If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Good morning! When I was in seminary I had some wonderful opportunities to participate in short-term, international mission trips. And because today is World Communion Sunday, I thought I’d share a story from one of those trips. I offer this story today because it’s about mission and reconciliation and finding grace in unexpected places.
In 2014 I was part of a mission team that went to South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho. There were sixteen people on that team, including two seminary professors and fourteen students or recent graduates. It was a diverse group: half of us were white, half were African-American; the youngest member of our group was 23, while the oldest members were in their sixties.
I was interested in this trip because I wanted to visit South Africa. It had been twenty years since the end of Apartheid and I wanted to witness the new South Africa. I wanted to learn what the church was doing to be part of the reconciliation, the rebuilding of that nation. But that was only half of the trip.
I knew almost nothing about Lesotho before the trip. It’s an independent nation of about two million people and it’s entirely surrounded by South Africa. Lesotho is about the size of Maryland; it’s a very mountainous country and it looks a lot like Arizona, but with green grass and trees. It is a very pretty place.
The main reason that our team went to Lesotho was to work on a service project. We were in a little town in the countryside called Morija and we were there to help build a latrine at a nursery school. Glamorous work, to be sure. But most of the work on the project was done by four experienced masons; all of them were from Lesotho. At best, we were their helpers, but they could have done all of the work without us.
We weren’t there to preach and proclaim the Gospel—we couldn’t! We didn’t speak Sotho, the local language! Besides that, 90% of the population of Lesotho is Christian. What were we doing there? Why did we travel some 9,000 miles to assist a bunch of brick layers? We wrestled with these questions in our evening devotions. In fact, this morning’s lesson from the Apostle Paul was one of the scriptures that we chewed on in our devotions.
Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia, which is just north of Greece. That meant that land in Philippi had been given to Roman soldiers after they had completed their service in the legions. So, the Philippians must have been a very proud bunch of people. They were Roman citizens, they owned land, and they had earned it!
Instead, Paul urges the congregation at Philippi to be humble, to imitate Christ’s humility. That must have been really hard to do. Paul urges the Philippians to do “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” But being a Roman citizen meant that you were better than most other people. It must have been a tough pill for the Philippians to swallow, when Paul told them to set aside their pride and imitate Christ’s humility.
This is also how we, as American Christians, must act when we engage in Christian missions. Generosity is a good thing, but when we give to others, we have to do it in humility. If we are not humble when we give, then the giving becomes about us. We must, as Paul says, “be sharing in the Spirit.” Compassion and sympathy are not acts of good will that start with us. No, this is the reconciling action of the Holy Spirit. We do not do good works of our own accord. Rather, when we act in accordance with the Holy Spirit, good works are accomplished through our actions. Or maybe I should say God’s work is accomplished through our actions. This is a fine line to walk.
When we got to Morija, we were joined by another eight volunteers. The new volunteers were college-age students from Lesotho, who were also there to help build the latrine. As I mentioned before, there were four skilled workers already working on the job site.
When we arrived, the hole for the latrine had been completed. The next part of the project was to lay the concrete block that would serve as the septic tank for the latrine and support the upper walls of the structure. Only two people in our group knew how to lay block. What’s more, the pit for the latrine could only accommodate four or five workers at a time. In short, we had a lot more workers than work. At first, this was really frustrating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to ask, “What am I doing here?”
Later that night, we had devotions with the whole group. I was paired with one of my African colleagues, a young man named Sechaba. He asked that same question. He said that many of his friends had asked him why he was doing this service project and he didn’t have a good answer. The truth is, Sechaba and I were both asking the wrong question. It wasn’t about what I was doing or what Sechaba was doing. The right question is, “what is God doing here?”
Of course, it took a long day, with too little work, for either of us to realize that something more profound was going on. In fact, the lack of work created a wonderful space for conversations to take place. The team from Lesotho got to know each other better. The team from Pittsburgh got to know one another better. And best of all, members of each team began to talk with members of the other team. God had created a sacred space in which we were all invited to be in relationship with one another. The work wasn’t just about laying block for a latrine; it was about laying the foundation for relationships across the continents. Beloved, that is part of the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit.
We spent about a week in Morija. And yes, lots of block was laid. We didn’t finish the latrine, but we came really close. More than that, the people of the two mission teams—the team from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the team of young people from Lesotho—grew close to one another. We used the time to get to know one another. At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with humility and the imitation of Christ.
That first morning in Morija, when there wasn’t enough work to keep all of us busy, I found that really frustrating. I felt that my time wasn’t being used wisely. I wanted to be doing something. I wanted to be useful. I. I. I! In those moments of frustration, it was all about me and what I wanted. It was only after I let go of my own expectations—after I humbled myself—that I was able to move into the sacred space that God had provided for me. It was only after I let go of my ego and my attachment to the idea that I was doing something for someone else—let me repeat that: my attachment to the idea that I was doing—it was only after I let that go that I could fall in with the work of the Holy Spirit. I suspect that this was true for most of our group.
After we let go of our expectations, wonderful things began to happen in our groups. Many of the older women in our group adopted the young people from the Lesotho team. One of the young seminarians in our group felt compelled to give his Pirates’ hat to one of the young men from Lesotho. Many of us became Facebook friends with the young people from Lesotho. We began relationships. Before we met, the groups from Pittsburgh and Lesotho were separated by distance and culture. Through our time together, doing the work of the Holy Spirit and building relationships with one another, we began to be reconciled to one another.
One of the more interesting relationships that began there in Morija was with an older woman named Ma’Pabello. Ma’Pabello was the administrator of the nursery school where we were working. She is a wonderful witness to a life of faith in the service of others. Caring for the young children of Morija is her mission. As we got to know Ma’Pabello better, one of the women in our group asked what we could do to help her out.
Ma’Pabello’s first answer was to ask us to pray for the children, and then to pray for the school. Talk about humility! We asked Ma’Pabello what we could do for her and she deflected the request—the children were more important!
The women in our group were undeterred. They wanted to know if there was anything else that we could do for Ma’Pabello, perhaps donations of money or equipment for the school. Ma’Pabello gave the most amazing reply: “I want your songs, not your stuff!” She didn’t want a flat-screen, high-def TV for herself or a library full of books for the school. She didn’t want computers or a new car. She wanted to know our hymns of praise. She wanted to know what we sang when we humbled ourselves before God! She wanted to share in our witness to God’s love in the world!
As I said before, the real question, the question we couldn’t ask until we let go of our pride and arrogance and made ourselves humble, was this: “What is God doing here in Morija?” For that week, God brought us together as equals, to learn from one another and to be in community with one another. God brought us there to hear Ma’Pabello’s wisdom, and then God brought us home safely so that we could share what we learned in Lesotho.
Beloved, you don’t have to go to Africa to practice humility or to do mission work. Christian mission isn’t just a committee that’s chaired by Sandra Whitehill! No! It is what each of us does every day, when we fall in with the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to go halfway around the world to do it. The work of reconciliation must be done everywhere: in Africa, yes, and right here in Freehold! To do this, we must approach God in prayer and humility and ask God to use us in the work of reconciliation. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to break down the walls of hostility that separate us from one another. So go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!