The Lifeblood of the Church

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, October 20, 2013

Matthew 25:35-40 Matthew 28:18-20

Yesterday we held our Visioning Day with a good turnout of 40 people. At the end of the day, we engaged in a crazy ideas exercise. If we had unlimited people, money and energy, what would our dreams be for Westworth? Almost every idea related to creating a stronger connection with our surrounding community. Outreach ministry was considered crucial for the future of Westworth. George Gamby, our chair of the board, has also been very clear in his messages of the necessity for outreach. Once a church loses its passion for outreach and turns inward to focus only on itself and its survival, it loses its very lifeblood. I am heartened that this is far from the case for Westworth and for that reason alone, we have a promising future.

What does outreach involve? Most of us at Westworth know that we send money to the Mission and Service Fund and to various non-profit organizations and that a handful of people volunteer at West Broadway Community Ministry. We might educate ourselves at Sabbath suppers and go on a field trip to Cuba. But outreach for most people at Westworth primarily means giving money. I think that God’s call to ministry beyond these walls is asking a bit more of us than simply writing a cheque. This call is a little more difficult, more challenging for us to follow. It takes us beyond giving. It has to do with mission.

To understand mission, I’m going to take us back 2 millennia to the time of the early church. You’ve heard of the play “Shakespeare in 30 Minutes”? This is called church mission history in 3—so hang on to your seats as we fly across the centuries.

The first followers of Jesus had a powerful message to share with others. They had good news of forgiveness, grace, new life and new hope in Christ Jesus. They didn’t just talk to people about this good news—they lived it. They prayed and broke bread together daily, they pooled all of their resources and money, they looked after people who had no income, such as widows and orphans. They gave of themselves. It was their example of living a life of generosity and compassion that attracted others to join them and be baptized.

This was how they lived out Matthew’s Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. They interpreted this passage in light of the earlier passage from Matthew, which tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison.

The early Christians were a small but determined number of people who were heavily persecuted and risked their very lives to worship together. Their willingness to be tortured and die for their faith was a strong witness that also attracted new converts.

But things suddenly changed when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, was converted to Christianity. Wars began to be fought under a Christian banner. Eventually, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. After a few centuries of Christian establishment, the crusades and Spanish inquisition forced conversion at point of sword. The motivation and method for carrying out Matthew’s Great Commission changed radically from feeding the hungry to killing those who were not Christians.

A few centuries later, the “discovery” of the Americas combined conquest with conversion. Missionaries accompanied traders and settlers. Conversion began to be understood as part of the “civilizing” process of indigenous peoples, quite ironic after previous centuries of Christian brutality.

That brings us into the early history of United Church missions. From its beginning, the United Church has been concerned about the welfare of the whole person—both body and soul. In many ways, its mission work has returned to the original missionary motivations of the early Christians: to care compassionately for the poor and to witness to new life in Christ.

But we have also inherited the conquest & civilize motivation for mission, which has led us to make some harmful mistakes in our mission work amongst Aboriginal people in Canada. We tried to help them, but we never asked them what they wanted. We presumed what they needed and forced them into dependency upon our leadership, our culture, our language, our religion, our monetary support.

This is the problem with a “giving” or “helping” understanding of outreach and missions. There is a different approach to missions, which the United Church learned decades ago in its foreign mission work. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate very well into its home mission work with Aboriginal communities. In our overseas work, instead of the giving or sending church deciding what the recipients of mission need, we work in partnership with other churches and take direction from them as to what they need from us. Sometimes, they send us missionaries, because we have much to learn about what it is to be a Christian. We now begin with mutual relationships, where we can talk about what we each may need and may be able to give to one another. It sounds like Westworth may have established such a relationship with our sister church in Cuba.

Stan McKay, Cree elder and former United Church moderator, has said that the church needs to get out of the business of helping and into the development of right relations. Last week, he said to me that the church should “get rid of the helpers and bring in the relatives.”  We need to move into right relations with all of creation, which is the meaning of “all my relations,” as our revised United Church Crest now reads in the Mohawk language.

I invite you to look at the Mission and Service folder, which you were given with your bulletin. On the front page, you see the quote from Matthew 25—this has become the biblical basis of United Church mission work. On the back page, you’ll see a map that indicates where all of our foreign mission partners are located. We take direction from each of these partners in our mission work.

Even more, when there is a disaster, any money that we donate to the World Development and Relief Fund goes directly to these partners, who are already on the ground, to help with relief. There are no overhead costs. Unlike other aid organizations that need a significant percentage of donations to cover their overhead, the United Church can send 100% of all donations earmarked for disaster relief to our partners for this purpose. That is why I prefer to donate for disaster relief, such as Syria a few weeks ago, through the United Church’s World Development and Relief Fund, because I know that every penny of what I give will get there.

I also give more to the Mission and Service Fund than to other charitable organization because through the M & S Fund I’m supporting relationships that the United Church has developed with our partners for decades. I can trust we are following the directions of our partners, instead of us deciding what they need.

Not all non-profit groups do this. One organization gathered Christmas gifts to send to poor towns in Nicaragua. We found out that there weren’t always enough gifts for everyone and fights ensued on these ocassions. Some of the gifts were not appropriate such as those that required batteries, which were not readily available. The gifts were not what was needed nor requested.

The Mission and Service Fund also supports other initiatives, such as the World Council of Churches. This coming Saturday I will be heading to Korea to help lead worship for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. I will try to send you photos and stories—perhaps even short video clips—through a blog I will be creating this week. There will be a link to the blog on our website and the blog address will be in next week’s bulletin. Upon my return, I hope to have amazing stories and pictures for the morning worship service and the Sabbath supper on Nov. 17.

Even more, I hope to learn what it means to be in relationship with people who have such different cultures and beliefs, even as Christians. I know that relationships change us and that may be the most important aspect of mission. God doesn’t call us to change others. God calls us to change ourselves. God also calls us into relationships so that together, as changed people, we might change structures of injustice in the world. Christian mission is much more than giving. It goes beyond helping. It is being willing to be transformed as we risk relationships with others.