Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission from the Margins

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Let me share three reflections with you on Mission from the Margins:

1. Mission from the Margins is a Choice:
We all know that Eugene Peterson translated the Bible (the famous Message version) into the common language of the people for contemporary times. So the Bible is understood even by the communities at the Margins. This has also given the power of interpterion to the common people.

One of my favorite passages from The Message translation is John 1:14, which says “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” When I was sharing this passage with a community at the margins in a small group meeting in Sri Lanka where I come from, they helped me to understand and read the passage with new eyes. The group agreed to understand the passage on incarnation like this: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the margins of humanity.”

We believe in a God who came to liberate humanity and creation through ‘Jesu Christu’ and offer abundant life to all. The point is that Jesus came to the utmost margins of the most powerful empire of that time. That margin was Nazareth of Galilea! So the very beginning of mission is God’s choice to incarnate in the margins with one of the most marginalized communities in the universe.

The Gospel of Luke asserts God’s deliberate choice:

“God’s Spirit is on me;
    he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
    recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
    to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” (Luke 4:16-21)

Mission is always and everywhere a choice. As churches and Christian communities, are we ready to make that choice today? Are we ready to reach out to the modern Nazareths struggling under our modern empires?  Are we ready to be in solidarity with the Nazareths of our own local churches?

In the work of God’s reign, we cannot be neutral - either we are with Jesu Christu or we are out of God’s reign.

Mission from the Margins commences first with well-discerned decisions, missional choices, and solidarity with the communities at the Margins. That is how God started mission through Jesus. Therefore, the first transformational point that I want us to understand is that we rediscover the mission of the church by renunciation of our own powers and ecclesial selfishness, letting God take over and allowing God’s sprit to lead us to be with the margins.

2. People at the Margins as Agents of Mission:
Together Towards Life is one of the recent ecumenical mission papers that we all must read in and through our mission debates. It corrects one of the major misconceptions of mission:

“The dominant expressions of mission, in the past and today, have often been directed at people on the margins of societies. These have generally viewed those on the margins as recipients and not as active agents of missionary activity. Mission expressed in this way has too often been complicit with oppressive and life-denying systems. It has generally aligned with the privileges of the centre and largely failed to challenge economic, social, cultural, and political systems which have marginalized some peoples. Mission from the centre is motivated by an attitude of paternalism and a superiority complex. Historically, this stance has equated Christianity with Western culture and resulted in adverse consequences, including the denial of the full personhood of the victims of such marginalization.” (Together Towards Life: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/mission-and-evangelism/together-towards-life-mission-and-evangelism-in-changing-landscapes)

Jesus’ first followers were a community of those on the margins. Through their faith in Jesus, they experienced a newfound power and agency. Among them were marginalized women, children, the lepers, the sick, the prisoners, the blind, the poor, the Samaritans, the gentiles, the destitute, persons in prostitution, the victims of structural sins, the Galilean fisher folks, and many more. This community was gathered from the lowest strata of the social order. Through struggles in and for life, these marginalized people became reservoirs of the active hope, collective resistance, and perseverance that were needed to remain faithful to the promised reign of God. It was the people from the margins who provided the power of agency to God’s mission in Jesus.

Are we ready to recognize the power of agency from the margins? Are we ready to be transformed by the power of the spirit that comes from the margins? Are we ready to connect with the Jesus community in our day and in our missional spaces for the sake of God’s reign?

3. Hope and Mission from the Margins:
This transformation begins with the denunciation of self-power and the annunciation of God’s power. As Christians we take refuge in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Sprit. There is a beautiful hymn from Asia introduced to the world church by D.T.Niles (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 523: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-saranam-saranam), which emerged in the context of peoples’ struggles. It goes like this:

"Jesus, Savior, Lord, lo, to thee I fly: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam;
Thou the Rock, my refuge that's higher than I: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam.
In the midst of foes I cry to thee, From the ends of earth wherever I may be;
My strength in helplessness, O answer me: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam."

This hymn speaks of people in the margins, and of their cry to the Lord. When they are in utter desperation the prayers of the people have reached the God of the Oppressed. We see the same in the Bible in the prayers of the exiled community. We take Saranam (refuge) in that God. We do not take refuge in the empire or any other higher worldly power or mammon. It is only in God that we have hope!

"My strength in helplessness, O answer me: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam."

Friends, this is the lament song of the people from the margins for all generations. May I invite all of us to connect our lives and missional energies with this universal lament by taking refuge in the Cosmic Christ?

However, the questions remain – How should we be vulnerable? How should we be listening and hearing ministry seriously? How should we integrate voices from the margins into missional praxis? Are we as disciples of Christ ready to be evangelized from the margins?

May Jesus the Christ - crucified and risen Cosmic Guru - be our teacher, our guide, and the one who empowers all of us and transforms us in God’s mission.

Amen!

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