We’ve started our annual mission trip season here at First Church. Every summer we offer four different youth mission trips and one mission camp for fourth and fifth graders. We’re a congregation that strives to instill the value of service into children and youth.
Last week I served with our 11th and 12th graders in rural Guatemala. We serve with Faith Project International, an organization that was founded by church members Brad and Christina Cowherd. This was the fifth time a group of our 11th and 12th grade students have served with Faith Project in Guatemala.
There, we go out into Mayan villages to help provide a hand up to cooking and food safety. It’s the culture of the villagers to cook over an open flame confined in a small room. We provide a steel cooktop and build simple stoves that allow the smoke to be vented outside the house. This allows for much safer cooking conditions and provides the ability to boil water in addition to cooking a meal — vital for the health of the villagers.
We never know what kind of community we’ll be serving in ahead of time. Sometimes the community doesn’t believe we’ll actually arrive and are not prepared for us. It’s their responsibility to build the adobe brick stove base and provide concrete and brick. Other times, like this past week, they are eagerly awaiting our arrival. They fully understand the benefits and just need help purchasing and installing the stovetop — an expense equivalent to many months of income for the typical village family.
All in all, sixteen different families completed stoves in the village last week. With an average family size of 12, these simple stoves have the ability to make an incredible impact in the lives of those families.
Our scripture for tonight is a moment in Jesus’ ministry where he explains to his Disciples exactly what they are doing. Listen to the instructions given by Jesus in Matthew 9:35–10:8 (CEB):
35Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”
1He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean; Or zealot and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.
5Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. 6Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. 7As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment.
Jesus has been traveling around, preaching and healing. Teaching people about the Good News of God’s kingdom. Yet, as he looks out among the crowds he has compassion for the people. Jesus looks out and sees that there is a lot of work to do, and he personally can only do so much — despite being God in human form. So he looks at his gang of twelve follows and tells them to go, and do the work he has been doing. He gives them the authority and the power to do likewise.
It’s our job, as followers of Christ’s message, to follow his lead. We’re called to look out among the people and see those who are hurting, who suffer from injustice, who are in need of help. We’re to see the people and, just as Jesus did, have compassion and be compelled to act.
This is the reason that we spend so much time each summer on mission trips. Jesus instructs us to care for those in need and a trip out of our normal areas, out of our normal lives, helps us to better form eyes of compassion for the world.
On the final workday, I had been working with one group all morning. We completed a stove for a family atop a hill. I was in a strange place where I was hungry but my stomach was also not exactly thrilled with the idea of eating — you could say I was pretty hangry at that moment.
On the way to lunch, we walked to the other group. They were not close to finishing and needed some technical help. I reluctantly stuck around to help finish the stove. I wanted to eat. In that moment I wasn’t looking at the makeshift adobe house, and at the dozen or so kids running around it. I had no compassion for anyone. I was focused on my own needs and desires.
All of that shifted very quickly when I went around to the outside of the house to figure out why we couldn’t cut through the tin roof for the chimney. I placed a hand on the adobe brick wall to try and support my weight as I extended my other arm onto the roof to find the obstruction. At least that was the idea. Instead, the wall could bear zero weight and my hand was too much for it. The wall pivoted and almost came down on me. I caught the wall and held it in place.
This was the wall for this family’s house. There was a little child sanding in that place just a minute before I got there. In that moment — after the shock of the wall almost crashing onto me passed — I saw with eyes of compassion. I had forgotten about my own hunger and instead saw the imminent danger this family was in.
Their wall was not solid. It was not connected to the uneven tree limb used as a center post, holding up the tin roof. The wall was only anchored at the base and distributed no weight for support. It was extremely rudimentary and poorly constructed, even by the village standards. I had almost just destroyed the entire thing by touching it.
Brad arrived and assed the wall. We finished the stove as best we could and the homeowner cut down a tree to brace the mud-brick wall. Will that be enough to hold the wall? Is that even a safe patch? I really don’t know.
Later that day we learned a little bit more about that particular family. They had fifteen children, though five had died before the age of five due to malnutrition. That is a staggeringly high infant mortality rate, even among an area with a higher than normal rate. As our teenagers were processing this, and thinking about the implication of the stove that we had helped build, one of the students said it was “like building a lake in the backyard of a fishermen.”
I have to hope that the stove can somehow help the family prepare better meals, that safer heat can strip the deadly bacteria out of the water. I have to hope that somehow our work in the village is seen as an act of love, that families like that one realize they are loved and not overlooked by the rest of the world.
I walked into that house thinking of myself and I walked out thinking of the family.
Jesus’ message to us through tonight’s scripture is to get up from where we are, our comfortable lives where we are the focus. Jesus wants us to open our eyes and see the world with eyes of compassion and then be sparked into action as a result.
Last week we marked the first anniversary of the Pulse shooting. I think it’s fitting that, for the now dubbed Orlando United Day, the charge was to participate in acts of love and kindness. This fits Jesus’ message to his Disciples and to us.
Jesus said to get up and go help those in need. He said to cast out demons, heal the sick, clean those with skin diseases. Jesus told us to get up and get our hands dirty.
Whether you are participating on a mission trip this summer or not, I hope that you find a way to see others with compassion — just as Jesus sees them. I hope you find a way to follow the example of Jesus and care for those in need. Jesus has given us the authority, it’s up to use to take it.