Mission, with a shepherd’s heart

“The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want…”

These words spring to our lips without effort because we believe them to be good and right and absolutely true.  We have no reason to doubt that God will guide us to green pastures and still waters.  We have felt the calm, comforting presence of God in the valley of the shadow.  These images are so familiar to us that we can’t imagine anyone would be willing to argue the truth of them.  The idea of a divine, benevolent Shepherd is so nearly universal that when the hospital authority in Sarnia (Ontario) considered an image for their new, non-denominational, multi-faith worship space, the runaway choice was that of a shepherd tending his sheep.  Evocative across cultures and faith traditions, it was deemed the only safe choice.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that these are the images that we are asked to consider on this Mission Awareness Sunday.  Safe choices.  Comforting images.  something on which everyone can agree.  Wouldn’t that be nice.

But nothing could be further from the truth, where Mission (always a capital M) is concerned.

Once upon a time, it was easy.  We held certain things to be absolutely true, and it was our job as Christians to see that everyone else believed them too.  The way forward was pretty clear: Proclaim the gospel – teach the words – assure ourselves that we had “converted the heathen” and all would be well.  Except for our inability to agree with fellow believers on what was important – what was vital.  Except for our violent disagreements that resulted in the seemingly constant division of the church into denominations.  Except for the increasing difficulty of dealing with people whose expressions of faith looked nothing like ours…

Our awareness of mission these days is limited to updates from our overseas partners – PWS&D newsletters and appeals for funds – and the work of groups like the AMS who pray and study and send letters and money and people into places that we would rather not go ourselves; Malawi, Afghanistan, Haiti, Romania.  WE are just as certain ever where our faith is concerned.  Certain global events convince us that it is essential for the Gospel to take root in these foreign places – surely the answers to problems of terror, poverty, greed and corruption (among others) can be found in the principles of our Christian faith

But that is the problem, isn’t it – when our faith encounters other models of faith, the problems seem to multiply.  Terrorism is almost always the response of those who have been pushed aside by our efforts to bring “our particular brand” of peace, faith and good order to various parts of the world.  Terrorism seems to be the price we pay for being too sure of ourselves, and not considering that there are different ways to understand faith, devotion, God and the whole created order.  I’m sorry to say  that some of this conflict and misery is a result of our historical mission work, and today our claim of certainty where our faith is concerned keeps us ignorant of some pretty important things.

First: The “mission” of the church of Jesus Christ begins with the worship of God in a community of those acknowledge that God IS.  From the days and weeks following the resurrection of Jesus, those people who gathered, scared and confused, knew only one thing to be certain; there was a power in the world greater than death, and that truth required reverence.  There were no tests – no membership requirement other than the recognition of the love of God as a real force in the world.  Understanding was secondary – celebration in worship was then and is now, the most important thing.

Second:  The notion that someday we would be ‘one flock with one shepherd’ does not mean that absolute unity of though and action was the goal.  Yes, the divisions in the church are distressing, and yes “we all seek to serve one God”, but it is the overwhelming love of God that unites us, not our subjection to one set of doctrines, or our acceptance of a single model for faithful living.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…” Jesus says – and it is to his voice they respond, not ours.  And the attraction is not our worship style, or our outreach programs; our disaster relief or our dazzling proclamation.  The attraction of the shepherd’s voice is that Jesus speaks love and compassion and hope to the hopeless.

Third:  that love and compassion that Jesus proclaims is nothing new – it is part of God’s program from the beginning.  Recognized by David as a comforting guide for every stage of life; trusted by those in exile as the enduring glory revealed in the desert wilderness; recognized by Peter as a power greater than any other power – Mission IS the key to a renewal of faith and to new life for the church of Christ, but we don’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.  Jesus’ call to “make disciples” does not come at the expense of hearing and celebrating the gospel for themselves.   Mission is many things, but it begins here, with us.  Nurtured by the gospel, encouraged by the spirit of God, and able to say, with joyful conviction, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

A life of dedicated Christian faith may not seem like the safe choice these days – it is certain that it is not our only choice – but here we are; living proof that the mission of God, particularly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, still calls to people who are willing to admit they are not the most important thing in the universe.  Our mission is not to correct every mistake that may have been made in the name of God; our mission begins with worship and wonder, and continues as we share that wonder with those around us.  It really can be that simple.  The hard work has already been done – the love of God has already accomplished the impossible; Jesus is risen – death has no power over us.  God’s love has not put an end to evil, or resolve every conflict; it does not put an end to the horrific power of earthquake or typhoon, nor does it stop our grief in times of suffering and death.  But the Gospel of Christ is our life-line; his is the story we get to tell.  That is our mission, and if it doesn’t seem change the world (or convert the heathen) it should certainly change us – indeed, it is the only thing that can.

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