The Baptismal Covenant

Fr. Randall Warren drew our attention to the Baptismal Covenant during last Sunday’s sermon at St. Luke’s. You can read the Covenant by clicking here or by flipping to page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer (if you’re one of those old-fashioned people who still remember how books work). This brilliant summary of the Christian faith was born from the womb of liturgical renewal in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since its inclusion in the the 1979 Prayer Book, Episcopalians have “fallen in love with it,” according to Fr. Randall.

Reading and reflecting on the text later that day, it occurred to me that this brief Covenant provides a helpful starting point for thinking about the way the Church practices its mission in the world.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

We begin by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. This is our way of saying that faith begins, not with us, but in God. And God is not a monolithic entity but a community, a network of relationships, between divine persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) that we collectively refer to as the Trinity. This is how Christians are able to say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:16). A single person can be loving, in the adjectival sense, but Christians believe that God is love, in the active sense. God is relationship. To borrow a phrase, “God is a verb.” God happens.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

The place where God happens is the Church.

Of course, the Church is not the only place where God happens. All communities and relationships reflect, to one degree or another, the relational nature of the Trinity: friends, families, societies, ecosystems, even the gravitational relationship that exists between planets and stars. God meets us in all of these places, but the Church is the particular community where human beings are invited into a special covenant relationship with each other and with the Triune God through the person Jesus Christ, who is present with us in the Scriptures and the Sacraments.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Relationships are never easy. Relationships are raw. Intimacy strips away our fig leaves and exposes all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we come into the Church, a network of relationships that spans all of time and space, and is itself enfolded into the network of relationships that is the Trinity, we come as we are, with all our baggage in hand.

Standing in the light of Christ’s perfect humanity, we are confronted with the fact that we, in our selfishness, behave in ways that are less than fully human and lead to broken relationships.

The good news is that God refuses to break up with us, even when we try to do so with God and each other. God is like a mother in a department store whose toddler is throwing a tempter tantrum. The child screams, “I hate you!” And God adjusts the purse strap on her shoulder, takes us by the hand, and says, “You can hate me if you want to, but I still love you. Come along now; it’s time to go home.”

Christ dares us to get honest about our shortcomings. Christ invites us to begin again… and again… and again, knowing we are bound to fail. Success is measured, not in how many times we fall down, but in how many times we get back up. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Recovery is about progress, not perfection.” Salvation is a journey, not a destination.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

The result of this continual falling down and getting back up is that we grow in confidence that we are fully loved and accepted, no matter what.

This is big news.

This is big news in a world where a person’s appearance and performance are analyzed and judged with ruthless scrutiny. This is big news in a world where the “worth” of a person or an ecosystem can be quantified and calculated with dollar signs. This is big news in a world that prizes whiteness, maleness, and straightness. This is big news in a world where “might makes right” and “the best defense is a good offense.”

The absolute and unconditional love of God is big news because it renders irrelevant all the noise of news broadcasts and the temptations of commercial advertisements in between. People who know they are loved don’t need those trappings. People who know they are loved don’t fear what others fear. People who know they are loved by God have found something worth dying for, and therefore have something to live for too.

Love changes everything. Love makes the world go round and turns it upside down. Love wins. This is big news. It’s worth sharing. It needs to be said. The rest of world needs to hear it.

The Church is a community of people who have been changed by God’s love and try, to the best of their limited ability, to embody that love in the way they treat others. Evangelism is a “show and tell” enterprise… in that order. We do our best to show love first, and when the world asks us why we love so radically, then (and only then) we have earned the right to talk about Jesus.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Some Christians have mistakenly conflated evangelism and proselytism. They think the proclamation of the good news means arguing with people until they see things from your point of view. They think their job is to bring Christ to the world, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that Christ is already present in the world. Christ is in that homeless person, that sex worker, that meth cook, that terrorist, that presidential candidate. Christ lives in them and loves them at the level of their true self, which is deeper than all their problems and insecurities. They don’t see it, most of the time, and neither does the rest of the world. That is why most people falsely identify with things that are less than their true selves: appearance, occupation, possessions, criminal record, diagnosis, disability, race, national origin, political party, etc.

