In the early 1990's there was a show on TV called “Quantum Leap” that remains one of my favorite series. It starred Scott Bakula as “Dr. Sam Beckett,” a physicist from the future whose experiments with time travel had gone awry causing him to be (perhaps forever) suck “leaping” into various points in history. Each episode would begin with Sam “leaping” into someone else's life in a new time and place. Only the TV viewers saw and heard Sam; when he looked in the mirror he (and we) got to see who he had become. Each episode was the story of one such “leap” as we followed Sam (as the show's intro explains) “striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.” Sam was guided by a hologram named Al, a friend from the future who helped Sam navigate his new surroundings and fulfill his purpose in that time and place.
In each situation Sam had a particular job to do—saving someone from one disaster or another, or stopping someone from making a life altering decision, or any number of other wrongs—and he and Al spent much of their time figuring out just what that purpose was supposed to be. Very often, however, Sam's purpose didn't become clear until the last few minutes of the episode—and often not at all in the way that Sam, Al, or the viewers expect. Once his purpose had been fulfilled Sam would “leap” into the next situation, into another time and place, just as unclear as to what his new purpose was meant to be. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Sam's “leaps” are not just random chance, but that there is some method to the madness. Sam's seemingly minor actions have huge consequences: wars are averted, tragedies minimized, and life is better for everyone—with effects way beyond the people Sam interacts with. And as Sam “leaps” from life to life he, and Al (and the viewers), begin to wonder if maybe Sam's little purposes aren't part of a bigger mission—and that, perhaps, the method to the madness might just be God.
In the next couple of months we will be talking a great deal about mission and purpose as we continue our work of Transformation. Now I know trying to base our Transformation work off of anything other than the Bible is downright silly (especially some old TV show...somebody call the Bishop!). But I bring up “Quantum Leap” because I think it helps illustrate a key distinction as we continue in this work: the difference between “mission” and “purpose.”
Most organizations, businesses, non-profits, and even some individual people have developed “mission statements”—key statements about what that group is all about and how they go about their work. Many churches (including ours) develop mission statements as well, though more often than not they occupy some forgotten file drawer or are posted and forgotten. In thinking about mission and purpose it is essential that we remember that the Church's mission (and I mean the whole Christian Church on earth) is really God's mission. The Church exists not because its good in and of itself, but because it is a way that God works towards God's mission in and for the world. We play a part in that for sure, but whatever the Church is about (and whatever Bethlehem is about) is always going to be in relationship to what God is about.
But like the larger mission for Sam's “leaping” throughout history, just exactly what God has in mind for all creation is not always so crystal clear (though “putting right what has gone wrong” is not too bad!). In Adult Ed we have been reading a book called “Living Lutheran” and one of the exercises is to pray the Lord's Prayer but to repeat the line “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” This is in part to remind us that God's dream for us, for the world, and for all creation isn't completed yet—that the kingdom of God, while here on earth, is not fully completed—and won't be until God's reign is fully expressed “on earth as in heaven.” God is continuing the work of creation, loving and blessing the world until it is as God wishes it to be. That is God's mission, and we, as the Church, are called to take part in it.
Like Sam, Bethlehem Lutheran has found itself in a particular time and place. Our job is not the same as God's—it is not our role to save the world and make it the way God wants it to be. But nevertheless God has a purpose in mind for us: it may be large, it may be small, but it is particularly ours (and may lead to other purposes as well). We may or may not get to see how our purpose fits into God's larger mission, and we may never know the full impact of our living out of God's purpose for us. But my hunch is that once we are able to figure out our particular purpose right now in God's larger mission—and seek to live it out faithfully—some hints of the larger pattern will start to appear to us too. That's what happens in the Book of Acts as the disciples try to live faithfully as followers of Jesus by eating and praying together and telling the story of Jesus. Suddenly they found themselves being called and sent to the ends of the earth—a purpose they never even imagined, but it became clear this was where God was calling them. And God used them as they lived out their particular purpose for the bigger mission that God had in mind. And their guide (the Holy Spirit) is even more helpful than a hologram named Al. It's the Holy Spirit who guides us too as we seek to figure out our particular purpose in what God is up to in the world—even if God's whole mission is not entirely clear to us. And so we are called to “leap” into the time and place into which we have found ourselves, trusting that as we seek out our purpose that God is using us in ways we don't even realize, and along the way will begin to see that we are part of something much larger than ourselves—the mission of God in the world.