Friday, June 23, 2006

Cultivating Mission

This past week I uttered a phrase that I never would have imagined uttering. Standing beside our newly paved parking lot, a smooth sea of steaming blackness, I thought to myself, “What a beautiful parking lot!” Others joined my joy and said the same. As un-theological as I am generally about parking lots this one is something to give thanks for, and we can all thank the efforts of Kerry Roselle, Bill Rohmann, and the rest of the Property and Maintenance Committee for making it possible.

While a group of us were discussing the layout of the lines with one of the contractors, we spoke of the placement of new “visitor” spots. The contractor seemed puzzled. “Why do you need visitor spots?” A good question, really, and one that I am sure many of you are asking.

The simple answer has to do with cultivating a sense of mission. There is (hopefully) a clear message sent, not only to outsiders but also to ourselves, that a vital aspect of the church’s mission in our world has to do with invitation and welcome. A church which reserves parking spaces for its leaders may be motivated by a well-intentioned sense of respect, but it may also send the message that the most important people in the church are its pastors. On the other hand, prime parking spots dedicated to visitors sends the message that the most important people in our midst are our guests. That’s thinking in terms of mission.

So the next time you are tempted to irritation over those great parking spaces which may, on any given Sunday, be vacant, let that be a reminder of our mission, to invite our world to follow Jesus. Invite a friend or two to church, and let them know there is a special place waiting for them!

That ethic of invitation will also be emphasized in July by our next Invite-a-Friend event, an outdoor service at 10 AM on July 2nd, followed by an ice cream social, on the Unneberg Lawn. We encourage you, in the spirit of mission and invitation, to invite someone you know to worship on that day. Your invitation might seem like such a small thing—like a mustard seed, perhaps—but it is part of living out our wider mission, of inviting our world to follow Jesus. For here, in this grace-filled community of Jesus, there is peace, shade and rest.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Go and Follow Jesus

“Who are we? What are we doing here? What is this church-thing all about?” These might seem to be strange questions coming from me. Surely I know what we’re doing here. (Or at least, you would think, I should know!) But in my view these are not such strange questions. Over time, organizations and institutions have a tendency to lose sight of their reason to be, and, without careful attention to matters of mission, they can get muddled, confused and off-track.

These are not strange questions for the Church Universal, or for this expression of it in this time and place. On one level, there is a obvious purpose for our gathering: a people gathered around Word and Sacrament. But that still leaves open the question: Why? For what purpose? Are we merely another religious club, dallying with these God-things for our own sake? (One might, I dare-say, get that impression!) Or is God accomplishing something--doing something--not merely for our sake and our personal spiritual enrichment but for the sake of the world?

Sometimes things come into focus without our even realizing it. It was about year ago on the final day of Sunday School that we gathered the children around the font. The theme of the children’s story that day was “mission,” and as they were dismissed they were blessed with the waters of baptism, signed with the cross, and given a very clear mission: “Go and follow Jesus in all you do.” Or, in other words, go and be disciples. As you have been blessed, now be a blessing.

The year since has been filled with the never-ending work of ministry and the usual liturgical cycle, but now with those questions--”who are we?” and “what are we called to do?”-- still echoing on the edges of conversations and rattling around inside sermons. I assembled a “vision team” to work with those questions. We prayed and talked and prayed some more. We made lists and wrote statements. We invited others into the conversation. And so what a surprise to find myself at the place where I started a year ago. “Go and follow Jesus in all you do.” Seems simple and basic, but such is usually the case in speaking of mission.

If we want to catch a vision of the what church is really all about, it helps to look at the story of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. The disciples were gathered, praying (perhaps navel-gazing), not quite sure what to do next in those weird, uncharted days after the Resurrection. Then the Holy Spirit burst upon them with great energy and verve for the mission that Jesus himself gave them: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...” It wasn’t a matter of some memory of Jesus that they had somehow to convey to others, by their own ability. No, the gift of the Holy Spirit was (and is!) the power of God loose in the world. Caught up in that power, they were now emboldened and empowered to do what Jesus said they would: be my witnesses. Jesus had given them the clear mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Luther himself caught that vision: we are called to be “little Christs,” not for our sake but for the sake of the world.

In these coming days of Pentecost, I invite you to consider your faith in terms of mission. Mission is sometimes a difficult concept for us to grasp, as most of us grew up with the notion that “mission” was something that “missionaries” were involved in, in some far-off place called the “mission-field.” That may have been more-or-less accurate at the beginning of the 20th century, but here in the 21st, the church finds itself in a cultural setting not unlike that of the 1st century: wildly pluralistic, diverse, and generally with no idea who Jesus is or what the Kingdom of God is all about. Our mission is daunting, but we do not attempt it without help. Jesus himself said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8)

How do we--as a church and as individuals--live faith in terms of mission? I believe the key is discipleship, by following Jesus. Following Jesus isn’t done in isolation, for a few minutes on Sunday morning. Following Jesus calls us to bear witness to God’s love through our living, in the very ordinary context of daily life. It is missional, because through it our lives become living witnesses to the grace of God, for the sake of the world.

Discipleship need not be so complicated. In this coming season of Pentecost, we will lift up these 7 dimensions of discipleship as concrete practices for mission: In Baptism, we are called to pray daily, worship regularly, study the scriptures, invite others to the community of Jesus, encourage and serve our neighbor, and to give as God has given to us.
Simple as that, and as rich as that. We are called to be disciples, and to make disciples, for the sake of the world, for God so loved the world that he sent his Son, and God’s Son now sends us. Go, and follow Jesus is all you do, and in the power of the Holy Spirit bid others to follow, too.