Today’s post comes from the manuscript of a message shared by Andy Henry when he and Ashlyn shared reflections on mission with Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Delaware, Ohio. Ashlyn talked about her experience with international and short-term mission trips while Andy talked about mission in a local context. Enjoy!
Samuel L. Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, may be one of the wisest and wittiest authors America has ever produced. There are many great quotes attributed to Twain: He observed that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” He noticed that “if you don’t read the paper, you are uninformed. If you do read the paper, you are misinformed.” My favorite Twain quote is: “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” But the one I’ve been thinking about recently is about the Bible: “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.”
I can relate. Even after studying the Bible my whole life and getting a degree in theology and a “mastering” the divine with my M.Div., there are still many parts of the Bible that I don’t understand. But it’s the parts of the Bible that I do understand that trouble me–in mostly good ways, ways that grow me. I have found that there will often be a story or passage from the Bible that I’ll be drawn to and I will end up working with the passage for quite some time–letting it work on me, for a long period of time.
Has that ever happened to you? How many of you have ever had a passage or story from the Bible that kind of gripped you for a long time?
There have been two stories–both found in the gospel of Mark–that I haven’t been able to shake for the last several years:
The first one is the story of Jesus feeding the multitude, also known as the feeding of the 5,000. And this story has become so formational to me that it inspired me to start a new ministry called Recovering Abundance, with the mission of renewing rural leaders and communities. (But that’s a whole other sermon.)
The second story is found two chapters later in Mark’s gospel and it’s the story of Jesus healing the blind person in Bethsaida. We heard it earlier this morning. It’s one of many healing stories in the gospels but it has some unique elements: Jesus using saliva, having to pray twice, etc. Though it may not seem like a story about mission; it does have something important to teach us about being on mission with God.
This story really came to life for me about six years ago when I was living in Oregon. I started my seminary studies in Portland, Oregon. And after a couple years in Oregon, I began to feel restless and disoriented. There were many things I loved about Oregon and the West Coast but I also missed the stability and family I had in the Midwest. And one day I took these questions and feelings with me for a walk on a prayer labyrinth. During that walk, this passage from Mark 8 came to my mind. And, in the language of my Quaker tradition, Christ used this story to “speak to my condition.”
It felt as though God was saying to me: “Like the blind man, Jesus has taken you by the hand and led you outside the village.” Only when I was led “outside the village”–outside of my hometown with its roles, rules, and relationships–could my eyes be opened to the things God wanted to show me. There were things that Christ wanted to say to me and show me, and these things could only be heard and seen “outside the village.”
It can be a scary thing to be led by Christ outside the village. As the author of Hebrews said, it’s a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. But when Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us somewhere new, we can trust that we are going somewhere good and that we are in good hands.
But the part that struck me me the most was actually what happened after the man was healed. Jesus didn’t say to the man, “Your life has just been transformed. Now, come and follow me into the sunset to faraway places and people.” No, Jesus sent him back home.
And I had an intuitive sense that after I had seen and heard the things God designed for me in Oregon, I would also be sent home to share the things I had learned and put them into practice.
Indeed I was.
After I had this experience, I began to see a pattern that I hadn’t seen before. From the gospels we know that the people who had an encounter with Christ–if they had even an ounce of openness–were transformed in profound ways. They experienced a new wholeness and empowerment they hadn’t known before. They also experienced a clearer sense of mission than they ever had before. They joined Jesus in the great missio Dei, the mission of God. But their lives weren’t all transformed in the same direction. They didn’t all join God’s mission in the same trajectory.
You see, they were guided in one of two directions. Some were called to take the show on the road and follow Christ out to new places and people. But others were called to go back to the same places and people they knew before, but as a new person.
Both are faithful responses to an encounter with Christ.
Both are important dimensions and directions of God’s mission.
We need what social scientists call “returners” in our communities. Because the people that leave and come back often (not always, but often) as a free, intentional choice. And often with a strong sense of mission. They want to put down roots and raise a family. They want to serve and maybe shake things up. In biblical language, sometimes returners become “apostles.”
The word “apostles” in the New Testament comes from the Greek apostolos which means “sent ones.” So when Jesus sent people home, he wasn’t saying, “You don’t get to play. I’m putting you on the bench.” He was saying, “I need you here. I need you making a home. I want you to join me in making all things new by being a new creation in the midst of the old things and familiar faces that you know so well.”
Sometimes we are called to go; sometimes we are called to stay; sometimes we are called to return. The point is to listen to Christ and let him lead us. The point is to learn how to love wherever we find ourselves.
If we are sent home, in what manner are we sent?