What breaks the spell of these false selves is when we enter into a relationship with someone who treats us as though we are Christ because, at a certain level, that is exactly who we are. The role of the evangelist is to help us realize this truth in ourselves and live it out in relationship with others in the Church and the world. So, in the end, all evangelism is simply Christ loving Christ through Christ.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is what it looks like to seek and serve Christ in others, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and to be the Church on Earth.

When we do this, we can expect the powers-that-be to get angry. Proclaiming the truth that God loves everyone completely, equally, and unconditionally is a direct affront to the lies they peddle. Bishop Gene Robinson once asked me, “If you aren’t getting in trouble because of your faith, is it really the Gospel you believe?”

Striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being will undoubtedly put us at odds with this world system of domination and manipulation. When we march on the picket line, write to an elected official, volunteer at the shelter, let go of an old grudge, bring a casserole to a sick neighbor, or sit through another committee meeting, we are turning the world upside down.

The same holds true for those who teach, heal, practice law, raise kids, run for office, work the McDonald’s drive-thru, or greet customers at Wal-Mart. You are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world and the work you do, when undertaken with this Baptismal Covenant in mind, is the ministry of the gospel.

And here’s the really amazing thing: it works.

When we begin to practice these promises in our lives, the world will take notice.

People are spiritually hungry. They intuitively sense that something is wrong with the way things are, but have no idea how to remedy the situation. Sadly, centuries of Christian dogmatism and judgmentalism have led many to believe that the Church has nothing to contribute. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

The Church’s mission begins and ends in love because we believe that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) Our Baptismal Covenant begins with the perfect love of the Triune God at the heart of reality and quickly ripples outward in concentric circles, embracing us, the Church, and the whole universe in the everlasting arms.

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Too Small A Thing

We’re having our Annual Congregational Meeting today at North Church, so I don’t have a sermon to share.  But my wife, Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee, is preaching at First Presbyterian Church in Decatur, MI.  Here is her sermon on Isaiah 49:1-7.

In 1954 a 25 year old pastor, fresh from seminary, started serving his first congregation in Montgomery, AL. It would have been so easy for the church to eat up all his time. To teach him everything he didn’t learn in seminary. To rely on him to keep their doors open and their bills paid. But they knew that focusing on what was going on inside that church building was too small a thing for their pastor. They supported him as he took leadership in community organizations, and within his first year as their pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and at 27 he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This young pastor had such a tremendous influence beyond the scope of his own congregation that we honor him with a national holiday tomorrow. It was too small a thing for that church to demand their pastor’s energy be focused solely on them and their needs. They knew they were called, and he was called to something bigger—to be a part of God’s work of changing the world.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

When I was in college, I had the privilege of meeting a homeless man named Bill Smith. In the course of volunteer work I did, I heard stories from Bill about how frustrated he was by churches in the area around Charlotte, NC. Many of them would send vans downtown to the rescue mission each Sunday to pick people up and bring them to church, which seems like a really great ministry. The problem was that once they got to the church building, these homeless men and women were usually ushered into the back pew, where no one would see them, and they were treated like an evangelism project. The church members seemed intent on sharing Jesus with them, despite the fact that most of them were Christians, already. As Bill put it, “Most of them would not have survived this long if it weren’t for their deep faith in Jesus. Those churches should stand those men and women up front to tell their stories, not stick them in the back and treat them like outsiders.”

One day, during my junior year of college, an excited Bill Smith shared with me how one congregation in town had partnered with the rescue mission to give Bill a part time job counseling other homeless men and speaking as an advocate for the homeless in area churches. That congregation recognized they had an opportunity to experience God in new ways, through new eyes, and sticking those homeless brothers and sisters in the back pew and treating them as outsiders to convert—it was too small a thing. They needed to hear the stories and learn about God from people who were struggling in different ways than they were.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

A few years ago a congregation in Tulsa, OK took a big risk, and decided to give all of their undesignated plate offerings away to other organizations. Disaster response, relief work, humanitarian projects overseas—there were a number of groups they already gave to, and they would add more. They are a large congregation, and in 2003, those undesignated offerings amounted to about $20,000 that many church leaders worried they couldn’t spare. But they took the risk in faith, and in 2004, the congregation gave away $150,000 in plate offerings.

