Every week in the TV series Mission Impossible as in the recent movie
with Tom Cruise, Mr. Phelps was given a seemingly impossible assignment
with these words, 'Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it...' I always wondered what would happen if Mr. Phelps did not choose
to accept it. Of course he always did.
Like Mr. Phelps, Jesus is given a seemingly impossible mission: to inaugurate
the Realm of God. Lest there is any misunderstanding, we need to be clear
on what this mission of Jesus was not about. Jesus did not set out
to establish a fan club nor did he show much interest in forming a cult
devoted to worshipping him. He certainly did not give his life for the
sake of denominational doctrines and he really was not all that big on
philanthropy, though he had a lot to say about money.
He was executed for a political crime, though he turned his back on
political office. He was called a teacher, but he didn't start or belong
to a school. Mark makes very clear with the very first words spoken by
Jesus in Mark's gospel that Jesus' first and foremost purpose was to proclaim
the immediacy of God's domain here on earth.
Note that Jesus does not say that the Kingdom of God is going to come
some day. He does not say that we will discover it in the next
life. He did not come to tell people, 'Take your time, there's no hurry.'
Do you hear what I am saying? Jesus did not say to those folks back then
and he does not say to us folk today, 'Just live anyway you want, you can
straighten it all out with God later.'
There are an awful lot of folk who are living precisely that way,
and they are not just folk out there either. I am talking about us. The
truth be known, we all live that way at one time or another. Thus when we
really hear Jesus, especially when we hear the urgency in his voice, we
are caught off guard. 'The time has come,' says Jesus, 'it is here, now. God's realm is at hand, it is in our very
midst.' This is the mission of
Jesus, to make the Kingdom, or to use a more contemporary word, the Community
of God known and present in our world.
Those of you who were around here a few years ago may remember the name
of Ken Callahan. Callahan is one of those church consultants who gets paid
$1,000/day to come in and tell you what's wrong in your church and how
to fix it. From his years of studying churches across this country he has
concluded that the key factor in the demise of most churches is the loss
of mission. Too many congregations, he says, are overly concerned with
whether or not they are growing what they should be concerned whether or
not their mission is dying. Mission does not die because the church dies,
rather the church dies because the mission dies.
A few years ago, Empty Tomb, Inc, a Christian research organization,
announced that in a study of 29 Protestant denominations ranging from Quakers
to Seventh Day Adventists, they found that the percentage of income given
by Christians to the church and other benevolent causes decreased nearly
every year since 1968. If the current trends continue, Christians will
cease giving to benevolent causes beyond their congregations by the year
2049 and will cease giving to the congregation by 2203.
They also found that if current membership trends continue, mainline
denominations will have no members by the year 2032. The good news is that
for 171 years after we die, from 2032 to 2203, our members evidently will
still be giving to the church! Maybe things are not as dire as the study
suggests, but the downward trends are alarming regardless.
Empty Tomb discovered one exception to this downward trend. That exception
was this: one a whole, congregations which adopted a broad mission that
extended beyond their own borders were more likely to show gains in members
and giving than congregations with a narrow mission focused on their own
needs. Of course anyone who is familiar with the teachings of Jesus will
not be surprised by this. 'Those who save their life will lose it,' said
Jesus, 'and those who lose it for my sake will save it.'
We have been doing a lot of number crunching in the office this week
in preparation for the Annual Meeting this afternoon. Last year we dropped
the percentage of our general fund that goes to outreach from 8% to 7.5%.
No one wanted to do it, out course, but it was one of those unfortunate
financial necessities we face from time to time. Thus I was curious to
see what effect that drop had on our outreach giving. I was rather surprised
by the results. In 1998 we gave $44,452 to outreach causes. In 1999 that
amount was $45,741, an increase of $1,300!
How could this be given the 1/2% decrease in general outreach funds?
Two reasons: 1) our total giving was up enough to effectively offset the
percentage decrease, and 2) Turkey. I don't mean the Thanksgiving kind,
but the country. If you will recall there was a major earthquake in Turkey
last summer resulting in thousands of deaths. You responded generously,
giving I believe the most we have ever given to Week of Compassion, our
equivalent of the Red Cross. We nearly doubled our giving of the year before
for a total of $6,774 to the Week of Compassion. That, I believe, is a
testament to the commitment of this congregation to the broader mission
of the church that extends far beyond our walls and city limits.
Two veteran pilots from WW II met and began comparing notes of their
experiences in the war. One was an American pilot, the other Japanese.
They discussed the capabilities of their aircraft, the types of munitions,
the friends lost in battle. At last the American proudly related that he
flew 350 missions. The Japanese pilot lowered his head and quietly said
that he had flown 50. 'Fifty?' replied the American. 'Fifty is good, you shouldn't be ashamed that you only flew
fifty.' 'Thank you, thank you,'
answered the Japanese pilot, bowing his head. 'But I Kamikaze pilot.'
Here is my point: Jesus does not ask us to give to this mission from
what we have left over, to help when we have some spare time. This is a
mission that requires commitment and dedication. Jesus asks for our all,
heart, body and soul. If we are going to have that kind of commitment,
we need to understand the mission of Jesus, the mission God gives to us
as well. So listen up, our mission, should we choose to accept it, is no
less than to continue the proclamation of Jesus, to enact the reign of
God and to live out the Community of God in our midst here and now.
What does this mean? Three things:
First, it requires a different orientation from the world. Jesus begins
his mission with one word: repent! Repent is much more than renouncing
sin. The word literally means to turn around, to go a different direction.
