Last week, a group from the United Methodist Campus Ministry at my alma mater spent spring break in Cherokee, NC for a service/learning trip. It’s a trip that I went on three times during my four years at American University, and it’s very special to me for many reasons, including for the lessons it taught me about the concept of ministry with— lessons that helped lead me to serving in Philadelphia.
I’m going to share a message (my first sermon ever! scary! [Edit: I just remembered that I actually wrote and shared an earlier sermon in college last year]) that I shared with the wonderful congregation of Mid-Town Parish in Philadelphia a few months ago about the trip:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NIV)
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25: 34-40 NRSV)
My name is Rachel, and I’m pretty new to the city of Philadelphia. I moved here about three and a half months ago to work as a community organizer at Arch Street United Methodist Church, and Serenity House, which is Arch Street’s community center and outreach ministry in North Philadelphia. I was assigned to work with Arch Street for the next two years by a wonderful United Methodist young adult mission program that I am in called Global Mission Fellows. Through the Global Mission Fellows program, I have been trained and commissioned as a missionary of the United Methodist Church.
What is mission? What does it mean to be a missionary? These are questions that I’ve learned and thought a lot about recently. These aren’t questions that should be pondered just by commissioned missionaries though—these questions are important for all Christians, because every single one of us called to participate in God’s mission. So I want to tell you the story of an experience that I had that deeply inspired my idea of mission.
Last May, I graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. All four of my years there, I was heavily involved in the United Methodist campus ministry, where I found a welcoming community of faith, opportunities to learn more about God, a chance to explore my spiritual gifts and learn about leadership. The campus ministry also gave me my first taste of being in mission with people.
For three out of my four spring breaks, I joined a week-long service trip to Cherokee, NC that was organized by my campus ministry. Every spring for the past 10 years, the United Methodist chaplain at American University has brought a group of students to the ancestral land of the Cherokee people. We would stay in a United Methodist church which connected us with a light service project in the community and opportunities to engage with members of the congregation and broader community. All three years that I went, our projects were small—a re-floored living room, a firewood crib for the church, some plant beds, and a freshly painted living room aren’t exactly dramatic improvements in the grand scheme of things, for a community dealing with many issues. No group of college students from out of town can offer a solution to the conflict of the giant casino on one hand offering tons of jobs to an otherwise nearly jobless community, but on the other hand mistreating employees just because they have the power to, and at the same time seducing vulnerable community members into gambling away all their money. No week-long service trip can revitalize a local economy and end patterns of poverty and alcoholism and drug addiction. No campus ministry group, even after a decade of spring breaks, can reverse the damage caused by invasion and displacement and genocide, or heal the pain and loss passed down generation to generation.
So why did we even go? What was the point of even trying to help? Because we learned that the relationship we developed with the community is what made our work matter. We grew to love Pat, the soul of the church’s mission organizing, who inspired me with her dedication to the church and its work. We cried together with Amy as she led us in a healing circle that is central to her indigenous faith. We sat for hours in the kitchen of Mama Jo, just listening to her and Pat talk about their friends and family and congregation members and the struggles they were facing. When we finished helping Kevin at the Center for Cherokee Plants, he explained to us the history of culturally significant Cherokee plants and his program to ensure that they continue to be cultivated and to bless the Cherokee people. He taught us about the concept of gadugi, meaning giving without expecting anything in return. We sat with Jerry as he told us traditional Cherokee stories, and stories from his youth attending an Indian boarding school, and taught us to shoot a blow gun. We weren’t solving the concrete issues that the community faced, but we were building relationships. We were expressing solidarity. We were connecting with a group of people who so often feel invisible to their fellow citizens and abandoned by their government, and we were saying, we’re listening, and we care what you have to say.
After two trips to Cherokee to work with the people there, I thought I understood pretty well what it meant to be in ministry with people, not just in ministry to them or for them. I learned from our chaplain and through experience that ministry must happen through relationships. It’s not just about Christians who have the resources going somewhere to help people who are poor, with one group only giving and one group only receiving. It’s about all of God’s people working together to bless one another and grow stronger together, because that way recognizes the value of every person, and it recognizes that all people are called to God’s mission. So I understood that. I thought I had it all figured out. But a profound experience that I had during my last spring break in Cherokee brought even more meaning to it.
