Monthly faith reflections from the pastor.
Watch Sermon: Mission as Initiation
Joy C. is one St. Paul person who grew up Mormon. Maybe others of us did too. And even if not, maybe you know, each Mormon young person must go on a two-year mission. It happens at about age 20, and they could go anywhere in the world. First, they go to special mission school. They learn the language of the people where they’re going. They’re given a partner, and then, they are sent.
One of the guys in my freshman dorm left college for his two-year mission. Interrupted his degree. Left his new friends. It is a surprising investment of time, money, and effort.
And what would you guess is the return on this investment?
On average, two Mormon missionaries, working for two-years, will convert two people. And one of them will fall away from the church. For all of that work, the gain is one new Mormon.
So you might wonder. Is it worth it? It seems like a waste, doesn’t it?
You might guess. The leaders of the church must be clueless about how ineffective their missionary program is, right? But they’re not. They know full-well the odds. And they do it anyway.
So what is the point? From Mormon leaders’ point of view, why do it? The answer is, mission converts the missionary. That’s why they do it. They are focused on who these young people be when they come home. Who will they be for their own families, their own communities. The deeper reliance on God they will have. The new capacity to speak about their faith, despite the risk of rejection. The invaluable bond with sisters and brothers who shared in common a very uncommon experience. That’s why.
God’s work changes people—the worker first. The mission is initiation into a whole new life.
And Jesus seems to understand this.
Jesus has compassion for the masses of harassed and helpless people. Born into those same masses, Jesus called from those masses 12. Jesus gave them a new experience, showed them a new way. And when the time was ripe, Jesus summoned and sent workers into God’s harvest.
The first time I drove a car, it wasn’t on the highway. It was in a parking lot. And then, when I was ready, my dad let me drive home from that parking lot. And then I crashed the car into our garage door. And that showed me what kind of damage I could do.
Giving people power is useless, unless they also learn how to use it. Unless they also gain wisdom and character to wield power responsibly, they will abuse and misuse it. Instead of paying their dues to God and their community, they will waste their own potential and lay waste to society in greed and self-gratification.
This is what Jesus saw Rome doing, and his own religious leaders, the Temple leaders in collusion with Rome. The people were “like sheep without a shepherd” exactly because their leaders were no leaders at all.
And, Jesus understood, wisdom and character do not happen spontaneously. Nor are they it taught through lectures. People catch them from elders of wisdom and character and courage.
Giving his disciples a chance to catch on is what Jesus had been doing all along. From the moment Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John away from their fathers and their fishing nets. From the moment Jesus called Matthew away from his lucrative tax collecting booth. Jesus called those 12 out of the bubble of their former lives, and Jesus let those 12 catch him, his spirit and wisdom and life.
And only then, his authority. What we saw today—Jesus giving them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to cure every disease and every sickness. This authority, Jesus himself wielded. And that message of good news, was Jesus’ own message.
Jesus initiated them into God’s work through contact with suffering, their own and that of others. Ultimately, Jesus’ own suffering on the cross initiated them. And this suffering—both real and symbolic—prepared them to exercise God’s own power, with Jesus’ own compassion.
Both by design and by accident, confirmation has done this—to some modest degree. So now, like his fellow students before him, Jack also will stand and speak from this very pulpit. People must be initiated to speak from this place. To speak with wisdom, character, and courage—to speak grace and judgment, both expressions of God’s love. Only the Holy Spirit can empower people to do this, always through communities of Christ’s love, like St. Paul.
So now, I invite Jack.
[Jack’s faith statement]
You should know. What Jack just did was not a requirement for confirmation that I came up with. Jack and the rest of his class chose it. This did not come out of the blue. As they grew up, these young people have seen confirmation students share faith statements. They learned to expect this of themselves. They expected to be challenged in this way. And so, they challenged themselves. They created the requirement. Then they did it. Which is a lesson in itself, for all of us.
The looming question is: when will adults of St. Paul be given a similar chance to catch the wisdom, character, and courage of Jesus?
In this moment, St. Paul people are giving a great deal of attention on the formation of young people. It’s good to give this attention. How are St. Paul adults being formed?
Initiation is not for the young only. Because sometimes, maybe often, the young miss it. Or they don’t catch on. Or not fully.
I myself was never confirmed. Your pastor never went through confirmation.
These days, every congregation is confronted with harsh reality. It used to seem like a safe bet that young people raised in the church would automatically catch the faith and live their whole lives in communion with the church. But that is now exposed as a dangerous myth. More is needed. And more also than a young pastor, a room with a ping pong table, or a full slate of youth-targeted programming.
The world does not conform the patterns of Lutheranism. And even on good Lutheran Christians, the world exerts a corrosive pressure. Is there a reason the experience of confirmation should be for young people only?
Every week, Jack and his classmates ate together, read scripture together, prayed together, goofed off together. When suffering came, these weekly patterns were the grace they needed. It’s a grace they still need. We all need. Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. This is true for young and old alike. And also all the middle-aged people—say 18 to 80—who, for the sake of survival, need daily to pretend they have it all under control, thank you very much. The young and old are harassed and helpless, and so is everyone in between.
People of all ages are dying without initiation into the crucified life of Jesus. And even the initiated need support to stay on-mission, or the suffering of life overwhelms them.
Physical hunger and spiritual hunger go together. The same devouring evil produces them. Jesus called us to respond to both. Many are called, but few let themselves be chosen to give their lives to this work of God.
“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,” Jesus said. And then, Jesus invited them to pray.
So it is good that we are together for worship. Otherwise we might be overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the need. Worship is prayer in community. Here we reunite with God, the source of the mission and of everything else we need.
The church needs all kinds of leaders. I’m praying for leaders of adult formation, alongside all kinds of other leaders.
And notice also. Jesus invited the 12 to pray with their feet. Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist leader, said, “Every day for 20 years, I prayed for my freedom. And nothing changed until I started praying with my feet.”
Jesus invited the disciples to see that they were the answer to their prayer. They were the workers they were looking for. They were the leaders the people lacked.
That’s Jack. That’s you. Answers to prayer.
Thanks be to God.
--Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
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Photo used under Creative Commons from frankieleon