Posts Tagged ‘mission’

For the benefit of “the other”…

July 3, 2016

The twelve had already gone out – to some success – (they caught the attention of Herod (Luke 9: 1-8); crowds have been fed, demons have been tamed,and a pattern for the struggle has been set (whoever is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9: 50 Good News) but now, Jesus widens the field.  Seventy two, sent out in pairs too ‘go ahead of him’ into the towns along the route to Jerusalem.

When it comes to ‘equipping the faithful’ we would like to think Jesus is the expert – his great commission asks us to ‘go and make disciples…’ after all.  So here are a large crowd sent to prepare the way for Jesus as he slowly works his way toward Jerusalem, and let’s consider how well prepared they might be…

Take nothing with you, he says.  Everything they need is either waiting for them or found within them.  They are sent barefoot and penniless, no luggage, no ‘props’ – completely dependent on the hospitality of the town.  Jesus suggests that this might be a dangerous way to go – they will be like “like lambs among wolves”, he says – but they will know when it is safe to stay.  They are to seek those who share in peace – This is the only advice that seems even remotely cautionary; otherwise they are to be carefree!  Take what hospitality is offered – stay as long as you are welcome –  and while they are welcome, they are told to heal the sick and, say “The kingdom of God has come near you.”

If this were the only model for ministry, I wonder what the church would have become?  If you were to ‘shake the dust from your feet’ every time a town or household does not welcome the message you bring, how many towns would have heard the good news?  And what about the dire message offered for the towns that will not hear, or for those that do not listen?

It seems to me that if it were that simple – if the world were really divided between those who show hospitality and accept the news of the kingdom, and those who will not listen, who offer no welcome to the messengers of the kingdom – then the kingdom work would have been finished long ago.  But the work to which Jesus calls us is endless – timeless.  The peace that Jesus invites us to seek and to share continues to be elusive in the world.  The kingdom has come near, and still we struggle to find ways to share that news; we struggle with the mission that urges us, “…in the spirit of humility, as beggars telling others where food is to be found, [to] point to life in Christ.”

We struggle with Jesus’ call to share the good news for many reasons.  We don’t know how to measure ‘success’ in this venture.  Jesus hasn’t sent the seventy (two) out to start churches; there will be no monuments or memorials left to mark their mission.  And Jesus joy in having heard of their exploits (“Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us”) suggests that they did not understand the mission perfectly.  “…do not rejoice…that the spirits submit to you, but that your names are written in heaven.”  The indication of success is hard to see, in other words.  So how can we know that we are on the right track?  Having answered God’s call to share the gospel, will we ever able to recognize progress in that mission?

I’ll suggest that there is one test of success – though it isn’t exactly obvious in the text.

After suggesting that some will welcome neither the messenger nor the message, Jesus suggests there are consequences: “Woe to you Chorazin!  Woe to you Bethsaida…”  Those towns that will not / cannot / do not listen, and counted as cursed.  Luke’s gospel lays out the boundaries of belief – from “whoever is not against you is for you (Luke 9: 50), to “whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me (10:16) – and the consequences of that rejection are severe.  Here, however, is the “test of success” – If the deeds and miracles had been performed in “Tyre and Sidon”, they would have repented long ago…How is this a measure of success, you ask?

Would it help to know that Tyre and Sidon were settlements beyond the borders of Jewish lands.  The suggestion is that even the outsider – even the supposed enemies of God (the gentiles) would be able to recognize a message from God – a message offered in humility and simplicity; offered by those who had nothing to gain and nothing more to offer than words of peace or compassion to those who were suffering.  Success, it seems, can be seen in the response of those whom you imagine to be your enemies.

So what if that were our only model for ministry?  What if our witness in the world – our evangelism and our outreach – was offered so that it moved our ‘enemies’ to repentance?  What if, instead of vilifying those who are different, we acted in ways that were irresistibly attractive to them?  Any announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom should be so attractive – so compelling – that even those most different from us, and most distant from God, are unable to resist the words of peace we speak.

Too often we measure our mission according to the safe – the known – the familiar.  We think we know what the church should look like – we think we know who is missing.  But the gospel has the power to move those who are not like us – those who are strange and challenging and unfamiliar – and bring them safely inside the circle of God’s grace and love.

