March 22, 2014

What Depends on Us?


Text: I Corinthians 2:9-10: “ it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. ”

It is hard to imagine now the situation of the church just around the time this building was built, at the turn of the last century. It was just a little before the cornerstone of this building was laid that a man most of you have never heard of, a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, wrote a book that was an underground best-seller on college campuses across the country.

The man was John Raleigh Mott, and the book he wrote at the age of thirty-six in 1900 had a title that became a motto for a movement. The book was called The Evangelization of the World in This Generation, and it made an audacious demand: It held out the idea that every person on the plant should, in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, have a chance to learn about the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian faith.

We can’t quite grasp why this might have been such a compelling idea, but it was—so much so that it touched off conferences at campuses and the advent of something called the Student Volunteer Movement. Within ten years it brought about the first gathering of leaders of Protestant missionary societies from the U.S., Canada, and Europe, some 1,200 people in all, for the first conference on global Christian mission—a meeting that is today seen as the spark that led to the creation of the World Council of Churches.

All of this spoke to the moment. For eighty years at least, deeply devoted young men and women from churches across the United States had been traveling to places all over the world on mission trips. These weren’t the sort of mission trips for repairing hurricane- flooded homes or building schools in poor communities. They were launched for the specific purpose of converting souls to the Christian faith, for baptizing people and planting churches all over the world.

Indeed, at just about the moment Mott wrote his book, the headquarters of a worldwide network of American missionaries working overseas was right here in Boston, at 14 Beacon Street, in a building called Congregational House. From there, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions controlled more missionaries in the field than the State Department had diplomats .

We have a sort of funny feeling about the idea of taking on as an agenda a bold commitment to proselytization, to the idea of making sure every person on the planet has a chance to hear the Gospel of Christ. We are less certain, maybe, in the urgency of that idea than John Mott was. Mott, and people of his generation—the people who built this church—saw the world as a battleground between the mission of God through Christ to save souls, and the spiritual forces opposed to the Christian message. And that made up a pretty big list.

Mott really believed that the problem wasn’t that people didn’t agree with Christianity; it was that they hadn’t heard the message. If only they would hear the message, the grace and power of it would overcome most objection. Ignorance would give way to belief.

We are less sure of that today. We are more aware of the all- too-human limitations of the missionary project. We see it as imperialistic, as culturally triumphalist, as tone-deaf to the very real spiritual traditions that existed in many of the mission fields long before we ever appeared.

John Mott was able to start a movement of great strength by holding up in front of a group of young people a task of seemingly urgent importance. What he said of one of his own mentors
could be even better said of him: “He knew how to get hold of college [students]. I will tell you the way to do it, and that is to place something before them which is tremendously difficult. He presented missions as a war of conquest and not as a mere wrecking expedition. It appealed to the strong college athletes and other fine spirits of the colleges because of its very difficulty. They wanted to hear more about it.”

It is hard to imagine anything that has anything like that sort of impact on college students today—or on anyone else, for that matter. In the 1960s, perhaps, it was the Peace Corps. For a few brief years around the attacks of September 11th, it was the military. Today, about the only thing I can imagine motivating students to such high purpose would be the possibility of an initial public offering.

The thing is, we need a high purpose. We need to feel as though we are part of something that is a duty, not just a theory. We need to know that we are part of a great cause, a great hope.

God has made us that way, and it is a mercy that we are. Without it we become isolated and inward; we cannot imagine progress and see no reason for improving our own lives or those of others. Our ability to give ourselves to great causes is an adaptive advantage for our species; it bands us together across great differences and selfish interest.

The problem is that we live in a moment in history in which the very possibility of great purpose is questioned. The great narratives that gave our parents and grandparents a unifying aspiration; in our own generation they have been dissected and scrutinized, and it is difficult indeed to keep alive something that has been dissected. We don’t put much stock in spreading Christianity, or democracy, or Western values. We are not so eager to associate ourselves with causes. Our beliefs are for our private use only, and we don’t want to become known by them by wearing the badge of any cause that makes a claim to high purpose.

That may give us comfort, or at least a kind of social security in the terms of our culture. But does it also mean that nothing we do here matters? If there are no great causes any more, does anything depend on us?

The theme of the readings appointed for this morning is the necessity, even the urgency, of proclamation. They speak to the duty that is laid upon us to be the messengers, not the bystanders.

Jesus delivers that message in the familiar words of Matthew about not keeping our light on a bushel. And it is no accident that Governor Winthrop used those words to describe the great purpose in view for the new commonwealth he was building in Massachusetts in 1630; “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” The idea of creating a true commonwealth, a community of all conditions and classes of people bound together in a common purpose, all that depends on them.

Paul delivers that message to the church he planted in Corinth, a church that was not made up of the great and eminent citizens but of the dock workers and household servants, of the widows and the peripheral people. Paul tells them that it is to them that God will reveal things that are not just unknown, but unimagined, in the corridors of power and the vaults of wealth. But for the world to learn these things, to have a hope of discovering them, the people called into the church must be faithful. It depends on them.

Maybe most compelling, certainly most beautiful, are the words of Isaiah to the faithful people of the covenant. They are people who have had all hope of a great purpose taken away from them by occupying powers. They have lost their king, lost their nation, lost their temple. They are trying to restore their fortunes by getting their religion right—by saying the right words and offering the right sacrifices.

And God uses Isaiah to teach them that they won’t find great purpose by means of sacrifice; they’ll find it my means of service, by means of seeing, and fixing, the problems around them. People are hungry. People are homeless. People are without dignity—whether it’s the dignity of clothes or the dignity of purpose and hope. Addressing those concerns, reaching out to those people in love and not just in theory—that depends on them. And that sort of action turns out to be the right kind of sacrifice, the right kind of religion, and the right kind of proclamation.

Tending to the light that will draw people toward the love Christ offers—that depends on us.

Keeping open for others the possibility of a spiritual dimension to human existence in the midst of a marketed and materialistic culture—that depends on us.

And taking on the tasks of feeding, and clothing, and housing, and helping, and dignifying people—the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the hopeless—that depends on us.

Governor Winthrop had it right:

We must be knit together, in this work, as one people. We must entertain each other in sibling affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

Fewer and fewer communities around us work that way. We all know the story of growing income inequality, the disappearance of the middle, the entrapping cycle of poverty. If people are going to see an example of a community of shared burdens, shared joy, shared grief, and shared wealth, then that depends on us. And it may just be the most crucial thing we ever do. Amen.