Draw your Church together, O God, into one great company of disciples together following our Lord Jesus Christ into every walk of life,
together serving him in his mission to the world, and together witnessing to his love on every continent and island. Amen.
This sermon was inspired by a recent conversation I had with my sister. I was telling her about the upcoming St. Stephen’s mission trip to the Dominican Republic and her response was like – and here I am paraphrasing – “So, you’re going there to convert the people of the Dominican Republic to Episcopalianism?”
You can imagine my dismay and distress at hearing that. “No, no,” I quickly replied. “They’re already Christians, in fact, they’re already Episcopalians.” “Then why are you going,” said Mary Jane, “isn’t that what a mission is about,” she asked? “Conversion?”
My thoughts went back with horror to some of the scenes in James Michener’s wonderful novel, Hawaii, and of stern-faced New Englanders lining up natives dressed in heavy woolen pants and coats despite the blazing Hawaiian sun and making them recite memorized Bible verses. Then I remembered an essay question from our General Ordination Examinations almost thirty years ago: “The age of mission is over; the age of missions has begun. Explain.”
So what is the purpose of a short term mission trip and why have mission trips been an important part of the ministry of St. Stephen’s Church for almost fifteen years?
The first reason we go on mission is because we are commanded to do so by our Lord. In today’s Gospel we hear the resurrected Christ tell his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” For three years I sat in the (old) Virginia Seminary Chapel and looked up at the beautiful stained glass window behind the altar proclaiming the famous quote from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” Those are our marching orders, if you will; those directions are not optional. Today we are honoring those who were baptized here this past year. When we welcomed each of these infants or children into the Body of Christ one of our prayers was “Send them into the world in witness to your love.” Participating in missions is the responsibility of every Christian. Fun fact? What is the official legal name of The Episcopal Church? Ready? The official legal name of the Episcopal Church is “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church.” If you are an Episcopalian, you are by definition a missionary.
I like to say that St. Stephen’s Church is going on a mission trip – the whole church. Some St. Stephen’s members travel; all members of St. Stephen’s pray for the mission trip; many raise funds; others help with arrangements or donations of needed supplies, but the whole church goes on a mission trip.
A second reason we go on a mission trip is that by doing so we give back in thanksgiving a portion of our bounty for a very worthwhile cause. Remember Matthew 25, “as you do it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me.” We North American churches are tremendously rich in comparison to churches in the third world that struggle just to survive. When we do something physical such as repairing or painting a house of worship in a Dominican village, teach the stories of Jesus to the children of that church, or organize a pick-up match for the teens of the town, we give more than bricks and mortar, crayons, clay, and soccer balls. We give our time and our love and our hope and encouragement. We work along side Dominican church members and relationships form. Our host congregation experiences community with the larger body of Christ as we worship and work together. Is it St. Francis who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words?” Like the early observers said of the Christian community that formed right after Christ’s resurrection, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Sometimes I hear, “why are you going to the Dominican Republic? There are needs right here in America.” That’s true and I would like to strive for the day when St. Stephen’s undertakes a mission trip more frequently than every other year. In 2006 I helped lead a mission trip to the Appalachian region of Virginia. I’d love it if our future included such a mission trip. I have been told that one of the reasons St. Stephen’s chose Central America as the destination for mission trips was that a parishioner here had a connection there. Both Honduras and the Dominican Republic are companion dioceses of our Diocese, Southeast Florida, but we are in no way limited to what we can do in the future.
On a personal level we traveling missioners have the knowledge that we are using our gifts to build up the Body of Christ. That’s very good stewardship.
I have a core conviction that short-term mission trips are life changing; life changing for us and for those we go to serve. I have never taken a short-term mission trip that did not enrich me spiritually. We always get more than we give. And, I have never taken a short-term mission trip that did not stretch me and challenge me beyond my comfort level. Mission trips bring culture shock and culture shock produces disorientation resulting from unfamiliar surroundings and unmet expectations. Perhaps that’s God’s way of teaching me humility. We return from a short-term mission trip with new eyes. We see things differently.
We know that God is in the business of transforming our lives as we give ourselves to him. God has called St. Stephen’s to a short-term mission trip. That is both a gift and a responsibility. I am confident that we will know this ministry as the blessing that it is and that we will joyfully serve the world in his name. Let us pray”
We give thanks for the good news of salvation for all people. Strengthen us for our work in the world, empower your Church to proclaim the gospel in service, word, and sacrament. Unite in the truth all who confess your name, that we may live together in love to your glory. Amen.