It was a bittersweet trip because I knew that I would be graduating in a few months and might never have another opportunity to see the friends that I had made in Cherokee. As a third-timer, I was helping to lead the trip and take on more responsibilities. Our work project for the week was cleaning and painting most of the interior walls of the house of a woman who couldn’t afford to hire painters and was not able to do it herself. On the second day of work, we painted all morning, then went back to the church to eat lunch and get more supplies, intending to get back to work after lunch. While we were eating, a young Cherokee man about our age wandered in and sat down with us and began to chat. We found out that his name was Stevie, and he was the grandson of Pat, who I earlier referred to as the soul of the church’s mission organizing. As we all talked, he realized that one of the students in our group, Teddy, was also Native American, but from a tribe on the West coast, and the two of them started swapping stories and learning about each other. Gradually, the conversation throughout the tables shifted to silence as the rest of us just sat and listened to the back-and-forth between Stevie and Teddy. The two men were excited and little bit stunned to find so many of their experiences and feelings to be so similar. Neither one had ever met someone who could understand his story on such a deep level, especially having just met. They talked and talked. The rest of us would occasionally ask a question or affirm their experiences or observe how freaking awesome it was that Stevie and Teddy were connecting like this, but mostly, we just listened. To our benefit, we were learning things about our friend Teddy that hadn’t come up until he had Stevie to share them with. And on their end, Stevie and Teddy were getting a rare chance to bond with someone who shared their experiences, and to have the full attention and respect of everyone else. The atmosphere in the room was holy as the spirits of these two young men connected.
At one point I dragged my attention away from the conversation and looked at the clock. I was surprised to see that we had been sitting there for three hours and I internally freaked out a little bit when I realized how much time we had wasted. We would have to start preparing supper in a couple hours, and it was almost too late to drive all the way back to the project house to paint more, and we would have to leave now if we wanted to get anything done and if we didn’t leave now then that would mean that we had wasted a whole afternoon that could have been spent productively painting!!! How had I let this happen?! But as I was looking anxiously at the clock and trying to decide how to handle the situation, I suddenly remembered the story of Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary. In the story, which we read earlier, Mary sits and listens to Jesus talk, while Martha busies herself with cooking and cleaning and doing other hostess things to make sure Jesus is comfortable. When Martha gets frustrated and complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t doing any work, Jesus says that Martha should calm down, because Mary has chosen the right way.
I realized that, in that moment of looking anxiously at the clock, I was tempted to be Martha. I was tempted to cut short a holy and healing conversation so that a house could get painted a little sooner. I was tempted by a culture that cares much more for action and results than it does for relationships.
In the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha, the main lesson is that, in order to be a good disciple, Jesus invites us to slow down and listen to his teachings. But this story also contains a lesson on how to be a good missionary. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus tells us that when we interact with the people who are treated by society as less important and less worthy— the stranger, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned— the way we treat those people is the way we are treating Jesus. Which brings a new significance to the Mary and Martha story. Through the combination of these two lessons, Jesus is telling us, first of all, that when we are in ministry with people, we need to remember to slow down. Painting a house or doing work in a kitchen can be good, important work, but if we aren’t connecting and building relationships while we’re doing it, we’re missing something. And second of all, Jesus is telling us that, just as much as feeding the hungry is an act of serving Jesus, sitting and really listening to someone who has been hurt or oppressed or silenced or forgotten means sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ.
When I was on that last spring break in Cherokee, I was in the process of preparing my heart for the mission program that I am now in. God used that experience to teach me an important lesson about mission that I have already put into practice many times in my few months of work with Arch Street UMC. Many times I have felt God nudging me to tear myself away from the busyness to slow down and just connect and listen to someone and experience the same holy stillness that emerged as we sat and listened to Stevie and Teddy.
By the way, despite living states apart, Teddy and Stevie are still close, and they call one another “brother.” When I asked their permission to use their story in this sermon, Stevie, the young Cherokee man, was happy for the story to be shared, and even asked when I would be preaching, because he would like to come if he could.
So when you respond to God’s call to mission, by teaching, by healing, by building, by feeding—whatever way God has gifted you to serve—remember that just as important as Martha’s work in the kitchen is Mary’s work of listening and connecting.