June 18, 2023

Matthew 9:35 – 10:23

“What Kind of Mission?”

Two themes come together this morning in our worship. First, there is the theme of mission from the Gospel text. And next, there is the fact that today is National Indigenous Peoples Sunday – a date set by our denomination to coincide with Canada’s National Indigenous Peoples Day coming up this Wednesday, June 21st.

Some of you are probably also aware that our culture celebrates Father’s Day today. Unfortunately, I could not come up with a link between Father’s Day and the other key themes of the service. Nonetheless, it is a good day to remember our father figures with love, and to pray for all those called to paternal responsibility and care.

Anyway, I want to begin with that great long Gospel passage from Matthew that Donna read for us. I wonder if you’ve ever noticed that the Gospel of Matthew is organized around five discourses or teaching sessions – probably a poetic reference to the five books of the Torah traditionally attributed to Moses, thereby casting Jesus as a Moses-like figure. The first of these discourses is the most well-known – the “Sermon of the Mount,” and this week’s reading comes form the second, sometimes called the “Missionary Discourse.”

Of course we know that God sent Jesus into the world with a mission to reach out with the love and grace of God to all people and draw us back into good relationship with God, one another, and the whole of creation. At this point in Matthew’s account, Jesus has already started on his mission. He’s done a lot of teaching and preaching, telling people about God’s coming reign, and calling them to turn back to God. He’s healed lots of people and forgiven their sins, and he’s called some of them to follow him and learn more.

But it soon becomes clear that this is a bigger job than one person can accomplish alone. Perhaps Jesus already knew that, and that’s why he was recruiting disciples to learn and follow his teaching. As I talked about with the children, Jesus looked at the crowds and felt compassion for them. And that’s when he told his followers that they were going to need to help.

He called together his motley crew of disciples, and explained that he was also making them into apostles. Sometimes those two words get used interchangeably for “the twelve,” but they actually mean different things.

A “disciple” is one who learns and follows – a student of a teacher. An “apostle” is one who is sent out. In this case, the twelve disciples become twelve apostles when Jesus sends them out to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and sickness. And then Jesus gives them some specific instructions for their mission.

I should pause and say something about that word “mission” that I keep using. The word “mission” comes from the Latin word “missio” which is itself a translation of the Greek word “apostello,” meaning “to send.” And the ones who are sent are called “apostles.” So, to be an apostle is to have a mission. An apostle might also be called a “missionary.”

Anyway, Jesus tells them to start by going to their own people, their own communities. Later, we know that their mission will be expanded to all peoples and nations, but that will be more complicated. They are to begin close to home.

It quickly becomes clear that their message will not always be well-received. Likely, the experience of the late-first century Christian community that wrote and shared this Gospel text is reflected here. Before the end of the century, Christian apostles were being persecuted and facing danger or even death because of their faith and witness. Jesus does not deny that it’s a risky mission.

But Jesus encourages his followers to be courageous – to proclaim the good news freely and faithfully. Where the message is not welcome, they are simply to move on. And where they receive even worse treatment, they are told not to worry, but to trust God to help them through.

All of this naturally raises questions about our mission today. After all, I invited you to put your names on a sign-up sheet of disciples – the very ones that Jesus gathers and sends out as apostles or missionaries to share in the big work God is doing in the world.

In order to consider those questions, I consulted a 2019 report of the PCC’s Church Doctrine Committee titled, “Living in God’s Mission today.” It notes that “the task of making the gospel known in our situation and context is a task that requires the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

Beginning with a dose of humility, the report acknowledges that “the church has often made mistakes and failed to adequately witness to God’s love in relation to our neighbours.” And, “As Presbyterians in Canada we have been confronted with past failures and abuses in our mission to First Nations people. We are now deeply aware, through the process of confession and repentance, that we need to constantly examine ourselves in the light of God’s call.”

In a 15-minute sermon, I don’t have time to unpack or even adequately summarize the 12-page-long “Living in God’s Mission Today” document. But a couple of things are noteworthy and perhaps most relevant in the context of this National Indigenous Peoples Sunday.

The report is very clear that the church’s mission is rooted in God’s mission. It’s not a mission to build bigger churches or benefit our congregations or claim some kind of religious right or spiritual superiority. The church is simply called by Jesus to participate in God’s mission to the world. God loves the world. Jesus feels compassion for all of us. And Jesus’ followers are sent out on God’s mission of love.