But the biggest surprise? Not only did the weekly offering increase dramatically, the money given specifically to the budget increased by 10%, too. The leaders of this church recognized that meeting their own institutional needs was too small a thing—they needed to give generously to the world. And when they took a leap of faith, they discovered that their whole congregation understood this, too. Funding their own programs was too small a thing. When they saw the opportunity to give toward a bigger purpose in the world, the congregation rose to the occasion and was more excited about supporting the institutional needs, too. They could see that the institution was serving a higher purpose.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

In our gospel text for this morning, we see John the Baptist after he has baptized Jesus, and what is he doing? He is redirecting his own disciples to Jesus. Here is a man with a meaningful ministry, drawing people from far off cities into retreats where they confess sin and get baptized in the Jordan as a sign of cleansing and a fresh start. But when John encounters Jesus and sees what he has to offer, he realizes that his own ministry is too small. He cannot offer what these followers really need. Jesus is the one who can really give them new life.

In traditional paintings of John the Baptist, he is always pointing his finger away from himself. It’s as if he is always in that posture of redirection—I am not the Christ. I am not the one you need. Look to Jesus. Follow him. That’s the way.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

This passage from Isaiah was written during a time when a large proportion of Israel was in exile in Babylon, and the nation was in ruins. The prophet spoke of a servant of God who would lead the nation back to Jerusalem and back to prosperity and health. But here, in these words of God spoken to the servant, we hear the heart of God. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.”

God’s dream for Israel was bigger than rebuilding the temple, or returning to Jerusalem from exile. God’s dream for Israel was that it might shine out as a beacon so that the whole world would see God’s love and justice and recognize that the God of Israel was on their side, too.

Some people describe the current situation of the Mainline Protestant church in North America as a kind of season of exile. Generations ago, the Protestant church stood at the center of American culture. Attending church, or at least sending your children to Sunday School, was practically a civic duty. Nearly everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer, and Amazing Grace, and Psalm 23.

That is no longer the case, is it? Sending kids to sports programs is a much higher parental duty in today’s culture than making sure they get to Sunday School. And most Americans have far more commercial jingles than hymns memorized. Church is not anyone’s default setting, anymore.

And we feel it, don’t we? We see Sunday School classes getting smaller and smaller, and budgets getting tighter and church staff growing fewer, with fewer hours to work with. Most churches I’ve encountered spend a lot of time worrying about these changes, which are for the most part completely out of our control. We cannot change the tide of our culture any more than those Israelites who were carried off to Babylon could wish themselves back to Jerusalem. We can grieve the losses. We can remember who we have always known God to be. And we can learn to look for God in our new situation.

But it is too small a thing to focus on our own survival. As numbers shrink and budgets tighten, it is so tempting to focus our energy on keeping what we still have. Keeping the building in repair. Keeping all the same staff, but cutting their hours and benefits. Keeping all the Sunday School classes, even though we only have one or two kids in each age group. Keeping the Presbyterian Women’s program on a weekday morning even though all the younger women in the church are at work, then.

It is too small a thing to try to preserve the church, or restore it to its former glory. We need to discover the new possibilities God has in store for us. It is too small a thing to worry about our programs and budgets, when there is a whole world out there, and God is in it!

So, how are you pointing away from yourself, and toward Christ? How is your congregation and its money serving a higher purpose in the world? How are you seizing the opportunity to discover God in new places and in new people? How are you supporting your pastor and your members to be agents of change in the world?

If these questions are intimidating, or challenging, or frightening, that’s okay. You don’t need the answers today. You need only a desire to listen again to the heart of God—the God who called you to this community in the first place and marked you as a beloved child. Because God has a dream for you and for this church, and it is not a small dream. It is a big dream.

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”


Ms. Rosa Parks with Rev. Dr. King in the background. Image is in the public domain.


Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon at

When I was in seventh grade, I used to get picked on a lot.  And I mean a lot.  It was a really hard time for me.  In fact, things eventually got so bad that the Vice Principal of my school recommended that I take Karate lessons for self-defense.  So I did just that.  And it went really well.  It was fun, I was active, and I really liked my teacher: Shihan Jessie Bowen.  Shihan Bowen was a 5th degree black belt and the founder of our school.  There was even a picture on the wall of him next to the kung-fu movie star Chuck Norris.

