The lections for this Evensong were 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Matthew 28:16-20.
I was at the international gathering of L’Arche last week in Atlanta. There were L’Arche members from more than a hundred local communities in 37 or 38 nations. L’Arche gathers intellectually disabled adults (core members) and non-disabled assistants to live together in community. It got its start as a Roman Catholic initiative, but there are a number of Episcopal and Anglican communities around the world, as well as from other faith traditions. A central focus of the ministry is developing a shared spiritual life in each community. During the international gathering there was a different denominational Eucharist each evening, and one evening of interfaith worship.
I had several lively conversations with people who told me about the spiritual life in different communities. The core members tend to have strongly developed spiritual lives and clear expectations about what life in community should include. Their assistants are often young adults who choose this life for a year or two, and many now come without any religious background at all. L’Arche has become a significant evangelical opportunity, offering a space in which to introduce these young people to community life as a place to wrestle with life’s great questions and to develop enduring relationships with God and other human beings. It is a transformational experience for everyone involved.
One of our conversations wrestled with the kinds of questions we’re here to talk about tonight – what is mission, and how is it connected with evangelism?
The gospel passage we heard is often referred to as the Great Commission: “go and make disciples, baptize people in the name of the Trinity, and teach them what Jesus taught.” Some people understand that as the central definition of mission. Others claim that it’s the kind of reconciliation that we heard in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God has charged us with reconciling all people to God – to do the work of restoring relationships.” Some understand that reconciling work as the kind of hands-on work that Jesus talks about in Matthew 25 as caring for the least of these, the hungry and homeless and sick and imprisoned – if you do that, Jesus says, you will find ultimate reconciliation in the reign of God. Together, those understandings of mission move toward a holistic vision of the work for which God sends us (which is what mission means, being sent) – to be partners in healing the world, to transform what is, and to share in creating a healed and reconciled world.
Some 20-25 years ago a group of Anglicans developed a framework for talking about that work we’re sent to do – it’s called the 5 Anglican Marks of Mission. In shorthand, it’s about naming that dream of God for a healed world, it’s about evangelism, and caring for people in need, it’s about addressing injustice all around us, and it involves caring for the garden in which we’re set. It includes most ways you can think of addressing suffering, in the name of the God who created us all for abundant life.
When Paul calls Jesus’ friends ambassadors, this is what he’s talking about. We’re sent out from communities like this one to help people dream of abundant life and make it reality. L’Arche communities are a microcosm of that dream, for a very particular segment of creation. They work remarkable transformation through the self-offering of community members, both the permanent core members and the visitors (the assistants), through those who are supposedly disabled and the differently abled. As a Christian community called The Episcopal Church, building that kind of transformative community is our basic reason for existence.
We’ve heard about the challenges of life in Williston and Minot and other parts of the Oil Patch. Most of them are about the lack of coherent community, or the brokenness of community following the Minot flooding. People who’ve lived there for a while are concerned about all the strangers and the lack of shared values – they’re afraid for their daughters and for the loss of the community they’ve known. The big challenge is to figure out how to get a handle on what’s happening and begin to form a community that can give back, a community that can be about more than extracting as much wealth as possible from the ground. Christians understand our vocation as gratitude for what we’ve been given, and sharing that abundance with others – we don’t understand our vocation as getting ours while the getting is good. The evangelical opportunity in the Oil Patch is about how to reframe the conversation, how to invite these newcomers into God’s dream of greater possibility and truly abundant life for the whole community.
Immigrant communities are the faster growing parts of The Episcopal Church, as congregations form to serve people with distinct cultural and language traditions. The Oil Patch is a gathering of in-migrants, who come with different expectations and burdens, but it’s not unique. The Episcopal Church in Frankfurt, Germany is composed of Episcopalians and Anglicans from all over the world, including some local German citizens. One of their most compelling mission efforts involves people who have been deported from the U.S. These are people who have spent most of their lives in the U.S., think of themselves as Americans, don’t speak German, and have been kicked out of this country because of some run-in with the law, often a minor drug offense. Sometimes they don’t even know that they are German citizens until ICE picks them up. The congregation of Christ the King is being transformed alongside the deportees they serve, mostly by spending time with people who don’t have any community at all.
Congregations are meant to be homes in which people are equipped to engage God’s healing and reconciling work. It’s going to look different in different places, because the world is diverse. Our task is to figure out how to be the leaven in the lump, the Pentecostal fire starters, the vehicle of healing and reconciliation for the communities in which we find ourselves.
What does it mean here? What kind of healing and reconciliation is needed for the human communities and the earth that ultimately supports us all? Extractive economies are usually focused on the very near future, rather than taking a long view – God’s mission has a very long focus, expecting the ultimate healing of all that is, but it is also urgent, for the pain and suffering is now and it’s very real.
The friends of Jesus are named at baptism as healers, reconcilers, ambassadors of God’s dream (mark 1). The cells we call congregations are places of nurture and challenge to equip the ambassadors of God’s mission (mark 2). The task of Jesus’ friends is to respond to the suffering we find around us, whether it’s human beings in trouble (mark 3), injustice that limits the promise of abundant life (mark 4), or disrespect for God’s creation – this planet earth, our island home (mark 5).
Jesus’ friends are sent to all parts of the world, and all nations, to work God’s promise of healing. We do it by connecting with our own experience of God’s broken heart – the God who hears people crying in the wilderness and rescues them from the floodwaters, who sees people without a shepherd, who confronts bullies, who aches for a woman who can’t feed her children.
Where is your heart being broken open? That brokenness, that passion, is the root of all transformation, and it will tell you where to go and how to respond, as one who is marked (in baptism) with the cross of Jesus’ passion as Christ’s own forever. Go, share that mark of reconciliation with a desperately hungry world.