Here's the transcript of the sermon I gave at church this morning. Enjoy! =)
I have a confession to make everyone. I hope you will forgive the vocal nature of this- I know us Lutherans are all about silent confession- or confession in community you know, that whole part about “WE confess that WE are in bondage to sin?” Yes- well, I am here to confess that I am a missionary. Ugh. The word just makes you cringe doesn’t it?? MISSIONARY. Just think about what comes to mind for a second… MISSIONARY. Ugh. If you’re like most people in the world today, your image is probably close to what mine was before I spent a year in South Africa as a missionary. Maybe you think of colonialism… westernization… white people passing out bibles to darker people. And seeking to change their culture to make them more “civilized”. Well, I have reeeeally good news if this is what comes to mind when you think of missionaries. I am a missionary and I am totally disgusted by those types of images that come to our minds.
With all these things that come to mind, missionaries have the power. They are not coming to people to learn, to be changed, or to participate in cultural practices of local people. They are there with an agenda… to change people and spread a message! But it doesn’t have to be that way!!! We are missionaries to the world- not to change people but to accompany them.
Okay, I’ve definitely gotten ahead of myself.
WE are missionaries? Did I say that? YES! When I think of what a missionary is, I think of THIS! What I see right now when I look at a congregation of people who have assembled together in community and are interested in hearing more about message of peace, love and hope that God envisions for our world. I think of people like you- working in the community, loving your neighbors, being there for people who need your helping hands or your shoulder to cry on. I think of you when I think of missionaries…
And what else did I say there?? I said that WE are missionaries in the world- not to change people but to accompany them. What does that mean? The ELCA’s Global mission program is based around an idea of accompaniment. Meaning that they send people to other countries not to change other cultures but to build relationships in which partners walk together- sharing the way God is working in their lives. Missionaries of the ELCA are sent abroad to provide a ministry of presence. Especially in the Young Adults in Global Mission program which I was a participant in, we were not selected for our skills, expertise or intelligence. We were placed in communities to allow ourselves to be shaped and molded by the community and culture. I got to be friends with the people at my site. I learned about their families, met their children and learned the value of just being present with someone during hard times. Sometimes all someone needs is someone to listen to them. So, did I change anyone? I’m not sure. But I do know that I had some wonderful conversations while stapling papers, making copies, helping kids with their homework or having meals in people’s homes. In these ways, they changed me.
When I went to South Africa, I went to build relationships. Not to bring a message, change people, or DO anything. I just had to be myself and that made a huge impact on people. I had no idea how easy it would be… while being so hard. I learned people’s stories… I listened to them, talked with them and got to know their families, I became part of a community of people who cared about me and I learned to love them. But it took time and patience. Of course, part of me hoped I’d be busy helping people- making a difference and DOing a lot. But I quickly learned that community came first . People were more interesting in who was than what I could do for them. People wanted to talk to me more than they wanted to know what my educational background was or how smart I was.
Shortly after my arrival in my community just east of Johannesburg, I came to find that I wasn’t thinking of South Africans as “them” or “they” or others. South Africans became my friends, my family, my community. When I was missing home or struggling I went to my South African friends. I spent evenings and weekends with the people I became close to. They taught me so much about myself, my faith and the world. They made me think about the world differently.
Let me try to explain what I mean about seeing the world differently--- I am learning to drive a stick shift right now. I recently bought a car that I got for a pretty good price… but the catch was, I had no idea how to drive a manual transmission and so, I had to learn. It has changed the way I drive. Not only am I more attentive to what I’m doing, but I’m also more patient when the light turns green and the car in front of me doesn’t move… maybe they stalled out!! Like I still do on a regular basis! I know how it feels now. As I was driving around town the other day, I realized that my metamorphosis in driving is like what happened to me in South Africa. Learning about other people requires us to be uncomfortable and living out what others go through. It requires us to make ourselves vulnerable to others. We must know what it feels like to be stalled out in the middle of a busy intersection and we must learn to help others when they find themselves in that situation.
For my South Africa experience, it was mostly about race. I have never in my life been a racial minority. Living for a year in a country with tense race relations and as a member of the minority has changed the way I view race in this country and in our world. They say you can’t understand a person until you walk a mile in their shoes. I say, a mile is not nearly long enough. We may never get the opportunity to live the life that many struggling people in our world live. But we must try to understand. We must remember a time when we were stalled out in an intersection, hopeless and praying for the forgiveness of the people around us. We have to remember what it felt like to have someone welcome us when we were the outsider. When we see people at their most vulnerable, we must know that they need us and our support most at that moment.
Among many other lessons that I learned in South Africa, I learned the importance of relationships and community over all other things- including time. Here in the States, it’s so easy to let our schedules rule us… we want to stay busy and plan ahead. By sticking to our schedules, we sometimes miss out on opportunities to build relationships with people and reach out to them when they may be struggling. We in the church are really good at having meetings and planning events… but do we take the time after meetings to get to know the people we are working with? Do we understand the people we are raising money for? Have we taken the time to hear the stories of the people we are helping? Sometimes, I believe we get caught up in our schedules and forget the value of human connection. We are sometimes DOing too much- and we’re really good at DOing great things for people in need! But we also need to remember the value of being with people- being present with them. It’s not just Pastor’s job to visit and talk with people who are struggling, but it is what we should all be striving to do as missionaries.
When I think of missionaries, I think of you. But I also think of people who may have never set foot in church but have a vision for a world full of peace, justice, love and acceptance. I think of those on a mission of love. A mission to make our very confused world understand that there is a better way for humanity to live in harmony together. We gather here in church to share good news with each other. News that there is more to life than the daily struggle. We have come to share our stories with each other and celebrate how God is working in our lives. We should leave this place ready to begin seeing people for who they are… and what they are- Children of God and members of humanity.
In Zulu, you say Hello with the word “Sawubona”. Literally translated it means, “I see you”. I see you for who you are- I recognize you as a person, a member of my community, worthy of my time and my presence. We should see everyone we meet this way. We are missionaries. We are called to walk with people in their struggles and in their joys. We are called to remember what it feels like to be stalled out in an intersection, totally hopeless and praying for someone to have mercy on us. We are called to see people. Sawubona.