Such is the power of our message – the power of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – that enemies of God become apostles, and exiles become citizens, so that by the light of Gods love in Christ we recognize with Paul that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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Salt and Light

April 24, 2016

“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…”  Words that leave all who hear them with work to do.  On the earth; for the world.  These words, coming as they do within that great teaching moment – Jesus on the hillside; he’s laying out the framework for faith – building a platform on which the promised kingdom of God might rest.  “Blessed are they…blessed are they…”; Jesus urges his hearers to faithfulness, compassion, humility and the peaceful pursuit of justice.  And then this – Salt of the earth; light of the world.  This is the only mission statement the church needs, and we don’t really know what to make of it.

Oh, we know about mission, all right – mission is that thing that the church supports, isn’t it?  That overseas work that we entrust to missionaries and Presbyterian World Service & Development – and this is certainly one aspect of “mission”.  But THE MISSION of the church – the reason we gather, the reason we organize ourselves, the reason we exist is to be Salt and Light.

The knowledge of God to which Jesus calls us – the work of God in which we are welcome to participate – the promises of Scripture and our identification as a covenant people; all these things mark us as different, and Jesus description reminds us just how different.  We are to be salty – brilliant; we are called to be like those two elemental things which are most often noticeable by their absence.

On those Thursdays when we gather to make soup, our ‘chief taster’ (aka Gerald) will let us know when our offering of the day ‘needs salt!’  Most of us can tell pretty quickly when the salt shaker has been stowed away – it’s the first thing we reach for when at the dinner table.

Likewise, the first thing some of us do when entering a dark room, is…stub our toe.  THEN we turn on a light.

Salt gives flavour to things by enhancing the flavour of all the other things we cook with; it is versatile and plentiful – so valuable in the ancient world  that it supported the economy for empires – much as oil does now.  Light shows us things that would otherwise be hidden from our sight, and then helps us chart our path through even the most familiar spaces.  For many, light is the thing that quenches fear, and salt is the purifying element that lets healing begin – and in the work of the church; in every mission project taken on by the AMS, or PWS&D, where ever the people of God are gathered or sent, we too must be salt and light.

It is with this hope that every missionary journey begins – from John and Charlotte Geddie in the New Hebrides, to Donald Walker and Marion  in Ghana – each and every person called to overseas work is aware that the gift of the Gospel of Christ has the potential to reveal things that may have been hidden; to lift he veil of darkness and fear, and to bring cleansing and healing to those who have been broken by oppression and injustice.  And while our understanding for mission work may be the liberation of lives half a world away, it is clear that Jesus meant much more than that.

Jesus mission never took him beyond the borders of his own country.  His call to be ‘salt and light’ was local and immediate.  His teaching would have a global impact only after his followers accepted the challenge for their own lives, in their own communities.  And Jesus’ example gave them a pattern to follow.

You don’t think Jesus was ‘salty’?  (a term that has come to have negative implications, as in “his language is a little salty”)  You don’t think having Jesus in their midst didn’t spice up the ordinary lives of the people of Galilee?  Think again.

Calling God by name – using terms of endearment (Abba = Daddy); taking principled positions on current events and in religious debates that aligned him with God’s definitions of mercy and justice – positions that were often contrary to the prevailing civil and religious authority.  Jesus revealed the promised safety and certainty of those powerful people as a sham, and offered the promises of God for the healing of all.

Jesus shed light on those who had been thrust into the dark corners of his society – and that light revealed those outcasts and strangers as children of God.  He loved the loveless and touched the untouchable; Jesus reached out to those whom religion and culture had abandoned, and redefined the ‘kingdom of God’.

Through Scripture and the present, powerful work of the Spirit, Jesus still calls us; challenging all who would follow him to share in the task of revealing the things of God and reviving God’s broken world.

The call to be salt and light is a call to action.  Beyond worship, beyond an historical appreciation for “the role of the church in our lives”, beyond any sense of eternal security that comes with faith, we are called to live as Jesus lived.  To speak the truth to power; to ‘spice things up’ by offering friendship and courtesy where none was expected; to offer the light of hope – the hope of death defeated, and robbed of its power – to those caught in the deep gloom of hopelessness; and we are called to do that here, and now.  The opportunity to live out our calling – to engage in the mission of Christ – is always at hand.  The work of the church, even when it seems to have little effect, is indispensable.  It is, as salt and light, most noticeable when it is absent and the good news is that by the grace of God, we are still here.  Thanks be to God that we are – even now – living out that call to be salt and light, for Jesus’ sake – to God’s glory.  Amen

Who’s the greatest?

September 20, 2015

Who is the greatest?

