Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
A few summers ago, Alice spent her summer as an intern
with one of the biggest corporations in the United States.
On her first day on the job, she was called into human resources
And given a piece of paper, on which was written
The mission statement of the company.
“Read it,” said her boss.
“If you have any questions about the statement,
I’ll be happy to answer them.
You are then asked to sign the statement, here,
(he said, pointing at the signature line)
And from this day forward,
If you observe any behavior in this company
That is CONTRARY to our statement of mission—
–you are to call me directly
so that we can discuss it.
We intend to run this company
On the basis of this statement of mission.”
Mission Statements are all the rage.
“Mission” may have started with faith,
but now EVERYBODY else—
–businesses, colleges, even governmental agencies—
–have gotten into the act of formulating statements of mission.
They attempt to state, in a succinct way, the purpose of the organization.
You know the old saying, from Alice in Wonderland
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”[i]
Just as everybody else is doing mission statements,
It’s gotten increasingly UNCOMFORTABLE for churches
To do this.
Well, maybe we have internalized the sweet thought that, in America,
Religion is a PRIVATE matter—even in church—
–and the thought of having to share a VISION, as a community, as a group…
…makes us QUESY and CONFUSED…
In an essay a few years ago,
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, now a professor at Indiana University,
Noted the differences between “religion” in our country
And how it is practiced elsewhere:
“Religion is understood…by most Americans to be individual, chosen,
private, believed, and separate from all other
institutions and identities—even (from) churches.
But, for most of the rest of the world,
Religion is communal, given, public, enacted,
And intertwined with other institutions and identities.”[ii]
Sharing a VISION of mission and faith?
Intrude on our individualism
Or my own individual “spiritual path”?
…if that doesn’t make you squirm a little bit,
just wait until you hear what Jesus has in mind…
After Jesus had been raised from the dead,
he appeared to the apostles during 40 days.
We have been living through those 40 days of Easter since Early April…
As those 40 days end, and as the risen Christ prepares to leave these disciples,
In the first chapter of Acts,
Jesus gives the church our statement of mission.
I honestly don’t know what to make of Jesus vanishing into a cloud
as he ascended to heaven.
But I am struck with what Jesus said—right before,
and what the disciples were told, right after, after Jesus left them.”
“You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”
That’s the LAST thing Jesus said to his disciples.
And, while the disciples are still staring into thin air
trying to figure out what happened, a messenger from God reproves them:
“Why do you stand there, looking up into the sky?”
Between those two jarring statements…is the MISSION of our life.
“You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”
You can’t really get a mission statement
that is more straightforward and concise than that.
“You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”
The mission—the mission of Jesus’ first apostles,
and this congregation’s mission—is NOT to set up God’s reign.
It is NOT in achieving success, however success is judged in most of our lives.
Our mission is stated in that one phrase, directly put forward,
NOT as a command, but more as a prediction:
“You will be my witnesses”
…When is the church most like the church?
It’s NOT when the church fulfills the needs of its members,
though that is important.
The church in Acts was a church of care and sharing and kindness.
Acts says—the church is MOST the church when it fulfills the mission
that Jesus has sent us upon—
—when the church witnesses EVERYWHERE for the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
That is our task.
In good and in bad,
when it is hard, and when it is obvious,
where it’s bleak, and where it is hopeful,
when you are laughed, and when you are applauded—
–Witnesses EVERYWHERE to carry the story of Jesus Christ to the world.
So, Jesus has commissioned us to be witnesses.
You’ve seen witness in action on court dramas on TV.
It doesn’t particularly matter whether or not the witness is a good person
or even a bad person.
What matters—the “mission” of the witness—
–is simply to stand up there before the court
and to truthfully tell what he or she knows—
–the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Great theologian Karl Barth was fond of saying that the difference
between a Christian and someone who is not a Christian
is mainly a difference of KNOWING.
It’s the difference between someone who knows
and someone who does NOT YET know the experience of God.