The report explains that God’s original mission expressed in the creation stories was “to embrace humans and creation with God’s love and delight.” And God quickly gave human beings a missional task as well. As people made in God’s image, our mission was “to live as those who delight God, and to tend and care for creation.”

Of course, we know that as human beings, we didn’t do very well at that task, disobeying God, turning away, trying to become like gods ourselves, and messing up God’s beautiful world. But the Scriptures show us that God was not willing to give up. God reached out in love to us again and again through the prophets, and ultimately through Jesus the Christ. God sent the Son into the world on a mission of reconciliation to draw all people back into relationship with God, and back to our original mission – to delight God and care for one another and creation.

When I think about what I have learned about the Indigenous cultures and spiritualities of Canada, it seems to me that many of them accomplish this original mission very well. I’m sure that none of them are perfect, and like Christian spiritualities they can be undermined by imperfect people living them out selectively or selfishly.

But Indigenous spiritualities have deep respect for the Creator. They are committed to the stewardship and care of Creation – honouring all creatures as relatives. I think of the Seven Grandfather Teachings which include Love, Respect, Bravery, Truth, Honesty, Humility, and Wisdom. They are aimed at guiding humans to walk on the Earth in a good way, respecting the Creator and living in harmony with other creatures and people. I can only imagine that God is delighted to see Indigenous people and others striving to live according to these teachings.

But I am fortunate to have lived in this time, when even the descendants of settlers like me have had opportunities to listen to Elders and Knowledge Keepers and to discover the truth, beauty, and goodness contained in the faith of our neighbours.

Nearly 30 years ago, our denomination confessed to God and to Indigenous People that through our work and mission we harmed Indigenous people and aimed to assimilate them into the dominant culture. We acknowledged that, with other churches, we encouraged the government to ban some important spiritual practices through which Indigenous peoples experienced the presence of the creator God.

We confessed that we presumed to know better than Indigenous peoples what was needed for life. The Church said of our Indigenous siblings, “If they could be like us, they could think like us, talk like us, worship like us, sing like us, and work like us, they would know God and therefore would have life abundant.” This was cultural arrogance, and it led to a misrepresentation of Jesus Christ who loves all peoples.

I don’t know why Jesus didn’t immediately send his apostles out to the Gentiles, but my instinct is that he knew that mission would be more complex and difficult for fledgling missionaries. Eventually, Jesus would promise the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and empower the church to share the good news with all the people and languages and cultures of the world.

It makes me sad to think about the myriad ways that we, as the church, messed up that mission. We got the news out about Jesus, that’s for sure. But so often we got Jesus mixed up with a particular culture, and we forced the whole thing on people who were already living according to God’s original mission for human beings. We just didn’t see it.

Perhaps it’s helpful to notice what Jesus asked his apostles to do on the mission in our reading today – not to teach doctrine or make other people like them – but simply to heal and to bless in Jesus’ name.

“Living in God’s Mission Today” prompts us to be committed to our mission as a church – to God’s mission in the world. “We are to be proclaiming, telling and, dare we add, singing that God makes all people and all things God’s friends through Jesus Christ.” But it warns that “Our evangelical proclamation is not to be arrogant implying superiority but rather a corporate witness of those who are beggars telling other beggars where to find food.” (Living Faith 9.2.1)

“Following our subordinate standard, Living Faith, we need to remind ourselves that relating to those of faiths different from ours requires deep respect for their human dignity as creatures of God and an openness to discern “truth and goodness in them,” which Living Faith describes as the work of Gods’ Spirit (Living Faith 9.2). As we do so we may also learn from them, co-operate for the good of God’s creation and discover God at work as the Spirit blows where it wishes.”

On this upcoming National Indigenous Peoples Day, we are invited to listen, to learn, and to connect with our Indigenous neighbours in a spirit of friendship and respect. I encourage you to take up opportunities to do this.

And we are also blessed within our denomination to have our first Indigenous Moderator, the Rev. Mary Fontaine. This year we’ll have many more opportunities to learn from Mary’s wisdom and experience, so I encourage you to read her reflections, to watch for videos, and to be here when she makes a visit to Regina (which I am hoping she will do).

Perhaps if we help each other, we can truly re-enter the original mission that God gave to us all – to live as those who delight God, and to tend and care for the creation.