I wonder if any of you have ever heard the story about the young woman who, upon cooking her first ever baked ham cut the entire end off the ham before putting it in the pan to cook. When she was asked why she cut off the end of the ham before cooking it she looked puzzled and said she didn’t know why, but that that was the way her Mom always made ham, so that’s the way she knew how to make it.
When she called her mother to ask why you were supposed to cut the end off the ham before putting it in the oven her mother thought for a moment and said she wasn’t quite sure, but that that was the way her mother always cooked the ham.
So the young woman’s mother called her mother to ask why it was that you were supposed to cut the end off the ham before cooking it.
Her mother paused for a moment then laughed. She explained that when she was first married she received for a gift a small roasting pan that could never quite fit a whole baked ham. To get the ham into the pan to put it in the oven she always had to cut off one end of the ham to make it fit.
Three generations, all those years, and all those wasted ham ends…the right way to do it was born of necessity a long, long time ago and everybody else was cooking their ham that way because, well, that’s the way you always cook a ham.
In all of our life together as the church, it’s perhaps in the area of mission—acts of justice and service in a world in need—that we as the church are most likely to fall into the trap of the women who diligently cut off the end of the ham but had long since forgotten why.
That is, there are certain things that churches do…certain things that this church does, even…that we have always done. They are missional expressions that we fund and undertake that we have done for many years or just a few years, things that perhaps our denominational bodies promote or that someone’s friend’s brother told us about. They are projects close to the heart of some of our members and a little strange to others, favorites of some and scary to some. They make up the church’s missional expression.
Today we continue our efforts to reimagine our life together, and as we reimagine mission we need to come back to the beginning, to why it is that a passion is sparked in our hearts, to remember what spurs us on to give our time and our money to right a wrong in this world. I don’t want to talk today about programs we’ve done and mission projects we’ve undertaken…which ones were the most effective and which ones fell flat, whose project lasted the longest and for which mission efforts we are most widely known. None of that really matters in the end.
What matters is not what we do, but why we do it. And reimagining mission for us in this place at this time is directly related to remembering what called us to the task in the first place.
Guiding our consideration today is another Psalm from the songbook of the Hebrews, Psalm 86. Last week we revisited a Psalm that was a corporate expression of the Hebrews’ life together. Today’s Psalm is different in that it is the song of an individual. In this song the person who is singing was in a dark and desperate place, deeply in need of God. This person cried out to God and God answered him—out of the most unlikely circumstances God came to his aid. And, the result of God’s goodness and grace is so overwhelmingly wonderful that this person is utterly compelled to respond. There’s no way he can NOT respond, the goodness of God has made his life sing…”There is none like you O God…You are great and do wondrous things…I give thanks to you with my whole heart.”
This right here is the core of missional expression. How can I not respond, when God has come to my aid?
As we reimagine mission—what it looks like in our lives and in our community and what it will look like in the future—we must pause for a few moments to remember why we would ever lend our energy and resources to a work of justice or service. When have you ever experienced the presence and salvation of God in so profound a way as the Psalmist? Do you remember when God appeared in your life so very profoundly that you joined the song of the Psalmist and thought (in your own words, of course), that “I will glorify God’s name forever?”
Mission is the action that comes out of a profound experience with God. Whatever expression it takes in our lives and in our community, it should always be the passionate response of an individual’s encounter with God.
I don’t often do this in sermons. In fact, I can’t remember a time that I ever have. But I think today’s topic—reimaging mission as the response of an individual experience with God—calls for a little testimony. We are Baptists after all.
I grew up in church. Even though it wasn’t a Southern Baptist church, it was a church in which we talked a lot about missionaries. In Sunday School they would use the felt board to teach us about the nice woman missionary who lived far, far away in India and had monkeys in her front yard. She went to the market and bought her food, and while she was there she met people whom she could tell about Jesus.
That’s about all I remember from missionary stories in Sunday School, but they all worked toward the goal of creating an awareness in me that some people went out of their way—some even moved to places where they had monkeys in their front yards—because they believed so much in Jesus and wanted to share Jesus’ message with people who had never heard it before.
Even having heard many missionary stories and even met a missionary or two at church, I never really understood what real mission meant until Spring Break of my freshman year of college. I took the break week to go with a group of students from the Baptist Student Union to a very poor neighborhood in the city of Houston, Texas. For a week we slept on a gym floor, ate pop tarts for breakfast and frozen lasagna for dinner, and spent our days passing out surplus bread from a local bread factory. Every morning we would stack our van high with the factory’s extra loaves of bread and set off into the projects. Our task was to knock on doors and pass out bread to families who needed it.The experiences that I had on that mission trip changed my life. I met people who were living day to day, unsure where their next meal might come from. They cried when I offered them bread. In Houston, Texas! In the squalor of those projects I saw for the first time in my life the kind of danger and hopelessness that abject poverty could create. I felt like I was on the frontlines, doing something really important when I put a loaf of bread into the hands of a mother who was trying to feed her children.
