“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Last week, I spent the entire work week in St. Louis at a conference sponsored by The Episcopal Church and Episcopal Relief and Development. The focus of the conference was to learn more about asset-based community development and how it can become an ethos for our own parish in our approach to outreach ministry.
At its core, asset based community development is the practice of listening to our surroundings, especially the people that are around us, to discover the gifts that are present in the community. By listening to the people that surround me, I am able to discover incredible gifts in the community that can be used to transform a community through shared work, shared listening, and shared conversation. Instead of being a program that we roll out to the community, asset based community development is a way of living that rests on the foundation of invitation and hospitality. It is a way to engage in conversation with each other in order to discover the gifts that are present in the community, and it is a way for us to recognize our own gifts that can help transform a community.
For something like asset based community development to work, however, it means that each of us is able to listen to the words of Jesus this morning and to understand the importance of leaving space in a room for another to enter, to share her gifts, and to help me recognize the giftedness of the community in which I live. The single most important principle of asset based community development is that I am not able to do it alone, and I am not able to control where the listening will lead me as an individual or this parish as a community of faithful disciples discerning where God is calling us to reach beyond ourselves and out into the community.
The short reading from Mark this morning is the second of Jesus’ passion predictions in the journey narrative of Mark’s narrative. In this section, after Jesus predicts his own crucifixion, he asks the disciples what they were arguing about on the way. Embarrassed by their own discourse, the disciples are not willing to disclose what they argued about. Of course, Jesus already knows what was at the heart of their disagreement – who is the greatest among them. Here, we receive another teaching on discipleship and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus not only in the time of Jesus but also today.
In the contemporary era, we have been socialized to believe that we do not need others to help us in becoming what God is calling us to become. We are filled with the ideas that greatness is represented by the amount of wealth that we can accrue, the kind of car that we drive, or the neighborhood in which we live. Counter to this cultural narrative, Jesus teaches us that we need to recognize that we are not able to be all things. Instead, we need the gifts of others to complement our own gifts, and we need the words of others to help us recognize how we are called to support each other in our lives – not only our faith lives but also out in the world. The giftedness of others helps us recognize who we are as individuals and helps us learn what gifts we have to offer as a member of the beloved community of God’s children.
As God’s children, we are taught that God created us in his image, but it is also important for us to understand that God’s image – the fullness of God’s image – is the entirety of the human family. Each one of us is a unique pixel of that image that God speaks into creation each and every day. As we encounter other members of God’s image, we encounter new gifts, new perspectives, new ideas, and new understandings of what it means to be made in the image of God. With each new encounter, we are shaped and formed into what God speaks into creation, and we in turn shape and form other people. In speaking on the idea of the image of God, Desmund Tutu explained that being made in the image of God is to understand that the image of God is in each of us. For Desmund Tutu, the notion of ubuntu captures the expansiveness of what it means to be made in the image of God. It says that I am because you are. Without you, I cannot be me, and without me, you cannot be you. The interconnectedness of the human family gives us bright color and shines forth into the world as a beacon of hope – as long as we are committed to allowing the light of another to shine as brightly as my own. It is a recognition of the fact that each individual has unique gifts of the Spirit that encourage us to seek out our own gifts. It is a recognition of the fact that even the smallest among us share their own gifts in unique ways. The very person that is invisible in our midst is offering up a gift if we would only take the time to recognize that gift and to celebrate those gifts as something from God that is to be shared within our community.
In the time of Jesus, children were the most invisible persons in the community, and when Jesus tells his disciples to welcome one such child in my name, he is teaching his disciples to seek out the giftedness of every person – especially the most invisible. In a similar fashion, asset based community development encourages us to do the same. instead of attempting to define what our outreach to the community will be, we are called to listen to our community – here at Saint Michael and within the city of Dallas – to identify the giftedness of those that we encounter in our daily life. Of course, it also means that we have to let go of our control of where the ministry will lead us, and it means that our call to ministry comes not from our own desires, assumptions, or understandings. Instead, the call to ministry comes from those that are outside the walls of the church. It is a focus not on growing the church but on transforming the community through listening and inviting others to join us – either as a member of our parish or as a member of our broader community.
As we engage in an outreach ministry of listening, the question before us is how can we begin to welcome the invisible, the voiceless, the weak into our midst. How can we begin to look outwards and to identify the giftedness of those that are outside the Church? How can we listen for new gifts and celebrate those gifts by inviting others to join us in a ministry of transformation through our shared giftedness? What gifts are present in this community of disciples that are not yet visible to us? These are big questions with an infinity of answers as we each engage our own gifts of the Spirit. The questions push us to understand that Jesus’ words encourage us to embody the teaching of becoming servants and through our servanthood to welcome the unexpected into our own faith lives.
Jesus is inviting us to conversation with each other and with the world. Look at the persons to your left and to your right. What gifts do you see in those persons? What gifts do you see in yourself? How can you share that with this parish and with the world? Invite each other into that conversation and recognize that our work is the process of having the conversation. Our work is naming the gifts of this community, celebrating those gifts, and inviting each other into the work of the Church as we seek to listen.
If we engage in the process of listening and responding, which we might name as call and response, we will be transformed as individual persons, as a community, and as part of the image of God. We will find life and hope and faith and love through our process, and we will not need to worry if the work is transformative. The reality is that the work will transform us because we are intent on listening to where the Spirit is moving in our midst, and though we may not be able to see it in the immediate moment, we will be blessed with the ability to look back and see that the Spirit has been actively transforming us. The transformation will be in our ability to name the gifts of the self, the other, and the community. The transformation will be in our ability to celebrate the giftedness of every member of the image of God, and the transformation will be in our willingness to to be “last of all and servant of all.”