The church in the Western world for the last – let’s say four hundred and fifty years – has considered itself the greatest; a top level power – a player in the global community. Think about why this was the case; Christian religion, for better or worse, opened new territories to white, European development.  The Church (as an institution) helped monarchs make rules, then governments, then empires.  From the earliest days of Christian Europe, the institutional church filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of Roman Imperialism, and until the middle of the Twentieth Century, Christianity maintained the illusion of power in most of the countries and colonies of Western Europe – and of course, in North America.  The greatest – though not always the best – but surely the (Institutional) Church had achieved a certain status in the world that Jesus disciples could not have imagined.

But since we are a product of the “great age” of Christian thought, we are not sure why Jesus would need to redefine ‘greatness’ when it becomes the subject of discussion among his disciples.

Greatness, in this context, is about power.  You might want to imagine that the disciples were comparing their own relative successes on their recently completed mission trip, or trying to decide whom Jesus’ successor may (eventually) be in their tiny travelling theology school (Jesus has just suggested that the Son of Man would be killed – and raised; a statement that the disciples did not understand…), but the word used in Mark’s gospel means greatest in the ‘Mohammed Ali’ sense of the word.  The best; the top; none better – most magnificent, powerful etc etc etc.

The followers of Jesus needed only look to the world around them and notice how greatness was achieved; through power.  The greatest among them (in society) had influence, positions of authority, and wealth.

These guys – walking along dusty roads, living on the hospitality of strangers, challenged at every turn by the religious authorities (and the civil authority) are the opposite of what society considers “great”- and when they imagine greatness, they are not dreaming of some heavenly reward; they were thinking about power.  So this sudden call to a new reality; a divine reality – whoever wishes to be first must be last of all and servant of all – must have been difficult to hear, and harder still to imagine. So to help them, Jesus takes a child, places it in their midst; the universal symbol of helplessness – of non-power – and Jesus tells them their needs must take a back seat.  They are to welcome those who are powerless – to interact with people in ways that won’t necessarily increase the disciples own influence.  The truly stunning revelation is not that there are people who are ‘worse off ‘ – Jesus invites them to honour God by honouring the least of these – that is the revolutionary idea

It was counter-intuitive then; it is still an unusual perspective. The disciples may have been astonished by the notion that there were people in the neighbourhood (or in society) who had less power than themselves, or those whose measure of greatness was something as ordinary as a small band of students trailing after an unlikely teacher. Jesus’ object lesson ought to stand as a reminder to us that power – greatness –  is not where we think it is; and that true greatness – greatness in the promised Kingdom of God – involves a different kind of power.

Our attitudes toward greatness are still wrapped up in money, fame, influence and power, but we also imagine that it is possible for people to achieve these things through determination and a good work ethic.  You could argue that greatness has become a cultural expectation – so we don’t ask the question for ourselves as the disciples did; today in the church, the quiet debate is not “who (among us) is the greatest?” – it is, rather, “whose need is greatest, and how can we help?”  Imagining our own power to be sufficient – and our own needs relatively small – we cast about for places where we may do the most good (and so make a name for ourselves in the name of God.)  –  It’s a subtle difference and it is still the wrong question.

While it is good that the church is willing and able to respond to disasters both sudden and slow-moving, our focus tends to get dragged to the big events – the grand scale of wreckage and despair that is now made known to us almost as soon as it happens – can leave us numb; but then we can make a donation, or host an event, or attend a vigil, and feel like we have contributed, in some small way, to a great relief effort.  That is how we work, (and it is not a bad approach, given the scope of the misery we are asked to consider) but our habit of lurching from disaster to disaster must surely seem (to some) as though we have no clear sense of direction.

Remember the Tsunami of 2005?  The Haitian earthquake?  Bosnia?  Bangladesh?  The Vietnamese ‘boat people’?  Headline makers, every one;  but when was the last time we thought about Haiti?  Or Indonesia?  or the plight of minorities in the Asian sub-continent?  Has the need been eliminated, or merely eclipsed by more recent news…

Whose need is greatest, we say in our board meetings and our prayers – imagining that the success of the institution might somehow serve the Kingdom of God.  So we acknowledge the crisis appeals, and continue to pour money into buildings and programs in the vain hope (and fervent desire) that we may yet be a power (for good) in our culture.   And then Jesus, having confronted us with the grim reality of his own greatness with a blunt announcement of his inevitable death and glorious resurrection, puts a child in his arms and says this is what need looks like; consider the multitudes who are truly powerless – acknowledge these – identify with these – serve these and put their needs and comforts ahead of your own.

