Preached by Rev. Dr. Stewart Folster on June 18, 2017.
Romans 5: 1-8
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
Matthew 9: 35 – 10:8
Opportunities for Mission
Today is Aboriginal Sunday. It is a day set aside to bring First Nations and Metis and Inuit peoples and the Church together to engage in things that will further the road to healing and reconciliation. And so I would like to begin by acknowledging that we have come together to meet and worship on the territory of the Treaty Six First Nations of this land. But let me also say that in the last 25 years that I have spent in my ministry in Saskatoon, that I have never experienced a more supportive and understanding bunch of people like I have in this Presbytery. This Presbytery does not have a lot of wealth but they give all that they can and when I want to do something that is related to Native culture or Native ceremonies, the Presbytery supports me and they are more than willing to take part in whatever way they can. God bless you for that.
Now let me get on with our message for today: Jesus’ ministry and mission was shifting into high gear. Matthew reports that Jesus had gone about all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues. But he had not just been preaching the gospel of the kingdom. It seems that Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew reports that Jesus cured every disease and sickness he encountered.
Our Lord was clearly trying to make a point about his own mission and that of his followers with these deeds. He called the disciples together after claiming that he needed laborers to bring about a harvest he had planned. And then Jesus gave the twelve authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and sickness. He did not say a word about preaching and saving souls at this point.
In chapter 10, Jesus gives similar instructions, and again the focus is caring for those in need. He does get around to telling the disciples to preach the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. But they are to cure the sick, raise the dead, and cleanse the lepers. This is the essence of mission, and at least in these verses, Jesus wants it done close to home, not to be targeting Gentiles or even those Samaritans, but only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
One of Matthew’s main concerns, it has been noted, is because the earthly Christ and the heavenly Christ are one, time is blurred with the approaching end of the world. As a result, it follows that what Matthew reports is intended to paint a picture of our day. Jesus’ word in the gospel was addressed to Matthew’s contemporaries long after the resurrection, just as it is addressed to us. “Expect persecution,” Matthew’s version of Jesus says. “ It won’t be so easy carrying out the mission I have for you. But it is urgent.
Don’t dawdle! For the end of all time is coming. ” Mission is a challenge, but let’s get to it! It is urgent!
The church, if it is to be the church, must be all about mission. A Swiss Reformed Christian named Karl Barth, has written, “The church is either a missionary church, or it is no church at all.”
Mission is important, but what is it? The first reaction of most Christians is to think in terms of foreign missions. Mission involves evangelism. It is interesting that the most popular presentations of the faith today also tend to perpetuate this understanding. Best-selling author and megachurch pastor, Rick Warren, sees mission mostly in this way. Though to his credit of late, he has begun to immerse himself in a mission to help
in a struggle against the AIDS Crisis in Africa, in his best-selling book on purpose-driven living. Warren never expressly talks about mission to the poor, sick, and oppressed that Jesus urges here. That is a very problematic omission given the great impact his book had and is still having on Christians.
Today’s gospel lesson account corrects this view of mission so prevalent in many parts of the church. Mission is not about traipsing off to foreign lands. Start where you are at is a core message. That’s why Matthew has Jesus instruct the twelve to go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Of course, Jesus did not preclude a witness to the Gentiles. He sees it happening in the course of the mission to the Hebrews. We may learn from Jesus’ instruction in our gospel that mission happens right here in our community, that when missionary activity brings us to foreign shores it needs to happen
as an outgrowth of what is happening right here. The real missionaries are not just those in Africa, Asia, and South America. You and I are missionaries right here in this community when we are doing mission as Jesus wants it done!
The Gospel lesson also makes it clear that mission is not just preaching. Very little of Jesus’ instructions were about preaching and evangelism. The special bias that God has for the poor and hurting is obvious in Jesus’ instructions.
Jim Wallis, a well-known evangelical political activist, wrote a best-selling book titled God’s Politics, which pointed out that there are several thousand verses of the Bible which deal with the poor and God’s response to injustice. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament, he contended, is about the poor. In view of the weight
that the Bible gives this theme, I wonder why we don’t have more focus on addressing poverty in Canadian Christianity? I wonder why more talk about this mission is not incorporated in discussions of our purpose. We tend to get more concerned about abortion and other issues rather than poverty and injustice. We have also become more preoccupied with wealth (with attaining prosperity ) than with poverty.
Poverty is all around us. Rental rates are going sky high and the cost of food and clothing is outrageous. The city says our economy is booming. But it is only booming for the wealthy and the get-rich-quick. They should look under the bridges at night to see where this booming economy is driving our families. I wish the mayor could spend one night under the bridge and spend one day without a shower and spend his days digging in dumpsters and lining up to get his plate of food at the Friendship Inn. On many days he would find that when lunch is over at the Friendship Inn, he would still be hungry. When you walk the streets and sleep under all that fresh air, you tend to build up quite an appetite. Sometimes the homeless people who drop in at SNCM will tell us that they have been walking all night trying to stay warm.
