Friday, April 12, 2013

Sermon on Missiology

For our class on Church Mission we were asked to write and preach a sermon explaining our own personal theology of mission. The following is what I wrote, and I hope it gives you some food for thought whether or not you agree.

Psalm 105: 1-4

Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him, and speak of all his marvelous works.
Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Search for the LORD and his strength; continually seek his face.

            In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples. In this one phrase the psalm is pointing out both a key strength and a key weakness of the church. In our prayer life, in the regular offering of the Great Thanksgiving that is the Eucharist, we continually thank God for what God has given to us. We give our praise, we give our thanks, and we give ourselves with a grateful heart. We are very mindful of God’s great loving-kindness for us. We know that God is with us in our joys and in our struggles. We call upon the name of our God with deep reverence and affection.
            It is a bit harder, though, to be honest about making God’s deeds known. I’m not just talking about the great mysteries of the Christian faith; I’m talking about the many beautiful, little ways that God has been present in your life and has blessed you in your journey. We sometimes hold back for fear of being wrong in our interpretation, of being seen as a weirdo for our devotion, of being thought of as pushy about our religion. Why else would “evangelism” have such a bad reputation? It’s a little scary to talk about what we believe in, doubly if we’re going into a life of ordained ministry in the church. Trust me, that is a perpetually awkward conversation to have when you’re a gay man trying to date and you get asked what you’re doing in school. “Hi, I’m Joseph. I’m studying to be a priest. Want to get a cup of coffee?” Suddenly the conversation switches from “Your eyes are beautiful” to “Wait, you’re doing what? Can you do that?” Those are fun conversations to have.
            But it’s also been a wonderful conversation starter. A fair number of guys have found it a way to talk about their own spirituality, whether or not they even consider themselves Christian. A practitioner of voodoo in Boise keeps in touch with me, and I’ve had interesting dialogues with a neo-pagan and a few atheists. There is a deep desire in the human heart to talk about religion, about meaning. It just so happens that the phrase “gay and Christian” is a way of opening those lines of communication. It all starts awkwardly, but the conversation gets started. There’s plenty of God-talk and mutual listening, even if it also involves my own emotions about having to defend Christianity or having to explain what I believe more clearly because I am failing at communicating. It is an opening up of self to share and to listen.
            But along the way of me talking about my sexuality and my faith, something gets told: I have to say what God has done in my life and how God is at work in the world today. I can’t help it. It just happens. I have to give a personal account of my own relationship with God as part of a wider body of believers also making their journey in Christ. It can be scary to do; it means risking my own story and my own understanding of God’s acts in the world in order to share it with someone else. I have to risk rejection or ridicule. I have to risk miscommunication or failure. I have to run the risk that in my story some of my own fears, my own needs, and my own weaknesses will become known.
I also have to risk that the other person will have things to share. They might indict me with the failures of Christianity in the world. They might share deep pain from their own past with me. They might share a need with me that God calls me to address. Once that door is opened and I share of myself, then the other person has an opening to share, too. They might need to tell their story. They might want to make those same risks, risk telling their own story, risk sharing their own needs.
The door gets opened and God asks us to be fully there with others, but that mindful presence makes us transparent so that the glory of the Lord might shine more fully. We tell our story so that God’s praises might be sung. Through the Christian story we see how God is at work in the world, and we can give thanks to God. Our Christian story is like a set of eyeglasses: the story helps details come into focus, but people are not blind without that story. People can see glimpses of transcendent majesty in the natural world and in human beings, whether or not they talk about God, creation, or redemption. The beauty of the natural world, the distant cosmos and the forests and the deserts are enough to take your breath, but, when we talk of the Eternal Word through whom all things were created, we are pointing to the details of the “Why?” and “How?” of the natural world. The creation was made good by God and is called to return to God. And when we feed the hungry, visit the lonely, care for the sick, and stand against oppression and injustice with our lives, we point to yet another truth behind the readily apparent worth of human life: there is a larger life in God that becomes more visible when we follow our Lord Jesus, and this we call the Kingdom of God.
The conversation I have with another person is a sign of the openness that God creates in the heart. We get to share our joys and burdens, rejoicing and lamenting as one human family. We see the teachings of the Church written in the creation around us and we can see it in the human soul. How beautiful! How worth the risk of sharing the praises of God’s name!
This is where dialogue and conversation with people who are different from us can help us to see more clearly whether we are speaking and living the truth or if we are proclaiming ourselves instead. We have to ask what other people see and hear, to borrow their eyes and ears and hearts and minds to understand God more clearly. The eyeglasses of the Christian story may let us see details, but there is still plenty that we might fail to see because of our sinfulness, our self-delusion, or our willful ignorance. For my own part, I can testify to you today that God has made good use of my own spiritual wanderings from my younger days. My Mormon roots, my practices in Wicca and Buddhism, my conversion to Jesus in the United Church of Christ, and my homecoming to the Anglican tradition have all influenced me and helped me to see more clearly how much God is with us and guiding us toward all truth in Christ. God worked in all of those religious expressions to mold me to become a better disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ, so God can certainly work outside the Church to help us see the truth more clearly. The Christian story is truthful, and Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; this I proclaim. It would be a mistake, however, to say that we cannot learn from others who do not share our tradition. It would also be a mistake to say there is nothing they can learn from us. It would also be a mistake to neglect the depth of your tradition; drink deeply of the living water of Christ. In our praising and sharing, we have to keep searching for God. Look for Christ’s hidden wisdom drawing all, including you, into deeper love in the Trinity.
Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! People want to talk about religion and faith, but sometimes the hurdle to conversation is hard to jump over. People are seeking. People seek meaning in their lives. They want to see more clearly, and they want to understand what they see. The whole creation longs for the wisdom of Christ, yet sometimes that wisdom needs to be soft so that it may be heard. We should give praise to Christ and tell the world about the works of God, but that witness needs to be written in our hearts and lives. The wisdom comes from Christ and it is only thanks to Christ that we can say it, but the heart of the person hearing the wisdom needs to rejoice, they need to be built up, not condemned or rejected. Go out there to serve God and to serve those made in God’s image, even if it means being a gracious and humble recipient of their hospitality and service, too. Feed the hungry person who comes to you. Serve the homeless person who comes to you. Share your wisdom with the questioning person, and listen intently to what Christ has to say to you in their words back. Sometimes your mission in the world might be more passive; maybe God sends you to be quiet and to listen.
Just as we seek to proclaim the Gospel, praise God’s holy Name, and tell the whole world about what God has done, we must also be seeking God’s face. We have to keep seeking! Our own journey is not over, and we cannot stop and assume we are done. We cannot assume we know the truth perfectly and that there is nothing left to do. Our own souls need to hear again and again about the glory of God. We build up each other with the proclamation and testimony of what God does every day in our own lives, and even more so we need to build each other up by being redeemed and renewed by God’s immense grace every day. Mission is not just to the other; it is to each other.
So in a convenient summary form, what am I saying? I am saying that Christ is sending you on mission to proclaim God’s deeds and to invite everyone into the pilgrimage to ever-deeper knowledge and love of God. God has done great things, and God is doing great things in you already, and God is doing great things in others already, so help each other to see more clearly. Give thanks to God, serve God by serving and by being served, and point toward God and proclaim, “Behold! God is faithful and true to creation, and all are marvelously alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!”