Not just the children, of course – the child in Jesus’ arms is a symbol of all human helplessness, and the urgent need of all Creation for the redemptive love of God.  And we are invited to be agents of that redemption, by opening our hearts – our homes – our lives to this wonderfully simple and beautiful idea that to be first is to ignore power; that to be great is to seek the companionship of those whom society ignores.  That to follow Jesus is to love what seems (to us) unloveable.  The scale of our outreach must be both small – person to person as well as grand – nation to nation.  Jesus invites us to overcome personal prejudice and  serve those whom God has called children.  It is not the sort of greatness we might have imagined for ourselves – but it such basic acts of love are the service to which we are called.

Who is the greatest?  To those who honour God in humility – who seek justice, and love kindness, the question is irrelevant.  For in such service, God’s greatness and glory are revealed, and that is all that matters.

Mission, with a shepherd’s touch

June 2, 2015

“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 as 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.

What’s next? a church built on questions, not answers.

May 17, 2015

I am fond of reminding you that we are “an Easter people”

because it is a description of the church that works for me.

It also happens to be true.

The collected disciples of Jesus,

‘the church’ in its most generous and inclusive definition,

are called to live in light of Jesus resurrection.

We are who we are,

not just because Jesus taught us to love God and our neighbour,

but because after his arrest and execution,

he was raised from the dead by the power of God.

We don’t just follow the memory of Jesus,

we follow Christ alive – victorious over death.

In recognition of this singular event in the history of our faith,

we are invited to stand with God who says

‘Take that!’ to the notion that life is futile and death is to be feared.

The problem is, Easter is over.

We have honoured the story, and marked the season

with worship and the proper dignity.

The gift of life has claimed us through Word and Sacrament –

and we have responded with dedication and service

and the proclamation of the gospel.

But the world spins carelessly along, just as it has,

and I don’t mind telling you,

most days I feel more like “a child of the ascension” than an Easter person.

I resonate with those friends of Jesus,

standing at the edge of town, staring off into the blue.

There have been moments of awe and wonder in their time with Jesus –

glimpses of grace followed by moments of confusion.

Life’s like that when you have a friend

who is so brilliant; so insightful; so wonderful

that you can’t believe you are part of their ‘inner circle’.

And for all that had happened,

the resurrection had given these friends of Jesus another chance –

they listened more intently;

they received their instructions; finally they could hear clearly.

‘Be faithful witnesses to all the world,

but wait first in Jerusalem, where you will receive ‘power from on high’ – the promised gift of God.’

But what is witness like

once Jesus rises up on a cloud and disappears?

Who will tell them what the gift looks like?

How will they know when it is time to gather, or time to go,

without Jesus there to tell them?

It seems to me that the moment Jesus disappeared from their sight,

the hope, the energy, the passion

of these few dedicated men and women

must have felt as though it was going up along with him.

We know that the gift of the Spirit will once again change things

for these poor, confused souls.

But for the moment, consider how we find them;

alone – Amazed – and waiting for the next big moment.

And through the gift that is Scripture, we can learn about ourselves

as we consider the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ ascension –

an event that seems even more mysterious to us than the resurrection.

The resurrection proves the power of God’s love

over the ancient and very present fear of death.

The resurrection,

as a display of the power of God

and an example of God’s sovereignty and omnipotence,

makes sense to us.

The resurrection is God’s way of saying “take that!”

to all that would oppose grace and peace and love in this world.

Jesus walking talking – etc –

among those who had given him up for lost

was a powerful boost for the faithful.

The ascension has no such power.

The ascension leaves the faithful behind wondering “What’s next?”

and that is not a comfortable feeling.

‘What’s next?’ is our default position,

both as human beings and as followers of the risen Christ.

As much as we ARE an Easter people,

we are also children of this ascension moment.

We have heard all Jesus has to offer, and accepted it.

We have put our trust in the promises of God,

and now we wait; and if you’re like me,

you may not even know what it is we’re waiting for…

Is it the peaceable kingdom?

A home in glory?

Or are we just staring into the middle distance

waiting for Jesus to re-appear;

to pick up where he left off?

‘What’s next?’ is an important question

at every stage in the life of the church.

It is the question that moves us forward

in our pursuit of the gift of the gospel.

It is those uncomfortable times in the life of the church  –

when we are caught between the joy of Easter and the zeal of Pentecost –

that the real work gets done.

“What’s next?” leads to pot-luck suppers and song services;

talent auctions and soup lunches;

earthquake relief and clean water projects.

