August 27, 2017 — Ken Murray & Members of the Mission Committee
6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
One of the strengths of the Judeo-Christian heritage is its emphasis on helping others as part of our religious duty. That is clearly demonstrated in the words we have heard this morning from the Hebrew prophet Micah and the gospel according to Matthew.
This emphasis on helping others is found in other religious traditions, as well. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If YOU want to be happy, practice compassion.”
This quote from a great Buddhist spiritual leader and teacher illuminates some very important truths. The first is that the practice of compassion provides two-way benefits. When we practice compassion, we expect that it will help somebody else. That is why we say we do it. But the practice of compassion is something that also benefits us. It opens our hearts, it lifts our spirits, it deepens our souls, it expands our humanity. The practice of compassion provides mutual benefits, to others and to ourselves.
The second important truth contained within the Dalai Lama’s wise quote is this: compassion is a practice. It is not simply something we feel. It is something we do. To be real, to bring the benefits we have outlined, to others and to ourselves, compassion must be practiced. It must be cultivated. It must be practiced over and over again to take root in our souls, to take root in the world.
To me, that is what “mission” is all about, practicing compassion.
Mission has been thought of in different ways in church life over the centuries. The word seems to me to have had two main meanings, with the emphasis varying in different times and different places in Christian history.
A very early meaning that has persisted over the years and still applies today is that mission is about spreading the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and converting people to the religion that grew up in his name, Christianity. This is certainly the meaning when we talk about the missions of Paul, for example. Paul, an observant Jew, educated in the school of the Pharisees, had a conversion experience that led him to embrace Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and impelled him on a long and dangerous quest to share this belief with others and to found Christian communities, what we call churches, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean world. From his efforts, and those of others, Christianity grew from a minor sect within Judaism to a religious force throughout the known world. Throughout church history, engaging in mission, in this sense, has been part of the Christian tradition.
A second meaning of the word mission, also from very early times, is to improve the lives of others. Contemporary observers of the early Christian communities noted that the members of those communities took care of each other, almost as if they were members of the same family. This was unusual in those societies, at that time. These early Christians made sure that the basic needs of others in their churches were met, and that they were protected as much as possible. This was an attractive recruiting tool for these communities, as well.
This second meaning of mission has also persisted through the centuries. Missionaries to the New World of the Americas, and, later to Africa and Asia wanted not only to convert others to Christianity, but also to make the lives of others better. Now it is true that this legacy was tarnished a lot by forced conversions and the destruction of native cultures. But helping others better their lives never entirely disappeared from the meaning of mission.
When Anne and I first started coming to Union Church, almost five years ago, we were taken by a number of things. First, there was the warm welcome we received from numerous people on that very first Sunday. Also, in looking around, we could see that this warmth was not just something put on to impress us, the newcomers, but it extended throughout the congregation as people greeted and embraced one another. We were pleased with the warm, open preaching by Jan Hryniewicz, and what we could tell was a climate of accepting and celebrating differences. We were excited by the upbeat and eclectic music program, and the artistic gifts of so many in the congregation. And, we loved the coffee hours. We loved them enough to even join one of the five teams.
We also liked what we came to know about the Union Church mission program. It was clear that the church had made a conscious decision to be a force for good in the greater Biddeford community, and beyond. Union Church had moved from serving just the Biddeford Pool community to serving the wider community, and had apparently done so enthusiastically. We also liked that Union Church had adopted a model of working with existing community partners who were already working to improve people’s lives, rather than trying to set up a bunch of new programs as our own, special spheres of influence. That made eminent good sense to us. It was not accidental that the first thing I volunteered to do at Union Church, after the coffee hours, was to serve on the mission committee. To me, it offered a way to practice compassion, as we have spoken about, in a very concrete way.
In your church bulletins this morning, you will find an insert that I hope you will take home with you and take a little time to look over. Not now, later. The insert is taken from information that our Moderator, Paul Schlaver, compiled and put on the church website. It shows the many organizations with which Union Church is involved in making a positive difference, mostly in the greater Biddeford area, but not exclusively so. These positive activities are made possible by two things: (1) the care, concern and active volunteering of members of this congregation, and (2) the funds raised through the Summer Speaker Series thanks to the very dedicated work of a lot of Union Church folk and the participation of so many from the wider community.
We will not talk about each and every Union Church mission activity this morning. But the members of the Mission Committee and I would like to highlight a few of them so you can see just how we earned the title of “the little church with a big heart.”
- Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center – Debbie Lamb
- In-a-Pinch Non-Food Pantry – Debbie Lamb
- Education for All Children-Kenya – Jo Deupree
- ESL Classroom at Biddeford Primary – Paul Schlaver
- Saco Community Meals Program – Paul Schlaver
We hope that our sharing this morning has given you a good sense of how much the Union Church mission activities bring to the community and, through our two sponsored students, to the wider world. No one individual, and no one church can do everything. But it is not necessary to do everything. It is only necessary, as Mother Teresa said, “to do small things with great love.”
That is being done by Union Church today. It is our prayer that it will continue to be done by Union Church tomorrow and into the time to come. I know that this is the prayer also of Rev. Paula Norbert, our new pastor who will be beginning her formal ministry with us in two weeks. She has been excited to learn ahead of time about some of our mission projects and looks forward to working with us on them and helping them to grow.
Speaking of growth, there are two areas of growth that I would like to mention that could be considered for the future.
The first is the funding of our mission outreach projects. We are very, very blessed for our mission activities to have been funded for many years by the annual Summer Speaker Series. Not only does this series bring wonderful authors and cultural enrichment to the community each summer, but ALL the proceeds of the series are earmarked for our Union Church mission outreach program. Last year that amounted to over $13,000. This is a sizeable amount and enables a powerful impact on our community and the world. But an area in which we might grow, by taking baby steps, is to include some money from the actual Union Church budget to go to mission as well. Doing this could incrementally grow our mission program’s capacity. It would also mean that the whole church would be making an investment in that program, not just the individuals who organize, attend and advertise for the Speaker Series. Doing something like this would broaden the support and the involvement, so to speak.
A second possible area of growth is in “accompaniment.” I want to thank Joyce Morrissette for calling this concept to my attention. She has been reading the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, a co-founder of a non-profit called Partners in Health which has been doing amazing work in Haiti, Rwanda and elsewhere around the globe. The key to their success has been introducing the concept of accompaniment into the health care model, through which they recruit community members to help the sick and accompany them after they have received critical care at a clinic or hospital. This helps assure that the patient continues to take medicine, monitor symptoms and stay healthy. The key is that accompaniment is a longer term commitment than a one-time intervention. As our mission program grows we might look at our commitments and see how we can add more longer-term sustainable involvement in the mix.
So, we have lots of opportunities going forward. I am so happy that mission outreach is such an integral part of the life of our church, and excited to think about the new possibilities for the future. The more people who are involved, the stronger it will be. We need committee members and people to help with specific projects. If these prospects interest you, please speak to me, to any member of the Mission Committee, or to our pastor. Together we can do so much.