May 26, 2019
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29
A few years ago, Saturday Night Live made one of those spoof TV commercials. I actually hadn’t seen it until recently when I was preparing to travel on a mission trip to a primary school in Kenya with members of the church where my husband Oby serves as pastor. All of us going on the trip watched this SNL sketch together at one of our pre-trip meetings and then discussed what we had seen. This fake TV ad features a white man who is strolling purposefully through an African village. In a very serious tone of voice he describes why he’s there. He says, “For years we’ve been taking you to villages like this and showing you the heartbreak of families whose only mistake was being born poor. They need your help, and for only 39 cents a day you can provide water, food, and medicine for these people.” “Just 39 cents,” he says. “That’s less than a small cup of coffee, but it can make all the difference in the world to the people of this village.” Just then, one of the villagers looks up at the man and whispers, “Ask for more. Ask for more money. Why are you starting so low?” Undeterred, the man keeps going, still asking for just 39 cents a day. “As you can see,” he says, “these villagers are desperate for your help. So don’t hesitate. Pick up the phone.” As he’s talking, more and more people start to take notice and speak up. “39 cents? Why 39 cents? It’s not even a round number!” The white man raises his voice. “39 cents. That’s allthese people need to survive. And they’d be so, so lucky—and appreciative—to get it!” Another woman enters the frame. “39 cents? Why is he asking for the bare minimum?” Now the man is exasperated. “We’re notasking for the bare minimum. This number has been decided by very educated and caringpeople who can save your lives.” Now there’s a rebellion brewing. The spoof ends with the people leading the man away and one of the villagers looking directly into the camera. She says, “If you want to see this man again, you better send us $200 cash right now!”
When it was over, our group had a conversation about what we had just seen parodied in this SNL sketch. Our trip leader described how, so often, white Americans travel abroad on mission trips carrying all sorts of assumptions about the challenges people in other parts of the world are facing, and assumptions about the best way to address those challenges. Many times, the ideas we bring with us are decided by “very educated and caring people,” as in the SNL spoof, without any engagement with or input from the actual people in need. We were encouraged to leave our assumptions behind and to show up in Kenya with curiosity and a willingness to listen and observe, simply to show up and be present and follow the Spirit’s lead, rather than thinking we know all there is to know and imposing our own ideas.
Paul has to learn a similar lesson in today’s first reading from Acts. In that lesson that we heard read a few minutes ago, things aren’t going so well for the apostle Paul. This greatest missionary of the early Christian movement is spinning his wheels. In the previous chapter of Acts, he’s had an argument with his best friend and colleague, Barnabas. They had been traveling all around the Mediterranean, preaching the gospel wherever they could. But while making plans to travel to their next place, Paul and Barnabas get into a disagreement about whether to bring along another disciple named Mark. Barnabas wants to bring him along, but Paul thinks Mark can’t be trusted. The disagreement becomes so sharp that the two part ways; Barnabas and Paul split up. Barnabas teams up with that other disciple, Mark, and Paul takes on someone named Silas as his new missionary companion.
Paul and Silas set off in a new direction, but that doesn’t work out very well, either. They think they’re supposed to preach the gospel in the part of Asia we know today as Turkey. Paul and Silas try to talk about Jesus to the people there, but the text says that the Holy Spirit doesn’t allow them to speak the word in Asia. Next they think they’re supposed to go into another region, but again the Holy Spirit forbids it. Paul can’t figure out what to do next. He is confused. Why isn’t this working? Paul and Silas are very educated and caring people! They know exactly what needs to be done, and they’re really good at it! So why do they keep getting stuck?
Finally, out of nowhere, Paul has a vision. That’s where our reading picks up today. He dreams of a man from Macedonia, who pleads for Paul to come and help. Paul doesn’t know who the man is, or how to find him. He doesn’t know what needs he and Silas might encounter when they get there, or what exactly will be asked of them. But Paul senses the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So Paul and Silas set out from Asia to arrive in Macedonia, what is now the European country of Greece. It’s a short trip across a sliver of the Mediterranean Sea, but it still takes a few steps: from Troas to Samothrace, then to Neapolis and finally to Philippi.
Through this experience, Paul and Silas learn to abandon their own ideas about what path they should follow and instead follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. The plans they hadmade are continually blocked by the Holy Spirit. They may be educated and caring people but it turns out they don’thave it all figured out, and so they learn instead to trust God. And the way God speaks is through a foreigner who says, “Please come and help.” Not Paul and Silas acting on their own assumptions and imposing their agenda, but through the voice of another who extends an invitation and willingly receives their assistance. It’s not always easy to figure out what God wants us to do. We will run into roadblocks and dead ends along the way, which may be signs that we’re following our own path rather than being guided by the Spirit. And following the Spirit may mean we’ll have to engage directly with people we hadn’t planned to encounter.
Global mission work has a messy and complicated history that is linked with the messy and complicated history of colonialism. Today when we do global mission work, we seek to accompany our companions, rather than showing up and taking over. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Global Mission unit defines accompaniment as “walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality.” I actually think accompaniment is what Paul and Silas practice once they arrived in Philippi. They get there and stumble upon Lydia and a whole group of women who are seeking a deeper understanding of God. Paul and Silas share what they know to be true for them and it’s a message that resonates with the women who were gathered. Lydia takes it from there. She becomes the leader of the community. Paul and Silas fade into the background; at the end of this story, the two missionaries depend for their livelihood on Lydia’s hospitality. It’s a relationship marked by interdependence and mutuality. It is accompaniment.
When our group actually arrived at the school in Kenya, we were constantly fighting the urge to impose our own ideas. We showed up with all sorts of ideas about games we could teach them to play, songs we could sing together, building supplies we could provide. At first we saw how they went about a construction project and thought to ourselves, why would they use a handheld screwdriver when they could use this battery-powered drill we brought along, somehow failing to realize that charging battery packs is a little more complicated in Kenya than it is for us here in the States. It turns out, they didn’t really need us to show them how to do things. What they needed was for us to show up and simply be their companions—to help out where we could, but mostly to share God’s love just by walking alongside them for a time and taking an interest in them.
“Walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality.” I wonder how the principles of accompaniment could transform our world if our leaders learned to apply them in military and diplomatic endeavors, in response to the crisis on our southern border, even in the way they engage those on the other side of the political aisle. And how could the principles of accompaniment change our world closer to home if we learned to apply them ourselves in our service and advocacy here in this neighborhood, in the way we engage colleagues in our places of work, in our dealings with members of our own family. What might be possible if we learned to put our own ideas on hold, at least for a moment, and showed up to every interaction with a spirit of wonder and curiosity, listening for where the Spirit might be leading us in another direction, showing us the way forward, together?
Bromleigh McCleneghan, “Come and Help Us,” in the Christian Century, May 3, 2010, accessed May 23, 2019, http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2010-05/come-and-help-us.
Saturday Night Live, “39 Cents,” October 12, 2014, accessed May 13, 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEb_epsuLqA.