Such questions took us from Residential schools to formal apologies,

to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

These are productive questions in the lives of the faithful,

and we must not be afraid to ask them.

The questions we ask when Jesus has been “hidden from our sight”

and the Spirit’s presence is just a faint disturbance on the horizon

help to define the mission of the church in the world.

(“What would Jesus do?” is a ‘what’s next?’ question…) –

it is a great comfort to me to think of our current challenges in this light;

challenges that stretch our faith

and cause us to wonder and worry about the future,

not just of the church, but of the planet and its inhabitants.

The promises offered by the gospel

are ‘hidden from our sight’ by the world as it is.

And the greatest challenge for the church

is not that the promise of Easter must be reinterpreted or reimagined two thousand years later;

our challenge is to accept ‘what’s next?’ as part of that promise.

“This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven,

will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

So said the dazzling strangers on that day.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

There were questions to be asked and answered then.

And until the Kingdom comes, until Jesus returns,

the work of the church is in those questions.

Mission, with a shepherd’s heart

April 26, 2015

“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.

I love a parade. (part two)

November 2, 2014

Is this really a good time for Jesus to start a parade into town? He has been putting the powerful in their place at every opportunity; reframing their questions and suggesting that the answers only point to a strange kind of revolution – one where the least shall be great, and the weak are the most powerful. Jesus is the one that eeryone is talking about – the headline news in certain circles: “have you head about how he treated the Pharisees?” – “ a different teaching – with authority!” – “I was blind, but now I see…” – in a time before instant messages or constant news, the rumour mill was the height of technology, and you cna be sure that Jesus’ exploits have been shared (and possibly ‘liked’) by a large percentage of the population.

So is this good marketing, or a singularly bad idea:

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.”

Because we are used to reading this text in Holy Week, we know that there will be a price to pay for this sort of cheek; Mocking the powerful and accepting the people’s praise is going to get you the wrong kind of attention. There is more than one ancient prophecy about to be brought to life, and it is an important feature in the drama leading up to Jesus crucifixion, but what is the point of this kind of behaviour? It is more than just the opening act of Jesus passion – a ‘king’ on a donkey; a passionate preacher trashing the furniture at the entrance to the temple – what’s the real story here?

Jesus has asked his followers for something different; he has challenged their understanding of the law of Moses; he urges them to reconsider their ideas about who God is and how God can be approached. He is trying to redifine righteousness, touching the untouchable, eating with the unclean, ignoring the habits of faith that separated the “chosen” from the forgotten. In a region ruled by Roman might – among a people with long memories (for the liberating promises of God) but little experience (beyond opression and captivity of their own generation) – the ideas of Jesus (who is only too happy to practice what he preaches) are not just religious nonsense – they are political propaganda.

So when you act out of your convictions, you draw attention (and potentially harm) to yourself and your ideas. When you question the religious practice of long standing (selling ‘perfect/acceptable’ offerings [at a profit] is a method of controlling both the style and substance of worship) the frozen chosen are not likely going to rush to your defence when the authorities come calling. Jesus is working under the shadow of destruction long before the cross is laid on his sholders – and that, I think, is the REAL story.

As the passion story meets us in the long season before Advent, Matthew’s gospel reminds us that everyone who chooses to follow this (comical) king who longs to see holiness represented in the temple – everyone who is attracted by a kingdom founded on love where even the poor and the outcast have a place – all of us who take Jesus as our model are working under the shadow of the cross. Destruction is assured; the establishment will not be mocked; power does not easily lose its attraction for those who hold it. We are pledged to what seems like a losing cause.

Consider the discussions we have – the dreams we have for the church as a voice of reason, and a place of influence. We are told that this is how it used to be, but a church in “power” is not what Jesus called into being. Jesus started a movement that spoke truth to power, and suffered for it. The “main-stream” is not where we were meant to swim, and we need to accept that.

Jesus is not given a heroes welcome on that day in Jerusalem – this is a parody of a parade. His real business is revealed in his actions at the temple; rearranging, not just the furniture, but the focal point of God’s worshipping people. “a house of prayer, not a den of robbers”. This is not a blow to the Sunday shopping crowd, but a wake up call for those whose defence is “we’ve always done it that way”

So we are not the hottest ticket in town. Crowds don’t rush to our services (just our dinners). Our strength – indeed, our only purpose as the gathered people of God is prayer – worship – praise. And we must find a way to continue to do those things – in spite of the burden of our buildings, and the burden of our expectations of ‘success’. Our buildings are too big, and too costly to maintain – let’s find smaller buildings. There are too many churches for such a small population (some say) – Let’s unite with our neighbours in faith. Let’s put aside the notion that worship can only happen on certain days, at certain times – ideas that mean we are routinely excluding folks who work weekends, or rotating shifts. Jesus saw that the faithful had fallen into a trap – the safety and security of something familiar, which had strayed from its original purpose – and he challenged them to return to that purpose. We are drawn into that same challenge.

