February 28, 2021
The Second Sunday in Lent
Last week Peter Bankson gave us several definitions of grace, including Webster’s, that grace is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” The quotation from Frederick Buechner in our Lenten theme “Signs of Grace” reminds us that we must reach out and take the grace that is offered.
In today’s epistle, this time in The Message[i] version, Paul speaks to this:
13-15That famous promise God gave Abraham—that he and his children would possess the earth—was not given because of something Abraham did or would do. It was based on God’s decision to put everything together for him, which Abraham then entered when he believed…
16This is why the fulfillment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and [God]’s way, and then simply embracing [God] and what [God] does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift…
17-18We call Abraham “father” not because he got God’s attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody…Abraham was first named “father” and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said [God] would do.
Paul points out that Abraham didn’t deserve God’s promise, he hadn’t earned it, to which I say, “Duh.” Twice Abraham feared that a ruler would be so taken by Sarah’s beauty that he would kill Abraham for her and so both times he told the rulers’ underlings that Sarah was his sister, not his wife. Both times Sarah went into the ruler’s harem, and they gave Abraham livestock and slaves in return. When Sarah despaired because she was barren, she pushed him to impregnate her slave Hagar. He did, which for Hagar who couldn’t refuse, was rape. When Sarah became upset at Hagar’s pregnancy and complained to Abraham, he allowed her to abuse Hagar until Hagar ran away to die. After Isaac was born, Abraham allowed Sarah to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham never saw them again. Then came the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in obedience to God’s command to kill Isaac as a sacrifice. Isaac was spared at the last minute but after that the Bible is silent as to whether Isaac, like Ishmael, disappeared from Abraham’s life.
Last week I got to thinking, would Abraham’s life been different if he’d been in a mission group? I was trying to imagine him sharing his experiences with the others in the mission group and to imagine their reactions to what he said. I said to Sharon, “Abraham needed a spiritual director, someone who would hear his account of his spiritual journey each week and ask him questions.” I would want those to be hard questions that would force him to wrestle with God’s call.
Being in a mission group is a way to reach out and accept the gift of grace. At its best, a mission group is a way to live out one’s commitment to God’s call to mission with others who’ve heard the same call; to reflect regularly on one’s spiritual journey and give an account of it regularly to someone who responds with questions and comments for one to reflect on in living out one’s call.
Mission groups have been the soul of Seekers Church and of the other sister congregations of the Church of the Saviour, an essential part of our inheritance. Why do we have mission groups and not just have sharing groups or prayer groups or ministry groups?
The book Call to Commitment tells the story. We have mission groups because of Gordon Cosby’s experience as an Army chaplain in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. While performing the expected tasks of leading worship services and funerals, comforting the wounded and offering pastoral counseling, Gordon noticed that men who had grown up in the church were no more ready for a dangerous mission than those who had been unchurched. In the absence of family, society, and laws they lacked spiritual integrity. Their supposed Christian faith had no relevance for their lives.
Gordon began to think about how to develop and maintain spiritual integrity when one becomes part of the Body of Christ. He formed small groups of Christian soldiers, each headed by the most spiritually mature person in each company, naming them the “sky pilot” for the group. He tasked the groups with developing the spiritual growth of other men in their company. That was their mission. As soldiers they understood the importance of performing their mission successfully, and they knew that whether or not they liked their fellow soldiers in their unit, each one was necessary for achieving their mission. They understood Paul’s metaphor of the importance of each organ in the Body of Christ:
The eye can’t say to the hand “I don’t need you!” And the head can’t say to the feet, I don’t need you.” There should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other.[ii]
Gordon’s groups developed a spiritual energy that was so contagious that their regular worship outgrew the size of their chapel, forcing them to relocate worship in a gymnasium. When he returned to the U.S., Gordon sought to build on this experience, seeking to form a church in which each person would be committed to Christ and to one another in unlimited liability through mission groups.
Every year on Recommitment Sunday when I declare myself to be a member of Seekers Church, I commit to deepen my relationships in this local expression of the Body of Christ, sharing my gifts from God with others who worship with Seekers Church, and in the wider world. I commit to:
· Nurture my relationship with God and Seekers Church through spiritual disciplines;
· Care for the whole of creation, including the natural environment;
· Foster justice and be in solidarity with the poor;
· Work for the end of all war, both public and private; and
· Respond joyfully with my life, as the grace of God gives me freedom.
A mission group is a place where I can strive to live out all these commitments, and in the striving I am reaching out to receive grace. We discover that we are fallible, learn to acknowledge our failures, and to take remedial steps, trusting that God has the plan and the results. I am in the Learners and Teachers mission group and you can read our call on the Seekers website. A mission’s group disciplines are a way to help us keep reaching out for grace. For example, here are the disciplines of Learners and Teachers:
In loving covenant we hold ourselves and each other accountable before God for these common disciplines:
- I will spend time daily in silence, prayer, scripture, study, and personal reflection in light of my Christian faith.
