Living God’s mission: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A, 30 October 2011)

Living God’s mission

Readings
1 Thessalonians 2.9-13
Matthew 23.1-12

The week before last, I was in the lovely city of Adelaide at a National Ministers’ Conference organised by the President of the UCA, Rev’d Alistair McRae.

Many of you will remember Rev’d Jenny Tymms who worshipped as part of us before she moved to Darwin. I’d like to tell you a little bit about some of the input she gave us about ‘creative experiments’ in mission.

But first, let’s look at the Bible, shall we?

We’ve been hearing from 1 Thessalonians for the last few weeks. Of course, it’s a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonian church in northern Greece. Scholars are pretty clear that this is the first letter we have written by Paul, and that he wrote it around the year 50 of the first century—that is, twenty years after the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, it’s very likely the earliest piece of Christian writing known to us.

(Hang on—what about the Gospels? They’re about what Jesus did aren’t they, and that was before the Apostle Paul? Yes, but 1 Thessalonians was written well before the first Gospel. That was Mark, written about fifteen years later around the year 65. We can be pretty clear that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest witness to faith in Jesus Christ that we have.)

In the first part of the letter, Paul shows how warmly he feels towards the Thessalonian believers. He says,

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1.2-3)

We might wonder if that is a formal thing, like a letter that starts ‘Dear Paul’, and proceeds to tell me I stink. But the warmth of this opening just continues. Paul says,

…we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (2.7-8)

He feels towards them like a nursing mother feels to her baby. And like a good father:

…we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (2.11-12)

And there’s yet more! When Paul was separated from the Thessalonians, he felt like a child bereft of his parents’ love:

As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. (2.17)

Paul really loved these people. He could be mother, father, even child to them. No doubt there were those among the Thessalonians who felt the same. Working side by side on God’s mission had brought them close together.

Paul needed this very personal ‘family’ language to express his affection for the Thessalonians. Yet Jesus says,

call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.

Is there a problem here? A contradiction? Not so much. It’s like this: in the first century, the father was the absolute boss. It was a time in which the father’s word was unquestionable. And Jesus says No—there is only one Father we owe absolute obedience to, and that is our Father in heaven. The one Jesus called ‘Abba’, ‘Daddy’. Our motherly Father.

When Paul said he felt like a father, he was speaking of the affection he had for the Thessalonians. He was thinking of himself as their ‘dad’, not as a patriarch whose word was law. It’s inevitable that in the ‘church family’ we’ll develop relationships. And that we’ll relate to some people in fatherly or motherly ways, or in other family ways. That’s what Paul is talking about; but it’s not what Jesus was talking about. Jesus discourages authoritarian ways of treating others; he encourages warm relationships.

This brings me to Jenny Tymms and the National Ministers’ Conference. She encouraged us to foster ‘creative experiments’ in mission that enable personal relationships to grow. I particularly thought of the outreach we’ve had this year to the people of Goodna, following the dreadful floods in January. So, Jenny said we should

Encourage creative experiments that are

  • relational rather than programmatic;
  • incarnational: related to the particularities of people and context;
  • outwardly focussed rather than serving the needs of the institution;
  • emerging from the hearts and souls of the people rather than from guilt or persuasion by others;
  • flexible and improvising;
  • with small committed groups of people rather than requiring the whole congregation to ‘come on board’;
  • that favour the development of relationships in depth;
  • that are developed by the participants rather than solely by the paid ministry agent.

(And you thought we went to these conferences for a good time!)

We were asked to share in our small groups an example of a ministry that fitted this description. I thought straight away about our work with the Goodna folk. The other members of my group thought it was a brilliant example of a ‘creative experiment’ in mission and I want to encourage you by ‘showcasing’ how well it fits the description of one of Jenny’s ‘creative experiments’.

It was relational rather than programmatic: What does that mean? It wasn’t a program developed in the USA or the UK that was just plopped on us. It was neighbours reaching out to neighbours. It was seeking to build good relationships. It was also us saying to the folk in Goodna, You’re in the driver’s seat here. We just want to resource you.

It was incarnational: related to the particularities of people and context: It was a way of reaching out to people in immediate need in a particular situation. It engaged the people of the Goodna congregation reach out to flood victims in their place and time. It wasn’t a blueprint for future work and we’re not planning to write a ‘how to’ guide. We were working ‘with’, not ‘for’, the people of the Goodna congregation.

It was outwardly focussed rather than serving the needs of the institution: We gained no extra members from this work. But: while it didn’t serve ‘the needs of the Centenary Uniting Church’, it helped to bring members of our congregation closer together. It fostered a deepening of relationships, of brotherly and sisterly and fatherly and motherly realities.

It emerged from the hearts and souls of the people rather than from guilt or persuasion by others: It began with the vision of one member who just ‘put it out there’. And we ran with it. We didn’t seek to pressure anyone to ‘get involved’, but people did, and they began to feel something for those in distress just as Paul felt for the Thessalonians.

It was flexible and improvising: We began with knocking on doors and linking with community groups; we gave what was needed—things like basic foodstuff, toiletries, toasters, and started working mostly through the local Uniting Church congregation. Recently, we gave some hundreds of dollars because the people were requesting Woolies vouchers. I’m sure we’re not finished with this work but I don’t know what shape it will take in the future. But it’s ok: we’re flexible and able to improvise.

It only needed a small committed group of people rather than requiring the whole congregation to ‘come on board’: While almost the whole congregation has been involved in donating goods and money, only a few needed to be ‘on the front line’.

It favoured the development of relationships in depth: Whether or not these relationships did develop, this work opened the door to such relationships. And there is now a connection between the Centenary and Goodna congregations that did not exist previously.

It was developed by the participants rather than solely by the paid ministry agent: The dream for this came from one member, and others caught on. It didn’t come ‘from above’, by any kind of authority, but it was owned by the participants.

When Christian mission puts relationships at the centre, it is able to change all our lives because it has the power to generate new relationships among everyone involved. I want to celebrate this Goodna flood ministry with you, and encourage you to dream new ‘creative experiments’. The more we have, the better!

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