In the late sixth century, on their way from Rome to the wilds of Britain, Augustine and his companions paused on the way, lost their nerve a bit, and wanted very badly to turn back. then with the encouragement (and maybe more) of Gregory their Bishop of Rome, Augustine and his company of not very nervy missionaries and evangelists, they went on to arrive at Canterbury in 597 and stayed to recall and reform and renew the English church from that time on.
But they started small, with some fear and trembling, some shakes on the way, and that gives me hope. Because Augustine’s call as a minister of Christ is so like ours, even though 1400 years separate us. It is found in today’s Gospel: a charge with four very basic facets: you look for welcome, you eat what you’re given, you cure the sick, and you say, “the kingdom of God has come near to you”. The good news is that a very rich and satisfying ministry is found in welcoming, sharing nourishment, in the work of healing, and in proclaiming God’s good news. It Is a very big call, but we can do it, in fact we must do it, in very small ways.
Here’s my working answer on how.
First, you look for welcome by being a person of thanksgiving and mercy - and this can happen by getting two simple habits.
First, say thank you to God at least twenty times a day. Now that may sound simple, but it isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels uphill, but when I leave my home, walk out the door, I start giving some thanks; for the people walking or driving by, for fresh air, green trees, small birds singing in the shrubbery and passing parrots proclaiming their own kind of Pentecost. And slowly or suddenly I begin to see again that, “the world is charged with the Glory of God”. It almost always works before I get to ten! And I recommend it as a spiritual practice for every occasion.
It is not too difficult: you can make it a kind of fireworks prayer ascending to heaven in thanksgiving for wiggling toes, hot water in the shower, good coffee, breakfast; fire up some thanks for friends, family, passing strangers, all through the day, from morning to night. Allow yourself to give thanks for every new facet of creation that catches your eye as a very helpful habit.
Then, to balance it, ask for mercy: say, “I’m sorry” 20 times a day as well. Not just for breaches in etiquette or falling short on your own personal potential or agenda, but for the fact that life is tough for everybody, it made Jesus cry, took him to the cross, has been painful for saints and strangers throughout biblical times, up to Augustine, and every day since. So accept sorrow, penitence and empathy, then move through to forgiveness and the mercy that is found there, and go back through grace to giving thanks again. That is the texture of our life and the shape of our ministry as the people of God. Give thanks and call down mercy on the fragile world and on the friends of Jesus in all their distressing disguises.
Once, for a quiet day in Melbourne, I told people to go to a nearby tram stop and look for hidden friends of Jesus; people with sore back and bum legs, with worried eyes and furrowed brows, and prayerfully offer God’s mercy for those beloved companions on the way. I recommend this to anyone, you can do it anywhere (even facing the mirror!), and it will open your heart to find the places where God is welcome. I guarantee that!
Now sharing food means company, not just company for dinner, having friends in to share substance and spirit, though that is certainly part of it: but company as in a group of people, many, different, working together in separate ways that come together in a common cause. The Eucharist fits here. This simple meal is a sign of community. For bread and wine means grapes and water: yeast and fat and oil and wheat mixed and kneaded, work of human hands, to be taken away to warm and transform, to rest and rise. All this before it comes to the table to be broken and shared. Like the Eucharist, all food has been touched, gathered, lifted up by workers in the fields, harvesters, processors, moved to market by many hands holding, refining the food from the land; bringing it all together.
And there are so many different foods so many different tastes! To share people’s food means to meet them where they are, to honor the way they spice up their life and season their existence. It can be a surprise but it can open us to new and better ways of being in the world. I have been in Australia for 10 years now, and I still remember the first time I found there was an egg in my hamburger. At first it seemed wrong, not the way we did things at home, now it is my preferred option. I have others. I still like peanut butter and jelly with bananas on toast, and that turns many native born Australians pale. So maybe we all have something to learn from one another
And Jesus says, “This is my body, this is my blood!” Jesus says I am willing to be known in this Eucharist, and I tell you I will be here, but prepare to meet me in the entire world, in sharing food with all people, because in my love I have taken up with the body and blood of all humankind and all creation. This bread and wine are means of my love to you, but I mean to love you in everywhere, in everything, in everyone! So in sharing food, eating what’s put in front of us, giving thanks for it, calling down mercy occasionally at some meals, we experience and celebrate God’s good taste in new ways and in new company. And the world is better for it.
Then the big one. Jesus calls us to cure the sick, and I admit that most of us do not have the gift of healing to any great extent,‘though some do, and I thank God for their ministry. But I also think that almost all of us underestimate the amount of healing we can do this in so often wounded world and, again, it can start in a very simple way.
First we accept our own need for healing, then we share the journey with others who need healing, then we do what we can in sharing both vulnerability and vitality. That can be surprisingly healing in a world where so many are lonely and hurting.
For people are in pain and need, and Christ’s mandate is that people need to be served, cared for, honored, and our lives must be shared. For this work we need to be very small saints who are willing to bless the meek, meet the poor, celebrate in solidarity the very fragility of humankind. And this is a tender ministry. But the good news and the paradox is that we are just asked to participate in God’s healing ministry, asked to begin, we don’t have to know that much about how it will end.
Have you ever had someone come to you and say, “When you said this (or did this) it meant so much to me!” And you don’t remember doing it? So many easily forgettable moments of sharing and caring can blossom in the lives of other people in ways we can never foresee and need not remember. We do need to be present to win but we don’t have to keep accounts. God’s work of healing can continue with our compassion and cooperation on the way. All we have to do is put ourselves out there. All we have to do is begin, and that is why we’re here. You all know these words:
“We offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.”
We just have to begin, And we are not alone. Maybe that’s what Augustine found in France. Maybe that was gave him the heart to continue the journey to England to begin that great work: that in Christ God has come into the very middle of this fragile human journey, will precede us, follow us, accompany us all the way, has, in fact, been here already, “The Kingdom of God has come near!” In that call we live out our call: there’s a great paradox here; that it doesn’t depend on us, but we can depend on it: that the spirit will help us begin, that we shall see the heart and face and the God on the way and Christ will bring us home at the last. And that is our good news.