February 10, 2013
Today, the last Sunday of Epiphany, is recognized every year as World Mission Sunday around the Episcopal Church.
The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mittere “to be sent out”; mission is about being sent out. But what are we being sent out to do, and where are we expected to go?
The mission that we are all called into as Christians is the mission of God. This mission is most succinctly articulated in our Baptismal Covenant and in particular the last two questions of the covenant:
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
To which we declare, “I will, with God’s help.”
These two simple promises are excellent guides as we reflect upon what God is calling us to do, and how we should faithfully respond.
We are an incarnational church. When we internalize the understanding that God has created all humanity in God’s image and that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, it is impossible to pass by somebody in need without feeling the call to respond. It is much easier to ignore suffering around the world when it is happening far away and when we do not feel connected to the people who are suffering. But when we sense a connection, when we realize that the person who is suffering is part of who we are, flesh of our own flesh, bone of our own bone, then the visceral desire to respond is much greater.
And yet we are all connected. At the beginning of time and from the beginning of scripture, we were all created from the same single point, which is God’s love. We are all children of God, and we are all created in God’s image.
Within all of scripture, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is a thread that describes how humanity has separated itself from God and from one another, and at various times in our history how humanity has moved back toward God and to one another through the witness of prophets and later through the incarnation of the Son of God into this world. The mission of God is fundamentally about this journey of reconciliation; the mission into which we are called to participate is God’s mission of reconciliation, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another. This is the essence of God’s call for us.
In the book “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo writes, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” One could add that when we look into the eyes of another, especially one who is suffering, we also see the face of God. When we interact with others, when we honesty desire to nurture a relationship with another, then we feel an imperative to respond to their needs as they are drawn to respond to our needs. An important aspect in our response to God’s mission is that we are called to be in a mutual relationship with one another. Remember that in our baptismal vows we declare that we will strive to respect the dignity of every human being. We cannot respect the dignity of another if the relationship is one sided.
Since the beginning of time, people have responded to God’s love in different ways. Missionaries have travelled to all corners of the earth sharing the Good News of Christ to those who had not heard. Missionaries brought education and healthcare, they have healed the sick, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, fed the hungry and built homes for those without shelter.
There have been those throughout history who have sacrificed good-paying jobs, a comfortable lifestyle and even their lives as they respond to God’s call to seek and serve Christ in all people. There still continues to be people who respond to God’s call by living across cultural, linguistic and economic boundaries as missionaries of the church.
We have young adults who give a year of their lives to work around the world in service. They work in the mountain province of the Philippines; they work with migrant workers in Hong Kong; they support a mission hospital in rural Lesotho, Africa; they are teaching music in Haiti; they are providing support for the social outreach of the Church of Southern Africa. Our missionaries in the Young Adult Service Corps program are making a real difference in the regions where they work.
We also have missionaries that serve for longer periods of time, developing programs and gaining a deep understanding of the language and culture as they share their gifts and skills to support our partners in the Anglican Communion around the world as doctors and nurses, as educators, as accountants and web designers, as administrators and advocates.
In more recent years we have seen the growth of short-term mission, with parishes and dioceses across the Episcopal Church engaging in mission and developing and nurturing relationships with sisters and brothers around the Anglican Communion. This development has provided an opportunity for many people to learn more about our neighbors far away, to learn how God is working in their lives and to respond to human need in a meaningful way.
Responding to people’s physical needs is very natural, and Jesus calls us to do it. But we should never forget that our first call is to be in relationship with others and to respond to God’s call for reconciliation. We are called to listen to one another’s stories.
After the terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York area at the end of October 2012, many church groups sent teams to help clean up. One particular group worked hard all day, cleaning houses, washing down fungus-encrusted walls and throwing out trash. An elderly woman who was helped was so proud of her neighborhood that she insisted the mission team should come and see the local park. Perhaps one of the most meaningful encounters of the day was when one of the group, a young teenager, went with this woman to visit the park and to listen to her story. For 15 minutes he gave her his full attention, a time for her to share her joy amidst the sadness of the loss of her home, and time for both of them to see Christ in the other.
We are not all called to travel across continents or to visit prisoners, but we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Having faith in our own faith, trusting in God, as Paul states in Corinthians, “We have such a hope, we act with great boldness.” We should have that boldness that comes from the realization that we are all children of God and that God loves us all more than we can ask or imagine. Whatever we do, God will always be there with us, God will always love us and God’s arms are wrapped tightly around us.
“Doing” is important, but “being” is the very essence of mission. We are called to share the physical gifts that we have with others, and the disparity of wealth in this country and around the world is a tragedy that we should be addressing unceasingly. However, reminding others that they are loved and that they are not forgotten is also important and reaches to the very core of what God is calling us to do.
Whether we are helping in a food pantry in our local community, participating in mission trips across the world, or living amongst another culture for many years, it is the love for the other that is at the very core mission.
One missionary said that the best advice he ever received as a young priest was that he should always “love the people”; and that is what we are all called to do.
What are we sent out to do, and where do we go?
As Christians we are sent out to love God and to love one another, and we are sent out to the whole world. We are sent out to be with our neighbor down the street and our neighbor around the world.
— The Rev. David Copley is the Episcopal Church’s officer for Mission Personnel and team leader for the Global Partnerships Office. He was a missionary in Liberia and Bolivia and priest in the Diocese of Southern Virginia before accepting his current position.