This is not how I imagined a mission trip would be, I remembered thinking. I was in college and it was my first mission trip overseas. A group of us, under the leadership of the campus minister, had traveled to Vladimir, Russia. We were a few days in and it seemed like all we were doing was meeting people who took us around to historical sites. It didn’t make sense. Where were the building projects? Where was the VBS program to run? Those are the type of things that my friends who had been on mission trips before talked about. What were we doing?
We are now in the fourth week of our sermon series on being a vital congregation. So far we’ve lifted up passionate worship, radical hospitality, and intentional faith development as musts for congregations that want bear fruit. This week, we move to risk taking mission and service.
What I had to learn that day was that not all mission trips are about buildings and programs. But all mission trips and fruitful service opportunities are about building relationships. Investing in people. What I didn’t understand about the Russian culture was that history mattered. You weren’t going to build relationships without first knowing who they were as a people and what they had been through. By visiting historic sites we were saying that their history mattered to us. That they mattered to us, and we were given profound ministry moments, because we took the time to invest in who they are.
A few months ago at a council meeting I lifted up three ways that we are the church invest in people. The most common is ministry. I define ministry as those things we do for each other in the congregation - the Sunday School programs and ways we connect with our shut ins. Anything we do to nurture one another. Next we have mission - those ways that we serve with others. Often when we think of the word mission - mission trip or giving to mission organizations comes to mind. Lastly, we have outreach - the ways that we meet people and build relationships outside of the church building in hopes that one day people will accept our invitation to come.
These categories are not perfect and often there is overlap. Today I want to pick up on that second category - mission, or in this case mission and service. Mission and service are outwardly focus. They are ways that we live out our faith walk by making a difference in the lives of others.
In the passage of scripture found in the gospel of Matthew described as separating the sheep from the goats, we find Jesus teaching that we, as his followers, will be known by what we do - specifically who we serve. The passage ends with “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.” When we serve other people, it is to be as if we are serving Christ. In the Hebrew Scriptures we find the law to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When we serve people we are to serve them with the respect and compassion we would want others to treat us with.
One trap that church folks can fall into is thinking of the people we are serving as “the other” or “those people” who are so different than me. When we do that, we start to assume what people need and can end up belittling them instead of treating them like we are to treat Christ or like we would want to be treated. A few days ago I was speaking with a colleague about holiday food items that her congregation collected. They collected simple food, thinking that each of the three items they collected would be packaged together and given as a meal at a local food pantry. She had to explain to them, that all items once they were given were sorted onto shelves so folks could shop for what their specific family unit needed. Some people in her congregation were upset because there food wouldn’t be given as a package - they couldn’t understand why the food pantry couldn’t force people to take it since they went to the trouble of collecting it. Sometimes our own desire to serve, can get in the way of serving people in a compassionate, merciful, and respectful way.
The prophet Micah has a beautiful passage where God is posing the question what is required of people who follow God. The answer? To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. What is so amazing about mission and service is that it has the ability to transform us. Justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God, can be difficult things. Yet when we care enough about people and serving our Lord and Savior to live into scriptures in this way we find that what we do can make a difference in the lives of others, and in our lives as well.
Years ago there was thought to be a specific pattern in Christian discipleship. You came to church for worship. You joined the church as a member. Then you were invited to serve. What we are finding now is that inviting people to be part of mission and service, even if they do not you know Christ, can be a way to teach them about Jesus. As we serve alongside folks - whether it be people on our time or the people we are partnering to serve, we find that Christ opens up opportunities to have conversations and build relationships that transform people and communities for the sake of Jesus Christ. People notice when we care enough to give of our time and resources and often they will ask what leads us to do so - at which point we have a wide open door to tell them about what it means for us to walk humbly with Jesus Christ and what he means to us.
Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke that “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Brother and sisters that same spirit is upon each of us as Christ’s followers as well. But what is beautiful about this passage is that we are not just to proclaim these things to those who are like us - we are to proclaim them to the world. Mission and service pushes us outside of our comfort zones.
That is where the risk-taking part of mission and service comes in. Bishop Schanse puts it this way: “The stretch of Christian discipleship is to love those for whom it is not automatic, easy, common, or accepted. To love those who do not think like us or live like us, and to express respect, compassion, and mercy to those we do not know and may never be able to repay us - this is the love Christ pulls out of us.” When we engage in mission and service, no matter where and how, we are given the gift of being pushed outside of our comfort zones. To do something we may have never considered outside of our relationship with Christ.
In my last parish I took a small group of young adults to York to work on home repairs for a week one summer. The irony? None of us knew anything about home repair. This was so outside of our comfort zone - yet we felt called to go, so we went. And God used us in profound ways. We were used to paint, take out concrete, clean mold - and walk along side folks who just needed to be loved.
Mission and service is a risk because we may not fully understand why we are being called to go where we are being sent. And its a risk because we may not always be able to know or even predict the outcomes. But when we engage in risk taking mission and service, through giving of our time or gifts, we are given the opportunity to live out our faith and share the love of Christ. May we go and do so, this day and always. Amen.