Based on Genesis 18:1-15, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
In my home church of Mount Olivet in Arlington, youth mission trips were a big part of the life of the church. Back in the 80’s, an associate pastor and a couple of leaders got the idea that instead of doing car washes and bake sales to raise money to fund youth missions they would put on plays and invite the community. They started small and kept the initial offerings to plays like “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and other light comedies. The youth would begin in November to audition and to practice, and the plays were usually put on for the congregation and neighborhood in mid-February. Money that was raised was placed in a special fund to support the mission trips for the middle school and high school youth. Over the years, the plays became more sophisticated and the oversight of professional theatre people was enlisted. The kids had a blast and learned some valuable skills for planning, execution, fund raising, set construction, sound and lighting, public speaking, etc.
The week-long mission trips occurred in the summertime. Youth and adult chaperones were sent two or more hours from Northern Virginia to areas of need. Home reclamation projects for the younger crowd and Habitat for Humanity-like projects for the older youth were the norm. Good and helpful work was done, and the kids interacted with strangers who lived a vastly different and far less privileged lives, but at the end of the week we left. We would be back to those same areas year after year because our short-term missions didn’t engage in changing the structural problems that created the living situations in the first place. Nor did we spend enough time to get to know the people and to understand what God was doing in those places. It was felt by the church leadership that some missional work was better than none, and my family were active participants at that stage in our lives. My participation in those mission weeks always left me with a feeling of having missed out on something important, but it took a deeper dive into my call to figure out what our mission with God is supposed to be.
Our scriptures today are all about how we as children of God are to join with God in God’s missional activity in the world. God did not create the Body of Christ to sit around in church buildings talking to ourselves. The “missio Dei” – the mission of God, is to have us go out into the world to extravagantly welcome the stranger, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the leper and cast out demons. In order to do that work, we will need all the help that God can give. Before we go further, let us go to God in praise and thanksgiving that we get to be in mission with God…
The Apostle Paul is distilling everything that he has written over the years to all his church plants into one final letter to the believers in Rome. In this epistle, an aging Paul brings together all that he had been trying to teach throughout his missionary journeys. In the reading for today, Paul is building on the faith of Abraham which stemmed from the covenant with God to make of Abraham and Sarah a great nation. It was a leap of faith for Abraham to follow God through all the ups and downs of their relationship – but one that was ultimately rewarded. Paul says that like Abraham, we who place our faith in Jesus are made guiltless (i.e., justified) for Jesus died so that we might live, and thus allow us to be in full relationship with God. Since we are returned to right relationship, we can hope to share in the glory of God and the promises of Jesus. This hope in God never disappoints because God always keeps God’s promises. Our mission in life is to develop our understanding that the Christ’s justification of us happened to further God’s work to heal broken humans and a broken world.
Speaking of Abraham and Sarah, our Hebrew Bible reading is that foundational missional story of entertaining angels in the guise of strangers. The actions of Father Abraham towards the LORD under the oaks of Mamre is the example of how we are all called by God to enter into the mission field – to serve God through service of all people. We are called and gifted to offer radical hospitality of our hearts and homes and then realize the blessings that come from our service. Abraham washed their feet, allowed them to rest in the shade and brought the best food he had to refresh his guests. He attended to them while they were in his care and he and Sarah received the fulfillment of God’s promise to give them a son in due season.
Jesus’ ministry is catching on and he is moving through all the towns and villages teaching and healing. His interactions with the people cause him to be compassionate towards them because he realizes that they are wandering aimlessly through life like sheep without a shepherd. Thus, Jesus decides to send out more workers into God’s vineyard and he commissions the twelve disciples to go out and work on God’s behalf. Jesus gives them “authority” and instructs them that their mission was to join with God to go to these lost sheep of Israel and proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was near. Jesus gave them the ability to work with God to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. They were to do this as an act of grace, as they themselves had been similarly graced by God.
Missions have been a part of the Church for a very long time. Believers took to heart the words of Jesus from Matthew 28 (which we heard last week) to go throughout the nations and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. Yet, too often over the millennia, missionaries of the Church of Jesus the Christ went out to bring their culture, ideas and doctrines of God to the people rather than to be in relationship with what God was already doing in the places where they were sent. In the most egregious cases, indigenous people and people of other religions were colonized and forced to accept the good news of Jesus or be killed, financially ruined or both. Studying the history of missionary work on behalf of God is an endeavor that highlights both the best and worst of apostolic behavior. At certain points in history it got so bad that faithful people began to ask if there was any difference between Nation-sponsored colonization and the missionary activity of the Church.
All this begs the question, what is the mission Dei – the mission of God? First off, we have to understand that our God is a missionary God and mission is God’s primary activity. The missionary initiative is the love of God which seeks to reconcile the alienated world with God. God traveled a long road with Israel, until out of love the Father sent the Son to reconcile all things to God. Jesus accomplished the mission for which He was sent by a complete atonement in His death and resurrection. In response to this, God poured out the Spirit of Jesus to gather His people together into one body. That same Spirit of Jesus equips and empowers His people to continue His mission as witnesses to God’s redeeming love and work. Thus, the church is caught up in God’s redeeming action. (adapted from Goheen 2001, p117) Mission, in biblical terms, while involving humans is not primarily determined by them. Mission from the point of view of our human activities, is realized as the committed participation of God’s people in the plan of God for the redemption of the whole creation. The mission is God’s…the joy is that God invites and expects us to join in. (adapted from Wright 2006, p67)
It is clear from our scripture readings today, that a major piece of being a disciple of Jesus the Christ is to also engage in being an apostle – one who is sent out to carry the gospel of Jesus first to those who are lapsed in the faith and then to all the nations. Jesus notes that there is a lot of work to do in the world on behalf of God and that there are too few workers. Our mission as followers of Jesus, in conjunction with and on behalf of God, is to atone for our sins and to seek to make each other whole – to return all marginalized persons completely to community. In other words, to have a heart of radical hospitality that welcomes strangers as family, raises those who are dead to the faith, removes social stigmas and barriers so that the “lepers” and those who are demonized can participate fully in community, and to heal those who are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” (to quote Fannie Lou Hamer). This is our mission with God and now is our time to get to work with God to fulfill God’s redemptive plan both in Madison County and around the world. Amen!