- During the week, I will hold in prayer each member of this mission group and those who are involved in the School for Christian Growth.
- I will come to each meeting of this mission group prepared for the work before us, intending to be the Body of Christ together, expecting to encounter the Spirit, and open to being changed.
- I will regularly report to the group’s spiritual guide on my inward and outward journey and my life as part of this mission group and this faith community.
- Ours is an incarnational faith: I will honor my own incarnation by regular exercise and mindful nutritional choices.
- God calls each of us to exercise our gifts to create our own lives, to build up God’s Church, and to heal the world. I commit to naming and expressing God’s gifts in me in all aspects of my life, but especially in this mission group.
- I commit to giving time and energy beyond attending mission group meetings to support and further the mission of the group. This will include regular involvement in the School for Christian Growth.
- This mission group and the School for Christian Growth exist as expressions of the larger Seekers Church community. I will give of my time, energy, and financial resources to the support of the life of that faith community.
- We are each pilgrims on the Christian journey, along paths that are sometimes narrow and steep: I will ask for the support I need from others in the mission group, and give support when asked.
Our disciplines help us strive to live out our commitments because our process to implement our call is messy. We have made a commitment to Stewards that the School for Christian Growth will provide classes in Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament, Christian doctrine, and in a big catchall category, Christian growth, over a two-year cycle, so that a person can take all the classes required before moving into sponsorship to become a Steward in two years. We are accountable to Stewards for meeting that commitment. In a “normal” year we meet this commitment by planning to offer at least four six-week terms with two classes each term, plus occasional one-night or two-night classes, such as poetry night. We must fit two terms in between Labor Day and early December, and again after February because January weather is too iffy. We must build in a possible weather postponement in February or March and we must end before the middle of June because people go on vacation.
But then we find we’re not done — a particular person can’t teach that term but if we move the class to a different term someone else can’t teach. Or we think we have finished the schedule and realize that we all want to take both classes and we suspect you will too. So, we shift the plan again. Inevitably, right after we announce each of the first term’s classes someone on the Servant Leadership Team or in another mission group gives one of us a class topic that we must offer in the next term. But if we do…
As moderator, I am never satisfied with how much planning we get done during our annual retreat – we run out of both time and energy. And our usual weekly meeting times during the terms are short – we have about 90 minutes before the dinner begins. I am grateful that we accomplish as much as we do and that you all seem pleased with what we offer. I have come to believe that our messy process is the way we reach out to receive grace.
The process of accountability, of reviewing where we are on our mission, what we need to do over the next week, month, year, or longer to make the School for Christian Growth successful, and who has responsibility for each of the tasks necessary for success can be light and joyous or can be as heavy and depressing. We have mundane but necessary tasks to do. What if no one feels that they have the gifts or the time to do them, or feels called to do them? As Marjory Bankson has said, “I don’t feel called to set the table for the dinner, but if we say the dinner is important for the success of the School by building connections, then it has to be done. So, I do it.” During the pandemic we haven’t had to set the table for dinner, but we’ve used videoconferencing for classes and added short classes to help people keep connected over the summer.
A mission group has another gift: it’s a place of profound intimacy where we learn about love and forgiveness through the process of accountability. There have been countless times we have listened with deep caring to each other’s joys and pain, worked through disagreements to consensus, and, unfortunately, times when someone caused hurt feelings so that apologies have to be made. We have frequent laughter too. The high point of one recent week was learning the spiritual challenge of selecting a cat litter box that the cat would accept.
We know that many people aren’t prepared for the intimacy of a mission group, so before they can explore joining a mission group, we require them to take two classes, which use a relational model rather than a didactic model. The exploration period usually takes about six weeks, followed by a discernment process to see if the person is truly called to the group’s mission.
I have been a member of a mission group almost every year since 1973. Marjory and I have been in Learners and Teachers together almost 30 years, and Jacqie Wallen has been about half that time, others for shorter periods and some have left. I’ve learned to care deeply for all of them. With the ones who have left, I confess that I just haven’t been able to maintain the same level of intimacy with them that I had when I saw them and heard them and prayed for them every week.
I have never been a part of a sharing group or a ministry group. Both have aspects of being a mission group, but I don’t think either has all its attributes. A sharing group is useful for the inward journey and builds community in its members, but it doesn’t have a mission outside of the group – an outward journey — and it may not have a mechanism for accountability. A ministry group has a common mission, but it may not support the inward journey and build community in its members in an intentional way, and it too may not have a mechanism for accountability. I need the combined inward spiritual journey and outward journey of a mission group. I need to keep reaching for grace.
So how would Abraham’s life been different if he’d been in a mission group? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about. If you are or have ever been in a mission group, how has that changed your spiritual journey, your life? I know it’s changed mine. And if you haven’t been in one, why not take classes in the School for Christian Growth and then explore one to reach out and take the gift of grace that comes through it?
[i] Romans 4: 13-25, © 2002 Eugene H. Peterson.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 12:21, 25, New International Version. © 1978 Biblica.