Apple Valley Dreams: Missional
We’ve been talking about my dreams for Apple Valley over the past couple of weeks. The first week, our memory verse was, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you, Search, and you fill find, Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” And I shared my dream that we are a prayerful people. That we’re comfortable praying. That we’re persistent, and full of expectation that God loves to hear what we have to say, and has something to say back. That we’re praying, everyday, for ourselves, and our congregation, and our community, and God’s vision to come alive in us. Last week, our memory verse, from the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, was, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost,” and I talked about my dream that Apple Valley is Invitational. Not just that we wait for folks who cross our paths, but that we live out in the world an expression of the welcome of Christ, who is always on the move among the most vulnerable.
This week, I want to talk about my dream for Apple Valley to be a missional congregation. Mission is one of those words we can use in a lot of ways. Sometimes we talk about people going on a mission trip – this could mean going to build homes or schools, or just going to a different community or country to build relationships. In our jurisdiction, the Northeastern body of United Methodists in the United States, for example, young people go every year on a Mission of Peace, a mission trip with a focus on breaking down walls of misunderstanding and separation between people. But sometimes, especially historically, and still today, a mission trip meant a trip where missionaries would try to convert people to the Christian faith. Historically, Christians have sometimes confused sharing the faith with sharing a culture, insisting that new Christians needed to adopt a new language, new dress, new traditions to be Christian. When we engaged in the Act of Repentance at Annual Conference this year, part of our repentance was remembering and rejecting the ways American Christians insisted native peoples must abandon their culture to follow Jesus, often forcing native people to do so. The result is that today people are sometimes very wary of the word “mission.” In congregations today, you might find that there is a “mission” committee. Usually, this is the group of folks in the church who think about how to best serve others on behalf of the church. They do the work of outreach through service. And finally, mission can mean “purpose” – the reason for something’s existence. We have, for example, a mission statement for the denomination. It’s “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s what United Methodists claim as our purpose, the reason we’re in existence. More broadly, our book of order, The Book of Discipline says that the mission of the church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world” and further that that mission is carried out by “send[ing] persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel.”
When I talk about wanting Apple Valley to be missional, I mean primarily this last thing: I want us to be a people who are clear about our purpose, and clear about the way in which we are meant to live out our purpose in the world. What’s our purpose, and how do we get it done? I believe that our purpose is to share in the task of communicating Jesus’ message – his good news – and to be a people who are working hard, together, to bring our lives into line with the transformed set of values that Jesus offers as an alternative to the values of power, money, and position that the world claims most important. I believe that our mission is to change our lives so that our values match God’s values. My dream is for us to be a missional, justice-seeking congregation full of servants of Christ.
So what does that mean exactly? Our key verse today is from our gospel lesson, and we have to commit it to memory even without a children’s sermon: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Like I said last Sunday, when Jesus tells us so clearly what his purpose is, our best bet is to do likewise. Jesus comes to serve and to pour out his life for others. We’re meant to do likewise! Just before our text in Mark’s gospel, a man approached Jesus asking what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus talked to him about the commandments, which the man said he kept, and then Jesus told him he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the men went away grieving, since he was very wealthy. Jesus then talked about how difficult it was to enter God’s kingdom, and the disciples wonder how anyone could enter the kingdom. Jesus tells them that with God, nothing is impossible, but that the last will be first and the first will be last.
Somehow, just after this, apparently not absorbing the previous conversation, we encounter James and John saying to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus presses them, asking if they could really handle all that is implied – if they could face what Jesus will face in order to claim those honored seats – and they insist that they can. Naturally, their claim to seats of honor causes a fight among the twelve, who are mad at James and John. But Jesus says to them, ““You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about these role reversals, about flipping things upside down in the expected order of the world. The exalted are humbled, and the humbled exalted. Last first and first last. And here, Jesus, the teacher, the master, comes not to be served, but to serve, to give his life. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant, he says. This past week in our Clergy Book Study Group we talked about the gospel lesson from John where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. It has some parallels to our text for today. Listen: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”
One of my colleagues was talking about how hard it is to do the right thing as pastors when people come seeking help. We’re a bit out of the way here, but in more urban churches, often people seek help from the local church, and it is hard to know what to do, what to give, how to help, how to help in ways that will really transform people, rather than leave them in the position of needing to ask, to beg really, again and again. We talked about how it was hard to serve others well in these situations. And I began to wonder why Jesus never seemed to run into struggles like this. We never see him trying to decide whether or not to help someone. And then I realized why: Jesus never had to make these kinds of decisions, and didn’t have folks asking him for the same kinds of material help, because Jesus had already completely poured himself out as an offering to others. He’d opted out of having the power of giving or withholding charity. He’d decided already that he would be the one relying on the welcome of others, rather than being the one with the power to invite or not into his home. No one asked him for things because Jesus kept no things, nothing, for himself. Jesus tells us that to be great, the way God sees it, we must be servants, not those who seek to be served, seek to be masters, seek to have power. We must be servants. Jesus does this to the extreme – he gives his life as a ransom for many. He even gives away his very life. We’re called, too, to give our very selves away as we serve others. The less we hold onto, the less we’ll struggle with how we’re best supposed to serve, because what we’ll have to give will simply be ourselves, and that’s the very best we have to offer.
I’ve been working with folks from Apple Valley and other churches for some time on understanding the differences between charity, where those who have possess all the power over those who are in need, choosing when and what to give, and justice, which is God’s vision, God’s dream, for relationships that are set-right, that reflect God’s love for wholeness for humanity. Justice is when God’s reign, God’s kingdom, God’s dream is made a reality on earth. Justice is the work that’s involved in making God’s dreams come true now. When I talk about our mission, being missional, that’s what I’m hoping we can do, in our corner of the world: work with God to make God’s dreams come true for all people. We’ve been thinking in particular about hunger and poverty and how we can have an impact on the need in our community. We’ve talked about knowing what skills we have to offer – like teaching classes on canning, or gardening, or maybe evening putting a community garden in right in our backyard. We’re meeting with Barb K from PEACE at the end of the month to learn more about the needs in our own neighborhoods. I hope we will develop some clear and specific plans for seeking justice, carrying out our mission of getting ourselves in line with God’s values. But to be a missional church, we start with our hearts. We need to seek servants’ hearts, not seeking out what can be done for us, but how we can offer even our very selves to God and neighbor. I dream of a missional church, full of servants, giving even their whole hearts to the work of God. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Amen.