October 14, 2012 Proper 23B by Bob King
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Mark 10:17-31
When we decided to follow our retreat experience with a focus on mission today, neither Kate nor I had yet checked the lectionary readings. It can only be the work of the Holy Spirit that we’re given Amos and Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. Certainly for me, these two bits of scripture capture both the essence, and the fear of what it means to be a Christian in our world.
Kate asked me to share with you my vision of Redeemer’s mission. The most revealing way to do that is with two stories. The first story is not mine, but had perhaps the greatest influence in my life on my sense of church. I was brought up in an Episcopal parish not so different from Redeemer: good people, emotionally satisfying worship, and a sense of caring for children. And yet I always felt something was missing.Then in my late teen years, I read Elizabeth O’Connor’s two books about the Church of Our Savior in Washington. The first book, Call to Commitment, recounts the early experiences of the ecumenical church Gordon and Mary Cosby and seven of their friends started in 1947 to recreate the experience of early Christianity without the baggage of denominational structures and cultural biases. It was to be radically diverse, incorporating both the privileged and the poor and bound by a covenant to love one another and the world. A hallmark of the new church was and remains its willingness to adapt new structures, which in just the first ten years evolved from being centered on their School of Christian Living, to fellowship groups, to mission groups. The members recognized three functions necessary for the vital life of a these groups: nurturing of its members, service to the world, and carrying the Good News to others, which they did mostly by example, not words. O’Connor’s second book, Journey Inward, Journey Outward, preaches the essential interplay between spiritual growth and service. You’ll recognize that we co-opted the title of this book as our theme for this year’s retreat.
The second story is more personal. The year was 1979, the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Mary Etta and I had been at Redeemer for two years, our daughter Robin was two, and we were planning for another child in a year. I was home on a rainy Saturday morning when I got a call from Judy Gilman, a Lexington resident and senior warden at St Andrews, a small parish in Belmont. She had become committed to sponsoring a refugee family and was looking for help from other parishes. She said there would be a meeting at St Andrews in late morning. Having worked a lot of short days to help with child care, I had planned to go into MIT that morning, and couldn’t think of any excuse not to stop by Belmont on my way home. There were five of us at the meeting: besides Judy and me, two young adults from Good Shepherd Watertown, and Gail Barbour, a Lexington resident and member of All Saints Belmont. Gail was the key because she had offered to have the refugee family stay in her home until they could find suitable housing. All they needed me to do (or so I thought) was to stand up in church the next day and ask for clothes, furniture, and cash. It was Palm Sunday, but our rector Ted Petterson had no reservation about injecting my plea into the service. That morning, and in the days afterward, I was overwhelmed with the response. Many people offered clothes and furniture. My most memorable moment, however, was when a young woman, new to the parish and just out of graduate school, gave me a check for $1000, quite a lot of money in that day and from someone in her circumstances.
We got the name of the Vietnamese family we were to sponsor soon afterward and spent the summer making connections with the Vietnamese community in Boston, including one family in Lexington who had been sponsored by Temple Isaiah. In August we had a large gathering at Good Shepherd to plan for the imminent arrival of our family, but Judy had learned just that day that they had decided to settle on the west coast, where they had relatives. Church World Service asked if we would take a Cambodian family instead. We said yes and scrambled to locate the very few Cambodians living at that time in the Boston area. When the family arrived, the Minuteman ran a story, and people from all over town wanted to help. The core group of supporters were from St Brigid’s, Temple Isaiah, First Parish, Lexington United Methodist, Hancock, and Redeemer, so what started out a an effort of four Episcopal Churches quickly became ecumenical. Most remarkably, the team of people supporting the family became the mission group I had yearned for. Unconsciously, we adopted the structural flexibility that made the Church of Our Savior successful. We called ourselves the Lexington Ecumenical Resettlement Coalition (LERC), a formal-sounding organization that no legal status and made decisions by consensus or in pairs on faith. Peggy Wright, Redeemer’s senior warden, was a strong supporter and our liaison with the Vestry. Bob Howard, the junior warden and semi-retired, became the person the families could count on for transportation and driving lessons. Marty Kvaal from First Parish, who worked for HEW, became our interface with the government bureaucracy. Shortly after the first family arrived Bob and Fran Ludwig from St Brigids’ offered to take a second family into their home; Edie and Dick Ruquist offered to take a third.
Over the next seven years, we brought thirteen Cambodian families to Lexington, and in the twenty six years following, we have watched with awe as they adapted to American life, starred on the high school soccer team, made friends with and married European Americans, graduated from college, ran small businesses, and served in Afghanistan. There is of course much more to the story, but I’ve told you enough to help you understand that mission for me is not a program but a response to a call, often unexpected and unwelcomed. Judy, perhaps in collusion with the Holy Spirit, made my response to her phone call too easy. If Jesus himself had told me that morning that saying yes meant involving me and my young family in the lives of thirty Cambodian Americans and their friends for the next 33 years, I, like the young rich man, would have walked away in sadness. Walked away because I was not willing to give up the security of my nuclear family and close-knit circle of friends, nor risk taking time away from my young career. In sadness, however, because I would have lost an opportunity to engage more deeply in God’s work in the world. In truth, my role in the resettlement effort was less than that of at least a half-dozen other people---a lot of hand-holding, some bookkeeping, a connection to Redeemer and its resources, But last summer in a scene reminiscent of George Bailey’s encounter with his guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, I was deeply moved when Bun Hor Tan pointed to the crowd at the wedding of his youngest daughter and told me that if it weren’t for me and several other people in the room, none of us would be there that night.
