As the Diocesan Missioner, the ministry in which I and several others, including two of St. Mary Magdalene’s very own are currently engaged, focuses on helping the church adapt to an emerging culture, by assisting our Bishop in forming new communities of faith. Our work includes exploring, planning, and working with diocesan partners, to set the conditions and plans that lead to such communities. The work is absolutely critical today, because the landscape of culture is changing, and we the church, must adapt, so that the gospel can be proclaimed, and the mission of God continue.
In a national magazine recently, Gary Laderman, Chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University claimed that there are a couple of major developments that have led to a unique cultural metamorphosis in the U.S., resulting in nearly 20% of the American population, now claiming no religious affiliation at all. Laderman wrote, “popular culture in America rules our spiritual lives and is a more important source of wisdom, morality, transcendence, and meaning, than the traditional institutions like the church that used to provide these religious elements.”1 Second, he states, “we are a nation of consumers and American desires for food and toys and clothes and healthcare and travel are finally refashioning the spiritual marketplace as well. “Have it your way,” a famous jingle once used by a popular fast food joint is the mantra of the religious moment.”1
The religious landscape of American culture is changing; period. In 1989, just 24 years ago, only 8% of the American population claimed “no religious affiliation;” that segment of our population has more than doubled in two decades. The statistics may be frightening, but it challenges us to re-consider whether we are ready to reconnect with our missionary heritage. It may no longer be enough for us to merely open our doors, offer a great worship experience and develop phenomenal programs, in order to share the Good news. It may be that we must become once again, apostolic and go out and be missionaries again (not overseas), but we must again journey to the far reaches of our own back yards, and proclaim the Good News. Our mission work today has not changed from that of the early church some 2000 years ago when Jesus traversed through Samaritan territory, on his way to Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, in the 21st century, we are being challenged to reimagine mission in the church, and to focus our missionary efforts right here, in the communities in which we are planted.
The story we hear about in today’s gospel is the narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and his travels through a Samaritan village. Jesus was on a mission. He was sharing the Good News of God’s Kingdom with whoever would listen. He did not stop for a respite. He did not build a great edifice and plant himself in one spot. No, he was moving toward his goal. Jesus’ was on a mission that required clarity, determination, resolve, and clear principles along the way. Jesus was clearly going to preach and teach in the capital seat of his people, where he would confront the religious system. Jesus was determined and with resolve, that he would not be deterred despite the obstacles he would face. Jesus principles of non-violence, of abundant love, of amazing healing, and of reconciliation would lead him and his disciples on the path to what lie ahead. Jesus was clear, determined, resolute and with clear principles.
When we begin a new ministry, when we take on a new phase of mission in the church, I wonder if we truly spend enough time prayerfully discerning the Spirit’s call on our individual and corporate lives, so that we, like our Lord, can be clear, determined, and resolute? Do we also count the costs? Do we understand the radical nature of what it means to be “sent out?” The Church’s mission comes with a high cost for those participating in it. In the story today, there were three “wanna be” disciples who come up to Jesus and proclaim their loyalty and willingness to go on mission. The first said, “I will follow you wherever you go.” That sounds familiar doesn’t it? There are others who promised to follow Jesus wherever he might travel. The same boys who wanted seats at Jesus’ right and left hands, the Sons of Thunder, didn’t quite understand Jesus’ mission themselves and yet, when facing potential rejection, they wanted to call down fire on the village that rejected them.
The risk of rejection is a natural part of this mission of God. The radical message we carry to the world, is not one people like to receive. It changes things. It changes them. It changes us. “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” Jesus said. There is a little hyperbole, a little metaphor presented in the words of Jesus here, but I believe Our Lord said these words to show the radical nature of what we as followers of Jesus must risk, when we accept the mission of God. We risk a lot and thus, we accept the reality that the mission we are on, is not going to be comfortable, acclaimed, or readily received by the world to whom we are ministering. My friends, when you engage in mission, expect rejection.
The second “wanna be” wanted to go, but asked for a deferment. The “wanna be” responded to Jesus’ “follow me,” with, “Lord, let me first go bury my father.” See, devout Jews in those days, had an obligation to bury their parents. The question I have is this, were his parents healthy and happy, were they actively dying then, or were they already dead? In the “wanna be’s” heart, I wonder how long did he really want to put off the call to follow Jesus. Jesus responds to him with a little jab, “Dude get your priorities right, don’t wait, get started now.” Jesus said, “let the dead bury the dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In other words, we who have life are no longer dead, and nothing should get in the way of our mission. My friends, when you engage in mission, don’t delay, don’t let other things get in the way.
The third “wanna be” wanted to go, but like the second, was distracted by what was behind him; he wanted to say farewell to those he would leave behind. Have you ever gone on a long trip away from home and you are standing at the door with those you love, and as you consider the journey and the lengthy time you will be away, you say to yourself, I really don’t want to go. You walk out the door and you wave goodbye, wishing you could stay. It is the looking back that distracts you. Your body has left, but your heart and mind yearn to come back to the comfort of home and loved ones. Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” My friends, when you engage in mission, be clear, determined, and resolute about answering God’s call, don’t look back, but only move forward.
We get tripped up in our call to follow Jesus. We wrestle with rejection, we let other things get in the way, we look back to the “good ole’ days” and not what is ahead. I believe we struggle sometimes because we forget one very vital fact. We struggle with the church’s charge to go and “make disciples of all nations,” to “bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” because we make the mistake of believing our work is ours alone, either as a community or as individuals. The mission we are on is not ours, but it is God’s work of reconciliation in the world. Now if we truly believe that fact, and if we truly rely on the source of the mission, when we follow the one who says, “Follow me,” the struggles that come are not insurmountable.
See, the call to discipleship of Jesus inevitably means unconditional commitment to the redemptive work of God, for which Jesus gave his life. When we consider the cost, when we give Jesus the highest priority in our lives, when we recognize that the mission is not ours, but God’s, and when we move ahead without looking back, the mission of God continues in and through us.
Jesus handed over the mission of reconciliation to us, and he trusted us to continue. He left us to it, but did not leave us alone. The Spirit leads us, guides us, teaches us, and inspires us. Just remember, continuing the mission of God in the world does not require us to have all the answers, all the well-laid out plans, and all the latest resources. Those things are important, but they are not the most important.
You know, I heard once that ministry is where your greatest gifts, meet the world’s greatest needs. As I look out today at God’s people gathered here in this place, I imagine God has bestowed on each of as individuals and collectively, certain gifts by which you can partner with God, in God’s mission of love. We are one holy, catholic, and APOSTOLIC church, which means we are to be “sent out.” So, after today’s dismissal, let those words your Deacon proclaims at the door really sink in. Remember what your charge is this week, “Go in peace to love and SERVE the Lord;” go then, and join God’s mission of proclaiming the Good News, and let your life witness to that charge, in all you do.