In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As God has sent me, so I send you.” Let me share a couple stories about why and how the church is sent in mission and service. I walked into the church last Friday and smelled the wonderful aroma of 8 large pots of soup being prepared to feed hungry people at the Church for All People in downtown Columbus. Jerome UMC provides those 8 pots of soup and other food every Friday of the year in a ministry called Soup for the Soul. I did some quick math and realized that adds up to about 400 hundred pots of soup each year that serve homeless and hungry people.
The Appalachian Service Project team (ASP) recently spent a weekend in Guyan Valley, W.Va. One of the people ASP served this year was Mary, an 80 year-old retired school employee. Mary lives in a modest modular home, one of the neatest and cleanest the ASP team says they’ve seen in the 10 years they’ve been doing this work. But Mary’s house needed repairs that she couldn’t afford and her son could not do because of health concerns. Mary now has a new roof and porch thanks to ASP, and she was so grateful she cried that this group of total strangers would give of their time and effort to help her. But Mary had a deeper need. She’s lonely, and in the words of one of the missionaries, “would talk all day if we would listen… and we DID.” He summed it up very well when he said, ‘our mission work is not about the work we do, but the feeling that we give people that someone cares. Mary understood that and now we do.”
Two of our church members just came back yesterday from a medical mission trip to Haiti. They were there last fall too and got stranded for a few days by Hurricane Sandy. They told me that turned out to be blessing because in the extra days they were “forced” to be there, they were able to reach people that they otherwise would not have. Including kids who had not eaten in four days, kids with orange hair (not for Halloween, but because that’s what malnutrition does to your hair), and a family living in an open field during that storm. They set up a tent for that family that had no shelter, and while they did that others in the group shared the Gospel through translators. A naked little boy in the family was shaking from the cold, and one of the volunteers took the shirt off her back and gave it to him. They told me, “It was the most touching thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
We don’t have to go to Haiti or Appalachia or even inner city Columbus to serve God’s children. Service opportunities are all around us everyday and are as varied and numerous as the talents represented in this room – to teach, cook, sew, paint, build Habitat homes, make music, extend hospitality to guests new to the church. Whatever your talents are, what is clear from the Scriptures that we as Christians are all called to serve others in some way. In our Scripture lesson today from John, Jesus says, ‘As God has sent me, so I send you.”
As we celebrate the wonderful mission and service the church is already doing, we have to keep asking ourselves where else is God calling us to go. To be sent means movement – it means going somewhere on a mission, with a purpose. Often being sent on an errand or a work assignment or to comfort a sick or grieving friend calls us to move out of our comfort zone and do things we’ve never tried before and would rather not do. The “As God sent me” part of John 20:21 gives me pause. Jesus was sent to the lost, the lonely; he was sent to confront people with their sin and unfaithfulness; he was sent to expose injustice and oppression; and his prophetic witness got him into a lot of hot water with people of power in his day. He was sent to sacrifice his own comfort to serve and save others – and guess what, he needs us to do the same.
Maybe teaching a class of pre-schoolers is out of your comfort zone – or visiting a nursing home – or talking about your faith to a new neighbor who lives in a house that costs a whole lot more than yours. Where is God sending you? The point is, Christian discipleship is much more than a nice warm comfortable relationship with Jesus. Jesus welcomes us into his merciful arms and loves us – but that is not our resting place — then he sends us out to do his work.
So what does the Lord require of you and me? The Hebrew prophet Micah asked that very question. In Micah 6:8 we read, “He has showed you what is good, and what the Lord requires of you is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” The verses leading up to this verse describe the easy way the Hebrew people wanted to get right with God. They simply wanted to offer animal sacrifices on the altar at the temple and hope that would appease God and get them off the hook for any sin they had committed. Micah says, not so quick folks – God sees through our attempts to use rituals and ceremonies to cover up our lack of righteous living. Worship, rituals and ceremonies are good as far as they go – but they aren’t enough. God is much more concerned about how we live our lives Monday through Saturday than just how we spend Sunday mornings.
We all have a pretty good idea of what mercy is. That word in Micah is also sometimes translated as kindness. So I want to focus on the other two key words in that verse, Justice and Humility. We sometimes use the English word justice to mean punishment, as in “she got her just reward.” We have a department of justice that is about laws and punishment. But the biblical term “mishpat” is much broader than that. That Hebrew word for justice means fairness and righteousness – living in a right relationship with God’s will and making sure others are assured of an equitable and fair life, especially the weak and powerless. The phrase “with liberty and justice for ALL” in our pledge of allegiance reflects that vision of what life should look like for all of God’s children. And where that liberty and justice is lacking, that’s where God sends us to help make it so.
