08 November 2009

The Heart of God

Isaiah 61

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 8th November 2009

I’ll get right to the heart of the matter this morning: it’s about mission. What it is; what it isn’t. What it looks like; what it doesn’t look like. Say the word and immediately we conjure up all kinds of definitions and associations. We hear “mission” and think, “out there,” “overseas,” foreign lands, distant shores. We think of mission outposts deep in the jungle of Africa or China, of missionaries who go around the world to preach the gospel in order to convert people to Christ. Mission is viewed as something that takes place “over there,” wherever “there” might be. Wherever it is, it’s assumed that it’s not here, but some place else.

This leads to another association. Somewhere we developed a dualist way of thinking. There’s the church and then there’s mission. There’s the worship and fellowship and organizational aspects of a church and then mission is seen as something in addition to everything else that a church might do. Mission is then seen as an addendum, something tacked on to everything else a church does, in addition to, on the side. It’s easy to see why mission is seen as a dispensable part of ministry – something done when everything else is tended to, financial support is given when there’s something left over at the end of the year’s budget or the first to go when faced with a budget deficit. It’s not surprising that some see mission in the church as a diversion. Why should we worry about people beyond our community or our state? We have enough people to support close to home.

Others think of mission as “charity,” financial gifts of good-will. Often done, let’s be honest, to assuage any guilt we might have for knowing just how rich and blessed we are.

So, I’ll get right to the heart of the matter. Mission is not something on the side, it’s not an option, it’s not a diversion, it’s certainly not charity or acts of good-will, and not what we do when we have time to spare or money left over at the end of the year.

Mission is the heart of God. Plain and simple. The heart of God is missional. Mission is what God desires and demands of God’s people. It what God hopes for, imagines, and wants to see realized through us in the world. We will be judged by how well we treated “the least of these (Matthew 25:40),” because there’s a special place in the heart of God for the least. Mission is at the heart of God because mission is what God does.

What does this mean? The literal meaning of the Latin, missio, means simply, “sent.” Mission is being sent, it’s an experience of sending. And if we think about it, the very Being of God is missional because God always seems to be in a sending mode. Yahweh is a sending God. Yahweh never leaves us in one place, but sends us to do something. If we think about it, there is no understanding of God found in the Bible that does not involve some kind of action, of movement, of sending. Even the name, Yahweh (Exodus 3:14), means, literally, “I am who I am; I was who I was; and I will be who I will be.” There’s movement, dynamism in the name. God is a missionary God.

If God is a sending God, that means we are a people sent with the missio Dei – the mission of God. That’s the understanding of the church we find in scripture. The church is essentially missionary: all that we do is mission. “It’s not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” Mission is the movement, the sending of God to the world; the church, then, comes to see itself as an instrument for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love. The focus is not on the church. The church does not send one out to do mission, as if mission belonged to the church. The church is not the sender, but the one sent. Mission is not contained within the church; the church is contained within the wider mission of God. That’s why for a church, mission can’t be secondary. So we come to see that “mission is not a ‘fringe activity of a strongly established Church, a pious cause that [may] be attended to when the home fires [are] first brightly burning….Missionary activity is not so much the work of the church as simply the Church at work.

Then what are we sent to do? It’s all there in Isaiah 61. We hear the voice of Isaiah who feels compels to act and understands himself as one acted upon by God. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me;” he says, “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.” Hear that? Sent!

To do what? To give expression to the very heart of God. This is what is means to be a child of God, this is what it means to be human, this is what we were created to be and do: To proclaim good news to the oppressed and liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the Lord’s favor, the day of God’s judgment against all that resists, hinders, and undermines God’s vision of justice; to comfort those who mourn, allowing praise to well up from the people instead of wailing. To build up the ruins, the former places of devastation, and repair the homes of God’ people, the ruined cities, thus giving a place for people to live. How can we hear this and not think of our work with Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity? We learned this morning from Jayna Powell of Habitat that there are between 9,000 and 40,000 abandoned row houses in Baltimore City – places in ruins that need to be rebuilt so people will have a place to live.

Isaiah 61 calls us to welcome the stranger, the lonely, the fearful. To welcome and care for the immigrant – whether they’re legal or not. To provide for those in need. To share our wealth, our resources. To share. To give. Why? Because this is what justice looks like – this is putting the world to right through acts of reconciliation and healing, it’s providing hope and extending a future to people who cannot see past yesterday. All of this – and more – is contained in the biblical understanding of justice. And why is this important? Because, “I Yahweh love justice (Is. 61:8).” And the justice of God unsettles the world.