I, on the other hand, was an awkward twelve-year-old who was barely good enough for a beginner-level sparring class.  So, you can imagine how much trepidation I felt that night at the end of class when Shihan Bowen ordered me to stand up and fight him one-on-one in front of the rest of the class.

It was an epic five-point sparring match.  Shihan Bowen and I matched each other blow for blow with everyone watching.  In the end, I managed to land the final blow for my fifth point.  I couldn’t believe it: I had beaten Shihan Bowen, the Grand Master and the founder of the school, by one point.  For the first time in my life, I felt powerful.  That’s an amazing feeling for a lanky seventh grader who was used to getting beat up and pushed around.  I discovered pride and strength within myself.

Now, I can’t say that this one event solved all my problems at school or in my neighborhood, but I do believe that something of that experienced must have stayed with me because it wasn’t until almost fifteen years after the fact that I did the math in my head: Shihan Bowen was a 35-year-old Grand Master; I was a 12-year-old beginner.  It took me that long to realize one obvious fact: he let me win.

By the time I realized it, of course, I was a grown man.  I had long since grown out of my awkward middle school phase, but I’m grateful for what he did that night because he let me taste empowerment for the first time in my life.  For once, I was a victor, not a victim.  Something I did made an impact on the world around me.

This theme of empowerment is an important one, so we’re going to spend some time with it today.  It factors rather highly in our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke.

The story begins with Jesus sending a group of his followers out on a mission to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  It’s not the first time he’s done something like this.  In fact, it’s the second.  Just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus sent another group of disciples out with an identical mission: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  The first time he did it, Jesus sent 12 disciples out.  The second time, he sent 70.

Why do you think that is?  Is it just a random number?  Was that just the number of people who happened to be hanging around that day?  Well, no.  It’s not random.  Numbers had great symbolic significance for people in the ancient world.  Whenever two things or events have the same number in the Bible, you can bet that they’re connected somehow.

Let’s take the number 12, for example.  12 is the number of disciples Jesus had.  12 is also the number of tribes in the original nation of Israel.  Are these ideas connected?  You bet they are.  By sending out 12 disciples, Jesus was saying that his mission was not just for himself alone, but for the whole nation of Israel.  All of God’s chosen people had a part to play in what was happening through Jesus.

What about 70?  This one’s a little bit trickier.  It’s not so obvious to us modern American readers, so I’ll help you out by unpacking it a little.  70 is the number of the nations of the world named in the first part of the book of Genesis.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells the story of the creation of the world and the beginning of all peoples, cultures, and nations.  And the final number of nations listed in Genesis 10 is 70.  So, when Jesus sends out 70 of his followers to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God, he’s taking his mission even one step further as if to say, “Hey y’all, what you see going on here isn’t just about me, it’s about our whole nation; in fact, it’s not even just about our whole nation, it’s about every nation.  The amazing things you see God doing in me and through me is meant to be shared with the whole world… everybody.”  That’s the symbolic significance of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples on a mission.

Now, let’s take a look at what that mission was.  What is it that God is doing in and through Jesus, the nation of Israel, and ultimately the whole world?  Well, we’ve heard about it already: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  This is what Jesus and his followers are all about.  But what does that mean for us?  Should we all become faith healers, exorcists, or televangelists?  Well, probably not.  In fact, I would advise against it.

When modern Christians talk about “proclaiming the kingdom of God,” they usually mean “preaching the gospel,” and it usually sounds something like this:

“You’re a real bad sinner but God loves you anyway.  So, you should accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, become a Christian, and go to church so that your soul can go to heaven when you die.”

That’s what modern, American Christians usually mean when they talk about preaching the gospel or proclaiming the kingdom of God.  But is that what Jesus was talking about in this passage?  Is there any talk in this passage about becoming a Christian or going to heaven when you die?  No, there isn’t.

Let me say something that might surprise you: Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife.  What is it then?  Well, let’s look at it. 

What is a kingdom on the most basic, fundamental level?  It’s the place where a king or queen has authority and is in charge.  A kingdom is a king’s territory. 