Witnesses are those to whom something has happened
and who then tell others what they know,
what they’ve felt
what they’ve experienced.
Do you remember that story, the one about the blind man in the Bible
the one Jesus healed in the Gospel of John? (John 9:1-41)
After Jesus healed him, restored his vision, Jesus’ critics came
and tried to discredit the blind man’s witness.
“Are you really sure that Jesus healed you?
Haven’t you gotten a bit…overly emotional?” they asked.
But the man who, for the first time, could SEE,
simply witnessed to what had happened to him.
“One thing I do know. Though I was blind, now I see.”
Nothing spectacular, nothing original, nothing sensational.
Certainly nothing aggressive or coercive.
Just tell what happened to you.
Tell what you know.
For years and years,
every reasonable person has run away from the word “evangelism”
because evangelism always seems to be the religious equivalent
of the dinner time phone call from the obnoxious telemarketer
trying to sell you something you don’t need!
We can probably all recount all sorts of ways that
churchy types embarrass us other churchy types:
–When it devolves into pat phrases, like
live your best life now, or
too blessed to be stressed…
—I’m stressed just thinking about that.
–Or when some adopt the name of Christ
and seek so called religious freedom to discriminate, to exclude,
apparently in some effort to seek to be holy
but missing out on how JESUS was holy
by welcoming and gathering and loving.
–or that guy on the street corner, preaching a type of theology
full of rage and judgment and hellfire.
I actually came across that guy this week. In Denver.
He had a little portable speaker and a wireless mic. And handouts.
Embarrassing. But not just that, hurtful, his theology.
Hurtful to those excluded.
Hurtful to other Christians who have to say
“oh no, no, I’m not like that
that’s not the Jesus I know
that’s not the God I know…”
Evangelism as smarmy salesman. Nobody has time for that.
And its not even good theology.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons Christianity
appears to be struggling these days
is because no body has time for that,
that those voices exhaust us, and lump us in with all sorts of
annoying, hurtful, angry caricatures.
And we don’t know what to do in response.
As Jay-Z has said:
“A wise man told me not to argue with fools,
because people at a distance can’t tell who is who.”[iii]
But maybe we’ve gotten the whole evangelism thing wrong, anyway.
What if our thoughts about evangelism,
were NOT shaped by thoughts of SELLING,
but instead, more thoughts of JOURNALISM, of WITNESS.
This is really important, it seems to me.
The key to this is whether the gospel is a commodity,
a game, or a notch on a belt…
OR, instead, whether it is a MESSAGE of GOOD NEWS—
–and if a message of GOOD NEWS,
whether we might actually believe that the news is still unfolding.
Do we truly believe that the Risen Christ is still at work in the world—
–making right what is wrong
and redeeming what seems lost?
We get so caught up in frailty and failings,
in gossip and in grouchiness
of not wanting to offend or seem out of step— with good reason!
–but we can’t worry about what others say, really.
–We can’t control what other Christians say or do,
whom they love, how big their microphone.
Instead there is this: We have a mission statement:
We are to be witnesses…
The other day, I was at a board meeting.
Riveting, I know…
But the opening exercise was for us to share the elevator speech
we might give for the organization.
That 30 second answer if someone asks you: why this? why do that?
How do you explain what we are about, why we are doing what we’re doing.
I wonder…how would you answer that, about your faith?
About the Kirk?
That’s not salesman language? Not coercive, aggressive,
but its testimony. Its explanation. When someone asks you for it.
Its saying: I don’t know where you get your strength,
where you come down on this God thing,
and I respect you as you are,
but for me, God is there, with love
when I need it and when I don’t,
helping me be a better person
because God loves me,
and has saved me,
something I cannot do myself..
It makes ALL the difference, if we take all of this,
not as a game, not as a commodity,
but as GOOD NEWS.
About something amazing God has done in my life
that inspires me to be who I am, day by day.
Here’s the deal:
The original witnesses to Jesus testified NOT ONLY with their words—
–but with their deeds.
