In the summer of 2014 I participated in a mission trip to South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho. It was an amazing journey. I have shared this story with a number of different congregations. I preached this version on September 28, 2014 at Jefferson United Presbyterian Church. The primary text for this sermon is Philippians 2:1-11.
Good morning! Thank you for having me to share this time of worship with you today. I was going to start with a really old joke: I just flew in from Africa, and boy, are my arms tired—and my legs, and my back, etc. etc. But I’ve been back for almost two months, so I believe the statute of limitations has expired on that joke. However, I’m not joking about flying in from Africa. This summer, I participated in a two-week mission trip to South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho.
Now I’m going to guess that all of you are familiar with the nation of South Africa—especially if you were alive during the 1970s and 80s and were paying attention to the struggle to end Apartheid, the legal segregation of and discrimination against black South Africans and other people of color. Chances are good that most of you are familiar with South African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But I would guess that there are some of you who aren’t familiar with the Kingdom of Lesotho. Let me confess that I didn’t know very much about it, either, until I went there.
Lesotho is an independent nation of about two million people and it is 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, but it’s not a place that gets many visitors from the United States. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard about Lesotho in the news. It’s a poor nation, but it’s far from the poorest. Although HIV/AIDS is a problem in Lesotho—as in all of southern Africa—I’m unaware of any famines or wars in Lesotho in recent memory. Just this past week, there was a military coup in Lesotho, but it appears that there was no bloodshed, and unless you get your news from the BBC or you have a personal friend in Lesotho, then this takeover probably escaped your notice.
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. This is a very typical understanding of Christian mission—a group of us went somewhere far away, to do something for someone who really needed our help. It could be viewed, as the Apostle Paul described in this morning’s reading from Philippians, as an act of “compassion and sympathy.” 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.
Another common understanding of mission work is to send a person or a group of people abroad to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that wasn’t our job, either. In fact, the town of Morija was founded by French Protestant missionaries in 1833! We missed that party by almost 200 years! Today, 90% of the population of Lesotho is Christian. So what were we doing there? Why did we travel some 9,000 miles to assist a bunch of brick layers?
To be totally honest, for me, the trip to Lesotho was something of an add-on. I signed up for this mission trip because I wanted to go to South Africa; I wanted to learn about reconciliation. I thought I would witness some good stories of reconciliation in South Africa. But that doesn’t answer the question of why our group went to Lesotho. Before I address that question, I think we need to take a closer look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians; it sheds a lot of light on Christian mission.
Philippi was a fairly large settlement in Macedonia. It was a Roman colony. That meant that land in Philippi had been given to Roman soldiers after they had completed their service in the legions. Think about that for a second. Many of the Philippians were veterans. I imagine most of you know a few people who served in the armed forces of the United States; perhaps some of you are veterans. I’ve never met a veteran who was not proud of his or her service.
This must have been true in Philippi, too. Imagine that you were a Roman soldier in the middle of the First Century. Perhaps you were a Roman citizen, but you had little property or chance of advancement. Or maybe you were a freeman, but not a full citizen of the Empire. Service in the legions was your chance for moving up in the world. The term of service in the Roman legions was typically twenty-five years. So, after all those years of marching around the Roman world, sleeping on the ground, in the cold, eating bad food, and fighting the enemies of the Empire—where you might have been outnumbered five-to-one, or six-to-one, or ten-to-one—if you made it through all that, then you got a plot of farm land and you earned the right to be called a Roman citizen. You made it! Now, you were someone. And you earned it! How could you not be proud?
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. So 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.
Our mission team in South Africa included sixteen people: two seminary professors, thirteen seminary students and recent graduates, and the husband of one of the students. 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 early- or mid-sixties. 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—sort of the opposite of the situation in this morning’s gospel reading. 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. My friends, that is part of the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit.
I have traveled overseas for a number of mission trips. One of the things that I have discovered is that most people outside of the United States have never heard of Pittsburgh. Can you believe that? Never heard of Pittsburgh? It’s strange but true. Now don’t kid yourselves; I’m sure they haven’t heard of Bensalem, and probably not Philadelphia, either. But then, a great many of us had never heard of Lesotho, a nation that is not well known outside of southern Africa. To the uninitiated, Pittsburgh and Lesotho might seem like global backwaters, names on a map that few people ever visit. Then again, two thousand years ago, Palestine was a little province on the edges of the Roman Empire. Nobody expected that a humble servant born in Palestine some two thousand years ago would eventually change the world. Amazing things can happen outside of capital cities and the centers of culture.
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 from Pittsburgh 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.
The Confession of 1967 states: “God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the mission of reconciliation to which he has called his church are the heart of the gospel in any age.” I didn’t find any quick, easy stories of reconciliation in South Africa. However, in Lesotho, our whole team got to participate in the process of reconciliation. That reconciliation is an ongoing process, a process that began when we let go of our selfish ambition and let the Holy Spirit come in and do its work.My friends, you don’t have to go to Africa to practice humility or to do mission work. Christian mission is not just a committee that meets on the third Sunday of every month! 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 also here in Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills, over in Baldwin, down in Rostraver Township, and everywhere else! 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!