We conclude the great missionary season of Epiphany today. I say “missionary” because this season has been all about the light of Christ shining into the whole world, making it clear that the Good News of God’s love was not to be limited to the people of Israel or any one, ethnic group, but was always intended to be shared throughout the world to all people. Because of that, the Last Sunday after The Epiphany every year has been designated “World Mission Sunday” by the Episcopal Church. Our mission to the whole world!
One of the ways we do “World Mission” in our church is by a network of Companion Dioceses. We pray every week for our long-term relationship with the Diocese of Brechin in Scotland and our one with Swaziland which was established during my time as Bishop of Iowa. And, of course, we now have an even newer companionship with the Diocese of Nzara in South Sudan.
They especially need our prayers these days as their country descends even more deeply into chaos and war. Please remember Bishop Samuel Peni and his family. He actually studied for the priesthood right here in our diocese, in Dubuque, at one of the seminaries there, and his family received financial support from the people of Trinity Cathedral. They are our companions in World Mission!
And we always read the Gospel story of the Transfiguration on this Sunday because it was one of the formative experiences for Peter, James and John as they were present at a powerful mountain-top experience of Jesus. And they realized –quite literally “in a flash” – that Jesus was the embodiment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah). This realization left them silenced for a time, but it didn’t take long for them to regain their voices and to be about their mission as apostles…as those who are sent.
Well, you and I are the “sent ones” today. We’re the ones who are sent to share with our families, friends, and neighbors what we’ve discovered about God through Jesus and the church, and to continue to let God’s light shine in our dark world today. Our Prayer Book Catechism says that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people…to unity with God…and each other…in Christ.”
But that’s a pretty sparse definition, so the Anglican Communion has tried to flesh it out a bit, by adopting something called “The Five Marks of Mission.” It’s a kind of check-list for us to see if we are being about the mission of the church. I’d like to share them with you this morning:
Mark #1 is “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.” Obviously, it all starts there. We are to witness, by our words and our deeds, the extremely good news that God is in charge of this world, and that we are not! That’s what it means to live under the king-ship, the reign, the sovereignty of God…and to begin doing it right now! That’s one reason good preaching is important. It’s typically done by an ordained person, but more and more licensed “lay” preachers are being trained and commissioned for this important ministry.
Since Susanne and I moved to Iowa City, we’ve been attending New Song and I’ve been mightily impressed with the several lay preachers I have heard. They bring a unique and different perspective to the pulpit and to the proclamation of the Gospel that never fails to move me.
Mark #2 is “to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers.” So, Christian education is important for a congregation as well. If we have young people, then of course Sunday school and such newer programs like Godly Play and Journey to Adulthood need to happen. But, our formation as Christians doesn’t stop when we grow up and get confirmed! Bible studies, Education for Ministry, and the kind of ministry formation programs we hope you will get involved in here at St. Alban’s help keep us alive and growing in our faith, instead of just stagnating and sort of “treading water” in our spiritual lives.
Mark #3 is “to respond to human need by loving service.” St. Francis famously said, “Preach the Gospel always…if necessary, use words!” And, by that, he meant that serving other people is also a way to demonstrate that they are valued and treasured by their Creator, and that God, and God’s people, want only the best for them. That’s why we’re so proud of you for the outreach you do in this community by hosting the various recovery groups, by the feeding program, the underwear ministry, the gift bags, and by the faithful jail outreach which emanates from your gathered life here as the People of God.
Mark #4 is “to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.” Some people are uncomfortable with the church speaking out in the public square, but the “separation of church and state” doesn’t mean that the church has no role in society. It means that the state may not establish any one religion in this country. The church should never be “partisan” but Jesus does call us stand with the poor and the marginalized, and to challenge structures that oppress and hurt people.
Sometimes, you can either keep pulling people out of a raging river one at a time, or you can go upstream and find out who’s throwing them in…and try to make them stop! The work Grant Curtis and others do to make our community a more accepting and welcoming place for recent immigrants and new citizens of the United States is a good example of this Fourth Mark of Mission.
Finally, Mark #5 is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” It has to be said that we Christians have not always taken our responsibility to this planet very seriously. And while it’s true that the first Creation story in Genesis says that we are to “be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it,” (Genesis 1:28), the second account of Creation says that God put us in the Garden of Eden “to till it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:1): in other words, to be good stewards of the earth. Like a good farmer is to be a good steward of the land – so that it will bear fruit for years to come.
I hope that your vestry keeps that responsibility in mind as you make decisions in this congregation about how you care for this beautiful piece of property you are stewards of, whether that’s in how you conserve energy or how you re-cycle or how you take care of the land.
Well, we enter the holy season of Lent this week. This Wednesday is “Ash Wednesday.” Lent is a time of self-examination and repentance, of prayer, fasting and self-denial. I hope you’ve been thinking about something to give up for Lent or something new to take on…or both! But it’s not only a time for self-examination of our personal lives. It can be a time for the church to do some self-examination of our own –corporately.
Are we carrying out the mission of the church here at St. Alban’s, are we willing to make the kind of changes necessary to make sure we can continue carrying out that mission for years to come? Are we proclaiming the Good News? Nurturing our young people? Serving the poor? Speaking out against violence? Being good stewards of this beautiful world God has given us?
If not, there’s still time to repent. Still time to turn around and go in a new direction. Still time to heed the voice from the cloud which spoke to Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration: Look: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”