What Is Mission?
What Is Mission?
Rev. Christian Iosso July 25, 2021
Texts: Isaiah 49: 1-2, 6, 8. Matthew 9: 35-38.
How many of you have read JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of books? Seen the movies? For those on Zoom chat or FB, please let us know.
Let me refresh (or implant) your memories. Hobbits are approximately half-size humans. There are also dwarves, wizards, and elves, and various monsters such as orcs and a dragon. Tolkien was a professor of Old English and Anglo-Saxon who set his stories in an early medieval period, but who wrote them during WWII and the early Cold War. His books are full of mythic and folkloric elements and invented languages, much too complex to be allegories. Though he never mentions God or religion, for the informed reader there are profound echoes of his Christian faith. His work has influenced countless fantasy and science fiction books, including the Harry Potterseries by JK Rowling.
Tolkien set the stage for his well-known trilogy with a book aimed more at younger people called, The Hobbit. In The Hobbit, an eccentric hobbit called Bilbo Baggins is recruited by a wizard to help a band of dwarves recover treasure from a dragon. On the way he finds and keeps a magic ring that can turn the wearer invisible. The dwarves regain their treasure and Bilbo also gains a finely woven but extremely strong coat of mail that is worn under one’s outer clothing. It is made of mithril, sort of like the super element vibranium in the Black Panthermovie.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy that magic ring is revealed to have demonic potential. It magnifies one’s thirst for power and possession. The ring’s maker is an immensely powerful evil wizard who wants it back. It is the job of Bilbo’s nephew Frodo to go with a small team to destroy the ring, which can only be done in the volcano where it was forged, in the hellish land of the evil wizard. The reason why hobbits are needed is because they are less tempted by power, though Bilbo has begun to be corrupted by his long possession of the ring and parts with it reluctantly. (In terms of Christian tradition, the ring resonates less with Wagner’s Ring cycle than with Dante’s Divine Comedy, in that the protagonist cannot skip the inferno where he sees figures truly stuck in evil—like the ringwraiths or Morgul vale.)
When Frodo gets the ring from his uncle, he agrees to bring it from his home region to a special meeting with representatives of other free peoples. He does this without understanding the scope of the undertaking. He goes out of friendship and loyalty, and fear of sinister figures already infiltrating his village. Frodo is a nice middle-class guy with a comfortable life, the kind of person who does not have adventures. He is almost killed by a poison dart on the way to the gathering.
When Frodo gets to the special meeting, it is a council of resistance representing all groups threatened by the forces of evil. They understand that if their most powerful members use the ring, they will become like the evil one themselves. Thus the plan becomes one of sending the innocent and vulnerable Frodo precisely where evil will be too proud to look, while others create brave but virtually doomed diversions.
That meeting marks the creation of The Fellowship of the Ring, highly committed and gifted but a virtual suicide squad. The movies greatly simplify the depth and character development of the books. They miss the significance of an event that occurs at that council gathering.
As the group is commissioned, Bilbo takes Frodo aside and gives him the other treasure from his own quest, the mithril coat of mail, which Frodo secretly puts on. It will protect him from everyday evils like poison darts, arrows, and swords, though it will not protect him from the suffering and horrors he will endure as he carries the ring towards its origin and doom. I am indebted to Jungian Christian Helen Luke for illuminating the meaning of the mithril coat. She points out that Frodo has already been called out of his normal world and its distractions. The mithril coat is a gift of heritage that he wears close to his body, a reminder of his charge. It represents a dedication and focus that frees him from smaller worries. It is a blessing that others cannot see, a source of hidden strength. A not-so-outward sign of an invisible grace.
By now you have probably guessed how this story may shed light on our Christian mission and on the installation of our new elders and deacons to help us understand and fulfil that mission.
