Jesus told his disciples: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.-John 20:21
This past weekend, I attended a conference called Missional Voices. It was great. It was ably organized by a group of seminarians, and it left me with great hope for the future, as we explored new ways of thinking about church. I learned a lot, as we talked about the mission of God. I wonder what you think that mission might be.
One priest serving in a southern city told a story about his community. One of the members of the congregation made his home on the streets, sleeping near a bridge in the downtown area. The priest had noticed that this guy was missing from the church for a number of weeks. When the guy showed up again for worship, and they came to the exchange of the peace, the priest greeted him and asked where he had been. The man explained that one night, two guys had thrown him over the edge of the bridge and taken all his stuff. He had been in the hospital recovering from the fall. The priest inquired more about the incident. In the course of the conversation, the man said that the two guys who had thrown him over the edge of the bridge were actually attending the service that night. He wouldn’t tell the priest who they were. He thought the priest would make the two guys leave. The homeless gentleman explained that those two guys needed to stay. They needed Jesus. The priest told us the story to report that he learned something that night, something important about Jesus, something important about the mission of God.
According to the Prayer Book, the mission of the church has to do with reconciliation. Specifically, we are told that the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and others. But the point of this conference was that this reconciling work is primarily God’s mission in the world, ours by extension, our as instruments of God’s work. Story after story reminded me that God’s mission can be fulfilled in many ways. It can be the work of the church, occasionally even the clergy. Who knew? It can be fulfilled by people in the church who are not the leaders in the church. It can be fulfilled by people who have nothing to do with the church. Each one of us created in the image of God, each one of us with a God-shaped space inside us, can do this work. Ultimately, it is God’s work, God’s mission.
Jesus knew this, and taught about it in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, the person who carries out the mission of God (i.e., healing a man who had been attacked and was then ignored by the really religious people of the day) is the Samaritan. He was the outsider, the guy who knew nothing of liturgical tradition, had never been confirmed, had never been to seminary, was not a pledging member of any parish, didn’t know the creed. You get the point.
I come away from this conference mindful of the ways I am called to participate in the mission of God, how I might be a reconciling influence, bringing wholeness where there is brokenness. Lord knows, there’s a sufficiency of brokenness surrounding us. I come away with a sense of commission. How on this Monday morning might I participate in reconciling work?
I come away from the conference mindful of the ways that the church (its members, including clergy like me) often work at cross-purposes with the mission of God, building walls that divide instead of opening doors, setting up barriers to healing and wholeness instead of tearing them down, focusing on judgment more than mercy, on being right more than being righteous. Let’s just call this a growth opportunity.
Mostly, I come away interested in the ways that I might learn from unlikely teachers like this homeless guy tossed over the edge of the bridge. His story teaches about grace and forgiveness. He makes me hopeful that in moments when I find meaning and identity in resentment, I can remember his forgiving spirit, and in some small struggling way fulfill the mission of God.
One of the highlights for me was a talk by Christian Kassoff, who leads a congregation in California that focuses on a ministry called Laundrylove. That ministry carries out the mission of God, building community by helping people in need realize the simple (but for some elusive) dignity of having clean clothes.He told the story of his own conversion, as he moved from a life challenged by substance abuse and a criminal record to leadership in his church. Here’s how he described it:I used to be a hopeless dope fiend. Now I’m a dopeless hope fiend.
Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.-Richard Rohr
Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change
someone else.-Richard Rohr
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