Based on that definition then, what is the kingdom of God?  It’s the place where God is in charge.

What does this mean?  Whenever we allow peace, justice, and love to reign in our hearts, that’s the kingdom of God.  Wherever groups of people organize themselves into communities to care for those who suffer, seek justice for the oppressed, and embody Christ-like compassion in their lives, that’s the kingdom of God.

When Jesus told his followers to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, he was telling them to plant a flag in the ground.  He was declaring war on the way things are.  He was saying, in effect, “Hey y’all, there’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.”  It’s not a battle we can fight with death-dealing weaponry, but with tools that build life.  That’s why healing the sick and casting out demons were so important to Jesus: he was announcing a reversal of the cosmic powers that kept the children of God under the yoke of oppression.  The forces of sin and evil were doomed to failure.  That’s why he said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”  I’ll say it again: There’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.

There are all kinds of examples of the kingdom of God breaking through into this world.  I could talk about the falling of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid in South Africa.  But the example that stands out most in my mind this week is that of a middle-aged seamstress and a young pastor (age 26) who organized an entire group of people to right a wrong in their community through the power of nonviolent direct action.  The seamstress (Rosa Parks) and the pastor (Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized the Montgomery bus Boycott of 1955.  For entire year, the African American population of Montgomery, Alabama walked to work instead of riding the bus.  Their voices were heard and they paved the way for the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

Their movement was one moment among many that marks the breaking through of the kingdom of God into this world.  Toward the end of the protest, someone asked one elderly woman whether she was tired out from a year of walking at her age.  She famously replied, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” 

That, my friends, is the proclamation of the kingdom of God through the empowerment of (all) the people of God.  It is the dethroning of the powers of sin in this world, the casting out of demons, and the healing of our sick society.  It is the eternal revolution of Jesus and we (all of us) are the insurgents.

The end-result of this revolution is not mere political reform but spiritual transformation as the kingdom of God is established “on earth as it is in heaven.”  After describing the revolution to his followers, Jesus told them, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Through this empowerment, we the followers of Jesus wake up to who we really are.  All of us are invited recover our dignity as beloved children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.  Each of us bears the image and likeness of God.  As Jesus said, our names are written in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth I invite you to discover and recover as you go out into the world this week.  You may not be called upon to march in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or tear down the Berlin Wall, but there is still plenty of sin and injustice left in this old world.  Go out with your mind’s eye and the ears of your heart open to where it is that the Spirit of Jesus is calling you and empowering you to plant a flag as an insurgent in heaven’s revolution.  Heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the kingdom of God, and rejoice that your name is written in heaven.

Be blessed and be a blessing.

(Reblog) The hospice pastor with a church on life support


Reblog from the Christian Century:

Original article by Carol Howard Merritt

[I] realized there was something missing in our church’s ministry, and the answer was so clear when I looked at Jesus’ ministry…

We’ve read the gospels so many times that we can forget how amazing it was for Jesus to be walking from town to town, village to village, ministering to people. While people went to the synagogue to read Scriptures and pray, Jesus took the message out into the dusty roads. In the streets there were few barriers to the Gentiles, women, “unclean,” or poor, so Jesus was able to touch the skin of the leper or heal the woman with the issue of blood, because he was outside of the walls for so much of his ministry. Going out was a liberating act…

[I]t’s important that we keep walking in the footsteps of Jesus, focusing our attention on people who won’t, can’t, or never imagined themselves in church. How do we do this?

Walk once a day…

Work outside the church one day a week…

Use outward-focused technology…

Assess the needs of your community…

Start a community garden…

This is just an excerpt

Click here to read the full article

Taking To The Streets: Evangelical Lessons For Liberal Christians

Image by Kara David

Today marks the end of a series of blog posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.

I’ve been looking at some of the things that evangelicals do really well and exploring some of the ways in which liberal Christians might benefit by taking seriously the gifts of our evangelical cousins.  Life has been pretty rough as of late in the mainline Protestant churches.  Battle lines have been drawn between evangelicals and liberals and the armies are loading and aiming.  In some sections, shots have already been fired from both sides.  I’m beginning to feel a bit like Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita: parking my chariot between the two armies and imagining that there must be a better way than war.  Perhaps that’s not the best analogy to use since, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna ultimately advises Arjuna to fight and kill.  Well, with all due respect to Krishna, maybe I’ll get better advice if I imagine Jesus with me in the chariot.

