In our ongoing discussion about a future vision for the church I would like to tell you a story. It is a story from the well known Jesuit writer Anthony de Mello. De Mello had a gift for putting deep spiritual truths into easily accessible parables. One of his stories is very appropriate for my next point on casting a vision for the church: mission. I recently heard this story re-told by Bishop Michael Bird at the Queen’s College convocation. The story goes like this . . .
On a rocky seashore, where many ships were shipwrecked, there was only one emergency station. It consisted of a little cottage and boat, but the few people that worked there were very devout. They kept their eyes on the ocean, and if they heard the smallest news about a shipwreck, they fearlessly boarded their boat in the midst of a storm; not paying attention to the danger to their own life. Thus, they saved many lives and became famous.
As the fame of this station grew, the neighboring people’s desire to help out there began to grow also. As a result, great amount of money was donated to them and many new members joined them so that they were able to buy new boats and use new crews. They also built a new house in the place of the old cottage where they were able to satisfy all the needs of the people they rescued, and naturally, since shipwrecks are not daily occurrences, it became a popular gathering place; like a local club also.
As the time went by, the members became so involved in their social life that they didn’t have any desire to save the shipwrecked anymore, although they still wore the badge with the life-savers motto. Truthfully, however, if they still saved some people from the sea, it was a chore for them because they were dirty, sickly, and messed up their carpet and furniture.
Soon, the social life was so great and the life-saving events so scarce that, at one of their meetings, the members began to bicker. Some members emphasized the need to return to their original mission. The group voted and the problem causing members, who were in the minority, were asked to leave.
They left. Soon, they began their own rescue mission with great zeal and their actions became famous. As a result, their membership grew and they were able to rebuild their little cottage; but their zeal diminished. If someone would walk around that neighborhood today, she would find several exclusive clubs on that seashore. Each real proud of their origin and tradition. Ships till get shipwrecked around them, but they don’t care about that anymore.
In this story de Mello beautifully captures the postmodern dilemma of the church: what is our purpose? Why does the church exist? These questions should bring us back, again and again, to the gospels, to the ministry of Jesus.
If we look at the gospel of Mark for example Jesus locates himself, and the kingdom of God, in the midst of human suffering. Early in the gospel Jesus is teaching, proclaiming, healing, casting out demons, and generally calling people to participate in the kingdom of God. When he is told that his family is looking for him Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then he firmly identifies his place and relationship with those around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Wherever there is pain, sickness, loneliness, loss, oppression, injustice God is there. God enters into the human story to save, to liberate, to heal, and to make new. Jesus shows us what God is like, how God acts, how God loves.
This is God’s mission, one that is exemplified in the resurrection and powered by the Holy Spirit. This is God’s ultimate act of restoration and renewal. The church too gets too participate in this mission. Tim Dearborn in the book Mission Shaped Church said, “It’s not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world.” The wonder of God’s mission is that we the church are called and empowered to take part in God’s plan of life and love.
What does that look like? It looks like the ministry of Jesus. It looks like a church full of the Spirit acting to meet the needs of those around them. It’s feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and shut in, it’s proclaiming the good news that God is for us, not against us. It’s a church that speaks out and takes action wherever there is injustice or oppression. It looks like people, men and women, recklessly jumping into life boats to row out into raging seas along rugged coastlines, to rescue lost and hurting people.
picture from http://sptnk.org/mission.html