Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
At Ridley Hall, where I trained for ministry, there is a plaque on the side of the chapel with the names of the missionaries who had graduated from there and who, during their ministry, had died while on an overseas mission. All things considered, it is a pretty long list. I can't quite remember how many names are on the list, but I do remember well being startled at the number of men (they were all men) who were ordained in the Church of England and who essentially gave their careers and lives for the sake of spreading the gospel overseas. I also remembering being startled at how long it had been since someone's name had been added to the list. There was quite a clump of people from the nineteenth century, but no Ridlean had been commemorated for dying while on an overseas mission in a long, long time.
The Chapel at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, UK
One day, when I remarked to a member of the faculty how impressive I thought the list was, he nodded in agreement and said, "Back then, when people went out as missionaries, they didn't expect to come back." Those words stuck with me. Back then, people went to a foreign land expecting to die among the people to whom they shared the good news of Jesus. I was hoping to be ordained to serve in a church in the mission-field of Montgomery, Alabama, and, unless I got hit by a bus, I knew I wasn't going to die there. What a difference in perspective! Why is that? Why has it been over a hundred years (I think) since a name was added to that plaque at Ridley? Why don't missionaries expect to live so fully in community with their targets that they assume they will die among them? Is it because international travel is so much easier with airplanes? Is it because vaccines mean someone can live in the jungles of Africa without succumbing to malaria or some other death-inducing malady? Is it because clergypersons just aren't as committed to the gospel as we used to be? Or maybe it's because there aren't as many places for missionaries to go and live and die for the sake of the gospel. Or are there?
In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus said to his disciples, "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." Back then, when Jesus bid farewell to his disciples, this was a radical instruction. All nations? This was the moment (in Matthew's telling of the gospel) when the focus of Jesus' ministry spread from an exclusively Jewish movement to an international, interracial, interreligious operation. The disciples were commissioned by Jesus to share the way of their master with all peoples and to bring them into his fellowship by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Off and on, that strategy worked for almost two thousand years. As new lands were reached by the disciples and their successors, the gospel spread. As western civilization discovered new places, the gospel went with them--Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Pizarro, Drake. In the nineteenth century, as American "conquered" the frontier, missionaries like the bishop we remember today, Jackson Kemper, took the gospel with them across this continent. (There's a legacy of tragedy associated with these efforts, as many "barbarians" were "civilized," which is to say that their people and culture were obliterated by westerns, but that's another sermon.)
Where does that leave us now? I'm sure that somewhere there is a village in the Amazon or a hamlet in the Congo where no Christian missionary has ever been. I'm sure there's someone out there that has never had the opportunity to learn about the good news of Jesus Christ. But following Jesus commandment--the Great Commission--doesn't depend on geography anymore. The commission is the same--go and make disciple of all nations--but one doesn't need to travel to a place with an unpronounceable name to bring the gospel to an unchurched people. In fact, I think that if our understanding of the Great Commission and the evangelism that goes with it is restricted to those in foreign lands who have never head the gospel, we're missing an opportunity to respond to Jesus by living and dying for the sake of the good news.
"Evangelism is hard for us," a colleague remarked at a meeting yesterday. She's right, of course, in the sense that we find the thought of being a missionary in our own community intimidating. But what is evangelism? It's sharing the good news of God with another person. It's telling a friend how God has answered your prayers. It's inviting someone new in town to come and volunteer with you at a soup kitchen. It's telling a neighbor about a ministry in your church that helps you know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It's reminding someone that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection gives us hope even in our darkest moments. I don't have to go very far before I am sure to meet someone who wants to hear that kind of good news.
In 1835, the General Convention of Episcopal Church did something a little cheeky. They decided to legislate that all members of the Episcopal Church would also be members of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which is still the operating entity for the Episcopal Church. If you work as a church-wide employee and get a paycheck from the denomination, it comes from the DFMS. When I travel to a church-wide meeting and get reimbursed for my expenses, the check comes from the DFMS. You and I are all members of a missionary society. In 1835, that was a reflection of the church's desire to carry the gospel to all people as the Episcopal Church spread to places like Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Iowa. Nowadays, we are missionaries in places like Montgomery and Decatur and Trussville. That is our frontier. We have an opportunity to embrace a call to missionary work not as something that is commemorated on a plaque or expressed as a week-long trip to developing countries but as a lifetime spent sharing good news with those who need to hear it--with our neighbors, friends, and family.