“Missio Dei” June 21, 2020
Genesis 12:1-3; Matthew 28:16-20
I have heard countless people say that they have never heard of Juneteenth. I must admit, I never knew about it until I took a class in Black Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary in the ’90s. Otherwise, I may have never known about happenings all over our country that have impacted black people. The dominant history of the U.S. that most of us know has been so whitewashed that we white people become dazed and confused when we hear about anything that does not fit into our linear perspective of things.
We have all too often misunderstood our calling because we are fixed in our own Christian mindset—a Christian mindset that believes we have all the answers—that we are right and other religions are wrong—a Christian mindset that allows us to operate in our own white-washed reality and literally wipe the history of a whole race out of view—especially the stories that make white people look bad—a Christian mindset that propagates that the end justifies the means—a Christian mindset that allows us to read the bible and make meaning that serves our own interests.
Old Testament: Blessed to be a Blessing?
This is nothing new. The Christian faith has long been manipulated for one’s own benefit. I have chosen two biblical texts today, not because I think they have value for us—just the opposite actually. But I do believe they inform us of our historical and current misguided beliefs. I am convinced that these two texts single-handedly represent what is wrong with the Christian-Judeo tradition. These texts have been used and misused in such a way that the Church has very often done more harm than good. Let’s look at the Old Testament reading in Genesis 12: 1-3:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Throughout history, there have many who have used this text to justify the United States and Israel’s dominance in the world. This text justifies the reasons we in America have sided with Israel on almost every humanitarian and war-time issue in the Middle East at whatever the cost—even when it has meant the subjugation of a Palestinian people.
As Christians, we have misunderstood our mission and this text, in particular. I do believe that Abraham somehow knew that God’s blessing was a blessing about more than himself, more than just the LAND he was promised—it was about his calling to use his privilege to promote equity and justice for all. What is most interesting about this text is the Hebrew word for blessing—it is used five times. It is the word Barakah and it literally means to kneel down before someone—to become humbled. This was not a physical blessing. This blessing was not about the land of Israel as the Christian Zionists believe. God’s mission in the world calls us to humble ourselves—to recognize our privilege and use that privilege not by dominance—not by force—but by humility. God calls us to ask people what they need rather than determining it for ourselves.
If it wasn’t for COVID-19, I would be leaving with 45 youth and adults from Southminster today for a week-long mission trip in Puerto Rico. Oh, how I wish I was in Puerto Rico. I am sure that there are many places that you wish you were too. We will be back together soon. Meanwhile, I have been reflecting on the over 35 mission trips I have participated in since I was in high school. Each trip has its own unique memories and challenges. But we always rediscover that the journey is more important than the destination. One memory I have is from a mission trip to Jamaica in 1998.
Everything was going great UNTIL the 4th day or so. You see, we were asked to paint the inside of a large Church Sanctuary. We immediately got to work. We felt good about ourselves because we were accomplishing something. Unfortunately, the Pastor of the church could not be there when our group arrived and during the first few days of painting. When he finally arrived, the church almost completely painted, a bombshell was dropped on us. The pastor tells us that it was the wrong color! We had to start over! Now, you try telling 40 high school students that we need to paint the whole church again!
That memory lives on forever—it was a lesson in Barakah humility! It never occurred to us that we should ask them about the paint color. We thought yellow would brighten up the church. When in reality, yellow would only serve to make the sanctuary unbearably hotter in the summer. So many times we do mission or service work to feel better about ourselves—we want to marvel at what we accomplish—we want to appease our guilty conscience—rather than being humbled—rather than asking questions and listening and learning and growing with the people we serve.
New Testament: The Great Commission?
Now let’s turn to the New Testament. Here is a text that has been just as damaging, if not more, to our mission as Christians. In Matthew 28:18-20 we read the words of Jesus speaking to his disciples: “All authority has been given me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of Abba God, and of the Only Begotten, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I AM with you always, even until the end of the world!”
This text is known as the Great Commission. I have actually come to believe that the so-called “Great Commission” is anything but the “Gospel.” Indeed, this particular ending to the Gospel according to Matthew may be the source of the systemic racism which permeates, not just the Church, but all of the Western cultures and institutions around us.
What I find most revealing is that this so-called “great commission” was added to the gospel of Matthew by the Christian community sometime around 325 A.D.—to bring it into line with the brand spanking new Creed which had just been adopted known as the Nicene Creed. Let’s be clear here—Jesus never said these words—and yet, this text is what gave license to European Christians to become “missionaries” and colonize the world. The Church granted white European Christians the authority to claim, seize, conquer, and “Christianize” any and all lands inhabited by people who were not Christian. In other words, in fact, it was Christianity that gave birth to white supremacy.
I have often referred to Missio Dei as our calling to mission. In Latin, Missio Dei simply means “God’s Mission.” When we see mission as God’s mission and not our mission—when we look at others through the eyes of God—when we see others in ourselves—we cannot afford to have a fixed mindset. God’s barakah blessing becomes more than our linear perspective and we become open to seeing historical events like Juneteenth as our own story. Missio Dei means having the intellectual courage to confess that Jesus didn’t say all the things we think he said and to recognize that our knowledge of history in the United States is, in fact, racially biased. Missio Dei means having the courage and humility to learn at the feet of others, silently, reverently, and respectfully.
I am only beginning to learn the contours of my own white privilege. While there is so much more for me to learn, one thing is becoming clear, it is long past time for me to listen to the cries of all those who have felt the knee of my privilege pressing down upon their necks. It is time for me and my privileged sisters and brothers to learn about the ways in which the institutions and churches have bastardized the gospel and indeed the “great commissions” for their own benefit. It is about time—don’t you think?
I have thrown these texts out of my Bible. Because I know the history of how they have been used and abused to corrupt the gospel message. They have been manipulated by those seeking power and dominance rather than those seeking to do Missio Dei. The heart of the gospel for me was professed in the first century to the church in Galatia, some 20 to 30 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This is my Missio Dei! It reads: “You are all children of God. There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female, for you are all ONE in Christ Jesus.”