They exploded out into the world after that day in Acts
that day they received their marching orders,
and they did in the world what Jesus had done before them.
So Acts says,
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.”
They gathered together.
They retold the story.
They brought each other up to date on what God had done lately.
The gospel is witness to something that has happened to us and to the world,
testimony that something is afoot in the world
something called the outbreak of the reign of God.
WE are to witness—in word and in deed—to THAT event,
to that outbreak of God among us.
That’s our job.
That’s our mission.
That’s our ONLY reason for being…a church!
When Mark was in seminary,
one of his classmates brought back a story
from his student pastor internship assignment.
It was Sunday, during the worship service.
It was this church’s custom to have a “prayer for others.”
“Are there any concerns that need to be brought before the church?”
asked the student pastor.
“I don’t know what’s going to be come of us,”
said a young woman toward the rear of the sanctuary.
There was a barely audible gasp from the congregation.
“John left us last week.
I don’t know what the boys and I are going to do.”
There was a long, awkward silence.
Then someone spoke—one of the older members of the congregation.
“I know what you’ll do.”
she said, looking back toward the young mother.
“You will reach out to the rest of us for help.
When my husband left me, I felt just like you did.
But I recovered. So can you.”
“I’ll be glad to help.
I’ve been looking for someone to help out at my office.”
someone else said.
“We can help with those precious boys,” said another.
THAT…is the church being the church.
THAT…is a community of faith bearing WITNESS to the promises of God.
In a world where we are conditioned to deal with one another as strangers,
the church makes possible a people who relate
to one another as sisters, brothers, as family.
We act, think, imagine, spend, and dream—
as if SOMETHING as HAPPENED to us!
Something—someone—gracious has intruded into our settled arrangements.
Your ONLY task…is to tell your story of what God has done in your life,
and in your world—and to tell that story…
in word, and/or in deed, EVERYWHERE you go.
We heard the screech of brakes, the sound of metal on metal.
We turned just in time to see it.
Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.
After the accident, in the aftermath, a police officer asked us,
“Would you be willing to testify as a witness?”
Did I really want to become this involved?
“All you have to do is tell what you saw and heard,” said the officer.
The great 20th century theologian, Paul Tillich,
was once asked why he did what he did for a living.
And he answered:
“All any of us can ever do is tell what has happened to us.
That here and there in the world,
and now and then even deep down in ourselves—
–we glimpse the new creation of God…
…and it changes everything…”
Will you be a witness?
Will you tell your story…even unto the ends of the earth?
Would you be able to say, like that blind man, “All I know is…”?
This is NO SMALL THING to ask.
I mean, think of the disciples that day Jesus told them to be disciples,
and then vanished into some cloud…
…no one standing around watching them that day could have guessed
what an astounding thing happened
when they all stopped looking into the sky
and looked at each other instead.
On the surface, it was NOT a great moment:
eleven abandoned disciples with nothing to show for all their following.
But in the days and years to come, it would become
very apparent what had happened to them.
With nothing but a promise and a prayer:
The followers became leaders,
the converts became missionaries,
the healed became healers,
the broken became whole,
the fearful became faithful,
AND, even the hardened skeptics
became witnesses to what God is doing!
The MIRACLE of that day was that these frail, confused disciples
stopped looking up toward heaven,
stopped looking for some pie-in-the-sky of some bygone day,
stopped looking for someone else to go tell the story—
–and looked at each other instead,
and got on with the business of being the church.
Somebody named Jesus vanishing into a cloud
was NOT the surprise of that day.
It was ONLY then that surprising things began to happen.
Those followers began to say things that sounded like Jesus,
and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but him do before.
Who would have thought it?
They became brave and capable and wise.
Can you believe it?
…Why do you stand up looking toward heaven?
Look around you,
[i] Lewis Carol, Alice in Wonderland. Exchange between Alice and Cheshire Cat.
[ii] Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Chicago Reader July 23, 1999. p. 6
[iii] Jay-Z. Takeover
Image: Eric James McDermott