This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:
This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:
Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day. It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent. But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.
That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind 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.
There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.
And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there.
Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:
“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.
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.
The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.” The people REALLY don’t get him. Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.
This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday. And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.
Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.
He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…
And then something in Paul shifts. His language changes.
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.
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 was 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 showed them where he 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.
In my work earlier 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 partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their 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.
And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.
Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily. And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.
65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.
And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.
One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.
Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.
But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.
So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.
The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.
The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to 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 neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world. And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.
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.
Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.
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.
From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.