Last Sunday after the Epiphany – World Mission Sunday
2 Peter 1:16-21
I was at the dining table that night with about ten homeless men and women from the streets of the lower eastside of Vancouver, BC. It was a Wednesday night and normally I would have been dining with my roommate, or slurping soup from a mug over my computer as I hastened to finish yet another heady papers or exegesis of Paul or the Gospel of Luke. But, tonight, I was eating spaghetti downtown in a homeless shelter and talking with friends I had not met until that night.
This was, at least at first, not my idea, but rather an assignment for a seminary class I have mentioned to you before. Classes were on weekday mornings at First United on Hastings and, following the morning’s lectures, we were encouraged to take to the streets to meet and talk with whomever we could find the safe injection site was a particularly good place to start. And, of course, I was a little cautious about these encounters, but I went, and, ultimately, was glad I did. What I first took to be a discomfort and potential danger…. Was really more about relationships and equality. This was about mission.
That night, as I shared a meal and conversation with the ten others, I was experiencing something I had experienced while out on the streets. Men and women whom I had, prior to this class, managed to avoid, now had a new identity for me in our shared humanity, our connectedness. In our informal table conversation, we shared the stories of our days, our lives, and they brought every bit as much to the dinnertime talk as I did. I had failed to see my own sense of privilege, my own sense of elitism, because I had thought I would be bringing them something. No, we each, and equally shared the meal and the conversation. How blind I had been, in making assumptions, assumptions that said that they were homeless so they needed my help, my support. The truth was that I needed their support and help as much as they may have needed mine.
I suppose you have had the experience when you had a surprise illumination about someone you knew…or thought you knew, or at least had a notion about…. They seemed to be transfigured…or their true nature seemed to be revealed. You saw them in a new light? Perhaps, like me, you realized how wrongly you had grasped the real character of a fellow human or how deeply you had missed the reality about someone that you thought you knew…or in someone you may have prejudged? This is a very human experience, I’d say. In the account of Jesus’ transfiguration, when he actually glowed in the revelation of his true nature, the disciples really saw him for who he was in this extraordinary epiphany. So too, in our epiphanies, we often are able to see others as they are, and we learn something of them…and of ourselves in that moment. What have we failed to see until then? And what is it that has kept us from seeing it?
I think that part of it has to do with our strong sense of individuality and our tendency to ignore our connectedness. In that way, we have a great deal to learn from the church’s concept of mission. Today is World Mission Sunday, not a day to send socks to the Inuits, or money to Haiti, (both of which would be nice….) but today we have the opportunity to really consider the concept of mission and to appreciate the ability for healthy mission practices to bridge the gaps of preconception between God’s creatures. World Mission Sunday is important because we are reminded that as children of God, we are part of a global family and mutually…hear that, mutually… responsible for one another.
Back in 1963 some 16,000 Anglicans from around the world, including Anglicans in the US who call themselves Episcopalians, gathered for what was called an Anglican Congress. Their purpose was to discuss issues of mutual ministry, and specifically how to live into the belief that the Anglican Communion is one family, mutually interdependent on one another. In a world of economic inequality, this discussion, and its aftermath, was a real struggle. At that gathering, they decided to move away from the idea of giving and receiving…the common notion of mission….and instead to focus on equality, interdependence, connectivity, and mutual responsibility. Robust discussions over the word mission and the need to examine, with rigor, the commonly held notion that mission is something describing what we do for somebody else. It is…but it is done with the realization that as we do for others, they too do for us. In the final document from this gathering, probably the most revealing comment is, “Mission is not the kindness of the lucky to the unlucky; it is mutual, united obedience to the one God whose mission it is. The form of the Church must reflect that.”
Katharine Jefferts-Schori, former Primate (Prim -it) of the Episcopal Church, once said, ”The Church is most truly itself, the Body of Christ, when it lives and breathes mission. The heart of this body is mission – both domestic and foreign mission – in partnership with anyone who shares that passion. Indeed, our baptismal identity is grounded in commitment to mission and in the assurance that in our faithful pursuit of that mission, God will bless both us and our work”. So, we are a body of mission for the welfare of the world. Indeed, our official corporate name is The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. So, mission is vital to us…it is true spirituality. It defines who we are…just look at our baptismal covenant.
When we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, when we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being, we are promising to be part of God’s mission. It is about relationship, it is about our interconnectedness, it is about mutuality and equality. It is not about the “lucky doing something nice for the unlucky,” nor completely about sending resources to somewhere we haven’t been nor plan to go…though there is nothing wrong with that. Mission is about knowing that we are all equally beloved by God so that in our encounters, we give and we receive from one another in mutual and equal ways.
And, just as my experience with new friends at the dinner table that night in Vancouver was an experience of seeing with new eyes the humanity of these individuals, of realizing my sin in thinking I was the only one with something to offer, the missionaries whom we send out, are changed in their experiences.
Five individuals from the D of Oly traveled to El Salvador last November to do this thing we call mission. We had received a Sustainable Development Grant of funds to help the D of ES restore their guest house so that it could serve as the place of housing for their new seminary. (New priests are badly needed in El Salvador.) So, we could have dropped the check into an envelope and mailed it to the diocesan office in San Salvador to pay for that that work to be done…some plumbing, some painting, some general elbow grease. And that would have been good – but, these five individuals, two of whom do not speak Spanish, took a week out of their lives and flew to El Salvador to work in their unskilled labor state and to do a portion of the work, alongside the Salvadorans who had a vested interest in the refurbishment of the building. I had dinner with the five who went on Tuesday night of this last week. Even now, two months later, they were…glowing. The experience had changed them. They described the poverty and crime they saw everywhere…and they described the resilient and loving spirit of those with whom they worked. They described a sense of connectivity that was especially present as they worshipped together. We are called to pray alongside, to mutually support, to advocate for, to be with, to share stories with, to listen to, and worship together with our sisters and brothers around the world. When language is not common, our faith, our love of God, our humanity, is common, and relationships occur. So, because of the sense of interconnectivity, the five from DofOly were changed, as were, I am sure, the Salvadorans who hosted these five Americans. (by the way, a trip is planned to ES this October. Bishop Rickel is possibly going to be a member of the group…. talk to me if you are interested in going…Spanish is not required.)
And Mike Fedele…whom you know…who saw an article on his mom’s fridge about this orphanage for Albino children born in Tanzania and shunned by society, and bought himself a ticket to go see about it for himself. That trip changed him… and Clare, the director of the orphanage, and his new wife. Mike, who grew up here in Oak Harbor, now lives in Tanzania and certainly has his hands full, but is buoyed by our prayers and financial help. He is truly doing mission. He is building relationships and being blessed in his work with these children and others who serve there at the orphanage. If you haven’t seen their new information, I have a postcard about what is happening there.
During the course I took in Vancouver that term, the instructor offered us a wonderful visual, which I share with you. He said that we should never ever consider that we, of relative wealth and privilege are done when we hand a hungry or homeless person a sandwich, nor when we send food or money to the food bank...both good practices, by the way. The truth is that when you give a sandwich to someone who is homeless or hungry, good mission insists that you sit down on the curb and share it with them, and hear their story and their truth…. that you both will gain something in that interaction. You both will be blessed by the other. You will get as much as you give. You will receive wisdom and knowledge and you will share the same. God will be in the midst of you. I learned a great deal in that. In the times of serving in other places, and perhaps like you, the work was not about just physically feeding, but about knowing the other, all children of God and being blessed in the interactions. And the good news of God in Jesus is spread in the encounter. Thanks be to God.
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you, bring the nations into your fold, pour out your Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev Rilla Barrett