Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Righteous and the Rest.

I don't do this often, but I figured maybe I will start whenever I do preach (which is less often now, more often in the future I'm sure). This is the short homily (3-5 minutes) I will be preaching at St. Luke's tomorrow morning. The three texts listed are the lectionary readings we're doing in Chapel in the morning, so they give a Scriptural context for what I'm doing. The idea actually came to me in chapel today, which was convenient as I preach tomorrow.

“The Righteous and the Rest” Ps. 14, Mk. 1:29-45, Eph.2:1-10

Religious groups can be exclusive. I know, it’s hard to imagine that we could be an exclusive bunch, interested in our own salvation and our own journeys to God, but it’s true. The psalmist today provides a perfect example of this. The psalm is full of “they did this” and “they did that.” It reminds me of listening to four year olds complain about their peers who haven’t shared a toy, or are eating one too many cookies. Or, for that matter, one group of church goers critiquing the liturgical practices of another church. One of the great things about the psalms is their ability to hold a mirror up to humanity—both the good, and the bad. The psalmist speaks of “they” and once uses the more direct “you”—words meant to create a dichotomy between the righteous and the rest. The beginning of Paul’s passage almost seems to run along the same lines: you were dead when you followed the ways of “those who are disobedient.” We are the righteous. They are the rest.

I bring this tendency to exclusivity up because I want to make a few comments about mission. Now, you might think that this would be a rather odd way of bringing such a topic up, but I think it is important in seminary, where we can easily ignore the outside world. An example: this December, when I had about seventy-five pages of writing due at the end of the semester, I spent an entire evening writing at my desk. The ground was clear when I started, and when I glanced out of the window I was startled to see three inches of snow on the ground. Mind you, I sit right next to a window. Literally. It’s about a foot away from my desk chair. And there is even another window in my room. I had gotten so wrapped up in what I was doing that I had not even looked out of the window for hours. And this is just concerning the weather—much less the social justice issues, the poverty and helplessness that seems to pervade my neighborhood. I have to ask, am I too busy to look out of my own seminary-world window to see that? And the answer, if I’m honest, is more often yes than no.

This leads me to my next point. Forgive me GOE takers, but I want to talk a minute about the missio Dei, or the mission of God. In the mid-twentieth century as the ecumenical movement gained more and more momentum, there was increasing conversation about the mission of the Church universal. Before this time, mission had actually been missions, carried out by individual churches with the focus on conversion. However, by the time the 60s rolled around, Christianity had spread throughout the world and denominations were finding that missions might not be the most pressing need for the church anymore. This was known in missiological terms as the missio Ecclesia, or the mission of the church. The implications of this term are that missions were dependent upon the actions of the individual churches—the Church of England, for example. However, by the 1968 World Council of Churches meeting in Uppsala, the ground had shifted to the missio Dei. The WCC defined the missio Dei as something meant “to bring all people into this new creation. All who work for justice and peace in the world participated in this new creation” (Douglas 272). In more stark terms, the mission of God was not dependent upon the church. Indeed, the mission of God worked outside of the church.

It’s interesting that it took almost 2000 years from Jesus’s time to figure this out. Genesis 1 does not read: “the spirit moved across the deep from it’s source point of St. Stephen’s by the formless void.” No. That spirit moved before an institutional church even existed! Similarly, in today’s Gospel passage we see Jesus responding to the deep needs of those around him. In yesterday’s Gospel he preached repentance. In today’s he goes about curing the sick and casting out demons. All of these outside of an institutional Church.

Now, at first this all seems like an odd message to give to future leaders of a church institution. Hopefully my last two points will show it is actually quite relevant, however.
The first point comes from the Ephesians passage. As Paul writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (8-10). We were created to do good works; to be a just people who work for justice. Our very nature as a Christian people is to be a people who reaches out to the deep needs and hurts of the world, as Jesus shows us in Mark. The hardest part is done—we’re already made for good works. Now we just have to do them!

The second point, and the one thing I’d like for you to take from this if you don’t remember anything else, is that the mission of God is not confined to the church. I said it before, but as the dean said, redundant communication is key to leadership development. There are going to be people responding to the mission of God whether or not they go to church. But think of all of the great resources we—as part of a larger institution—can bring! Prayer, advocacy, people-power, and money, to name a few. But we have to respond to that call. We have to look out of the window and see not only the snow falling on the ground, but the homeless who are forced to sleep in that snow. The missio Dei is going to happen with or without us: the question we must ask is, do we want to be a part of it?

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