Mission of God

Back in the past, when the world was much larger than it is today, maybe you remember missionaries coming to your church to share stories about their work taking place elsewhere. I remember the gravity of those stories. You felt like you were listening to something sacred and significant, because here were people who picked up their lives and moved halfway around the world to serve the needs of others.

Those stories were like the one that Julie Widden Long tells about Leena Lavanya. Leena grew up as a Baptist in Andhra Pradesh, India, where her grandfather was a seminary professor and taught her all about the ways of Jesus. As a teenager, she went to a youth conference in Zimbabwe with the Baptist World Alliance, which is a part of our GMO budget. She heard Tony Campolo preach, talking about caring for the poor and serving the needs of the vulnerable.

She remembers him talking about that hymn, “All to Jesus, I Surrender.” Everyone in the auditorium in that worship service joined together to sing, “All to Thee, My blessed Savior, I surrender all.” He commented on how many would sing those words, but how difficult it is to live them.

When she returned home, for reasons she cannot explain, she started to notice the needs of people around her. She met a woman who did not have any safe way to earn a living. Leena decided to go out and purchase a basic, used sewing machine, and then she taught this woman how to sew. Out of this skill, she was able to build a different life for herself. Out of that experience, Leena went on to start a sewing school for women.

More and more, she found different ways to serve the needs of others. Eventually, she spent her days tending to the needs of children at a school for the poor, volunteering at community computer classes where there were those building a better life for themselves, taking care of patients at an AIDS hospice, serving the needs of those with leprosy, while providing pastoral care and leading worship services at surrounding villages.

It might remind us of what one writer has said, “There are some lives that are so beautiful that the only explanation for them is God.”

Those stories might feel a little unfamiliar to us, like they are foreign to our world, out of reach, that they don’t belong where we attend school or go to work. Those stories have to do with people who picked up and moved halfway around the world!

Leena, though, was not a missionary. She was serving in the place where she grew up. Our stories of service might sound different. They might look different. They might address different needs. But behind them is the same steadfast Love of God.

They can still end up feeling unfamiliar, not because they belong to someone who has moved halfway across the world, but because they call us to something different, something that changes our worlds. We discover that what is hard is oftentimes bound up with what is good.

It was a similar experience for Elisha, who knew that the end was near for Elijah. Elijah would ascend into heaven, and Elisha knew his world would change. He would all of a sudden feel the loneliness of leadership.

Elijah, knowing the end was near and not wanting Elisha to face that with him, kept telling Elisha to stay behind. When he was going to Bethel, he turned to Elisha and he said, “You just stay here.” Elisha refused, repeatedly. Elijah kept going on to Jericho and then on to Jordan and each time, he said to Elisha, “You stay behind.” Elisha said, “I will not leave you. I will stay with you to the end even if it is hard.”

It strikes me as quite courageous. Elisha could have avoided saying one of the saddest words we ever have to say–the word, Goodbye. He stays with him even though it is hard, and he receives a double share of Elijah’s spirit.

If we try to make it too easy, we end up missing out on what is most good because so often those two things are woven together.

I am sure you already noticed what I just realized, that only six days had passed when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the mountain.  The moment we call the Transfiguration. It had only been six days since that very uncomfortable confrontation, where Jesus broached the subject of the suffering that was to come. Jesus knew you can only love widely and live simply for so long before things get really difficult.

Peter was upset. The disciples did not understand. They had pinned their hopes to Jesus as the Messiah, the next King of Israel, and suffering was not a part of that plan. Peter spoke up, “Jesus, you’ve got to stop talking this way. People might overhear you.” Jesus pushed back, and he did not mince words: “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter did not understand.

It was only six days, not even a full week, where those concerns were still hanging in the air. Everyone is still thinking about them when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the top of the mountain. On the mountain, there is that dazzling light around Jesus–the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah on either side of him, and Peter thought, “Well, this is more like it. Let’s just stay here! We can build some dwelling places over there. This will be great!” He is ready to collect fire for the campsite that night.

Everything is good on top of the mountain. The hard part of the journey is already behind you. Let’s not talk about taking up a cross. Let’s stop discussing finding our lives by losing them. But Jesus knew that what is good is bound up with what is hard, so they walked back down.

I still remember when I was sitting in seminary class when my professor, without any warning, started to talk about the Missio Dei. It was like that first day in Spanish class, where the teacher gets up from her desk and goes to the board, introduces herself, and then does not say another word in English the rest of the class. About 10 minutes past and you are looking around out of the corner of your eyes, wondering if anybody else is completely lost.

My Latin was not very good.  The Missio Dei simply means the Mission of God. When you say it in Latin, it feels unfamiliar, like it belongs to a foreign land and is out of reach, like you have to move halfway around the world to find it, but that is not the case.

We find the Mission of God wherever we are. We can serve the needs of others right around the corner from our lives. It can, though, end up feeling unfamiliar, not because you have to move somewhere else, but because it always invites us into the lives of others, which are unfamiliar to us—people whose lives look and feel different from ours.

We just might discover pain in someone else’s life, which is unsettling to us because we cannot understand it. We might also experience some dazzling light like standing on top of the mountain because what is good is bound up with what is hard in the Mission of God. The good news is there is a history of just that right here in this place where we are sitting.

If you look at the GMO budget, there are all these stories that leap off the page. Like the stories we heard at our storytelling event last year, where church members got together and shared stories about this place–about how it has leaned into its calling throughout the years.

Wallace Baldwin talked about Bob Stevenson, and others, who took a trip to Brazil. In 1988, they went to help people plant gardens and raise chickens, but as they stepped into the lives of others, they started to discover a need to build churches. They had never done that before, but they partnered with other congregations and started going back each year for those building projects.

Leigh Anne Chambliss Armstrong talked about the beginning of the Conversational English Ministry, which started around the kitchen table at Jeanette Jeffers’ house. Then others joined in, people like Jo Randall, who would bring her puppet, Josh, to do ventriloquism for everybody. It was just one way to offer the welcome of God to people who were new to Auburn.

Julia Morgan reminded us of Helen Brown, who along with others, would go to the jail every week for a Bible study, and she never failed to tell them, “You are loved unconditionally just the way you are.” We all need to hear someone say that to us, and we all need to know what it feels like to say that to somebody else.

Mary Ann Dell talked about how members from this church went to meet with the mayor to start talking about creating a Community Market with the Food Bank, and how we continue to serve the Community Market every year on Mother’s Day, as we host a baby shower for their baby closet, collecting items for the most precious and the most vulnerable in our community.

It is the Missio Dei, which simply means we share the concern that Jesus had for everyone, and we seek ways to offer our support. The Global Ministries Offering invites us to do just that, to participate with one another in the Mission of God—to join with others, both near and far, to do what is hard, but also what is deeply good.

Amen.

Auburn First Baptist Church