a poor widow by miraculously providing olive oil -- so much that it took all the village's women to gather it. "This guy is an amazing pastoral type who has the capacity to move in where people have specific personal, intimate needs, and by his presence he transforms their circumstance into abundance and well-being," Brueggemann said.

"I have come to think that that atmosphere of abundance that is generated by the gospel may be the most important ministry because we live in a culture of anxious scarcity," he said. "And if the church is to engage in a countercultural way, then it has to walk and talk like Elijah did for that widow and the women in the village, that there is more than enough because God continues to give good gifts."

"Abundance is not a statistic; it's an attitude," Brueggemann said. "The Creator God is the giver who keeps on giving, and we are on the receiving end of it all. As soon as I forget that I'm on the receiving end and as soon as I start measuring how much I've got to get my hands on, I cease to be generous, which I think is why that gesture of being given bread is so important."

Disciples, he said, are "recruited to be carriers of newness."

Asked whether everyone receives a "mantle," Brueggemann noted how Elisha had a band of disciples who supported him without having his same gifts. "Where those gifts are given, you need an infrastructure of sustenance to keep it going."

"I don't want to overstate it," he added, "but I do believe that everybody has a measure of transformative energy. It may be a small measure. But pastors who make calls on dreadfully disabled and immobilized people often will bear witness that 'I got energy from being with her' and so on."

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