We may be a long way from New Orleans and the floods of Katrina, but I know that a lot of evacuees came this direction. I’ve heard stories in the last few days about the hospitality you’ve offered, people who opened their homes and buildings to receive people, who fed them, and for many long years afterward, have been helping people get back on their feet.
It’s the same impulse that moved those early Christians in Antioch to hear the pleas about hungry people in Jerusalem. An ancient weatherman named Agabus reported a coming famine in the land where Jesus walked, and when the folks in Turkey heard about it, they sent help. It’s no different from folks sending donations to ERD for flood relief in North Dakota. In times of emergency, many people are motivated to be generous. Seeing or hearing about other people’s suffering prompts empathy, and the act of sending aid is a powerful act of witness. It says to the world that other human beings matter, that they have dignity and should be cared for in the same way family and near neighbors are.
There’s a hint of the same dynamic in Jesus’ exchange with the mother of the Zebedee boys. This stage mother wants the limelight for her sons, and she’s not afraid to push: ‘give them the seats of honor when you ascend your throne.’ She wants them to be the lieutenants in Jesus’ army, or the VP and Secretary of State in his administration. Their buddies get pretty irritated, and Jesus’ retort is a reminder that his journey is going to be one of service rather than entitlement. There’s more than a hint that there won’t be a lot of sitting around in this kingdom.
James apparently learned something from that encounter. He was running around and presumably stirring things up enough to come to the attention of King Herod. Herod took offense, and executed James. It’s a reminder of that old question, “if you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
What might that mean here, for the people of St. James? Are you, as the collect puts it, witnesses (which is what martyr means) to self-denying service? That sounds a bit pinched to many people, but what it’s really saying is, can the world tell that we love our neighbors?
There’s good historical evidence of that kind of neighbor-love right here, and I know there’s contemporary evidence as well. It’s mostly about getting out of our own way, and forgetting that our position or safety or fullness is the most important thing. The need of neighbor is supposed to be equal to our own – love your neighbor as yourself. And it does not say love your neighbor more than yourself.
That kind of witness or example is why we’re here, both this congregation and the whole of this Episcopal Church. Some of you may be aware that our General Convention ended 10 days ago. Every three years about a thousand bishops and deputies get together to make decisions for the whole Church. Not everyone agrees about what we do there. Most of the time when two Episcopalians get together, they don’t agree about everything! The media have been most interested in the hot-button issues, but I think it’s fair to say that the most important decisions we made were all about how to be witnesses for that kind of Christ-like service.
One resolution got a unanimous vote by the bishops AND the deputies – and it’s about restructuring ourselves as a Church for that kind of self-giving service, what we often call mission. Mission is partly about going to other communities to do what you can to help people in need – like rebuilding houses after Katrina. But it’s about other ways of being witnesses to God’s love in the world around us.
About 25 years ago a group of Anglican representatives from across the Communion developed a framework for thinking about this kind of witnessing work. The framework is called the Five Marks of Mission:
proclaim the good news of the reign of God
teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
respond to human need through loving service
transform unjust structures of society
care for the earth
It starts with God’s dream of a healed world, the one Jesus came among us to show and tell us about, and to represent in his own flesh. His presence among us showed and taught us what the kingdom of God looks like. It means helping people discover that all are loved by God, and should be loved by their neighbors.
The second mark is about helping new parts of this body of Christ become witnesses to that reality. It’s about Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School, and Education for Ministry…
The third mark is caring for hurting individuals – like the feeding and healing work Jesus did among us. Like the St. Luke’s Medical Van, and the work of Hope House here in Shreveport…
The fourth mark is about changing systems that keep people poor, or exposed to preventable floods, or unable to go to school. It’s about helping whole societies to love their weakest and poorest neighbors.
And the last one is about taking care of this garden in which God has planted us – the part of creation that is fundamentally our neighborhood, and the neighborhood of all humanity. Without it we can’t eat or build houses or find water to drink.
The genius of this framework called the Five Marks of Mission is that it takes the whole body of Christ, together with as many partners as we can find who share our values around loving God and our neighbors. That collection that the Christians in Antioch were taking up for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem only happened after the two groups discovered that they could recognize each other as siblings. Originally they thought that because some were circumcised and some were not, that they couldn’t possibly be part of the same body. People are still putting up barriers between different groups of people – and God is still urging us to take them down.
That mission framework is going to shape this Church in its next season of life. We’re going to work hard to reshape this body for the work God asks of us in the world – so that we can respond when and where needed, whether it’s flooding in New Orleans, famine in Somalia, or refugees from violence and war or environmental disaster.
God’s vision of abundant life is meant for all, not just us or our kind. The difficult part of the gospel is getting beyond our narrow vision, like the chairs the Zebedee boys were lusting after, or the jealousy of their friends. We discover abundance in offering ourselves to and for others – and that is likely what got James in trouble with Herod. It is a radical thing to propose a different tax structure that considers the poor first. It’s not politically easy to insist that peace will come across the globe only when everybody has enough to eat and room for hope. It will change your life to act and advocate as a witness to that dream of God’s for a world that’s whole, and holy, and healed – a world of peace because there is justice for all. That message has been costing people for a very long time – but it’s the only kind of living that’s worthy of the name.
Make us witnesses of your dream, O Lord, and let your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.