We thank Justin Rabbach, Director of Mission Engagement for the Board of World Mission of the Moravian Church in North America, for allowing us to share his message, which was given at Home Moravian Church a few weeks ago.
Scripture: John 1:43-51, Psalms 139:1-6, 13-18
Good morning. My name is Justin Rabbach, and I am the Director of Mission Engagement for the Board of World Mission of the Moravian Church in North America. Some background, which some of you likely already know, the Board of World Mission is comprised of representatives from the Northern Province, the Southern Province, and the Alaskan Province of the Moravian Church. Twice a year the members of the Board of World Mission come together to help direct the work of this agency, and to help support and guide the staff, of which I am a part. To back up a bit further, to give some perspective, this message is being given in a church in the Southern Province of the Moravian Church in North America. The Southern Province is one of 22 Moravian Unity Provinces around the world. In addition to those 22 Unity Provinces, there are also 6 Mission Provinces, 2 Unity Undertakings and 16 new Mission Areas. In all of those areas combined we have over 1.3 million people in total membership in the Moravian Unity worldwide. To give a bit more perspective, of those million plus members, only about 1% of them are here in the Southern Province. I say all of that to get to this point… we are not alone in this journey.
Having “world” in the name, the Board of World Mission is probably best known throughout the church for the work we do “around the world”, and in fact the Board of World Mission is a primary avenue through which the Moravian Church in North America relates to its partner provinces around the world. Partner province relationships between two provinces are covenants to work together in mission and ministry. It is a relationship of support and encouragement, and of discipleship. Partner provinces of the Moravian Church in North America include the Moravian Churches in: Costa Rica, Eastern West Indies, Guyana, Honduras, Labrador, Nicaragua, and Western Tanzania. We also have responsibilities with three newer work areas called “mission areas” in Sierra Leone, Cuba and Peru. While this non-exhaustive list of the places we work “around the world” can seem a bit exhausting in and of itself, that’s not all the Board of World Mission does!
We also look to be a resource to members and congregations here, in the Provinces that make up the Board of World Mission. Through the Moravian Volunteer Resources program and Moravian Disaster Response we are always eager to help connect people’s gifts and passions with the needs apparent both at home and around the world. We have sent more than 40 individuals to mission settings in at least 10 countries through the Antioch program. We are available to work with congregations to help do trainings for teams going out in mission, or to help a congregation figure just what its mission might be in its own community.
If you are feeling a call to mission, to set out on that Journey, the Board of World Mission wants you to know that we want to walk with you, that we want to journey together.
At the same time, just as the Board of World Mission wants to journey together with you, where you are feeling called, we also are asking you to join along with us on the missions and ministries we are engaged in. We need your prayerful support of the church and medical work in Honduras as it undergoes drastic transitions. We need your financial support to be able to help our partners in Peru and Cuba expand their amazing ministry. We need you to volunteer as you feel led and able to take part in teams or as an individual like those going to Chicago, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Nepal, the Czech Republic and other places around the world!
Please, come to us; let us know your gifts and passions. Let us help you discern your call.
If you thinking that to this point my message sounds more like a commercial than a sermon, I would not say you are completely off base. You see, commercials take a small amount of time, usually between 30 seconds and a minute, to try and get you to become excited about a product or experience that you just cannot possibly live without. Well, I am grateful in that regard for the opportunity to take a small amount of time, albeit longer than 30 seconds, to be able to star in this “sermon commercial” today.
I think I have commercials on my mind given the approaching Super Bowl, and all of the news those commercials generate. But, did you ever notice though that the discussion on the Monday after the game is about what the best commercial was, and not the best product that was advertised? It is about the writing, the movie star spokesperson who appeared in an ad, and not whether or not the actual thing being advertised is worth investing time or money on.
You have companies spending countless hours and millions upon millions of dollars to try and find a “message that lasts”. Now, nearly a year removed from last year’s Super Bowl, I have a question, how many of the ads can you remember, and what they were for? How many of those investments actually found a “message that lasts”? As I wrote this, I could think of only one I am sure that was a commercial last year, and I only remember that because I have an emotional attachments to anything containing puppies.
Now, I promise I am going somewhere with all this talk of commercials, and to cut to the chase, my point is this: The Church should not try and be Taco Bell.
Taco Bell is famous for its commercials, and if you plan to watch the Super Bowl this year, you will be sure to see a few of them. While some of the Taco Bell commercials have stuck in my head over time, they have also become a bit of a joke. Often I think, how many times can you take the same six ingredients, put them in a different order, and try to plead with me that I need to come back and try this “new thing”? No matter how many times you show me the new thing on your menu, it won’t trick me into forgetting that a large percentage of what I am biting into is filler, and not the meat I was promised. More than $100 million dollars was spent by Taco Bell last year while cutting costs by serving less than fresh products, and paying their workers relatively low wages.
