15 November 2010

The Servant Church

Isaiah 65: 17-25

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 14th November 2010

This past week in Philadelphia, Broad Street Ministry hosted a unique pastoral leadership gathering for pastors and church leaders.  Broad Street is a unique Presbyterian ministry in the heart of urban Philadelphia. [1] Our middle schoolers spent the night there two years ago and came back transformed and they’re going again.  Our Crossroads youth determined and Session approved that next year’s major mission trip will involve an entire week at Broad Street.  The gather this past week was not directly related to youth ministry, but about the church as a whole, building a greater sense of community and connectedness, imagining new forms of being church in a new day (and it’s a new day for ministry, friends, if we haven’t discovered that yet), requiring new forms of leadership.  I wish I could have been in Philly, but could not get away.  My friend, Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian minister in Northern Virginia, was there.  She has a great blog with an intriguing name, “A Church for Starving Artists,” and Jan posted some of her reflections from the conference.  She shared that Peter Block spoke at the gathering.  Peter is a organizational consultant, he’s Jewish, and he spoke about the nature of community and community-building.  He named four things that “kill” community, four things that we should be aware:  first (and we’re not going to like this) is pews facing forward so that only the person in front is heard; second, answering questions instead of asking them; third, expecting people to perform for us – our children, our friends, our colleagues, our leaders, our pastors, worship leaders (like the choir); and fourth, being helpful.[2]

            It would be worth our time and effort to attend to each of these so-called “killers,” but the one that caught my eye as we consider Mission Sunday and host a Mission Fair is the last one: being helpful.  There’s probably considerable resistance to all of Block’s observations because he’s critical of the way many of us view the church, particularly this church.  But being helpful?  What’s wrong with being helpful?  How can being helpful hurt community?  How can providing assistance do harm?  Isn’t this what the church is supposed to be doing, to be precisely this – helpful, full of help to those in need?  Years ago, I learned that one way to view ministry is finding a need and then meeting it or filling it.   Not so, says Block. By helping, Block means rushing right away to being or becoming fixers.  We discover someone is hungry, we fix a meal and “fix” their hunger.  We learn that someone is without shelter, so we build a home and “fix” that problem.

            But what’s wrong with trying to fix things?  It’s been said that men are always in a rush to fix things.  If we discover something’s broken – a fence, a furnace, a tricycle, a relationship, a heart – then we rush to try to make it better, repair it.  It is said, that when women find themselves in a similar situation, they aren’t as quick to want to have the problem solved by their partners.  Not surprisingly, this is often a topic for conversation in marriage counseling. But these gender differences break down, because women are also just as quick to offer comfort and assistance in times of trouble, make the pain go away, make things better.   But what’s wrong with that?  Isn’t this what it means to be caring?  Serving the needs of our neighbors, isn’t this what it means to love one another?  Aren’t we in the fix-it business as a church?  Isn’t that what mission is all about – being helpful, fixing things, fixing people?

            Yes – and maybe that’s a problem, a problem with the way we’ve come to view mission.  The Anglican Bishop Creighton  (1843-1901), once observed “no people do so much harm as those who go about doing good.”  It’s a counter-intuitive statement, isn’t it?   We would think more people doing good would be good for everyone.  That is, unless, the people doing good are na├»ve as to how improvement happens, how systemic social transformations actually occur; unless the people doing good are too idealistic and too confident in their ability to realize the good for all; unless the people doing good toward others are doing what they deem is good and needed, instead of listening to the people in need, that is, those on their receiving end of all our goodness so that they might tell us what they need and don’t need from us.

