The below sermon was preached at the 2014 diocesan convention for the Episcopal Church in Vermont on All Saints Day, November 1, 2014. The theme of convention was “Equipped for the Journey: Formation for Mission”
Readings: Revelation 7:9-17, Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front and Matthew 5:1-12
Much of yesterday we were challenged to look at how we join in God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation. We live in changing times, and as Phyllis Tickle shares in her book, The Great Emergence, every five hundred years the Church has a rummage sale; we are again living in such a time of reformation. What do we need to keep? What do we need to get rid of? What do we need to re-imagine?
We live at the cusp of new beginnings, building on the gifts and shoulders of those who have come before us, the saints we have lived in tumultuous times before us.
Futurist Bob Johansen says that we now live in VUCA World: a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. To some extent, human life has always been a VUCA experience, with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that every human faces during his or her lifetime – even in calm historical periods. But as we think about the future, we know we are faced with some dramatic shifts in our world – extreme global climate changes, the rich/poor gap growing, living in both a virtual and physical world as cyberspace is not out there but in our hands, polarizing extremes in the political arena, global terrorism threatening, health care anxieties with our aging population, and many more.
As Christians, how are we called to live in such a world? How do we form disciples so we can be sent out into such a world to proclaim God’s mission?
Christianity is first and foremost a way of life based upon a particular perception of God and life – faith. By baptism we are made into a Christian, incorporated into the body of Christ forever. We spend the rest of our lives learning to be Christian, to live the Christian way of life. Three processes – formation, education, and instruction – are important in moving toward that goal.
Formation involves those intentional, relational experiences that shape our faith, consciousness, and character. Practice and experience are key in our formation. We are formed or nurtured, transformed or converted by our actions and experiences with the life of a worshipping, learning, caring, and witnessing community of faithful people. Bishop Douglas reminded us yesterday that we live out God’s mission through worship, proclamation, forgiveness, service, and justice making. Formation is about developing our capacity to hear, discern, and respond to God’s Word. We affirm our identity as a member of Christ’s body. We expand our consciousness of daily life and work as the context for loving and serving God; responding more faithfully in day-to-day living. We are heightened in our awareness of God’s abundance grace and grow in our ability to live as God’s steward in the world. All increasing our ability to carry the message of God’s reconciling love to others. Formation is such a lifelong process.
All of these things turn us, as disciples of Jesus, into apostles of Jesus – carrying out God’s mission in a world that needs hope and reconciliation – a VUCA world.
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was forming his disciples so that they could continue on without him as apostles. In today’s gospel, he addresses his chosen disciples with not so much promises to the needy as a challenge to them to take on “kingdom” attitudes. Not attitudes of the culture around them of power and authority, but of good news to the hungry and hopeless – they will receive justice, solace, comfort, mercy, and prosperity in the new order.
Jesus was forming his disciples to exercise their spiritual gifts and serve others, leading to the transformation of all. It is because God has sent us that we gather in communities of faith where the gospel is preached, the sacraments are celebrated, and people are sent out to join in God’s mission in our daily lives. The activities we do in church glorify God, strengthen Christians in discipleship, and nourish God’s people, but true mission happens outside the church, and every Christian is a minister. Our “Outline of the Faith,” in the Book of Common Prayer has three questions on mission (p. 855) uses the verbs “restore,” “proclaim,” and “promote,” as how we are to “carries out God’s mission through the ministry of all its members.”
The mission, then, is to live and to talk the good news. Susan Snook, in her forthcoming book, God Gave the Growth: Church Planting in The Episcopal Church speaks to all of us today, whether we are planting a new church or engaging with our neighbors. She asks:
How do we reorient our awareness so that we tune into God’s dynamic action in the world that is outside our conventional perceptions of how we understand God?
What needs to be “re-imagined” since traditional approaches to mission are no longer effective and the church is moving into new territory where things cannot remain the same as in the past?
What skills of leadership are being summoned from us as we “re-tool” to participate in new ways of engaging in God’s Mission?
Bob Johansen and his VUCA world (Leaders Make the Future) has some insights we could learn from as we go about God’s mission. He would say we need the following ten leadership skills :
- Maker Instinct – the desire to create new things
- Clarity – the ability to see through the contradictions and be very clear and flexible about what we are trying to accomplish
- Dilemma Flipping – the ability to turn problems into advantages and opportunities
- Immersive Learning Ability – to learn from others in a first-person way
- Bio-Empathy – to be more in tune with nature’s point of view
- Constructive Depolarizing – the ability to calm tense situations where society is broken
- Quiet Transparency – be open and authentic about what matters to you
- Rapid Prototyping – flexibility to learn from failure and move on
- Smart Mob Organizing – ability to bring together, engage, and nurture networks using technology
- Commons Creating – the ability to stimulate, grow, and nurture shared assets that can benefit others
Yours is not the only diocese that is looking at ways to go out into the world as apostles. Bishop Jake Owensby in the Diocese of Western Louisiana has been engaging his congregations:
Know your ministry context. Know your neighbors. Go to where they are instead of waiting for them to come to you.
Walk twenty minutes in each direction from your church. Who lives there? Are they young? Old? Do they live alone or in extended families? Do they worry what to do with their children after school or how to care for their aging parents while they’re at work?
Is a grocery store readily accessible, or do you worship in the middle of a food desert? Do children play freely in their yards or do they huddle behind locked doors for fear of violence and drugs? Do the schools have the supplies they need and do the children have people to help them with schoolwork after the bell rings? Are children going hungry on weekends and during school vacations? Do those on fixed incomes like the elderly and the handicapped go hungry? Go lonely? Have adequate access to health care services?
Don’t assume that God has been cooling his heels waiting for us to do something. You can bet that God is already working through hands and feet, agencies and organizations, businesses and religious groups. Listen to those already engaged in God’s mission. Humbly ask how you can join them as partners in engaging God’s reconciling work.
Above all, do not wait around for people to make their way into your doors. Go to where the people are. Be the Church in your community. Get out there! And don’t just write a check. Show up. Invest yourself as well as your money.
The text from the Book of Revelation depicts a scene of countless multitudes in heaven, people from every nation, tribe, and language before the throne of God. They are the ones who have come out of “the great ordeal” (v. 14) – the persecution that caused the death of many and suffering for others. But now they will no longer suffer or experience hunger and thirst, for the Lamb “will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17).
For them, the VUCA world has been abolished. And it can be for us too, if we engage in God’s mission outside our doors. Rejoice and be glad, for our reward will be in heaven, joining with all those saints who have gone before us.
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