The last couple of Sundays I conducted church services at a rustic little summer chapel in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. The attendance at the services was small, about 25 or 30 at the 10 o’clock, and the congregations were made up of summer visitors many of whom were there for just that week. Part of the informal spirit of the place is that a few minutes before each service I would stand up in front and ask if anyone would like to volunteer to read a scripture lesson or serve the chalice for communion. The readings I could handle by myself, in a pinch, but I really did need to have a helper with the chalice. So if nobody stepped forward the first time, I’d have to ask again, and emphasize that “on-the-job training” was available.
So both Sundays it happened that I had a chalice bearer who had never done it before, and, because there was no time before the service to provide even the most rudimentary instruction, I would just tell them to come up after the Lord’s Prayer and the breaking of the bread, and I would show them what to do. Which I did, in plain sight of the congregation, and they caught on right away, and did a perfectly fine job. One Sunday it was a rugged but kindly white-haired gentleman in a windbreaker who looked like he was going to set out on a fishing trip right after the service, and the next week it was a slender, refined lady with close-cropped blond hair and modest but elegant jewelry in a flower-print summer dress. In both cases they seemed genuinely moved by the experience, and afterward thanked me for the opportunity to serve.
I wasn’t around here then, but I gather that there was a time in the not-so-distant past of this congregation when worship services had a little bit of the ad hoc quality of that chapel in the mountains. It wasn’t always clear who would be showing up, so a newcomer, especially if he or she arrived a few minutes early, might be recruited to read a lesson, or help pass out bulletins, or something. And a similar kind of thing took place recently, when we put on our Big Night Out fundraising gala. We turned to friends and friends of friends, and even strangers, and we asked them to get involved with us, to make donations and purchase tickets, to help raise funds to renovate and restore our historic church building.
And I wonder if this asking for and accepting help from strangers isn’t fundamental to the mission of the gospel, and the character of the church. Certainly the early Christian communities of the Gospels felt it was important to hand down the traditions about Jesus’ commission to his disciples, when he sent them out on the back roads of Galilee, carrying no purse, no bag, no staff, and no change of clothes. And as we read in Matthew today, he instructed them that when they met a stranger, it was an opportunity for that stranger to receive a priceless reward. Every encounter they had along the way was an invitation to the ones they met to become a part of something uniquely important, and meaningful, and life-changing. And the way to extend that extraordinary offer, said Jesus, was to invite the stranger to supply an ordinary need.
This is a reversal of the way the church likes to think about its mission. We would prefer to be God’s chosen vessels of grace, the ones who go out and do good for the world. Out of our great store of virtue and wisdom we supply others with the healing, the knowledge, the forgiveness and redemption that they lack. How odd, then, is this remembrance that Jesus sent his disciples out to make the Kingdom of God immanently available by being hot and thirsty, and accepting a cup of cool water from a stranger on the road. Could it be that God communicates the good news of salvation to the world, not through the power, and patronage, and mastery of Christians, but through their vulnerability, and humility, and need?
This certainly puts the mission of the church into a different light. Most of you may not think of yourselves as missionaries, or of St. John’s as being engaged in missionary activity. But throughout and around the church in recent years, the realization has been growing that without an active impulse to reach out and connect to strangers, with a story and an invitation, the church is in danger of losing itself. Not only because of institutional shrinkage and decline, although that’s been happening, but more importantly because of the loss of something that is at the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
Now, I want to say that if you are resistant to the idea that you are meant to be a missionary, and if you think that you want no part of a congregation that is self-consciously engaged in a missionary enterprise, you probably have every good reason for feeling that way. Because when we imagine the scenarios that these words suggest, we start thinking about the kind of Christian mission that has not undergone the reversal that Jesus asks his disciples to make. We hear talk about “mission” and we think it means adding more work to our “to-do” list. We think it means going out and promoting ourselves, selling people on our brand of religion, persuading them that we have something to offer them that is superior to what they might get from the Unitarians, the Buddhists, or the Calvary Bible Fellowship, something that’s even better than sleeping in and reading the Sunday paper at the kitchen table in your bathrobe. And if that’s what it means to be engaged in mission, I’m with you—no thank you very much.
But what if our Christian mission today were the continuation of the journey that Jesus sent his disciples out to make, before there was a church institution to worry about, or rival denominational bodies, or even a book called the Bible? What if its essence were to be humanly, physically present to others, as a stranger seeking friendship with strangers? And what if the point of connection, the field of communication and invitation, were nothing other than our own authentic needs, both our deepest spiritual hunger and our ordinary physical thirst? What if our mission to our neighbors was not to supply them with what we have that they lack, but to call out of them gifts that they didn’t know they had because no one ever asked for them before?
It is an intriguing possibility to consider, because it makes mission an encounter at the level of equality, and places at the center of it the common human questions about what we really need. And yet we also have to recognize that this honesty about our needs is not a license to puff up for ourselves an over-blown sense of unworthiness, or to wear a lovingly-polished humility as a badge of pride. Because Jesus does not send his missionaries out to beg. They are almost empty-handed, but they do carry one thing with them, one thing that gives them the confidence and the authority to engage the world in a conversation it scarcely knew it needed to have. They carry, says the Gospel of Matthew, a name, the name of “disciple.”
It is a name that means “one who follows a teacher.” And this is the testimony that I think even we reticent and reserved Episcopalians are called upon to give, if we are to be the missionaries that all Christians are meant, in some sense, to be. Not testimony that we are “saved.” Not that Jesus helped us kick the habit, or got us out of debt. Not that we have some special spiritual gift, or esoteric knowledge, or infallible doctrine. Not that we are holier, or wiser, or kinder, or more wretched and penitent, than anybody else.
But just the testimony that we are disciples, people who want to be a part of the community that throughout the ages and all over the world seeks to understand Jesus’ teachings, and apply them, to follow his example, and celebrate his sacraments, and have faith in his promises. And also testimony that this is the way we have found that seems to speak to our souls’ most pressing needs. Oh—and one more thing!...We could sure use your help.