Back at the gym where we stayed, we talked every night of that week about what it meant to follow Jesus. I learned for the first time in my life that everything I knew God to be in my life demanded response from me—tangible response.
When I came back from that mission trip…well…everything changed. Everything. I saw the world through different eyes. I understood my own place in the world completely differently. I felt a compelling and urgent pull to find a way to live my life so that I could meet needs like we had that week in Houston. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was so moved by my experience and so urgently committed to changing the direction of my life to reflect what I had experienced of God in my own life, that I fired up the word processor and wrote a letter to everyone in my life who I thought might read it. I printed out copies on the dot matrix printer and pulled the little scored edges off before I meticulously signed each one, put them in envelopes, and mailed them.
I don’t know what all the people who received that letter thought, but I do remember the urgency with which I wrote it. It was an experience, a moment, in my life when all the fog cleared and when I knew that I wanted to live my life like Jesus did, caring for people who needed to remember God’s presence. After all, I myself had encountered a Savior who changed my life; my calling now was to respond to the gift that I had been given by living a life that reflected God’s love for the whole world.
Now, that’s a little dramatic, but to be fair, it’s a story from a time in my life when everything seemed a little bit dramatic. Since then, of course, life has intervened. There are days when I don’t do one thing that would fall into the category of sharing God’s love for the world. Sometimes the fog of life descends and it’s hard to see how to be on mission that is relevant and timely, effective and transformational.
But when it gets old and seems stale and I wonder why on earth I keep doing something that doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference for anybody, I remember those moments when I realized, maybe for the first time ever, that it was the least I could do to show love and mercy and grace to other people because I myself had been the recipient of just such gifts. I remember the God who saved me; how could I not respond with my whole life?
How’s that for a testimony? I can remember that week like it was yesterday, those moments that changed my life. But I’m not alone. You have had moments like that, too, moments where you understood how deeply God loves you and moments where you have felt compelled to respond.
They are not tired reminders to fulfill your obligations or to do things the way they have always been done. Reimagining mission means remembering why you even set out in the first place, remembering the grace and love of God in your life, and then thinking, again, how your response might be lived out.
In 1924 Good Housekeeping magazine published an article about a Sunday School class here at Calvary. It was called the Burrell Class, and it was notable because it numbered more than 1500 young women who came from all over the city every single Sunday morning to have Sunday School in a theatre across the street from the church. The Burrell Class began as a mission…during World War I crowds of young, single women came to Washington, DC to work in government and to help with the war effort. They were far away from home and they needed community; they needed a church. Our church responded and the efforts of those who led the class changed the lives of thousands of women in the District.
We don’t have a single women’s Sunday School class of 1500 members anymore; it wouldn’t do to cut the end of this ham and try to recreate this mission for the sake of recreating it. But we do different things now. With our incredible facility we partner with organizations who are transforming the lives of youth all over the city. Together we offer our church buildings for important events, like Brian McLaren’s lecture just this past week…a place for people to gather and to talk about life and faith in the middle of this big city. We do things like partner with our sister church in El Salvador. We advocate for the rights of those in our society who do not have a voice. We love and nurture our children here. We plan and practice excellent programming and wonderful worship. We do mission. Relevant mission for here and now.
And, like the Psalmist who couldn’t help but sing in grateful response to God’s salvation, we cannot help but do the same ourselves. Over and over we imagine and reimagine what God can and is and might and will be doing in this place. We respond to the tug of God on your heart and yours, the urgency to live our lives in grateful response to everything God has ever done for us.
We don’t do mission because that’s what churches do, or because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
We spend our lives participating in acts of service and justice because our lives—yours and yours and mine—have been saved and changed, because God has heard our cry and answered our prayer for salvation, because of that miraculous wonder, we respond in whatever ways God’s Spirit directs.
Like the writer of Psalm 86, we cannot help but respond to God’s gracious love for us, so this morning our task is to reimagine mission…to think long and hard about why it is we would ever do justice, love mercy, show kindness. If we do, then we can be sure God’s Spirit will lead us to new paths of missional expression, tangible ways in which we live showing the whole world God’s love. May it be so, today and every day that we live.