            There’s a flip side to wanting to help and to fix too much:   it might produce more harm than good.  Yes, we are here this morning to celebrate our mission efforts, to hear from our partners and agencies, to hear the difference we are making in the world.  Catonsville Presbyterian Church has always had a strong tradition of supporting and doing mission, locally, nationally, and globally.  When you look at all that we do, when you look at all that we’ve accomplished for church our size, when you read the “thank-you” letters from people grateful for our support, it’s clear that we have a lot to celebrate and be grateful for.  At every level of the congregation we are inviting people to become engaged in mission, whether it’s our children collecting peanut-butter and jelly for the food pantry, buying medical boxes from IMA World Health for Haiti, putting together back packs for students through CEFM, gathering our nickels for Baltimore Presbytery’s Centsability program, building the Santi School in Nepal, volunteering at the Habitat work site in downtown Baltmore, baking casseroles for the Westside Shelter, or buying safe motherhood kits for mothers in Africa, and our long-standing work in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This is just a small sampling of what we do.

            But I think we also know that unless we also work for systemic change in communities, all of our efforts are like band-aids on the festering wounds of society.  Yes, we are educating and raising consciousness of the pressing issues faces us, but that’s not enough.  We’re only scratching the surface.  Sure, it’s better than nothing and we’re doing something instead of nothing.   But maybe the church’s (our church and the church as a whole) attempt to do so much helping and fixing prevents us from being attentive to the deeper structures of power and economic inequality that are really the root cause of so much pain and suffering in the world.  This is where all of our good does little to bring about real change and might in the end do more harm. 

In a poem entitled, “A Worker’s Speech To A Doctor,” the German poet and playwright, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) gets at the heart of the matter.  Listen to how he describes a visit to the doctor: 
When we come to you
Our rags are torn off us
And you listen all over our naked body.
As to the cause of our illness
One glance at our rags would
Tell you more. 
It is the same cause that wears out
Our bodies and our clothes.  

The pain in our shoulder comes
You say, from the damp; and this is also the reason
For the stain on the wall of our flat
 So tell us:  Where does the damp come from?[3]

 George Macleod (1895-1991), the founder of the Iona Community, told the story that when he was pastor in the slums of Glasgow that he got tired of praying for people with tuberculosis without praying for the entire society, the system, a community rotting to its core, caught in the grips of poverty, hunger, and unemployment.

            Yes, we know the needs of God’s people are enormous.  Yet, if we ran about trying to meet or alleviate every need, help every person in need, fix every problem, if this was our ministry we would be exhausted.  Some of us might be exhausted.  But, isn’t this what mission is?  Isn’t this what the church is called to do, isn’t this our mission?

            It depends.  It depends what we mean by mission.  There’s no doubt it’s important.  As my friend Tim Hart-Anderson says, “Mission is basic to what we do.  Get mission wrong and we get church wrong.  Drift away from mission and we drift away from church.  Stop mission and we stop church.”  So, if it’s so important, then what exactly is it?  What do we mean by it?  Being clear about the definition of it will have enormous implications for a parish.

            This gets us to the heart of the matter.  There’s something not quite right with the way the church has been using this word for the last two hundred years or so.  We tend to see mission as the work of the mission committee, of it being one part of the overall ministry of a church, along with evangelism, and Christian education, and fellowship, and so forth.  We tend to associate it with “charity,” mission aid and support beyond the walls of the church to those in need.  Through mission the church becomes a vendor of religious services and goods, doing good, fixing problems out there in the mission field, beyond the doors of the church, or some place other than where we live, some place we have to go to get there, like downtown Baltimore or on mission trips.  But as contemporary scholars and practical theologians are reminding us, this way of understanding mission worked in a culture that viewed it itself as primarily Christian.  Mission work was always viewed as being elsewhere, someplace else.   Our culture is far from having a Christian outlook.[4]  Therefore, the challenge will be for us to reclaim its original biblical meaning. 