We’ve talked about a couple already. First, we are sent home with a vision–like the blind man in Bethsaida and the young man in Oregon, we let Christ take us outside the village where we see new things. Once God opens your eyes to something, you can’t un-see it. And once you’ve seen it, you are responsible for it. You become a keeper of that vision. Jesus actually spends a lot of time in the gospels helping people see new things, see the kingdom of God around them. He was really more concerned with seeing than believing.
Secondly, we are sent home with a mission. When we have been in the company of Christ and we become keepers of the vision, we are also mobilized with a clearer sense of mission.
This new vision and mission is exciting and energizing. Think of how many people come to Christ and leave jumping and thanking and praising. But the thing about being sent by Jesus is that Jesus is very truthful. He asks us to count the costs. So, he sends us home with a vision, a mission, but also a warning.
After Jesus healed the man in Bethsaida, he sent him home as his apostle, but he said “Go home but wait awhile before you go back into the village.”
When I was moving back to Ohio, I prayed with a paradox that became a kind of mantra: I can’t go home again. I must go home again. I felt like I must go home again because that’s where I wanted to live and build a future. And it’s where I felt a sense of mission. But I knew that I would need wisdom because there is a real sense in which you can’t go home again. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to just kind of pick up where I left off. I had changed. And to some extent, home had changed.
Jesus had some real trouble when he tried to do his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth. They literally forced him out and he made the astute observation that a prophet is often not accepted in their hometown.
Why were they so upset? Of course, part of it was that people were threatened by his message. But it was also that he was rejecting his assigned role in the community and claiming a different one for himself. They said “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”; in other words: “We know you. You’re Joseph’s son. You’re a carpenter. We know your place and status around here. So let’s cool it with all this healer, teacher, messiah business.”
It is very hard, especially in small towns, to change your role and identity. It’s very hard to claim your own space and your own calling.
One of the things I was reminded of when I moved back to Ohio was that family names still have great importance in small, rural towns. When I came back, people would say “Isn’t this Don and Sandy Henry’s son?” They would say “you sound just like your dad!” And I would say “Well, I guess there are worse people to sound like” and they would say “Ahhh! That’s exactly he would say.”
I work at a public library and one of my coworkers, bless her heart, everyone she meets, she has to find out their last name because once she finds out their last name, she can understand who they are and how they fit in the community. “Oh, the Johnsons! They are great, honest, god-fearing people.” Or “Oh, the Jeffersons… They are trouble. I even heard they are Democrats.” And the poor woman, if she can’t figure out their lineage, she just doesn’t know what to do. Her head starts to spin and it’s like she’s stuck: “does not compute.”
In any family, neighborhood, and community (especially small and country towns), there are roles, rules, and relationships that are difficult to change and dangerous to break.
I learned from family systems theory that every family is a system and each person has their role to play within that system. When anyone decides that they will no longer play that role, it means that the entire system has to adapt. Everyone else is forced to change and it often brings about a lot of distress and anxiety.
And in economics, every new innovation changes the whole market. A new product or service isn’t just added to a list; it disrupts the market.
Most of you are probably familiar with the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s a great homecoming story. A story about a returner. Most of the time, we focus on that wonderful Hallmark moment when the father embraces the son and welcomes him back home with a party. It’s a great gospel moment. But there is something I always wonder about in that story. What happened the next day? What happened the day after the party?
After all the wine glasses were gathered up and the bones from the fatted calf were collected, after the music fades, they would have to figure out how to be a family again–how to live together in a new way. They had to figure out who would mow the lawn and how they would handle conflict and what would happen when the formerly prodigal son gets restless again.
Celebration was the first thing, absolutely. But after celebration would come transformation and even negotiation.
Being sent home can be a wonderful, soul-restoring thing. To belong again. To feel known again. To be reconnected to our place and the land. But it can also be a challenging and complicated thing.
We do well to remember that it is an extraordinary thing to be on mission with God. Even through the ordinary activities of life and faith:
- Nurturing a family
- Tending a garden
- Stewarding a farm
- Starting a business
- Teaching students
- Loving enemies who used to be friends
- Advocating for the most vulnerable in our community & country
- Having authentic faith conversations with a coworker
Homecoming and home-keeping are critical parts of our mission with God. If you are not sent abroad to risky and exciting ventures of ministry, don’t ever think you’ve been benched by God. You are a “sent one.” God desires your partnership in healing and renewing this place and these people for such a time as this.
In the coming days, I invite you to reflect on how you (individually and as a congregation) may be sent home and what vision, mission, or wise warnings you have received from Christ.