Called by God to make a difference (inspired by an alternative narrative)

Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps. 40
By Nelson Okanya
MCC Chapel February 23, 2012

Good morning! Thank you Ron and MCC staff for inviting me to speak at your chapel this morning, I am humbled and honored by your invitation Ron and grateful for the opportunity for our two ministries to interact. With me today is Gerry Keener who serves as my vice president and Chief Operations Officer at EMM. Gerry is as a skilled and able administrator and I am blessed to have him as a colleague.

Today is the second day of lent. Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day that I believe brings a much-needed reminder to us as who live in the USA that we are indeed dust and unto dust we shall return. That is a humbling experience and a wonderful way to begin the lent season especially when we are constantly bombarded with messages and images that tells us how important we are or we ought to be and if we aren’t then there readily available products that we can buy to make it happen.

As I stand before you here this morning I am aware of the pain that you as an organization and individuals are going through as a result of the restructuring process. EMM went through administrative restructuring last year just before I was invited to serve as president and we lost equivalent of 10 FTEs. When I came on staff I experienced the effects of those changes both on the organization as well as on the staff. I am thankful that God has continued to bring healing and hope to us as an organization and to our staff. I pray for you Ron, and your management team as you lead in these transition times and walk with staff through the new reality which is both marked by pain and vision for the future of MCC.

Your purpose and vision states that you are, “a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches, that shares God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice. MCC envisions communities worldwide in right relationship with God, one another and creation.” Your priorities in carrying out your purpose are disaster relief, sustainable community development and justice and peace building.”
EMM’s mission statement states, “Serving together, we share God’s Love, empower Christ like leaders and nurture Spirit inspired partnerships to create transforming communities of worship among all peoples.” These are inspiring statements of vision and purpose!

Since both of our ministries are ministries of Anabaptist churches. I thought it would be important to begin by a brief definition of the church and its mission. I believe that the church is a countercultural community of discipleship charged with the responsibility of embodying God’s missional purposes in the world. This purpose I believe is inspired and shaped by a story. But our challenge is that the world is shaped by stories as well, however these stories differ remarkably from the churches’ formative story.

The challenge for the church is how to embody its story in the world when the world is hostile to it. We believe that the church’s story as taught in scripture is a story that has the power to free people and the entire created order to be what the creator imagined at creation. This is in your purpose statement as well as EMM’s. The story that shape and form our mission is that God who spoke into darkness and chaos of creation and brought about order from disorder. This creator God, the story continues, called a couple named Abraham and Sarah and sent them forth as agents of Good News!

This creator and sending God is also a going God. Scripture tells us that God heard the cries of a people enslaved by a narrative of greed and accumulation of the Pharaoh (Bruegemann) and came down with an outstretched arm and a strong right hand freed the slaves. From that time on, this God has been known as redeemer, liberator and the defender of the weak, the down trodden and the ostracized. This redemption story has inspired generations of enslaved and powerless people around the world including right here in your heartland where the songs of freedom were sang from coast to coast by an enslaved people.

However the narrative of “enlightenment” astutely instituted the notion of perpetual doubt through its chief architect Rene Descartes, and as a result we hesitate to tell this great saving story much less be formed and transformed by it because we do not want to come across as simple minded, ignorant and arrogant. Therefore, we present this narrative as something that we believe in rather than what we know to be true (belief vs facts-(Newbigin)).

Scripture witnesses to the power and the truth of this narrative, as we read about sick people being healed in the name of Jesus and principalities and powers being defeated through the church’s declaration of God’s story (Eph. 3:10-12). I can testify to the power of this story as I have experienced in my own life and in the lives of many other people both in Africa and here in the USA. Our Anabaptist forbearers believed this story so deeply that they laid down their lives for it. This story competes with what Walter Bruegemann names as today’s dominant script; “therapeutic, technological, consumerist, and militarism.” Bruegemann argues that this script, “offers us a god who has no power to save.” I believe that as ministries of the church, we ought not to shy away from sharing God’s story of transformation and salvation as Good News!

But how can we do so in a world that rejects this story? Isaiah 49 provides an inspiration for us and I would like to briefly read and reflect on it. In this text God shows up through a suffering servant (v.2). The ‘servant’ has different interpretations in Isaiah but I chose here to consider our ministries as the servant in this text today. The servant did not have a particularly good record; he had been discouraged and disaapointed and had suspected that his “labor had been in vain and his strength spent on nothing and vanity” (v. 4). But the servant quickly acknowledged that his strength is in the hands of the Lord (v.5) and that his mission was not only to restore Israel, but “also to be a light for the Gentiles, and to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth”(v.6).

The Lord called the servant amidst terrible situations to be an instrument of hope and restoration for God’s exiles. Through the servant’s obedience, God’s people were to be redeemed. I believe that in the same way, we have been called for God’s mission and our obedience to that mission will give hope to the hopeless and inspire others to fulfill their own calling.

Since February is black history month, Dr. King could be an inspiration for us as well in this regard. When he recieved his calling, things did not look good just as was the case with the servant in Isaiah 49. I listened to a speech given by Ambassador Andrew Young at Duke Divinity School, which I will simply paraphrase here. He said that had someone told Dr. King that we would be where we are today as a nation, he would have simply said, “son go on out and loosen your tie, get some air, eat some food and rest a while.”

In other words the conditions under which his ministry calling and location took place had “mission impossible” written all over but he heard the call and was inspired by God’s story of deliverance. Along with other like-minded people he acted on that call and others saw their responsibility as well and rose up and joined the cause and we as a society have made great progress since then even though the journey is far from over. Poverty still persists among the vulnerable people in our society and injustice continues, bad neighborhoods abound, dictators continue to rule over people’s lives taking away their dignity and freedom, illiteracy and disease and shrewd business people continue to exploit the unfortunate and the uninformed and darkness continues to control peoples hearts.

In spite of these realities around us, I believe that God’s plan requires our willingness to be participants in the world around us. Dr. King looked around and saw injustice and his convictions about God’s vision compelled him to name the injustices for what they were and proclaimed God’s vision of freedom which was not yet a reality. We must learn to see as God sees and as the Lord moves us through the Holy Spirit, we must speak and embody that possibility in the world.
In Psalm 40:6, the worshippers are challenged to awaken to God’s larger vision, and imagine those persons with whom they are called to share God’s vision in our hurting and broken world. I believe that EMM and MCC are partners in this calling and I am looking to greater partnership in God’s mission. Amen!

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