On the Mission of the Church

Sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, TN
June 26, 2009

Shortly after I took office, somebody at the Church Center mentioned a wild and crazy idea about sending 50 young adults to prowl around New York City as urban missioners – people who might share their faith and transform the little communities in which they lived and moved and had their being.  Sort of like urban Christianity going viral. 

I actually met a youth group from South Carolina last week who had come to New York on a pilgrimage and were doing just that.  When I asked these kids from Holy Cross, Simpsonville, what they were doing on their pilgrimage, they told me about visiting different churches and doing some mission work.  But then they told me about stopping earnest and highly focused commuters with high fives, and the variety of reactions they were getting – almost all of them positive.  They were actually surprised that these formal, black-clad New Yorkers would stop and engage them. They also told me about their plans for the following day – offering free hugs.  I mused with them about how their interactions had changed people’s lives, and later on I reflected about how their ministry of interruption is a lot like the work of the spirit in our own lives.  A small dose of reconciliation, a brief invitation to see the world as more gracious than it seemed when you rolled out of bed at 5 am with a two hour commute in front of you, to a job that is as soulless and unsatisfying as yesterday and last month.

That’s really what all mission is about – an interruption of the world’s way of seeing reality as grim and pretty hopeless, of assuming that violence is just the way the world is, and anonymity the best way to get along. 

Mission, which is what all these readings are about, is about co-creating a different reality, it’s about partnering with God to insist that there is hope abundant for a world where people don’t need to study military strategy any more because no one ignores hungry neighbors.  When everyone has enough to eat, and the security in which to eat one’s fill, no one will see a need to study war any more.  Jesus insists that a world like that is possible – this world is ripe and ready for it, just send out some more interrupters, some more harvesters, to remind everyone of the abundance around us.  Yes, indeed, the kingdom of God has come near.

Abundance.  When we see it, we don’t resort to war.  When we recognize the abundance in our own lives, we respond with open hands, so that all can enjoy that abundance.  That’s why Jesus insists that his disciples be satisfied with what they’re served – it IS enough and more than enough, if you don’t see scarcity.  It’s manna, it’s the bountiful gift of God, not “what’s this? Eeew!”  And don’t take your extra suitcase full of stuff, because the people you meet will share their own abundance with you – there WILL be enough.

And when you knock on a door and they let you in, announce peace, don’t complain about the rain or the heat (I’m still working on that one).  See the blessed welcome you are offered and offer healing in return – healing of the whole person.  Medicine, even American medicine, is beginning to appreciate that healing is far more than fixing a physical problem.  You can do all the bypasses you want, but if the rest of life doesn’t change, those arteries are going to be plugged up again in a few years.  If a person gets a terminal diagnosis, healing is still possible – like the healing that surrounds the presence of friends and relatives at that dying person’s bedside – and the ultimate healing we know in God. 

When Jesus insists we heal, he means all those things and more.  He means healing like the hard psychospiritual work adults have to wrestle with in order to heal the mistakes their imperfect parents made in raising them.  He means the tough work of changing social systems toward justice for every human being – so there are no more “accidents” of hunger.  And he means healing our relationship with the rest of creation.

Jesus’ mission is healing – healing the whole world – and it needs all of us, and every partner we can find.  Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked are the easy tasks.  They only require that we discover our abundant gifts in those departments and the companionable space where our neighbors need those gifts.  The healing that we receive – we who are over-endowed with food or clothing – that healing comes in discovering the companions we never knew. Companions are literally those with whom we share bread.  When God says in creation that it is not good for theadam to be alone, it’s a profoundly true indictment of the western heresy that we can ever be complete, whole, or holy in isolation.  We are meant for relationship, created for relationship, and we discover the healing of our own isolation in feeding our hungry neighbors and comforting the grieving. 

Jesus shows us that reality over and over and over again.  Even hanging on the cross, he reaches out to his fellow criminals, building connections and healing relationships – “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  We forget that his first claim about mission foreshadowed that statement of healing:  “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives” and he finishes by saying, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21).

This cathedral community is deeply invested in healing – feeding the hungry, helping the homeless find a way to greater stability, drilling water wells in the developing world, helping prostitutes to find a healed life.  You’re working at expanding relationships in salvific directions between human beings and the rest of God’s creation – and between people of different races – as if God ever valued one of his children more than another!  That work won’t be finished until we can see the imprint of the creator in each part of creation, and not just the image of the divine in human form.  God has created all that is, and all of it carries an echo of the holy.  Creation is not simply a credit card for our latest shopping spree – which is how much of the western world still sees it.  Creation is not commodity for our use alone.  Creation is abundant gift of God, meant to bless all of creation, not merely a few.

The mission work, the harvest work, is largely about interrupting our old familiar ways of seeing – or letting God interrupt us – by discovering abundance where we thought there was only scarcity, discovering healing in the midst of illness, discovering a friend in the stranger.  Those kids with their high-fives and free hugs are on to something.  Your website says there are 2000 of you connected to this cathedral.  What kind of interruptions are you going to go out there and cause?