This lay sermon originally was delivered at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Oklahoma, for the Service of Noonday Prayers, Wednesday, 09 January, 2019.
“You have one business on earth – to save souls.”
That quote from the well-known Anglican priest, John Wesley, captures the essence of today’s message. We’re here to talk about missions, our “one business on earth – to save souls.”
Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll concede up-front that evangelism today is not the strong suit of The Episcopal Church — at least not compared to some of our Evangelical Protestant cousins. And, I think we can concede up front that evangelism means a lot more of loving our neighbor — of spreading Christ’s love into the world — and a lot less of bludgeoning people with the Bible.
But, regardless of denomination, we must accept that we all are called to be evangelists. Christ made this clear in The Great Commission: “Therefore go 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 I have commanded you.”
This is something we should reflect on, and live, every day. But, it’s of special concern today, the feast day of Julia Chester Emery.
Julia Chester Emery was born September 24, 1852 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and died January 9, 1922, in New York City. She served 40 years as secretary of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society — a cumbersome name that later was shortened to Episcopal Church Women.
Emery followed in the footsteps of her sister, Mary, who led the Woman’s Auxiliary before her, and also served to promote missions work with two other sisters, her mother and two brothers, who were Episcopal priests. Mission work was a family affair in the Emery household.
To support and promote missions, Emery visited every Episcopal diocese in the United States, and she made trips to Japan, China, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Money is not the best metric of success in missions, but a review of the funds raised to support missions shows the impact Emery had through her work. In an 1886 triennial meeting of the Woman’s Auxiliary a collection was taken up for missions. The till contained $82.71. Three years later another collection was taken to support a church in Alaska and for a year’s salary for a missionary to Japan. The offering was $2,188.64 — a handsome sum in the 1880s.
But Emery was far from done. By 1913, the collection to support missions was $303,496.66 — roughly the equivalent of $7.8 million in 2019. The collection supported the work of 175 women missionaries and provided $20,000 for the construction of schools and other mission buildings.
Julia Chester Emery devoted her life to supporting mission work, and to spreading the Gospel throughout the world. She is a great example of the devotion we all are called to show in carrying out The Great Commission.
But, there also is a great danger in following too closely the mission model of Julia Chester Emery and her contemporaries of the 19th and 20th centuries. Their work remains important, and should be honored. But, if we’re not careful, we can limit ourselves to thinking of missions work only in the old way — of raising up missionaries in Western Europe and America and sending them into the developing world.
I’ve fallen into this trap myself. When Tammy and I started going to church together, when we were dating, I repeatedly remarked that “some day” I would like to go on a missions trip. I envisioned serving in some Third World, impoverished land. Africa and South America seemed most likely, or maybe East Asia.
When that opportunity came up, when I had saved up enough money, and could get away from my job, and the kids, and all the commitments of life here, then I would go to some exotic land and do great things for Christ. I’d do it for two weeks or so, then come back to my “real life,” and have a great memory of that time I was a missionary.
The problem with this is, if we’re not careful, we can put off and limit ourselves and our service to Christ to some future date, in some far-off land.
But, we’re not just called to serve Christ some day, in some place yet to be determined. We’re called to serve the Body of Christ every day, wherever we are, in every child of God we meet. The plain fact is, we don’t have to go to Africa or South America to find ripe fields for mission work.
Just outside our door, and across our community, we can find people who are starving — not just for food, or housing and not just due to lack of work, addiction and mental health issues. We can find far more people, just outside our door, and at every level of our society, who are starving spiritually for want of the Gospel.
They are starving for the love and grace that we’re fed in Christ. They’re starving for it, right here in Enid, just as surely as anyone who received both spiritual and physical aid because of the work of Julia Chester Emery and the many missionaries she supported.
So, if we want to be the hands and feet of Christ — as Christ demands — we need go no further than the doorsteps of our church, our homes and our businesses. Whose work is this? Who is called? Well, Christ made no distinction in The Great Commission. It is the one essential task to which we all are called.
Going back to our Anglican priest, John Wesley: “You have one business on earth – to save souls.”
That can sound like a tall order. And, it may be outside our comfort zone. Luckily, Paul, in our reading today from Romans, gives us a roadmap to mission work.
“We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
We each have different skill sets, different personalities and spiritual strengths. Paul is telling us to take inventory of those strengths, given to us by God, and then put them to work. Play to your strengths in serving others.
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
Paul gives us a pretty comprehensive list of little, but very important, ways we can serve Christ in our everyday lives. Love everyone you meet. Hold onto the good. Be of a strong spirit. Pray. Give generously. Live without fear. Be hospitable to strangers and those in need. These are small tasks, and immense opportunities that are presented to us each day. We’re called to honor these opportunities for mission, and to serve Christ in small acts that have a huge cumulative impact.
In our reading from Mark, Jesus himself tells us the spirit we’re to bring to this work: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
We’re called to serve here, now, with the talents we’ve been given. And we’re called to do it with no less than the spirit of servanthood our Savior modeled in his ministry, and on the cross.
Let us pray:
O God of all the nations of the earth: Remember the multitudes who have been created in your image but have not known the redeeming work of our Savior Jesus Christ; and grant that, by the prayers and labors of your holy Church, they may be brought to know and worship you as you have been revealed in your Son; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.