The church still has work to do – the gospel of Christ still has the ability to change lives and offer hope. Our community needs what we can offer, hospitality; compassion; celebration; and of course, an opportunity to seek the Holy One in all those activities. We must keep Jesus’ challenge before us – we must approach questions of sustainability and existence from positions of prayer and praise. Our work in worship must inform our work in the world. When it does – when faith is revealed in all its power and majesty – that will be reason enough for a parade.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Amen

What cost, grace? Luke 14: 15-24

June 22, 2014

Grace – especially God’s grace – is a strange concept. No one deserves it; everyone has a different definition for it; and when God offers grace, the world is turned upside down. Disadvantage becomes desirable.

Jesus offers this insight while observing guests and their host interact over dinner. Entertaining, then and now, is a complicated business. Some guests are more important than others. Egos must be soothed, seating arrangements need to be carefully planned – and Jesus calls attention to the ridiculous, petty nature of it all. Don’t make a fuss, Jesus says – don’t claim importance for yourself – humility and hospitality are two sides of the same coin, and you host can only show you true hospitality if you are truly humble. When someone seems to suggest that those who share a table in the Kingdom of God will somehow be different, Jesus launches into his parable.

The first thing that strikes me about this ‘parable’ is the weak excuses offered by those who are first invited. I’ve got to see some new property; I’ve just been married; – I’m dying to try out my new oxen…Seriously? You have been invited – well in advance. You know the host is saving a place for you. Indifference is at work here, and that is what makes this parable so hard to hear this morning – for we know all about indifference.

(look around – you see real evidence of indifference – empty seats.)

But don’t mistake me – this is not a story about the importance of having a full church, nor is it all about dragging people to the party who don’t want to be at the party (Matthew tells the story differently, with consequences for those who come to the party ‘unprepared’) – no, Jesus tells this story at a dinner party (where grace is in short supply) to remind us that there is nothing in our experience that compares to God’s grace.

When we think about this parable and what it means for us as the church, too often, we see it as a sign of our failure. We have not kept the table full. We have failed to follow the instructions of the host, whom we serve We have heard excuses and believed them – we have not been so enthusiastic about the idea that the poor, the halt and the lame should be next on the guest list, because we have come to believe that the only good guest is one who can help us pick up the tab when the party is over. But this is not the parable of the full church – this is a parable of the kingdom of God – and the church is not always a good example of the Kingdom.

When offering his insight on the dinner party, Jesus lets the secret of this parable slip; Entertain those who can’t entertain you (Luke 14: 12-14) – don’t look to those who can repay you with an invitation, but try another way. “None of those invited will taste my dinner”, says the host of the parable – none who were considered ‘good enough’ will ever really know what hospitality is; none who think themselves righteous know what righteousness is; no one this thinks they are worthy of God’s grace will ever know what grace is, and this parable is all about grace.

The church is in a strange and dangerous position. We who call ourselves the body of Christ have met the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus; we say the right things, we worship and baptize and reach out to a broken world, but we do not always show signs of the grace that has touched us. We judge; we exclude; we offer (and accept) excuses for our behaviour that sound very much weaker than “I have got me a wife; I have bought me a cow”. We imagine that because we have commitments that cost us a pretty sum, that we are the hosts of this party, and somehow liable for its success – but we are not. We are urged to take advice from one who knows a thing or two about grace – Entertain those who can’t reciprocate, Jesus says – accept around your tables people who don’t appear to deserve an invitation – make your best efforts towards the least able in your communities and neighbourhoods. For the church, I think this means we must stop worrying about the supporters whom we have lost, and start to pay attention to those who desperately need our support. If it is grace we are asked to show, then lets reach out in faith without seeking reward, or reciprocation, or someone to share the cost with us.

(It is in that spirit that session in Thorburn has decided to organize (beginning in September) a monthly hot lunch, not as a fund raising enterprise, but as outreach. We do this, not so we can survive, but because we are the body of Christ, eager to show others what the Kingdom may be like. It is like a place where everyone gets what they don’t deserve – where invitations are offered and re-offered, not because the table (or the building) must be full, but because the Grace of God is not defeated by lame excuses or rampant indifference, or reluctant acceptance. God is generous beyond all imagination, and that generous grace is the example we are called to follow.

