My sermon from the Thanksgiving Ingathering on November 5
This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:
Tell about opening worship – reading the names of the missionaries who have died. Very white, anglo sounding names.
But that evening, I met missionaries who reminded me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted. Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.
But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.
Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.
Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.
I also heard there will be an African who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea… although I didn’t get to meet him.
Mande Muyombo is from Katanga, DRC and is the executive Director of the new Global Ministries Connections.
As he wrote earlier this year:
“The theology of our regional structure is based on our sense of mission “from everywhere to everywhere”—while recognizing the shift of Christianity’s center of gravity. Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)
From everywhere… to everywhere…
Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.
The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.
The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.
I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.
As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.
What is interesting is how the Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody” like they really don’t get him. Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.
Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. It’s the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross… and the same word used twice as Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.
There is a sense in which Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.
He is taken to the council and he is placed in the middle of the people… (again, this can be translated as either a forceful or wilful act)… and I want you to imagine a light bulb going off above Paul’s head.
Because his language shifts.
He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.
He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.
He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.
“What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist.”
In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us. God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist. Even if we don’t know it yet. And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.
But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.
We are about to enter the season of Advent… a time of dual purpose where we both remember the coming of Christ into this world as a child and look ahead to the second coming of Christ into our midst.
God seeks us.
God enters our lives and our stories.
God takes on our flesh.
God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.
The incarnation is as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.
And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and saw God.
Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)
Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.
It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.
The only question is… why do we set it aside as the work of our missionaries?
Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?
Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.
Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.” (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )
Our churches need to learn more than we teach.
We need to listen more than we speak.
We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.
Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.
In my work so far with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.
We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, learn about customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.
Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.
These kits we have collected today… they don’t always represent Western ways of doing things, but connect with the real lived needs of women and children across this world who are eager to learn, seeking healthy births, and who need very concrete resources to maintain health.
Yet, as we go forward, we even must be willing to explore and Global Ministries is currently evaluating how kits like the ones we have collected today can be more contextually relevant… maybe even by purchasing and assembling the kit materials in the places where they are needed to boost their local economies.
In the song we share together – We’ve a Story to Hear from the Nations” we hear these lyrics:
There’s a message we need in each nation,
That God, Creator of all
Is living in Christ among us
And breathing new life and hope.
From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.