Let me tell you another way. Chipotle, another restaurant in a similar genre does things very differently. Relying on quality products and delivering a simple selection, they do not need to rely on TV commercials to attract customers and explain to them about the “new thing” happening each and every week. Their marketing strategy is “based on the belief that the best and most recognizable brands aren’t built through advertising or promotional campaigns alone, but rather through all of the ways people experience” their product. i.e. They make sure they have good food. This model has been working well as the Chipotle restaurant chain is growing by leaps and bounds, and they are doing it while prioritizing paying their workers a living wage and serving fresh, locally grown produce. No TV commercials, yet people still come… because they like how the work is being done and most importantly, they know they will be well fed.
Now that I have gotten to the concept of being “well fed” maybe you can see how this has me thinking about commercials in relation to the church, and to our gospel lesson for today from the book of John. You see, it is the goal of the church as well to make sure that people are well fed. Time and again in the scriptures we see Christ’s call for us to love those around us, and to do this by making sure they are fed. Fed spiritually, emotionally and physically. That is our job, that is our promise, that is how we know that our customers, sorry, I mean members, are satisfied.
So, as Christians and as a church we stand at a cross roads with a decision to make of where to invest. Where to invest our time, our money, and how we will find and share our “message that lasts.” You see, I am here to talk about missions today, and really missions is our opportunity to advertise to the world. We have, for lack of a better term in this analogy, a product in Jesus Christ that we whole-heartedly believe in and endorse, and that we believe others cannot possibly live without.
So, we are back to commercials. Do we as a church take our mission budgets and buy a billboard, or make flyers, or find a celebrity spokesperson? Do we try and explain the whole gospel in 30 seconds? You may know my responses to these questions as I once again repeat my warning, the church should not be Taco Bell.
I am here today as the speaker, the spokesperson if you will, in a time of transition. A day when we celebrate the long, faithful and loving ministry that makes up the mission band’s history. Part of that celebration now entails looking forward, to something new. One of the reasons I am here today is because I am the youngest and newest staff member of the Board of World Mission, and ostensibly have a bit of energy and passion to share. Well, I hope in this regard, it does shine through that I have a deep passion and tremendous energy for this work. However it is not just because I am young. It is that I have experienced this “life to the full” promised to us in the book of John chapter 10, verse 10. It is because I have been well fed by the church in my faith and love of Jesus Christ that I have invested my life into this thing that I simply cannot live without.
I do not stand before you today to put a younger face on mission, to stress the importance of a good Facebook page to represent your mission ministry, or to plead with you to reach out and engage a generation of young people becoming increasingly engaged in service and volunteer opportunities, but outside of a church and faith context. Yes, we must be willing to adapt to the times, and find relevant ways of ministering to the world around us, but we cannot try to win people with fancy messages or pleading with people to come see the “new thing” we have going on. We can’t be Taco Bell.
Rather, are we ready as a church to re-invest ourselves in God’s mission? Are we ready to be about the work of feeding people spiritually, emotionally and physically? Are we ready to deplete our advertising budget so much that when someone asks us for information on our church, we don’t have a handout and can only say, “come and see?” Are we in a place where we do not feel the need to try and out argue someone into understanding why we believe what we believe, but instead offer an invitation of “come and see”?
I pause for a moment to clarify that I do not think brochures or informational materials about a church is wrong. Rather, I would ask if you know anyone who became a Christian or member of a congregation by only reading the brochure. I am guessing that is a deeper connection, a follow up, a personal invitation, and experience with our Lord that brought them in and led them to stay.
In our gospel lesson today we read about how Nathanael became a disciple. Verses 43-51 of Chapter 1 of the book of John are the ending to a section depicting the calling of the disciples. First it was Andrew and Peter, then Phillip, and this is where we pick up our story. Phillip quickly answers Jesus’ call to follow him, and immediately goes to find his friend Nathanael. Phillip tells Nathanael “we have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael can’t believe it, saying “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth”?
This is where Philip makes his decision, not to be like Taco Bell. He had his friend’s attention, he could have tried to persuade him with fancy words, or reviews of Jesus from other disciples who also thought Jesus was the Messiah. Rather, his response is “come and see.”