The word, “mission,” comes from the word, “send,” missio in Latin. We have words like missive, commission and, from the Greek, apostellein, to send forth, and apostolos, messenger. The 12 disciples of Jesus were called apostles because Jesus sent them out to deliver good news about the kingdom or reign of God. In our passage in Matthew, Jesus has been traveling through Galilee teaching and healing. He had compassion on the people in those poor villages. He prays that God will send laborers into vineyard to work the spiritual harvest. In the next chapter, Jesus commissions the 12 as apostles and gives them their overall mission and specific instructions.
Note three key elements here. One is that God is the ultimate sender. Jesus himself is sent from God, and he sends out the apostles on God’s authority and with God’s power and wisdom. Second, the messengers sent out are extensions of the One who sends them. Their mission is God’s mission, to save the lost, the sheep without a shepherd. If we follow the Good Shepherd, we are not sheep—we are also shepherds. Third, to the degree the disciples are focused on their task, little things like food and housing—or like collective expectations of their culture—or fear of the Romans—do not get in their way. Even simple things, like unnecessary emotional drama or neediness, hook them—and us– less and less.
Each of the four Gospels is a plan for spiritual formation as well as community building and social impact. God’s power comes to disciples as they gain in consciousness of who Jesus is and what he is about. That happens as they imitate him. Its not that Frodo in the Lord of the Rings is carrying a cross. But the ring is an instrument of evil that can only be fought the Gospel way, by vulnerability, love, and dedication.
Many of us /Christians in our society may be like Frodo at the beginning of the Lord of Rings. We are comfortable, middle-class people. We do not have adventures. We don’t have mystical experiences or visions… Or do we? Don’t we make sacrifices and go beyond conventional expectations? Do we not have some mysterious companions? Truly are we not life-savers who carry something of the divine life that has saved us?
Isaiah is about the calling of an individual and of a people. The prophet himself feels the call of providence—at first a hidden vocation. A prophetic people are first hidden in God’s womb, trained and polished in secret. What is the mission? Are they to bring the tribes of Jacob back to faithfulness? Yes, but more than that. This people are to be sent forth as a light to ALL the nations. They are an extension of the one who sends them—the sovereign God, so that God’s salvation may reach the ends of the earth.
The last verse Nusrat read says that faithful Israel is being given as a “covenant to the people.” Covenant is a key word in the Reformed tradition. It is more important than any crown or the exercise of power. Covenant is about relationship, re-connecting with justice and what is most important in life. This section of Isaiah leads to Isaiah 53, the mission of the Suffering Servant, which we see exemplified in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The Fellowship of the Ring is about mission. The stakes are high. The church—we– are in a struggle with the spirit of exploitation that is creating a wasteland if it is not stopped. We cannot be distracted by small disagreements but we must address core issues; every effort, every program, everything F&F represents must speak to a spiritual wholeness that is wise and tolerant but not compromised or afraid to share the Gospel.
Our elders and deacons are being given their mithril coats today. The questions they answer are meant to equip each of these sisters and brothers with the power of purpose. No poison darts of envy, resentment, or thoughtlessness. We have been given a mysterious heritage. We do not know all of the dimensions of God’s mission that has sent messengers out to the four corners of the earth, such as Pakistan or Scotland or China. But we know we have a mission here.
Lastly there is an element of deliverance and resurrection in the Lord of the Rings. With the help of a faithful friend and the misjudgment of a desperate creature, the ring of power is cast into the volcano where it was forged. The foundations of the kingdom of evil are shaken. Frodo and others triumph, and are enormously changed; they have reached a new stage in life.
May we also protect many sheep here in Baltimore and send more laborers out into God’s harvest. May our mission transform our common lives. May we know moments of grace that are God’s triumph and ours as well. And may our shepherds know protection as they lead us more deeply in our mission.
In the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, Amen.
Charge and Benediction:
And if, in this Olympic moment, we can remember the devout runner, Eric Liddel, dramatized in Chariots of Fire. The Lord made me fast. I think Marianne Shick feels that same spirit when she sings (two solos in the service). The Lord has made us for a purpose, too. And when we fulfil it, we feel the Lord’s good pleasure. Let us run our race, and let us be led well by the leaders you have elected who are installed today.