To repent is to turn back to God, to live a God-centered life. Philosopher
William James spoke about the difference between first hand and second
hand religion. Second hand religion is when you believe what you have been
told, be it from the Bible, your Sunday School teacher, your parents or
preacher. Second hand religion is good, assuming you can believe your preacher!
But if we want to live in the presence of God, if we want the reign of
God to be a reality in our lives and world, second hand religion is not
enough, it is never enough. Like those hand me downs from an older sibling
or cousin, there comes a time when it just doesn't fit right.
First hand religion comes from our own religious experience. No longer
do we have to believe what we learn from someone else because we have experienced
it ourselves. We discover first hand religion when we have a living relationship
with God, when Jesus moves from being an historical person of the first
century to Lord of our lives today. In the words of Job when he meets God at
the end of the story, 'I heard about you from others, now I have seen you
with my own eyes.' To see God with our own eyes, to hear God with our own
ears, to feel God with our own heart, that is our quest. Thus our mission
begins with God, but it does not end there. To make God the soul focus
(a little pun there!) is to miss the point. Getting right with God is not
the goal of our mission, just the beginning.
Second, then, to enact God's reign in this mission requires us to strengthen
our relationship with others. Jesus used the term 'Kingdom of God'. A kingdom
was the dominant political reality of his day, ours is a democracy. Both
involve human relationships in a structured order. This mission is not
something we do in a vacuum. It is in our relationships that the presence
of God is most visible. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors
and then illustrated that love with the story of the Good Samaritan who
rescues a man left for dead along the road. I do not know if it is possible
for anyone to help every single person we encounter in the ditches of life--we
would likely be quickly overwhelmed. But certainly there are many we can
help and even need to help for our own good.
We get requests for assistance in the office on a daily basis. Our budget
for people who come to us off the street has ranged anywhere from $50 to
$125 a month, hardly enough to do much good but every now and then we discover
that that little bit of help made a tremendous difference in someone's
life. Listen to this letter we received a few years ago from a man who
was trying to get his little brother through school without getting arrested,
something no one else in his family had been able to do:
I have not found anything that can even remotely express the appreciation
that I feel for you and all the other folks here at the church that have
come together and helped us through these really rough times. I have called
my brothers and sisters that are still alive and all that I have received
from them has been negative remarks about how we are never going to amount
to much of anything as our father never did... Thanks to you believing
in me and helping me not only financially but also patting me on the back
and assuring me that I was worth while and there was light at the end of
the tunnel if I worked hard and had faith, things would work out. ... It
looks like [my brother] may be getting straight As for the first time in
his life, also neither one of us has been in any kind of trouble with the
law which is also rare in my family. Within two weeks I shall get my first
check from my new job. ... I wouldn't have been able to have even taken this job
without your trust in me... I'll always be in your debt for ... believing
in me when I didn't even believe in myself. Thank you very, very much.
I propose that we make this commitment: that no family in our midst
shall go homeless, no child shall go hungry, no sick person shall be unattended,
no one shall be left to grieve alone, no shut-in will be forgotten, no
abuse will be tolerated and no victim of abuse will be abandoned. Furthermore,
let us commit to providing opportunity for every couple in our midst to
receive opportunities for marriage enrichment, for every child to be known
by name for who they are, for every youth to have the opportunity to receive
financial aid for higher education to better themselves, for every parent
to receive guidance and support in parenting, for every new Christian to
be mentored in the faith and for every member to be treated with respect
as a child of God.
These are some of the ways we can live out the reign of God in and through
our relationships as the Community of God here in the heart of Eugene.
Lastly, to enact God's reign in our midst calls us to become
advocates for the voiceless. Since his accident that left him a quadrapalegic,
Christopher Reeves has taught us what it means to be a super man. I will
never forget his challenge to the country delivered at the Democratic Convention
of 1996 when he said, FDR taught us that 'America does not let its needy
citizens fend for themselves.' I wonder, is that true? Once again we read
in the papers just this week how the income gap between the wealthy and
the poor continues to grow, the rich become richer while the poor become
poorer. To respond to this problem with simply more charity only continues
the unhealthy dependency that leaves those at the bottom of our society
at the mercy of those who control the wealth and power.
The very phrase used by Jesus to describe his mission,
'kingdom of God',
suggests a different way for running the world. In contrast to the kingdom
of Caesar, the kingdom of politicians, the kingdom of free markets, and
the kingdom of Wall Street, Jesus gives us a vision for the way God would
run the world if given the chance. In this vision the first will be last
and the last first, the poor will inherit the earth, the captives will
be set free, enemies will be loved and wealth will be redistributed. Throughout
his ministry Jesus is consistently the champion of the downtrodden--the
blind and lame, outcasts and sinners, the ill and alienated, women and
children--all find in Jesus physical and emotional as well as spiritual
salvation. If we want to be serious about living in the realm of God, we
must provide more than charity, we must speak up against the ways of the
world and the injustices of society.
These three elements, reaching up to God, reaching out to others and
become an advocate for the least of these, are the very core of our mission
as followers of Jesus. To be the Community of God then is to have a heart
for God, hands for others and a voice for the voiceless. This is how God
would rule the world, or how God would that WE rule our world. Our mission,
should we choose to accept it, is to live out the Community of God with
our heart, our hands and our voices. It is indeed a tough mission, but
if we give it our all, if we give God our all, it is not an impossible