Following God’s Lead in Mission

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, observed as World Mission Sunday. The scripture readings are Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9.

Villanueva, Honduras, 2005

A few years ago, I was with a mission group from my church, helping a chapel in Honduras build some new seating for their church.  One day, several of us needed to go to the hardware store. The guys from the parish went to the back to look at a drill motor and I, with my child-level Spanish, was left to ask the clerk for help with some screws.  “Por favor, necesito tornillos con una cruz en la cabeza.” To me, this seemed very clear:  I need some screws with a cross on the head, what we call Phillips head screws.

The man looked at me curiously.  I used my hands, “tornillos con una cruz in la cabeza.” But I wasn’t getting through. Finally, I found some in another part of the store and brought them over to him, and said, “Como estos pero más grande.”  Like these but larger. 

All of a sudden, the man got a big smile on his face and said, “Ah, Phillips head. Están allí.” 

In that moment and on that trip, I gained a few insights into mission.  I took my focus off looking for differences, and began to look for things we have in common.  I began to be open to learning, in a new way. I found myself in a new place of humility, and I caught God’s always-surprising sense of humor.

Today is designated by the Episcopal Church as World Mission Sunday. We’re invited to reflect on what it means to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” words we reaffirm whenever we renew our Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own relationship with the idea of “mission.”

When you hear a phrase like World Mission, Global Mission, or Christian Mission, what comes to mind? 

Are there stories of heroic missionaries—doctors, farmers, teachers, preachers you have read about or met? Or, is there an uneasiness, as you might be aware of some of the negative ways in which imperialism, colonialism, and even fascism have warped and abused Christ’s message?

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of an Anglican council visited the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, one of 50 castles along the Western coast of Africa used to hold Africans awaiting embarkation for slave ships. As horrible as the overcrowded, inhumane, and evil conditions of people being kept and sold as slaves, at Cape Coast Castle, the Anglicans had a chapel directly over the dungeon.

Christian preachers have perverted the idea of mission to the point that many of us are sometimes embarrassed to say the word out loud.  

The former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, often had a way of speaking deep truth with a bit of humor. He said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Christians have a lot to answer for, but that doesn’t mean we ignore God’s invitation to be involved in mission.

My own understanding of mission has changed over the years. I grew up hearing about missionaries at church, giving money to particular missions, and even participating in special mission trips, locally and in other regions. During seminary, I spent a summer in India, working in an interfaith mission in Mumbai and in a Church of North India Anglican Church on Sundays.  But mission really began to inform my life in an important way, here in the Diocese of New York.

The Rev. Sylvia Vásquez worked as Canon for Congregational Development in the Diocese of New York, and when I worked at St. Mary the Virgin, we had Sylvia visit and make a presentation.

At one point, a parishioner asked Canon Vásquez the question that was probably on a lot of our minds. “Why should we invest time and money in mission with far away places when there is so much need right here at home?”  The person who asked the question went on to say, “I mean, there is hunger and homelessness and teenage pregnancy and drug abuse and poverty of all kinds right in our own neighborhoods.  Why are we talking about going to another part of the world?”  Canon Vásquez then said very gently to the person, “Can I ask you something?  May I ask – are you already involved in addressing any of those local problems you just mentioned?”  “Well, no,” the person explained, “It’s all just too overwhelming.  I mean, where does one begin to address all these societal and systemic problems?  I guess I just don’t know where to start.”

Canon Vásquez then began to explain that one reason to become involved in global mission is to learn from the people in other places, to see how they are tackling problems of almost overwhelming magnitude and to learn from their successes, their failures, their joys and their sorrows.  Sometimes visiting another place can give us a sharper perspective on our own situation. 

What Sylvia said made a lot of sense to me and has been something I’ve found to be true. Whenever I’ve become involved in the mission of a person or community in another place, I gain a new perspective on my own ministry field, as well as offer some support to the other.

Titus Pressler, a mission leader and theologian in our church, has written:

God is the missionary at the heart of Christian mission – that is a central insight of scripture.  Mission is not fundamentally something we do as Christians but a quality of God’s own being.  It is not a program of ours but the path of God’s action in the world.  The mission of the church, therefore, derives from the mission of God, and it has meaning only in relation to what God is up to in the universe.  Already engaged in mission, God simply invites us to participate in what God is doing.

Horizons of Mission, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cowley, 2001) p.20.

The old saying might be true that “charity begins at home.” But God’s action doesn’t stop there. God’s activity moves and expands, and we’re invited to be alert and get involved

Today’s Gospel tells of Jesus and his disciples going up a mountain. There, Jesus begins to be filled with light. He’s transfigured, and with him appear Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the tradition of the Law and Elijah the tradition of the prophets.  The vision, this experience of God, is so overwhelming that Peter wants to stay right there. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter wants to freeze the moment, to keep everything right there, to have their own little spiritual time. But Jesus has none of that. Jesus makes it clear that this is PART of God’s plan… they should say nothing until after the resurrection.

If Moses heard Peter make that offer about building huts for them to stay in, he probably would have been shaking his head, “No.” You can’t keep the love of God to yourself. Moses would go up to the mountain to speak with God, and those times must have been sweet beyond belief. But Moses didn’t become a hermit and spend all his days alone with God, he would go back down the mountain, again and again. He’d leave the presence of God to return and deal the very human assistant Joshua, with the elders who were getting anxious, and with the people who couldn’t keep themselves from making temporary, short-term gods to help them feel better.

Back on the Mount of the Transfiguration, the disciples are told that more of the plan will be revealed, and we can read in the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus does give the rest of God’s plan. After the Resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Go out and share the Good News. But let’s notice what Jesus says and does not say.

Jesus never said, “Go stand on a street corner and yell at people.”
He never said, “Walk through subway cars shouting scripture at people to repent.”
He never suggested trying to shape people into one’s own image.

If we are serious about following Jesus, if we’re serious about making disciples, about sharing the spirit that leads to baptism, then we should simply look at the life of Jesus and do what he did. He spent time with people. He healed, shared food, offered encouragement, spoke up for the weak and the left out. He spoke the hard truth to the stuck up and stingy, to the powerful and proud. Yes, Jesus called on people to repent and turn to God, but he did it with love and showed us exactly how to do it. And that what we should do when we participate in mission—close at home and far away.

I mentioned St. Mary the Virgin’s trips to Honduras, and we were energized and enlivened by our relationship with San Juan Evangelista. My church in Washington was deepened through a connection with a mission in Springs, South Africa, as well as its work with the St. John Eye Hospital in East Jerusalem.

At Holy Trinity, we leveraged a mission grant from the Diocese to help Christians in Iraq, and we’ll learn more about that ministry and our support when several Iraqi Christians visit in May. I have my own connections here and there, and keep discerning, exploring options, and listing to the Holy Spirit.

But I invite you to join me: where should we be deepening relationships—Puerto Rico? Mexico? The Middle East? South Africa?  Where do you have connections? Where do you hear God’s Spirit calling us to be involved, to be helpful and to be helped, to be challenged, and to be changed?

Of course, we will expand and enlarge mission locally—there’s plenty to do. But local and global mission are never mutually exclusive. They encourage each other and a healthy church has no bounds to its love.

In the Transfiguration Gospel, when the disciples feel overwhelmed and just about faint at the vision in front of them, Jesus says to them, “Get up and don’t be afraid.”

Praying with the Prayer for Mission in our Prayer Book, may God “inspire our witness to Christ, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection.” Amen.