Reluctant apostles. (that’s YOU)

February 9, 2014

Disciples or apostles – which best describes us?  They are very different descriptions, sometimes used interchangeably, but the difference should be noted.  Disciple means follower; learner; student.  A disciple could be anyone who chose to fashion their life according to the principles of a certain teacher – Moses had disciples – Elijah – many of the prophets.  We still think of people who have influenced our thought in more recent times as having disciples; Gandhi, MLK Jr, Karl Marx, etc…

An apostle is sent as a messenger “to convey the substance of things taught…” 

Luke (and Mark) use the word translated “apostle” for those twelve commonly named men (they are always and only men) who share Jesus final meal, and later become the focus of his several sightings in Jerusalem after the tomb has been found empty – and Matthew tells us that Jesus the sent out these twelve to “proclaim the good news” (Mt 10:7) which helps widen the gap between “the followers” and “those who proclaim”

If we had our way, disciples would be our choice.  To follow is hard enough – to be expected to share – we’d rather not, thanks.  But something about the way of Christ – something in our system of faith – has the effect of turning every disciple into an apostle.

I began my life in the church as neither a disciple nor apostle.  I was eager and curious, but I wasn’t yet ready to pattern my life after the example of Jesus; I had too many questions.  So I got involved; I listened, I sang, I served in the kitchen and on the board of managers.  I threw myself into the community of faith hoping for some answers.  Along the way, I learned the importance of questions in the life of a disciple – the answers were not always forthcoming.

Eventually, I decided that I could call myself a disciple; I made a public profession of faith, and accepted that from that point on, my journey would be changed by my decision – I’m not sure I was ready for the extent of that change, nor could I have imagined that it would be a never-ending cycle of changes.

Somewhere on the way to becoming a disciple of Jesus, something happened to me.

I began reading Scripture more intentionally – I reacted to current events in different ways – my long established ideas about the world started to seem inadequate;

I was forced (by my newly developing world view) to change my mind about things that had once seemed iron-clad.  I could no longer keep silent in the face of injustice.  I felt a desperate need to tell others about the wonderful possibilities of a life of discipleship – my encounter with the Christian community helped make a disciple of me, but my exploration of the gospel (and all that I discover there) turned me into an apostle – a messenger.

This change is still happening in me.  For I came to the church thinking faith was a personal moral exercise – a way of defining right and wrong; but I learned that faith is not just about me; it offers a new way to see the world / and a new way to respond to the world.

The first disciples discovered this before Jesus was arrested – it was confirmed when he was raised.  This teacher of theirs asked them to reinterpret everything!  Relationships to God and their fellow citizens – their approach to justice – even their attitude toward their Roman conquerors.

This is “following” that is much more than getting the steps right; following Jesus opens us up to a new reality.  It is dangerous business, seeking light in darkness; questioning ‘the way things are’  It puts us in the minority, and it sets us against powerful opposition, but the community that draws us in, and the gospel that guides us – these things are no less powerful.  Scripture tells a story that invites questions and begs to be explored.  This particular account of God’s revelation to humanity has endured, not because we can confirm every detail, but because it demands a response once we have heard it.

You may think that you are able to hear, trust and obey, and carefully, anonymously follow in the way of peace described by Jesus.  But once you have encountered the news of his resurrection, it is nearly impossible to refrain from sharing the story / telling the tale.  We are all made messengers (apostles) by the magnificence of the story.

It is quite likely that, if you are here and listening, you already know this.  You have lived lives made full by your response to the gospel of Christ; well done, good and faithful servants, but the job is far from finished.  Our task as the church is to always find ways to turn “following” into “proclamation” – to make disciples, and help them become apostles.

You see, we are the ‘other’ secret to the endurance of the gospel.  The Christian church, with all its failings, for all its humanity, has made room for the creation of disciples, and their transformation into apostles;

by allowing people to seek God, and encouraging those who would follow, we proclaim the truth revealed in Jesus; of a world made better by the love of God embodied and shared and proclaimed…

Reluctant apostles, perhaps – but apostles you are.  Accept the challenge – bear the gift – praise God.  Amen

Mission awareness Sunday

April 28, 2013

Mission is an interesting word.  It carries overtones of intrigue,

for any of us who grew up with spy thrillers and war movies.

