Sermon at this morning’s Acts 8 Eucharist.
This last month, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) heard the first reading of a new document, “Together towards life: mission and evangelism in changing landscapes,” which will be presented to next year’s WCC General Assembly. One of the most interesting parts of this document is its discussion of what they call “Mission from the Margins.” Here’s paragraph 38:
Mission from the margins seeks to counteract injustices in life, church, and mission. It seeks to be an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalized. Such approaches can contribute to oppression and marginalization. Mission from the margins recognizes that being in the centre means having access to systems that lead to one’s rights, freedom and individuality being affirmed and respected; living in the margins means exclusion from justice and dignity. Living on the margins, however, can provide its own lessons. People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the centre, is out of view. People on the margins, living in vulnerable positions, often know what exclusionary forces are threatening their survival and can best discern the urgency of their struggles; people in positions of privilege have much to learn from the daily struggles of people living in marginal conditions.
and paragraph 41:
The dominant expressions of mission, in the past and today, have often been directed at people on the margins of societies. These have generally viewed those on the margins as recipients and not active agents of missionary activity. Mission expressed in this way has too often been complicit with oppressive and life-denying systems. It has generally aligned with the privileges of the centre and largely failed to challenge economic, social, cultural and political systems which have marginalized some peoples. Mission from the centre is motivated by an attitude of paternalism and a superiority complex. Historically, this has equated Christianity with Western culture and resulted in adverse consequences, including the denial of the full personhood of the victims of such marginalization.
Looking at the history of mission, it’s easy to see this at work. Mission was and is often conducted out of a kind of Noblesse Oblige, assuming that those to whom the mission is being sent are receiving gifts that we already possess. This is harmful to both the persons and cultures being “missionized” and those conducting the mission, because it sets up the kind of distinctions the Epistle of James has been railing against for the last couple of weeks in the lectionary. It results in pride and hypocrisy, even if done with the best of intentions.
Those missions that have borne the most fruit of the Spirit in the past few decades have been those that recognize that in correctly-ordered work, both the missionary and the missionized are equal in receipt of a new grace. When mission is at its best, it’s not a transferal of knowledge, or a gift from the “haves” to the “have-nots”, but a new outpouring of the Spirit on all involved. In examples ranging from Latin-American base communities to Emergent churches in North America, mission really happens when it is indigenous and adapted to the local context.
As we consider ways to renew and transform our church, our first step has to be to recognize that we have been complicit in the “mission from the centre” that the document critiques. The Episcopal Church has only recently emerged from being considered exclusively the church of the powerful. We love missionary bishops, and organizations, and societies. We tend to hyper-organize ourselves before stepping out into mission. This could be considered prudence, but also could be considered a lack of trust in the Spirit. The “Nimbleness” that some have advocated as part of reform will not come easy to us, as we tend to be ponderous and make decisions from the top-down.
In paragraph 38 of the WCC document, it is noted that “People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the centre, is out of view.” How do we insure that we include the voices from the margins in order to make them part of the mission, rather than just those whom mission is imposed on?
Labor day. It’s a day that we generally think of as the last gasp of summer – the last chance to get out and do something before school season rolls in on those of us who have kids of that age. As a society, we take a day off to value the contributions of workers.
Manual labor has a special place in Benedictine monasticism. Section 48 of the Rule states,
“Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading. Hence, we believe that the time for each will be properly ordered..”
Benedict certainly approved of rest, but he recognized that too much idleness left more room for “Murmuring,” – Idle negative talk – which he considered to be one of the greatest threats to Christian community. He felt that a balance of prayer, study, rest and manual labor was the proper life for a Christian.
In Benedictine spirituality, manual labor isn’t just about avoiding idleness. It has its own benefits. It involves the hands and the autonomic parts of our minds so that we can pray more clearly. It’s not uncommon to find people talking about how their most fruitful times of prayer are doing laundry, or washing dishes, or knitting. Having something to do with the “busy” parts of our minds gives the more meditative parts of our psyche room to work.
We are considering how to re-imagine ourselves as church. How do make real these dreams we have of our Christian community? Today we should consider what the role of the work of our hands might be. As Episcopalians, we tend to be “idea” and “program” people, but how would we order ourselves to bring our common labor into this balance?
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.