So my first vision for Redeemer is that we recognize that mission at its essence is matching our individual and corporate gifts to the needs of the world. And that means listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that voice comes quickly and unexpectedly. Sometimes we need to have great patience. The Church of Our Savior didn’t launch its first real outreach mission until ten years after its founding, and two years after building a retreat center. Our own retreat two weeks ago, which many of us thought would focus on the journey outward, instead provided the opportunity to deepen our relationships and discover anew the importance of having a community committed to supporting one another, especially across generations.
My second vision for Redeemer is that we continue to make use of our infrastructure and resources to serve those who are not yet our members. We have been remarkable stewards of our building. It’s used seven days and at least six nights almost every week, in each case serving a genuine need of the community---a gathering place for worship and formation for us and the Korean congregation, child care, a food pantry, cell-phone transmission, two AA groups, and groups for weight-loss and support for widows and widowers. The rents brought in by some of these groups roughly covers our utilities and maintenance of the building, so the building is in no sense a financial drain on our mission. I find that very comforting, and I’m grateful to our forebears of fifty years ago for sacrificing to create this resource. If we take the building out of the equation, most of our giving goes to support the salaries of our staff. There too, I think we have apportioned our resources wisely, with levels of commitment that enable us to carry out our mission effectively. It’s also reassuring that the ministry of our staff is firmly rooted in mission. Kate entered the priesthood from a largely African American church in New York City, and before that volunteered in a homeless shelter. Bernadette spent her time away from us earlier this year sharing music with AIDS orphans in South Africa. Danielle brings a keen sense of what it means to match gifts with ministry, particularly for the young.
I am also pleased to see that in mission, as in other aspects of parish life, we have shown organizational flexibility. What is now the “Mission Committee” began eight years ago as a visionary group of five people who gathered for study and reflection of what it would mean for Redeemer to become a truly missional church in the way that Christopher Duraisingh has described for us. We now define our membership, roughly, as the forty people on our email list, 8-12 of which meet on a regular basis to coordinate schedules and the budget we submit to the vestry each year. Our corporate outreach is focused in eight mission teams, each functioning under a different structure informed by its composition, frequency of activity and relationship to external groups. What works for Carolyn Wortman and her ecumenical team of leaders and volunteers at the Food Pantry will be different from what works for Redeemer’s knitters and the teams that serve Bristol Lodge, the Grow Clinic, Habitat, the Giving Gardens, and Esperanza. The El Hogar team, though working through an outside organization, functions more intensely than the other teams as a group that plans and prays together, actively seeks out the gifts of its members, and deals in love with the conflicts that inevitably arise when people work closely together. It is the work of the El Hogar team, I think, that has been most transformational in the lives of parishioners recent years. Thirty-five of our members have made the trip to Honduras, including 11 of our youth.
My fourth hope for Redeemer is that we will become more deeply committed to sharing our wealth with those in greater need. We currently give about $50,000 of our fund-raising and gifts in cash and kind to our mission efforts. One piece of that is the opportunity, five or six times a year, to use mission envelopes in the pews to make a direct contribution---you can do that today and next week for our Habitat teams that will work in Lawrence this coming Saturday. Perhaps its time to talk about making this type of giving even more intentional, by more effective reminders to bring our checkbooks those Sundays, or instituting a mission pledge for the year. An important aspect of this means of giving is to help the parish discern what missions we should continue to support. Thus far, for example, a relatively small number of people have done hands-on work with Habitat or Esperanza, but if the number of people supporting this work financially is large, this becomes an affirmation for these mission teams.
My last vision is that we find among us more folks with a gift for public advocacy on behalf of those who need a helping hand. When she spoke to us a few years ago, Dr Deborah Frank, founder and director of the Grow Clinic, retold the story of children floating down a river and being rescued one by one until it occurred to someone to find out why they were being tossed in the river in the first place. For better or for worse, in America today public policy and funding play a crucial role in serving the needs of the poor. That’s true for the Grow Clinic and Bristol Lodge, as it was true for the refugee resettlement effort. There is no stronger voice for social justice in scripture than prophet Amos. He doesn’t waste words on personal piety when it’s evident that entire nations are beset by systemic corrupt practices. When we speaks of establishing “justice at the gate”, he is referring to the halls of power, for it was at the city gate that the city’s rulers met to set policy and hold court for grievances. He rails against a political system that allows the rich to have lavish houses and overtaxes the poor. Redeemer’s Evelyn Hausslein has over many years learned to an effective advocate at the local, state, and national level for disabled children. Last spring she took a group of ten of us, including Kate, to the State House to join Witnesses for Hunger and talk with our representatives about our concerns. I was moved by what we heard from the women who described their efforts to balance work and child care on meager salaries, perhaps less so by the legislative leaders who spoke, and I didn’t feel personally empowered by having made the trip. I did find hope for our impact, however, when Lance Conrad, who you may know is Head of School at Chapel Hill Chauncy Hall, made a meaningful connection with Representative Tom Stanley, from Waltham. I sensed that Lance’s voice is one that will be heard, whether the issue is education, hunger, or homelessness.
That’s my vision of Redeemer’s mission. What’s yours? Will you join the conversation downstairs, where we’ll hear from Jim Bradley and Elaine Quinlan, two relative newcomers to the parish about what part mission played in their joining us, and from Jessie Maeck, who has spent much of her long tenure at Redeemer wrestling with these questions.