Mission, from missio, means to be sent.  In scripture, Yahweh is revealed as a sending-God who sends people, churches and even nations off on a journey with a purpose, the mission of God.  What is God’s mission?  To proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim the redemptive love of God, to represent and embody the compassion, justice, and peace of the reign of God. We can even view the sending of Jesus as part of God’s larger mission.  This means that mission is not something that the church does.  And mission is not a trip.[5]  The essence of the church is missional, “for the calling and sending action of God forms its identity.  Mission is founded on the mission of God in the world, rather than the church’s efforts to extend itself.”[6]  This means that even the sending of Jesus can be view as part of God’s mission.  The practical theologian, Alan Hirsch (who once spoke here at CPC), defines this shift in thinking in this helpful way:  “we frequently say ‘the church has a mission,’” but a more theologically correct statement would be “God’s mission has a church.”[7]  We exist to serve God’s mission

            What if we started moving away from thinking of mission as an instrument of the church and, instead, began to view it as the identity and essence of the total church? This means what we now view as mission would still be part of serving God’s mission, but also viewing Christian education as serving God’s mission, and evangelism as serving God’s mission, how we care for one another is serving God’s mission, the work of the deacons and elders is viewed as serving God’s mission, the work of the trustees as service to God’s mission, the stewardship of our dollars as serving God’s mission. Not serving the church as an end in itself, but serving the mission of God through the church.  It would mean getting out of the way of our agendas and perspectives and even our comfort zones in order to place our lives and our lives together into service to a higher call, to God’s mission in the world.

            This brings me – finally – to Isaiah 65.  What is God’s mission?  It’s pretty clear throughout the Bible.  We know what matters most to God – justice, righteousness, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, hope, people living in harmony with their neighbor, with themselves, and with God.   It’s beautifully summarized in Isaiah 65.  He envisions a New Jerusalem built up out of ruins of its destruction.  It will be a place where there is no weeping, no cry of distress.  It’s a place where infant mortality rates are very low and the elderly live out their lives for more than three score and ten.  People will build homes and live in them – their own homes, not someone else’s home.  People will plant vineyards and eat from it – their own, not someone else’s.  People will work not because they have to, but because they want to.   There will be meaningful labor, work that blesses and doesn’t curse, work that contributes to the wellbeing of the community, not work that struggles to keep up with the rising cost of living, trying to satisfy the burden of our consumer needs and our accustomed standards of living.  Offspring will be blessed – not for one generation but for many.  And peace, peace all the way down between people right down to peace between wolves and lambs.  It’s a place where people are free to dwell without the threat of destruction or annihilation.  This is God’s mission.

            Now before you get all ginned up and eager to work for this vision or before you become overwhelmed with despair given the enormous burden of this vision – before we run out bringing God’s goodness and fixin’ up the universe,  meeting every need, we have to stop.  Stop.  Stop and remember this:  it’s not about us.  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says Yahweh, “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice – why? – be glad and rejoice and be glad in what I am about to create …for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people where as a delight.”

            It’s God who does all of this work – it’s God’s mission, to create and recreate.  The Hebrew here for create – bara – is the same beautiful Hebrew word used to describe God’s original act of creation.  It is God who builds and rebuilds – with us and through us, to be sure – but it’s really God’s work, God’s power to create.  And the good news is that it’s not about us, which means we can relax and be less anxious about trying to help everyone and fix everything.   This doesn’t mean there isn’t work for us to do.  But it’s all about God’s mission and the good news, by God’s grace, is that we as the church get to experience God’s joy and delight because have been called to serve it – not the church, but God’s mission – the mission of God.


[1] For more information about the dynamic and exciting work at Broad Street Ministry see http://www.broadstreetministry.org/.
[2] I'm grateful for Jan's blog entry and the comments posted there which became the spark for this sermon.  Jan Edmiston, A Church for Staving Artists, http://www.achurchforstarvingartists.com/2010/11/dont-be-helpful.html
[4] See Darrell L. Guder, ed. Mission Church:  A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998), 77ff.
[5]On mission trips, see Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian:  What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010), 154-159, 170ff
[6] Guder, 93ff.
[7] See Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways:  Reactivating the Missional Church.  Foreword by Leonard Sweet (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006); and Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come:  Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 2003).

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