My colleagues tell me that they expect this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to be a bloodbath.  I’m hoping that’s not necessarily the case.  With blog posts like these, I’m hoping that we might be able to foster the growth of a more generous spirit within liberals and evangelicals alike.  Perhaps, as it was for Arjuna, the end result will be the same, but maybe we can change the spirit of the split, so that the seeds of future reconciliation might be sown today.

Enough of that for now.  This series isn’t about denominational schism.  It’s about those qualities of evangelicals that liberal Christians can and ought to appreciate and imitate.  Let’s get to it, shall we?

In the first installment, God Has No Grandchildren, we looked at the ways in which evangelicals do such a great job of taking personal ownership of their spirituality (a.k.a. their relationship with God).  In the second post, Romancing The Book, we looked at the evangelical passion for the Bible.  In this final chapter, I want to talk about the evangelical commitment to mission and what liberal Christians can learn from it.

In many ways, mission is at the very heart of what it means to be evangelical.  The name evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means, “Good news.”  Evangelicals are all about announcing good news to the world.

They tend to mobilize quickly and effectively using grassroots techniques.  Evangelicals were the ones, primarily through the Baptists and Methodists, who most effectively brought Christianity to the American frontier during the periods of colonialism and westward expansion.  During the 19th and 20th centuries, they spearheaded international missionary efforts to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  In fact, evangelicals did such a good job at this that the churches they started a century ago are now sending missionaries back to North America and Europe to “re-evangelize” our increasingly secular societies.

Take my own denominational tradition (Presbyterianism) as an example.  We have our historical roots in Scotland but, numerically speaking, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa has about twice the membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and more than eight times the membership of the Church of Scotland.  The world’s largest Presbyterian congregation (Myungsung Presbyterian Church) is located in Seoul, South Korea.  Say what you will about evangelicals, they know how to get things done!

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, have a tendency to be more self-critical, inward-focused, and reliant upon institutional infrastructure.  The one thing that we constantly seem to forget is that the church is ever only one generation away from extinction.  A church is never so well-established in a community that it can excuse itself from putting faith into action outside its own walls.

When liberal Christians talk about “doing mission,” they usually mean supporting various nonprofit organizations that do good work in a community.  If you were to look at the various projects supported by the mission committee at my congregation, only one is operated in-house.  Another was started by a former-pastor, but is now run by folks from other churches.  Most of the time, they send money to other agencies.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing.  These agencies desperately need the support.  Last winter, a low-income daycare provider in our county would have shut down or reduced services if it had not been for the last-minute financial support of congregations like ours.  However, I worry about us when we limit our sense of “mission” to just giving money to nonprofit service agencies.  I would like to see us also donating our time and talents to these groups.

Let our churches develop a reputation for the kind of hands-on care that made Jesus and the early Christians (in)famous.  The Roman emperor Julian complained to the pagan high priest of Galatia that these “impious” Christians were winning converts because of the way they cared for the poor.  This was particularly true during times of plague, when Christians would risk their lives by staying in the infected cities to treat the ill and bury the dead, regardless of religious affiliation.

St. Lawrence the Deacon, when ordered to turn over “the treasures of the church” to government officials, emptied the church coffers into the street and then gathered the poor and destitute together in front of the governor’s office saying, “Behold, the treasures of the church!”

Doesn’t this provide a stellar model for socially engaged, grassroots ministry among liberal Christians?  We come to the mission field with a sense of self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, and respect for pluralism.  At our very best moments, our acts of service and justice preach silent sermons to the lost souls of this world who are looking for a place to belong.  In times more recent than those of Julian and Lawrence, pastors such as Walter Rauschenbusch (early 20th century Baptist) have found their social consciousness awakening as they serve churches in communities like Hell’s Kitchen in New York.  The Social Gospel movement, of which Rauschenbusch was an early leader, is responsible for many blessings that we now take for granted: child labor laws, workplace safety regulations, weekends, paid vacation, retirement and healthcare benefits, and minimum wage, just to name a few.  Later in the same century, Martin Luther King led his prophetic grassroots campaign against racism, poverty, and militarism.  Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers led activist campaigns for labor rights, racial equality, and nuclear disarmament.  The Catholic Worker movement, which they founded and supported, now has houses of hospitality in almost every major city in the United States.  When liberal Christians get engaged in mission, we do it well.

