Being a Local Missionary

Episcopal missionary Jesse Zink, formerly of Mthatha Mission in South Africa, is now a student at Yale Divinity School and blogging at Mission Minded.
I’m beginning to think that someday my home parish of St. John’s in Northampton will be famous as “the place where Jesse Zink grew up”. Warm, personable, and humble, he’s an engaging preacher who combines orthodox belief with a commitment to social justice.

Last weekend he visited us and preached an inspiring sermon on Mark 13:1-8. He has a way of issuing a challenge without shaming his listeners. Here’s an excerpt from the sermon, which appears in full on his blog:

…So when we return to the question of why Jesus would predict the destruction of the Temple I think it has to do with the idea of vulnerability. This is an idea we in this western society don’t like to hear. In this culture, we seek control over everything – no vulnerability! I wanted people to come to me in the community area in Itipini so I could control the interaction on my terms. The temple in ancient Israel was the dwelling place of God. It was the way the priests centralized worship so they could control God.

Standing opposite this is Jesus. This is the Jesus who makes himself vulnerable in his life and ministry. “Let the little children come to me,” he says, when the disciples shoo them away. You can just imagine what those disciples would say today. “The children, Jesus? They probably have swine flu!” Jesus hears his name called out by the beggars when he walks through town. Everyone traveling with him wants to control Jesus and his schedule. “C’mon, Jesus we have to get to Jericho on time,” you can hear them saying. But Jesus is the one who stops, lets go of control, and finds out what the beggars want. And of course there’s the greatest act of vulnerability ever, willingly taking up a cross and dying, voluntarily subjecting himself to a painful and dehumanizing death.

For Jesus this vulnerability is a choice. It is a choice he can make only because he comes from a position of great power. He is, of course, God Incarnate. God had this great power and could have stayed in heaven. But God didn’t. God choose to “empty himself” as Paul later writes and take the form of a human. God sacrifices God’s immense power to become human, that is to say, powerless.

This church gives us a lot of power. Just the fact that this building is standing here means someone at some point had the economic power to build it. The fact that people have been worshipping in this place in this community for so long is a source of power. The education and wealth of the members of this congregation is a source of tremendous power. And that leaves us with a choice. Do we lock all that power up behind these beautiful walls and make people come to us on our terms or do we choose vulnerability and venture forth?

And if we do venture forth, how do we do it? Which direction do we go? I think there’s a clear direction we head and it was embodied in a word I used earlier to describe myself when I said I was a missionary of the Episcopal church. That word “missionary” can be so difficult to hear in our day and age. It has – to say the least – a mixed history. Missionaries have too often in history been associated with events that tear down the kingdom of God rather than build it up. But I want to hang onto it.

A missionary, to state the obvious, has a mission. And to whom does that mission belong? Does it belong to the missionary? The missionary’s congregation? The missionary’s diocese? The national church? The “church” as an abstract entity? It is none of these. Mission belongs to God. And God’s mission has been the same throughout the history of the Bible. God yearns for people to exist in right relationship with each other and with God. To put God’s mission into one word, God yearns for reconciliation.

If we think of mission this way then mission is not about sending people across the world to baptize the masses and found churches. It’s not even just about sending people across the world. The need for reconciliation is as strong in Northampton and Western Massachusetts as it is in a place like Itipini. The need takes a different shape and our responses will be different but there is a yearning for reconciliation here nonetheless.

We must respond to the mission of God by asking this question: where is God’s mission around us and what role are we privileged to play in that mission? To ask it another way, where is reconciliation needed and how can we help bring it about? The variety of answers to this question will be as varied as the people in this congregation. Some people are called to make music because music is a way that people connect to God and to one another. Some people are called to make this a welcoming place so that when people enter they know that God is here with them. For some people, these callings may be a new challenge, a stepping beyond what we are used to, a call to go from a position of power to vulnerability.

Now let me say there is a lot of vulnerability in this world and not all of it is holy. The wife in an abusive relationship is vulnerable to the violence of her husband and there is nothing holy about that. The workers being exploited by their boss are vulnerable in that situation and that is also not holy. The wife and workers are not operating from positions of power and not choosing vulnerability. That is not the kind of vulnerability I’m encouraging us to embrace here.

This Gospel passage is calling us to deliberately embrace a sense of vulnerability in this way: look around you, think about yourself – how are you powerful right now? What skills and talents and resources do you have that give you power and the ability to control a situation? Now, ask yourself how can I sacrifice this control? How can I venture beyond these great big walls that are around me? How can I journey in a new way, a way that is guided by God’s mission of reconciliation?

The truth of mainline Protestant churches in these early years of this new century is that the church is falling down around us, stone upon stone, literally and metaphorically. It does us no good to deny this reality. But what if we were to embrace this new reality and the vulnerability it creates and take it as an opportunity to venture beyond what we have so long known, beyond what have been our traditional sources of power and control? What if we gave up trying to control every last thing? What if we moved forward in the spirit of the mission of God?

Other notable posts at Jesse’s blog include a sermon on incarnation and healing, and a consideration of the best terminology to describe all the different groups within the LGBTQA acronym. As he says, “You think about different things in New England than you do in South Africa.”

To support Jesse’s upcoming mission trip to Ecuador, send donations to 63 Nash St., Floor 3, New Haven, CT 06511.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.