Last Sunday After Epiphany / World Mission Sunday
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9 [RCL]
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[NOTE: In celebration of World Mission Sunday, the following sermon is written as a first-person account by a missionary in Tanzania, Africa.]
I am a missionary in Tanzania. When people hear this, they usually have one of three reactions: “You must be a saint”; “I didn’t know the Episcopal Church had missionaries”; or “I’d like to do something like that someday” (often followed by a list of why they can’t).
Since today is World Mission Sunday in the Episcopal Church, I would like to respond to these reactions.
To the “You must be a saint” reaction, I smile and assure them that I am; and in the next breath I assure them that by virtue of their baptism they are as well. If I can do one thing in this homily, I would like to dispel the myth that the work of missionaries that serve in a global context is any more important or noble than any other Christian’s mission. If it were not for the faithful service of the people in the churches at home, I would not be serving in Tanzania. The outward journey first requires an inward journey. While I, and probably many of you, would like to have had a mountaintop experience like Moses and the disciples, I have not. God did not reveal Himself to me in any blaze of glory. My encounter with God was through the faithful work of the church at home – in Bible study, in prayer groups, in preaching, in the sacraments, and in the lives of the disenfranchised whom my church embraced. This inward spiritual journey provided the fuel for my outward journey. It has been observed that an authentic inward spiritual journey always results in an outward journey. The outward journey is to join Christ in the mission of becoming a new community, an unrestricted community, what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the beloved community.”
To the reaction “I didn’t know the Episcopal Church had missionaries,” I admit that neither did I until I was in seminary. But indeed, at the present time there are 62 Episcopal missionaries in 25 countries around the world. Fourteen of them are in the Young Adult Service Corp and the remaining 48 are a mix of appointed missionaries and volunteers for mission. The Young Adult Service Corp is a one-year program for young men and women between the ages of 21 and 30. The Mission Personnel Office of the Episcopal Church, in collaboration with the sending dioceses, provides various amounts of support for missionaries serving in the field. My own Diocese of Atlanta helps support three long-term missionaries in Tanzania, not only with a stipend, but also with prayers and opportunities for relationships to be developed between parishes and individuals on both sides of the ocean.
To the third reaction, “I’d like to do that someday,” I take this to mean that the speaker thinks that being a missionary requires going to a different country. This is my opportunity to reiterate that all Christians are missionaries. One of my favorite seminary professors was fond of saying that God is a missionary God. God sent Jesus as mission incarnate, and Jesus sends each of us as the same. Each week we gather to worship, and just before we scatter into the world, our liturgy reminds us of our great “co-mission”: “Even as my Father has sent me, so I send you. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Jesus’ mission was being the Light of the World. He illuminated for us the way to love and to care for others, especially the hurting, the hopeless, and the hounded. Our co-mission is the same. Peter and James and John were eyewitnesses to the Light of the World, but they were not allowed to stay on the mountain with Him. Their mission was to go back down into the valleys and plains reflecting the Light of Jesus in their everyday, ordinary lives. Our mission is also to be reflectors of the Light of the World wherever we are and in whatever we are doing.
Since today is World Mission Sunday, the church is focusing on those of us who are missionaries overseas. Our present model is not to be like the missionaries from colonial eras, but to be partners in mission. We go only at the invitation of a diocesan bishop who has contacted our national mission office requesting a person with skills in a particular arena. We do not go to dispense a culture or a set of infallible orthodox doctrines. We go to be in personal relationships, using our gifts – and often modifying them – to meet the needs of those whom we are serving. We go to enlarge our understanding of the gospel by seeing how God is being revealed in other places and people.
When my husband, Martin, and I first began on this journey seven years ago, we wrote that one of the reasons we wanted to go was to hear the gospel with fresh ears and to see with new insight. What has most profoundly touched us is hearing and seeing the deep joy of the Lord in the midst of suffering. It is transforming to be enveloped by a people whose joy springs from a deep well of gratitude. Every prayer begins with “Father, thank you.” In Kiswahili this translates as “Baba, asante. Asante, Baba, for protecting me through the night. Asante for the rain. Asante for Jesus.” Asante, asante, asante.
When two North Carolina volunteers visited Msalato Theological College last year, they had a student and his wife over for afternoon tea. When the volunteers raised their cups to take a sip, the student said, “Aren’t we going to pray first?” One of the women answered that they normally only give thanks before meals. The student pastor responded, “We give thanks for everything, even for a glass of water.” Baba, asante!
Not surprisingly, water is a favorite image for God here. As I write this in early February, it is the rainy season in central Tanzania, but there has been no rain for twenty-five days. If this continues for three or four more days, there will be no crops. Since 85 percent of Tanzanians are subsistence farmers, drought means famine and cholera outbreaks, and all the other sad things that go along with it. I will never forget the words of our former school chaplain who was working at my house when the first rain of the season began to fall. He ran to the window and cried, “When we see rain, we see food!’ Baba, asante!
One year when my husband and I returned from the Christmas holidays, this same chaplain came running down the path to the home of our next-door neighbors, missionaries from New Zealand. We could hear him calling out, “Can you give me a ride to Mvumi village? My children are starving.” In his hands he was carrying two small bags of maize, or corn, that he was desperate to get to his family who lived 50 kilometers away. Ugali, the staple food in Tanzania, is made from maize, and the rainfall, for a second year in a row, had been insufficient for the growing of it. After this heartbreaking incident, the staff began meeting at five o’clock every evening for the specific purpose of praying for rain. The drought continued unabated. One afternoon when some of us were lamenting the fact that our prayers had not been answered, this chaplain, the father of six, said, “Our God is great. Even if we die, He is enough.” Baba, asante!
It is our job in global mission to be a bridge between our beloved communities. In relating as eyewitnesses the stories of how the gospel is being lived out in other parts of the world, it is our hope that you will be encouraged and filled with gratitude in whatever circumstances you may find yourselves. These stories of our brothers and sisters remind us not to buy into the rhetoric of a culture of scarcity. These stories remind us that we serve a Jesus of twelve baskets left over. These stories remind us that we are all enlightened when we are mission incarnate to the hungers of every tribe and nation. With Peter, we say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
Thank you, our beloved community from home, for sending us. Baba, asante!