Even though we don’t tend to go out with gospel tracts and religious sales pitches for “winning souls,” I consider these efforts of liberal Christians to constitute an effective witness for Christ.  People are drawn to communities with open hearts, open minds, open arms, and open doors.  In our individualist and increasingly isolated North American society, people are looking for belonging more than believing.  They are attracted to churches that make a difference in this world.  They want a spiritual community where they can feel welcomed and get involved in something that really matters.

That’s where folks are most likely to discover for themselves that God is real and Jesus is worth following.

We liberal Christians need to get a clue from our evangelical brothers and sisters.  We need to get out of our pews and into the streets to share some good news in word and deed.  The only way to save our lovely churches is to get outside of them.  So, let’s get out there are let people know who we are and where we’re from.  Speak up and act out in the name of your faith!

Just as the disciples left their nets in the boat to follow Jesus, leave your capital campaigns, steeple restoration projects, stained-glass windows, pipe organs, and hymnals.  Take to the streets again!

The fact that the word “evangelical” means “good news” doesn’t mean that liberal Christians don’t have good news to proclaim as well.  We do.  In the same way, the fact that the word “liberal” means “freedom” doesn’t mean that evangelicals don’t value freedom of heart and mind.  They do.

Some folks wonder why I’ve decided to be so intentional about using the loaded terms “evangelical” and “liberal.”  Many think we should do away with labels and categories altogether.  I’m not convinced that’s such a good thing.  First of all, it’s just plain inaccurate.  We have two very distinct versions of Christianity that are currently coexisting in our mainline churches.  We’ve got to call them something, otherwise we won’t have an accurate picture of who we really are.  The various attempts to hold “the middle ground” seem to have resulted in an amorphous and watery theology that fails to challenge or inspire anyone.  Rather than eliminating our theological categories, why don’t we be honest about our diversity and focus instead on how our camps are relating to one another?

I don’t want to meet evangelicals on “the middle ground.”  I want to be a liberal Christian who respects evangelicals and makes room for them to be who they are and do what they feel called to do, so long as we get to do the same.  I hope this series of blog posts has contributed to making that dream a reality.

Mission and Vision

This past Thursday, the people of St. James Mission officially adopted their new Mission and Vision statements during worship.  Many months of thought, prayer, and discussion have gone into the production of this document.  Unintentionally, this process has finished on the first Thursday after the Feast of St. James the Just (October 23), from whom our community takes its name!

St. James the Just; Brother of Jesus; Bishop of Jerusalem; Activist for equality, justice, and inclusivity in the early church; Leader, pastor, healer; Doer of the Word

Our Mission

St. James Mission is an inclusive, Christ-centered community where all people can experience the love of a living God through healing and free-spirited reverence.

Our Vision

  • At St. James Mission, different individuals find common ground in the context of experimental, alternative, Christ-centered worship; seek spiritual truths together through study and conversation; and embrace our spiritual commonality through weekly celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
  • We aspire to accept and include everyone, especially those who have experienced exclusion and wounding in the past.  We strive to be open to voices that have yet to be heard and to the spiritually homeless.
  • We invite people to experience the Divine with us in community, but without any pressure.  We believe it is necessary to create a space where all questions are welcome – a space that is peaceful, safe, non-violent, and non-abusive.
  • We will increase our visible presence in the community; facilitate healing for those in crisis; and encourage & empower people in other churches who share a similar vision.
  • With the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we seek first to attend to people’s physical needs and then their spiritual and other needs.  We want to communicate unconditional love and peace, not only in our worship but also in our daily living.
  • Trusting in the Holy One who speaks through scripture, we will answer the call to do justice in the world.  We are assured of divine love and seek to return that love in the way Jesus taught us, by loving others.

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