Sunday 25 November 2007

Mission Sunday

1. Today is Mission Sunday. Which prompts the question, what is Mission Sunday, and what does it mean to us?

At one level, the answer is quite straightforward: it’s the Sunday which Bishop Michael designates each year for all parishes in the Diocese to collect money to support a programme of very worthwhile overseas projects, which are selected by the Diocesan Board of Mission.

Parish clergy are usually asked to exchange with other parishes on Mission Sunday, but this year Diocesan Readers like me, and Auxiliary Clergy, have been sent out to the different parishes as special preachers. This allows Dean Stephen to stay put and celebrate communion in his own parish, and gives you a different voice in the pulpit. For myself, I have to say what a pleasure and a privilege it is to be asked to come and speak to you, and worship with you, here today, though perhaps you may think you’ve drawn the short straw, since I am a very new Diocesan Reader, still wet behind the ears! I guess my main job today, but not I think my whole job, is to encourage you to give really generously to the nominated projects!

At a deeper level, I think Mission Sunday is an opportunity for us all, as Christians, to reflect on what Christian mission means, and to ask ourselves what part Christ wants each of us to play in it.

So in this address I want to do two things:
· 1st, to outline the excellent, worthwhile projects that the diocese is supporting this year
· and 2nd, to tease out what Jesus tells us about our Christian mission.

2. First, lets look at the mission projects chosen for 2007

This year the Board of Mission has chosen 11 projects to support, and set the diocese as a whole a target of raising €8,000 for them. Last year parishes contributed more than €9,700 to around 9 projects, of which nearly €400 came from this Killaloe Union, so I think this years target is a bit low – we should try to do even better than last year!

Most of the projects aim to help the poor, the sick and the suffering in countries of the 3rd world, the ‘poor south’. I would go on far too long if I spoke in detail about all of them, so I’m going to focus on just 3, and simply list the rest:

  1. There is the AIDS project run by Maryknoll Missions in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which is also supported by Christian Aid. They run an orphanage for children whose parents have died from AIDS. And they also run hospices, not just for adults, but for children dying of AIDS. It’s shocking isn’t it; one consequence of the AIDS epidemic is that hospices are needed for dying children, many of whom have been infected in their mother’s womb! Think of that when you decide how much to put in the plate today!
  2. There is the Bethlehem Arab Rehabilitation Centre, run by our fellow Anglicans in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The Holy Land, Israel and Palestine, was the cradle of our Christian faith, as well as Judaism and Islam. Today it is also the focus of much of the evil in the world. Our fellow-Christians there are suffering, as well as those of other faiths – Christ is being cruelly crucified there all over again – but still they work to bring healing in Jesus’s name to people of all faiths. They need our financial help now. Surely we must respond, as St Paul did when he organised a collection by the gentile churches for the first church in Jerusalem when it was suffering from famine.
  3. There is the Uganda Mission Fund, organised by Religious Sisters Mona and Eileen Maher from Roscrea. These wonderful women went to Uganda more than 35 years ago to teach in mission schools. Their ecumenical project has already raised several thousand Euro over the last 4 years to provide at least primary education for orphans and vulnerable children. They report what a joy it is to see how happy children are to be given a chance to go to school. There is no such thing as a free education – in Uganda €25 pa is needed for a child in primary school, and €100 in secondary. Our support will make the difference for many children between having a bright future and remaining in poverty and ignorance.

The rest of the projects are:

  • St Luke’s Hospital, Milo in Tanzania, which is desperately under-staffed, and needs help to train local health workers
  • Leprosy research in Nepal, where the disease is still a major public health problem
  • Sponsoring education for street children in Guatemala through the Toybox Charity
  • The Big Bend project in Swaziland to support AIDS orphans where no less than 50% of the population is infected with the HIV virus.
  • The Church in the Sudan aid programme in Darfur
  • Rev Noel Scott’s humanitarian projects in the Church of the Ascension, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

Just two of the projects are concerned with evangelism, with spreading the Christian message directly overseas, though that is still what many people think of when they hear the word mission. These are:

  • The SPCK, which for instance provides a set of basic theological books to ordinands in 3rd world countries, quite possibly the only theological books they will ever have;
  • and the Bible Society, which last year provided much needed help to Churches stricken by the Tsunami in Sri Lanka.

3. All of these projects are eminently worthwhile – but how do they relate to our Christian mission?

I think we need to ponder Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading, before we answer this question. According to Matthew, they are the last words he spoke to his disciples, after his resurrection, at the very end of the Gospel. Let’s listen to them again: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

These words, and similar passages in the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John, are often called the ‘Great Commission’. Some scholars argue that the passage in Mark is a late addition to the text, and that Matthew’s original words were to baptise in the name of Jesus, not in the Trinitarian formula of Father Son and Holy Spirit. I don't thnk it matters a whit whether they are right or wrong. It is clear that Jesus claims God’s authority to tell his disciples – that’s you and me, isn’t it? - to go out into the world to spread his teaching. In other words, they – and you and me - have a mission to evangelise.

Why then are most of the projects we are asked to support today to do with charitable work overseas rather than direct evangelism? Should we perhaps focus just on evangelism? The answer, I am certain is no, and it flows from those words ‘to obey everything that I have commanded’. Jesus also teaches us that the second great commandment, alongside loving God, is to love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus makes it clear that every person is our neighbour. And Jesus makes it clear that we have a particular duty of charity to our neighbours in want and distress; he says that what we give or refuse to them, we give or refuse to him. In other words, we also have a clear Christian mission to give charitably to those in want and distress.

I am sure that we will all give generously to the Mission Sunday collection today. This will both help to relieve suffering in the poor South and help to spread Jesus’s message there. And I dare say our practical help will make just as many disciples as sermons would. We will then have done our duty by Christian mission, won’t we? No, not at all - that would be much too easy!

It is in our own communities, here in Ireland and in this parish, among the people that we live and work and play with, that we are best able to live up to Jesus’s Great Commission to make disciples. Each one of us needs to look into our own heart and use the talents God has given us to discover in what way Jesus is calling us, here and now, to be his disciple, to help him build his kingdom. We must try to be - and do - the best we can, and not be ashamed to let people know that it is Christ who inspires us. To take Jesus as a model and to live with integrity is the surest way to make disciples. It probably won’t bring worldly success or popularity. It won’t be easy, and you may find the prospect uncomfortable - but don’t be daunted! Jesus promises us spiritual help: what could give us more strength than to hear him say: ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the very end’?

4. So, to conclude:

  • Yes, please be truly generous with your money in the Mission Sunday collection plate. However rich or poor you feel, we are all rich compared with the people who will be helped by it. If you usually put a coin in, look for a bigger one; if you planned to put in a note, pull something bigger out of your wallet!
  • But as Christians, let us also reflect that Jesus gives his disciples a mission, not just to help neighbours in want and distress around the world, but to spread his message of love. So let us pray that Jesus will show each one of us what part he wants us to play in his mission, and let us also pray that he will give each one of us the strength to discharge our mission faithfully.

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