Notice Micah says we are to DO justice. Justice here is not just a noun, but a verb, an action. It’s the same idea expressed in the letter of James when he says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” What does doing justice look like? There was a story on NPR last week about a trailer park community in Palo Alto, California looking for justice. These hard-working people live modestly, often working more than one job to provide for their families. Their blessing and curse is that they live near Silicon Valley and developers want to displace all the residents to build luxury condos and apartments. The people in those trailer homes want to stay there because some of the best schools in California are there. Those schools are providing a way for the next generation to improve their lives. But, as the NPR commentator said, “they are confronting the harsh realities of money.“ The average home in that area costs $2 million.
Is it just that those who need the most help to break out of the cycle of poverty have fewer resources to do so? When I compare the urban school I used to tutor in to the wonderful suburban schools my grandchildren attend, it’s like two different worlds. Is that justice, fairness and equality? It’s tempting to say that’s not our problem. We’ve got enough of our own! But it is our problem if we take seriously what the Scriptures tell us God requires of us.
There was once a village on the banks of a river where people would sometimes have to be rescued who had fallen in the river somewhere upstream. As the rescues became more frequent the village built a rescue station and staffed in 24/7 and saved hundreds of lives. They were proud of their work, but one day a young woman said to the village elders, “it’s a good thing to rescue people, but I wonder what is causing people to be in the river so often. Why don’t we go upstream and find out why people are ending up in the river in the first place? Doing justice is not just rescuing the perishing, as important as those acts of mercy are. We are also called to change the systems and conditions that put people at risk for poverty, hunger, discrimination, or any other injustice. And God sends us to the ballot box, to the school board or the legislature, to write letters to the editor–to do justice.
Micah says we are also to “walk humbly with your God” – what does that mean? In a word, it’s the O word. The O word is not one we like to hear, it’s “obedience.” Humble obedience means that when God says “go” we don’t bargain or make excuses; we go where we are sent.
Does that feel overwhelming, a bit scary? It sure does to me. I preach this stuff better than I practice it. Where do we get the strength and courage to go where God is calling us to serve? This passage from John addresses that question. The disciples are afraid and for good reason. They have just seen their beloved leader brutally crucified. John tells us they are hiding from the Jews. Can’t blame them – I would too, but I wonder if they weren’t also hiding from God who wants to send them into that same world that killed Jesus? You’ve heard the advice to never play leap frog with a unicorn? Well it’s also not a good idea to play hide and seek with God. Won’t work. That’s where the phrase “you can run but you can’t hide” probably originated.
John says the doors are locked in that upper room and Jesus comes right into the room anyway. How he did that is an interesting question we could explore, but that’s not really the point. Jesus coming into that locked room means that God breaks through whatever barriers we try to put up – whatever excuses we offer: I’m too old, too young, too poor, too busy, not good enough, too scared. “Sorry,” Jesus says, “it’s your turn now.”
The best Easter sermon I ever heard was by Bishop Dwight Loder, and the phrase I remember from that sermon is this. Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. He was not resurrected for the church. He was resurrected AS the church.” We are the body of Christ, and as such God sends us in mission and service to the least and the lost. We are transformed by the salvation of Christ, but the story doesn’t end there. We are transformed so we can go out and transform the world into a place of justice, mercy and humility.
How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Do you want peace in your life? We all do – real peace that only God can give, the peace that passes all human understanding. The secret to finding that peace is right here in John 20. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t send them out looking for peace on E-bay or Craig’s list; he imparts it in their hearts and then sends them out. We don’t find or create that kind of peace; it finds us, in the midst of our doubts, not after all our doubts are resolved.
How does that work? Notice what happens right after Jesus says “As God has sent me, so I send you.” “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” He breathed life into them just as God breathed life into humankind in the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit empowers before it sends us out to serve.
But here’s the catch – that powerful spirit only comes in surrender. True peace only happens when we are vulnerable enough to get up close and personal with God. You have to get very close to let someone breathe on you. The question is do we want Jesus getting that close? Invading our personal space, meddling with our priorities? That’s scary. But, if we let down our barriers and allow Christ into our hearts we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to humbly and obediently do justice and act mercifully – outside our comfort zones in the world God sends us into. To say with all the saints that have gone before us, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”
[This sermon was preached at Jerome UMC on October 27, 2013]