Intrigued enough to follow Phillip, when he arrives, Nathanael is convinced that Christ is indeed the Messiah. Again, not by fancy arguments or a flashy commercial, but rather by Jesus saying that he saw him under the fig tree before Phillip found him. A commentary on this passage I read explained the significance of the fig tree. In Israel the fig trees leafy branches (almost like an oak tree) provided shade and a place for rest, meditation and prayer. So, in this passage, it is possible that when Jesus says that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree, it is Jesus saying, “I heard your prayers, your deepest desire of your heart to meet and know the long promised Messiah.”
In this way, this simple phrase, this simple act is what gets Nathanael to give up everything and follow Christ, and for this decision Christ promises that he will see greater and greater things because of this choice. Jesus promises him that he will be well fed.
Do we see the examples we must take from this lesson as we move forward in mission? It is not the big things though that we need to worry about first. We aren’t going to grow a new mission endeavor in 30 seconds with a large “buy one mission trip get one free” deal, or an “Early Bird Easter Sunrise Special”. Rather it is possible it will be the things we don’t even know we are doing that could be the biggest outreach of all. It may be that when people “come and see” the church in action, they will be blown away by the examples of deep faith, hope and love that reflect our relationship with our God. We can’t just talk up our (again for lack of a better word) product, Jesus Christ, we have to bring people to Him. Some things, you just have to see and experience for yourself.
We must also remember that we have a deep history we are working from. This is not something “new” that we have to try and put completely on our shoulders to sell. God has invited us into this story, to be a part of this long-standing tradition. Time and again I have been reminded by God that it is not about me, and that I am not starting something new. As an example, I was up in Canada spending a summer as an Antioch servant through the Board of World Mission, and as has become a usual occurrence for me, I had been invited into the home of a local church member as a place to stay. I had never met the couple I would be staying with before, but when I walked in, there was a quilt hanging on the wall. Normally, I would maybe fail to take notice of a quilt, but this one was special. You see, it had been made in the early 1900s at my home congregation, Ebenezer Moravian Church in Watertown, WI. It had been made as a fundraiser to help support missions. If you donated a nickel your name was embroidered on the quilt, and for a quarter you could have your whole family placed on the quilt. I stopped to look, and sure enough there was my great grandfather’s name, surrounded by my grandfather and my great aunt’s. A century later, and thousands of miles from my home, I was in the presence of my family’s history of caring about and supporting God’s mission. It was a humbling reminder of the fact that the mission we are called to engage in is one of carrying on the message that so many before us have shared. Just as we have learned the message from a parent, a pastor, a friend, a neighbor, we too must pass this message along, this invitation to come and see our Lord.
Every summer, my parents would load my sister and I up in a van, point it a direction we hadn’t gone before and drive. That was vacation. When I was 13 years old, I got to help decide where we would go, and I wanted to see the Grand Canyon. My dad wasn’t all that enthused considering the considerable distance the Grand Canyon is from Watertown, WI, and that we would be driving all that way to stare at a hole in the ground. He had seen pictures, and even heard things from people who had really enjoyed their visits, but still, wasn’t that excited… that is, until we arrived. I can still remember entering the park, and pulling up to a place to place to eat that had the first overlook we would visit behind it. We had been in the car a long time, and had decided we would eat first and then go look. That all changed as my Dad caught a glimpse of the Grand Canyon around the corner of the building; much like a moth drawn to light, my Dad cut through some bushes to arrive on the overlook. The lasting image for me is coming up to the overlook with my Dad just staring speechless out on this indescribable beauty. Regardless of all the hype, it was more than any of us expected. It is just something you have to “come and see” for yourself. Needless to say, dinner, which had been a high priority to that point was delayed for more than an hour… and nobody cared, because through the views we were being well fed.
We face a world of people who’s deepest desire is connect with their God, whether they know it or not. There are people praying and seeking to be made whole, to find the thing their soul hungers for. As you search for the mission God has for you individually, and as a community of faith, I encourage you to invest yourselves fully into service and a life that reflects your faith. I could talk for hours, and not fully be able to explain to you the depth of the experiences I have had when taking part in mission trips and service opportunities. As the Director of Mission Engagement for the Board of World Mission I am happy to meet and talk about our opportunities and resources, about how and why I encourage you to take part, but there is no stronger invitation I can make than to simply say, if you are interested in mission, “come and see.”
If you want to know what it is about missions that makes me care so much about these opportunities to share the Gospel and speak about mission that I agreed to travel here thus missing my wife’s birthday (with her blessing) which she is celebrating today back in Chicago, then “come and see.”
If you want to know why people give up vacation, donate money, and volunteer to do something totally for the benefit of others, “come and see.”
If you want to take part in missions, through your words, through your actions, you must be willing to bring people to Christ so they can experience Him. You have to be ready to invite any and all to “come and see.”