There’s a very close tie here between mission (being sent) and justice. A biblical view of justice does not mean “just deserts” or a system of retribution, of inflicting a punishment equal to the crime. When Yahweh says, “I love justice,” that’s not the kind of justice that God loves. Justice is mercy, healing, forgiveness, and love; it’s about reconciliation, wholeness. It means, in scripture, setting the world right, it means fighting and struggling and working for a world that reflects God’s will, God’s heart, God’s imagination. It’s about engaging in acts of liberation and restoration, of extending God’s welcome and inclusion to everyone who feels like an alien, out of place in the world or the church. For us to have the heart of God means these causes are at the heart of our lives and at the very center of the church, the foundational values of what defines a church of Jesus Christ.

Justice is mission; mission is justice. Justice and mission are at the very core of God’s being. Like mission, justice is never an option for the church. Some might think of justice as being too political, too controversial for the church. The good news of God is controversial and it’s political, always has and always will be – because it has to do with the critique of structures of power, the good news is addressed to people oppressed under demonic structures of power that rob people of their freedom, undermine their dignity, and withhold from them hope. It’s political because politics is concerned with the way people live in the polis, in the city. We sometimes forget that a biblical view of justice is also related to justification, a word we Protestants like to throw around a lot (justification by “grace through faith,” Ephesians 2:8). Justice, justification, even righteousness – they’re all related. Just as we are made right with God through Christ, the justice of God wants to put the world right.

Every week we say Jesus’ prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” But what is God’s will? God’s will is mission. The kingdom is justice. Mission and justice – it’s what we are to pray for, work for, fight, protest, march, struggle, and advocate for, even if its unsettling, so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.”

It’s not by accident that when Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very start of his ministry, standing there with everyone to hear him, he selected as his text, these words from Isaiah 61, “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… (Luke 4:18-19).” Hear it? Sent. Isaiah 61 is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It’s Jesus’ mission. It was what he was sent to do. As the Son of God, as God himself, his will, his heart is the will and heart of his Father. To see one is to see the other. The work, the mission of one is the work, the mission of the other. And the mission of the Holy Spirit (who is always being sent on behalf of Christ) is the work of the Father and of the Son and so sends us.

Mission is the heart of God: it’s to work tirelessly for the liberation of God’s people, to extend hope, release, and promise. Not as some idealized goal, but in concrete, risk-taking, seemingly foolish ways. This is what Jesus invites us to when we live in his kingdom and pray for the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).” “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5: 7).” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be children of God (Matthew 5: 9).”

That’s kingdom life – Christians are called to be “kingdom people,” not “church people.” Jesus never said, Come follow me and become part of a church, but to “strive first for the kingdom” (Mathew 6:33). “Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns for justice, mercy, and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; Kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world.” Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21).”

Today, we give thanks to God for all the ways we are being sent out into the world, of the sending capacity of Catonsville Presbyterian Church. Walk around the displays in fellowship hall and see the face of God in all that we do. Consider the extraordinary mission work of this church. So many would say it’s one of our greatest assets. We are church sent. This week Chris Roseland of the World Ministries office of the PCUSA in Louisville called me this week. He was looking over his reports and wondered how we came to give $16000 to the Good Shepherd Hospital in Kananga. I told him and he was impressed, but that I said, “That’s not all.” So I told him about how we rebuilt the pediatric ward at Lubondai hospital in the Congo, and paid for a new electric generator. Just think of the impact the mission tithe component in the Capital Campaign had upon so many people. We share meals with the hungry. Lee Van Koten volunteers two days a week at the International Seafarer’s Center in Baltimore harbor. Just this week I received a card from their chaplain, Reverend Mary Davisson, expressing appreciation for Lee’s work with the center. He is a blessing to their work and to the people they serve. Think of the Pastoral Counseling Center based in our Church House, the Santi School in Nepal ($8,000 of the $70,000 it cost to build the school came from CPC), our work with Habitat, IMA, on and on and on.

See all the ways as kingdom people, following Christ, we can see the promise of Isaiah 61 fulfilled, concretely, physically in the mission of this church, the beating heart of God.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, cited in David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005), 390.

Bosch, 390. “Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; thee is mission because God loves people.”

Bosch, 372.

Howard Synder, Liberating the Church, cited in Bosch, 378.

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