No Burning, No Fire, Last Sunday in Epiphany (C) – 2001
February 25, 2001
Generating Mission Light “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” No burning, no fire. No mission, no church. Emil Brunner nicely sums up this simple truth in one inescapable sentence. For generations, the church has tried to ignore it, making the church into a private club, a comfortable chaplaincy, and a fund-raising and fund-dispersing organization. But churches that ignore the call to active mission dwindle and die. In contrast, churches that make mission their focus thrive – whether they are large or small, the spirit in congregations that look outward rather than inward generates the light of Christ and attracts new life. Mission cannot exist without missionaries – people who go forth and enter into relationships with other people in the name and spirit of Christ, whether going means across the street or across the world. This year the Episcopal Church is celebrating missionaries -those people who have packed up their lives and moved elsewhere or had their lives significantly changed, as they crossed cultural, language, geographical and many other boundaries. It is celebrating those people who have, really or metaphorically, left home and familiar comfort to sojourn with God and God’s people in another part and a different way of God’s world. All Episcopalians should consider themselves missionaries, for all are members of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. That is the corporate name of the Episcopal Church USA. It should catch our attention that our church, a church that many assume has stopped sending missionaries, originally thought of itself as existing chiefly for the purpose of sending missionaries. And at the very least understood with wonderful clarity and passion, that the church does not exist except by being on mission. When you read the Bible with mission in mind, it becomes an extraordinary drama of God’s unfolding mission strategy. This morning we see Moses – a missionary to the Israelites in Egypt – coming down from a long session of prayer with God, and unbeknownst to him his face is shining – casting forth a light of divine grace that transforms his countenance. Why? Because he had kept close company with the Almighty and now he was going forth on mission – going out to bring God’s “tablets of the testimony” which was what we have come to call the Ten Commandments, to the wandering Israelites. Moses’ face was shining – radiating with the Holy Spirit and he was sent forth by God on a mission. Look at Jesus in the passage from Luke’s Gospel. “As he was praying the appearance of his countenance was altered and his raiment became dazzling white.” Not only Jesus’ face, but even his clothes were suffused with that same light of God’s being. And Jesus was transfigured. Note that this happened just before Jesus prepared to enter Jerusalem for the last time. God was preparing Jesus, his only begotten Son, for the climax of his mission on earth, proclaiming the truth of God’s Kingdom in the very precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. When people are on mission, sent by God to shed the light of the Gospel, they are lit up with the Spirit of God who moves through us all and most brightly through the combined light generated by a community on mission. We are all familiar with electric generators – those gadgets that make energy to drive machines like cars, lights, and so on. Perhaps you remember those little generators that hook up to the rear wheel of a bicycle. Push that small cylinder against the wheel and as you pedal, energy flows to the headlight mounted on the handlebars. The faster you pedal, the brighter the light! When you stop, the light dies down to nothing. So when the church is moving out in mission, the light, the warmth, the life-giving fire of God is generated and cast abroad into the world. But when the church goes to sleep, becomes static, or turns in upon itself, no light is shed. What is the nature of this Divine light? Paul writes to the Corinthians that the church shines most brightly with the light of divine love. The church is the body of Christ and we are all members of it individually. When we are truly alight – on fire – with the love of God, the church casts light and warmth into the world, it burns with the fire of its mission, and many are drawn to it. Let me give you an example of such a church community. Some of you may have heard of the Church of the Holy Apostles on 9th Avenue in NYC and its extraordinary mission to homeless and hungry people in New York City. In 1991 a fire ruined the church. Insurance provided $3.1 million to rebuild. In NYC, that was not enough. No matter – neighbors in west side Chelsea and people all over the New York City opened their checkbooks to come up with the balance of $4 million to restore the work of that place – a unique and nationally recognized mission of feeding over 1,000 homeless people every day without fail. So it was the mission of Holy Apostles that rebuilt the church, drawing contributions from every walk of life and every faith and unfaith persuasion NYC has to offer. Here is what the church is doing in another part of our turbulent world, as reported by Terry M. Brown, Bishop of Malaita in the Solomon Islands. Bishop Brown wrote this account in a recent newsletter describing the situation in the Solomon Islands in the wake of the recent civil strife between two militant groups, the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IMF) and the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF): The Diocese and I have been in the midst of all the mess, facilitating humanitarian assistance, trying to discourage human rights abuses, encouraging peacemaking and reconciliation, encouraging the church simply to do its work at the local level . . . The Diocese is organizing a series of ecumenical conferences on peace and reconciliation issues around Malaita covering such issues as models of development, customary land tenure, human rights, environmental issues, women as peacemakers, working together as community, The Townsville Peace Agreement, etc., involving chiefs, church leaders, and ex-militants. These are just two examples of a quiet, but spectacular fire of mission reaching around the globe and working salvation, transforming and transfiguring all those drawn into the love of God by its light. Is there anybody on earth more equipped to do this work, more specifically called to such compassionate and persistent mission, or more effective at transforming human communities? For all the church’s limitations and even errors, this Body redeems glory out of “mess” more humbly and more enduringly than any other body. The love and companionship of God and God’s people through history is a truly luminous story. And that is, for the most part, the story of missionaries – individual members of the Body of Christ, people sent out to meet God’s people across a boundary that but for the mission God, would continue to set apart and separate all those whom God calls to be one. And so as we join in God’s mission we are all changed, from one degree of glory to another, into the image and likeness of Christ. This is the work of the Spirit today, just as it was the work of the Spirit in Paul’s complicated Mediterranean world of the first century. And there you are in the Divine equation: potential energy – an indispensable kilowatt multiplied by a factor of infinity, continually transformed into fuel to power a light to the nations. So we thank God today for all those who have gone forth and who are going forth and who will go forth to a new place – across the street, across the world – missionaries with the missionary God who is always on the Way. Glory to our God whose power working through all of us has done and is doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.
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