In such circumstances, The Mission was always the thing that drove the plot,

that motivated the characters, and provided the action scenes

which led to all sorts of daring antics, harm for the villain,

and in the end, the hero getting his reward

(sorry, but I’m old enough that the hero was always ‘he’)

Some of us can be excused for having difficulty

adapting to the churches use of the word.

Though perhaps the church can bear some of the blame.

Mission, in the eyes of the church has often had a thrilling and dangerous reputation – intrepid souls called to far-flung places for the sake of the Gospel.

There were obstacles to overcome, objectives to achieve,

and frequently, there was the promise of real harm.

The church considered Jesus’ injunction to ‘make disciples of all nations’ very seriously, and it was something that motivated all sorts of exploration, and discovery –

and it led to conquest and oppression;

too much of the ‘mission’ of the church caused real harm to real people.

We argued that all this activity was for a greater good –

that the knowledge we gleaned from the gospel

required us to civilize the wild and untamed regions of the world –

and to be sure, we owe a great debt to the courage, ingenuity

and willingness of those souls who faced the unknown

with nothing but their faith and their wits.

We have recently begun to imagine

that the purpose of our mission as followers of Christ

is not to recreate our experience in the lives of those we do not understand –

their strangeness should no longer provoke our fear  –

our mission is best described by Jesus in this mornings gospel lesson from John 13.

Keep in mind, the disciples are gathered in that famous upper room –

they have shared what will be their last meal,

Jesus has washed their feet –

an act of service meant to give them an example of their coming mission –

and Judas has been overcome by that evil notion that will lead to Jesus arrest.

The next act in this curious passion is Jesus offering a new commandment;

‘love one another’.

This is the mandate of the church, whatever else we may say.

All of our activity must proceed

from Jesus’ urging his frightened disciples to love one another.

One of their number has just left to betray the cause –

the authorities will soon descend –

and their plans for a revolution of ideas will come to an inglorious end.

Love one another, Jesus says, and the mission of the church is decided.

With these words in mind,

the devoted servants of Jesus went out after the Resurrection

and announced that love had prevailed over death.

The love of God became the message of salvation, and so it should be.

The church grew and thrived in those early days

because those who felt abandoned (or lost in the terrible oppression of empire)

heard from these eager disciples that even when no one else showed them love,

God had – and most importantly, the messengers of Christ showed that love to them;

“there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; all are one in Christ” –

so said Paul –  who himself was moved to a mission grounded in love –

preaching a message of acceptance and invitation.

What that mission became in the darker days of church history is something else again.

Crusades, the Inquisition, a variety of ‘Holy’ wars and cultural assaults

that haunt the people of God to this day –

but our commitment to mission need not suffer because of the mistakes we have made;

we are still under order to love one another,

and that commandment has once more become the motivation for mission.

The work of PWS&D, supported by congregations all over Canada,

– states that their primary motivation is

to ‘…gladly serve women and men, young and old,

according to their need and regardless of their faith.’

No more the notion that we must make disciples ‘by compulsion’,

we reach out in love; no strings attached, just as God has done in Jesus.

The other danger, of course, is to imagine that mission

is something that happens somewhere else.

Mission was about Christians reaching out to ‘the lost’,

and how could the lost be among us?

We now know that there are people in our communities

who are hungry for love and acceptance,

for whom Jesus is a mystery and God an interesting abstraction.

Our mission is not to ensure that they are educated in the details of the Christian faith –

our mission, according to Jesus, is to love them.

The challenge for today’s church,

in a time of instant communication and expanding knowledge of other cultures,

is to understand the part played by the Spirit of God in this mission.

Love doesn’t lead to instant understanding.  Occasionally love is met with resistance.

But  Jesus command to love does not depend on that love being returned.

Our mission is to show the love of Christ with no expectation for ourselves.

We are, in the words of Living Faith, ‘…showing the hungry where bread may be found.’

That love is ours to share –

we need not travel the globe to follow the guidance of Jesus.

Our neighbours need understanding and compassion.

Our communities will benefit when we reach out in love,

– our mission begins here, alongside friends,

and among those whom we don’t always understand;

to love as Christ loves –

even at the expense of our need to be accepted by the people around us –

with no expectation of reward,

content to know that we will have offered an explanation for the hope that is in us.

The church without mission does not exists, some have said – and this is our only task

To love one another, in the shops, on the streets –

wherever people gather, whatever they believe, our task is to love them –

to be open to real relationship, to offer compassion, and service –

this is gospel proclamation, for which there is no language barrier –

it is the mission of all of us who would call ourselves the church.