The number of people who suffer from poverty and depression and addiction is growing every day. Our missions cannot keep up to the demand for more food and used clothing and the funding that is necessary to stay in operation. My people need education and good housing and employment and spiritual counseling and support. And I know that we are tired of hearing about the effects of the era of Residential schools and how that has left us in a state of chaos and ruin. But children were forcibly removed from their communities and families when the schools were in operation and children
were abused in the schools. So, picture yourself as a small child being told to get into the back of a farmer’s truck that has wooden rails and being taken away from your parents to a place that seems cold and frightening and not knowing that you would not see your parents again for at least ten months. And when you arrived at the school, your beautiful long braided hair would be cut off and you would have to wear a stiff uncomfortable uniform and you would be strapped or worse every time you tried to speak your own language. And then told that your culture and ceremonies were evil and primitive and savage. And then when you finally get to go home, you feel like an outcast because you have begun to forget your own language and you start to feel like you don’t fit in anywhere!
I know that would make me feel pretty angry and maybe even cause some hatred to rear its ugly head. The schools were a big mistake! They never should have happened, period! But I heard a wise saying when I attended a drama play recently. The play was called “Reigniting the Spirit.” My daughter invited me to that play because it was very well done and because my daughter had a role in that play. One of the Elders in the play was talking about the mistakes we make and about some of the hurts we experience in this life. He said, “You can’t go back and it’s not healthy to stay where you are, it’s no good to stay where you are. You have to go forward.” I think it is time to go forward. And the church and my people have to go forward together. And those of us who are healthier than the street people, we have to work together to help those people to get back on a good road that is filled with all kinds of blessings.
Jesus’ words in our lesson even provide us with clear and ambiguous evidence for why Christian mission must include, indeed must prioritize, concern for the poor and the outcast, and why that mission is so wonderful. In chapter 10, after urging the twelve to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, Jesus talks about giving away freely to those in need just as the disciples received without payment. Since all that you and I have is given freely by God, it is just logical to engage in a lifestyle of giving away what was never ours.
The love of God begets love. How can you and I be so stingy with it since God is so generous? If Christian mission were a matter of something that you and I had to do, it would never get done. One of the reasons we have so few takers is because we are not making it clear that this is not our work. John Calvin offered a penetrating observation in response to Jesus’ remarks about the disciples receiving freely in order to give freely. He eloquently described the dynamics which make it so difficult to try to alleviate poverty as a mission of Christ. He says, “We know how unwilling every man is to communicate to others what he considers to belong to himself, and how anyone who excels the rest of the brethren is apt to despise them all”
The point is that you and I do not want to see what we have as belonging to God, as belonging to the hotel in which we are staying. What I have is mine! And since you and I have more than the poor, there is a subtle despising and patronizing we feel toward them, even as we undertake or contribute to some project on their behalf. That’s
what charity is; it is not mission. Charity is selfish love. It is selfish because it is giving to the poor on our own terms, giving them what you and I think is really ours. As a mission,
it is very difficult to work with designated funds! I find that people want to control how the money is used when they give to missions. It is difficult to see that paying the rent is just as important to the mission as feeding the five thousand every year. If we don’t pay the bills, we will have nowhere that the people can drop in and have a coffee and a sandwich.
The French scholar, Alain de Botton, has done a nice job of explaining how contemporary society impedes our generosity. Botton points out how we are driven to succeed in order to attain status in society. We are likely to have anxiety if we do not conform to the ideals of success laid down by society. In our context, where the accumulation of money counts for so much, there are all kinds of reasons not to give the impoverished and others in need too much. Not only will it result in less wealth, but the less wealthy I am, the less successful I will seem to be or feel.
How can we get out of this mess? Botton contends that because self-esteem is a matter of both success and pretensions for expectations, what needs to happen when you experience status anxiety is to change your expectations. In this instance, we need to challenge our society’s expectations that you really are not somebody unless you have a fortune. Personally, though, I do not think that you and I have enough spirit on our own to make that happen.
The good news this day and every day is that we Christians have been changed, have a different set of expectations which allow us to challenge society’s expectations
of us. It’s like our Bible says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts (through the Holy Spirit, given to us in salvation by grace.” Rom.5:5. Our gospel lesson echoes this
point when Jesus says to the disciples that what they have is from him and that when they face the harshest challenge imaginable, the Holy Spirit will speak for them. You are not the same anymore, not like what society expects. That is why mission comes easy, and it is a wonderful opportunity. There is a security that makes mission possible. That is the security and confidence everyone needs in order to do mission.
Doing the works of mission is no burden for Christians. Undertaking a mission to the poor and the needy is not a burden for those of us caught up in God’s love in Christ and the Holy Spirit. We are no longer burdened by the dynamics Botton describes, the hesitancy about sharing what we think belongs to us, because now we have in Christ the assurance that we are already valuable. As a result, you and I no longer need all those commodities to prove anything. We no longer need to do good deeds to prove ourselves and others that we are religious.
Get focused on Jesus. Be overwhelmed by God’s love, when you get inspired by his compelling love to focus on the opportunities for mission, right here in our community, out there in the streets, in jails, and hospitals, and you will begin to experience for yourself how wonderful and how much fun doing mission really is. Get focused on Jesus and the rest will happen by his grace. Amen.