Friday, July 12, 2013

Nearer to God

The readings from the Lectionary are here

In the church there is often heated discussion about mission work. How are we to do mission, who should go, what should be done, what should be said, where one should live, and what one should bring along for the mission work. How long should a person stay and what should be expected by the missioners from the community to which they go.

For a period of two years I worked in a church staff position at a church within the PCUSA. My job included maintaining ongoing communication and encouragement to the various mission projects, and missioners our congregation supported. It also included planning and participating in two short term mission trips within the same year (1995). One trip was a youth experience in Mexicali through Azusa Pacific University, and the other was a trip to Haiti. In that position I had ample time to consider the impact of mission as well as to consider how to recruit mission volunteers. In each case, the trip required extensive advance preparation with connections being made long before our arrival.

The Gospel for the week is often used to site the model of effective and proper mission work; at least parts of it are. Read on..

"After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."                  (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20)

Several answers for all the issues I raised are provided within this passage. Also, we can learn the kind of expectations which can result from engaging in mission work.

  1. Do not go alone
  2. Step out in faith
  3. Know that the road will have dangers
  4. As you go prepare your heart and mind
  5. Take nothing with you.
  6. When you arrive, look for hospitality and receptivity
  7. Accept with graciousness what is provided you
  8. Use the gifts God has equipped you with to benefit others.
  9. Expect Mutuality
  10. Deliver the gospel message: The Kingdom of God has come near.
  11. Leave the community with a blessing, no matter how they receive you
  12. Be aware of the incarnational relationship; the ambassadorship which the missioner represents
With all of these instructions about how Jesus sent out the first heralds of the Kingdom of God, it seems to me that whether you are a Biblical Literalist or not, there are some massive guidelines for mission work to begin to unpack and put into action.

To start out, looking at this text and applying it to our present context has a profound number of differences, which need to be named straight away.

1)  We now live in an age where economics operates very differently. Very few social systems (you may prefer the term communities) operate at a level of open hospitality as the code of the community. I am told that still occurs in middle eastern villages. Maybe it does in remote places on other continents. It certainly doesn't operate as the community standard across the United States. Euro-American hospitality is generally wary, suspicious, measured and uncertain. Anyone who takes off without any money, purse, or extra clothes with them is very surely assumed to be quite out of their minds. Mad as a hatter. Crazy. The last person I heard of who took of in a similar of faith was a woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim. Even she carried something with her, a comb in her pocket. As a religious community founder-leader, Francis of Assisi established a rule of voluntary poverty. This order does still work at living very closely to the original rule which also closely models the instructions of this scripture passage. To be completely honest though, they have long relied on something of an artifice, the Corporation, which leads me to the next difference.

2) Institution building became the focus of the church somewhere around the time of Constantine. No longer did the proclamation of "the kingdom of God drawing near" mean what it meant to Jesus or his first followers. Now, in the post Christendom period, I think we are genuinely attempting to rediscover the truth in that message. What does it mean to proclaim that the kingdom of God has drawn near, or is near? Do we live out lives that with intentionality carry Christ into the world? It is all too easy to step out the sanctuary doors and forget that there has been a charge to "Carry the light of Christ in the world," or to "seek and serve Christ in our neighbor."

The records of the life and work of the Apostle Paul seem to indicate a ministry pattern which resembles the instructions Luke relates as the instructions of Jesus to the disciples. But then, how are we really to know? Afterall, Paul does not seem to depend on the people of the community to provide for his shelter and nourishment. In some cases his length of stay would surely wear on the patience of even the most generous host. Instead, Paul's model was to transplant himself into the new community. We refer to this model as tent-maker mission work. Perhaps I'm off base on this but that's my take on it none the less.

What I am struck with as I continue to work at digesting the implications for mission in the present age is this: Let's start looking at how to apply the gifts we've each been endowed with right where we are. Work together. Find at least one ministry partner, and go about your life in a way that brings about healing and wholeness in the present location. Stop looking at people in foreign lands as inferior and to be pitied. Put aside your own arrogance regarding your own set of beliefs in Jesus. See, The kingdom of God has drawn near and is here now! Receive from others in your time of need so that others will know what it is like to use their gifts. If you've never felt that you could give financial support to the church, start putting something in the alms basin. (Collection plate). Any amount, something to show God and community that you are sharing in the burden of being engaged in offering the presence of Jesus in the world, on your own block, in your own town.

What do you think was Luke's purpose in providing this account in the Gospel message? Do you think the Holy Spirit inspired the inclusion of this passage to serve as a permanent prescription for sending missionaries or was it simply meant to be descriptive of how Jesus used and empowered others to proclaim the message to the surrounding communities prior to his death?

You see, as someone reading Scripture for inspiration and as a medium for connecting with the Divine Source of life, with God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I think it is important to consider whether the text is intended to be prescriptive or merely descriptive. Clearly, for Francis of Assisi the text was more than just description of past events.

If it is intended to be prescriptive, I fear that much of what has occurred over the ages has quite clearly violated the rule of mutuality. Many people groups have been subsumed and coerced to "accept Christ" in response to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God drawing near. Instead of stamping the dust of feet and moving on to another place when not welcomed in their midst, missionaries have long persisted in their efforts to continue the announcement of Good News. Power and force have been exerted to squelch and dominate new territories. Not for the benefit of the people being engaged in the message (sorry, I call that dominated) but for the increase of wealth and might of the rulers of nations and empires. Imperialism has been the principle motivation, proclaiming the reign of earthly kingdoms, not the good news of encounter with the Holy. We can thank Augustine in large part for this persistent pernicious mode of operation. The Church became the principle means of assimilation. And much like the BORG, resistance was futile.

Then, what if we choose to set aside the issue of being sent (mission) to foreign lands and simply looked at the model of mission in our own country to our own neighbors. Do we even consider the work of members within a parish as missioners, people equipped and sent by the Divine to herald, care for, and in return receive adequate support for their service? I'm not referring merely to those that are ordained. I'm thinking about those who serve in many more ways to serve in both congregation and beyond to the glory of God and for the well-being of others. Proclaiming the kingdom, providing healing, encouraging and equipping the members to draw near to God as God has drawn near to them requires not only training, but also the devotion of time and energy which must be diverted from other activities which would provide financial support. The question grows larger with deeper implications to the welfare of all members of the Body of Christ. It seems that mutuality has gone by the wayside. The decision tree for the majority of faithful followers has been reduced to a path of gainful employment versus self-sacrificial volunteering which leaves the missioner with good feelings but an empty belly.

A closing thought, as it relates to mission ventures of the present age. It also seems to me that some hefty fundraising work by missioners and for the benefit of mission workers might be seriously in question. Just a thought.The only mission endeavors I ever took part in required hefty financial self-support. Not only did the mission team members have to give up their usual pay in order to serve on a mission team. They were also expected to pay their expenses while in the community they served. The missioners were expected to make a contribution to the receiving community out of their own resources. Missioners are somehow assumed to gifted with charisms of generosity supported by unlimited personal resources. That would be a different Scripture passage entirely.

Now, to you...

With the final message being the heralding of the kingdom of God drawing near, where do you see that in your life?

How do you respond to the call to work in the harvest field for the Lord?

Pop Quiz:
How many disciples did Jesus have?

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