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God’s Mission in Our Darkening World
August 25, 2013
08-25-2013 Sermon (Introduction before reading scripture). We’re quickly drawing toward the end of our summer sermon series, a series that has taken up the topics that you, the congregation, suggested. Last May one of you wrote on the sermon topic suggestion card, “Community outreach/Mission.” I’m not sure what the person had in mind, but the card suggests a theme that is critically important to the life of this congregation. As most of you know, this is a congregation engaged in a multiplicity of ministries. But this morning, let’s peer beneath the surface of our many congregational activities. What is the underlying reason for them? In short, what is our mission? Let’s ground that question in our reading from Luke’s gospel.
From my office window this week, I saw group after group of incoming freshman women walking from one sorority house to the next. I don’t know how rush works, but I assume at some point each girl will hear whether she has been selected, whether her name has been called. Granted, in the larger scheme of things, pledging a sorority or fraternity isn’t all that important. Still, these young people represent a yearning that resides in all of us. Maybe not the yearning to be in a sorority or fraternity, but the desire to be selected for something larger than ourselves, something that has significance and meaning, something that will enable us to make a difference in the world.
That’s why it’s important to pause over the beginning of today’s scripture: “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them out…” The number seventy echoes the number of nations listed in the tenth chapter of Genesis. This is Luke’s way of signaling that the call to discipleship isn’t limited to the original twelve. Rather, it’s repeated in every nation and in every age. The old hymn comes to mind: “Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless seas. Day by day his sweet voice soundeth, saying ‘Christian, follow me.’” So in the first place, mission begins not with a church activity, but with a call, a claim upon our lives, an invitation to follow Jesus.
And look where Jesus sends us: into the harvest, where he himself is at work. In the Bible, the harvest presents an image of God’s intent for the creation. It represents the world coming to maturity and being gathered into the reign of God. Jesus’ mission was not to establish a religion, but to proclaim the good news of God’s reign, declaring, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, release to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, liberty for all who are oppressed. And Jesus calls disciples who will work with him in the Spirit of the Lord to transform the tragic kingdoms of the world into a kingdom of peace. So the mission into which Jesus calls us is not to build up the rolls of the church, but to become partners, laborers with Christ in feeding the hungry, alleviating the suffering, welcoming the excluded and proclaiming the good news of God’s peace. This is the grand mission to which we have been appointed.
Now admittedly, such a perspective on mission has not always been the one embraced by the church. In fact, for centuries Christian mission typically meant the expansion of Christianity. Our forebears, particularly in the 19th century, believed themselves to be in the vanguard of a mighty spiritual crusade in which Jesus was the captain, the church an army, and the mission was to conquer every nation and people and set them under the sway of the one King and Lord, Jesus Christ. Many of our hymns, especially those from the 19th century, ring out a bugle call for Christian conquest.
Lead on O King eternal, the day of march has come;
Henceforth in fields of conquest…We lift our battle song.
While such calls for conquest and expansion can stir the soul, we now know better than our forebears did that framing mission in terms of conquest and expansion actually contributes to the world’s problems rather than to its healing. Consider, for example, the character Nathan Price, from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible. Price was an evangelical preacher and World War II veteran who took his family to Africa in the 1950s, with the intent of “saving Africa for Jesus.” Nathan Price serves as the personal embodiment of Western hubris. His attitude of superiority, his insensitivity to the Congolese people and his zeal to convert them only instilled bitterness and resentment in those he ostensibly came to help.
Yet even worse, such an arrogant perspective of mission loses touch with the character of God and the strategy embodied by Jesus. Notice in our reading that disciples are sent out not as conquering soldiers but as lambs in the midst of wolves. Jesus’ disciples are stripped of all pretentions of power, superiority, or privilege. Instead, they are to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” In order to be heard, the gospel of God’s peace has to be cloaked in humility, lowliness and service. Peace, in this sense, is not merely the absence of hostilities, but the presence of God’s Shalom–love, well-being, mutuality of concern, and harmony among all creatures.
And even then, Jesus alerts his disciples not to expect a welcome everywhere they go. Some towns, some households, some people will not be receptive. When that happens, Jesus instructs his disciples, do not retaliate, threaten, or judge. Rather, Jesus says, “shake the dust off your feet and move on.” In giving this instruction, he is simply asking his disciples to imitate his own example. “When Jesus was reviled,” declares I Peter, “he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten.” today’s scripture makes clear that the message of God’s peace will not be everywhere welcomed or universally received.
Next Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Drawing on the Biblical vision of God’s Shalom, King helped a nation picture a society where injustice and oppression are being transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. It’s easy for us to romanticize Dr. King’s speech, forgetting the opposition it engendered and the retaliation it unleashed. Yet Dr. King remained true to his calling as Jesus’ disciple. He never condemned his detractors, or met hate with hate, or threatened to retaliate in kind.
Truly, we are living at a moment in the history of the earth when the struggle between the forces of life and death, light and darkness, shalom and annihilation, is perhaps more transparent than ever before in history. In such a time, Jesus issues his urgent call for disciples to labor on the side of life and against death. “Christian mission today,” writes theologian Douglas John Hall, “means the stewardship of life in this kingdom of death.” Put succinctly, that is the goal of God’s mission: to nurture and enhance all life.
Friends, I know this has been a “big picture” sort of sermon. We in this congregation are actively serving in many faithful ways. But all our efforts to feed the hungry, assist the poor, welcome the ex-offender, create a spiritual home for students, and so on are not simply outreach programs of our church: They are expressions of God’s mission in our place and time. For the sake of this mission, we are being called, appointed and sent out.