What Are We Willing To Bring?
Sunday, April 30, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Acts (13:1-3) 14:8-18
A few weeks ago, some members of the Global Mission Team had a Zoom call with members of San Agustín Church in Guatemala. There were about six of us and 30 of them on the call. The people of San Agustin gathered in the sanctuary of that beautiful church on the hill that Sue Borchardt talked about last week. Pastor Karen Castillo, the President of the Lutheran Church in Guatemala (ILAG), hosted the conversation, with all of them on one link on her phone, and the six of us in our own little boxes on screen in our respective homes. It was a meaningful conversation filled with introductions, and highs and lows of life and ministry. We learned that they are experiencing drought, which is a hardship for everyone in the community. At the same time, the church is eager to move forward with the construction of the kitchen and community center, it’s exciting and giving their ministry focus and energy. Here at Augustana, we talked about how we recently called Deacon Stephanie and shared that we are grateful for all the people who are worshiping together again post-pandemic. We shared some of the things we notice that are different after the pandemic, and that we grieve some of those things.
The conversation was going back and forth in English and Spanish. At one point in the conversation, I thought I would be brave. I had four years of Spanish in high school and one semester in college – 25 years ago. Which, I quickly learned, is just enough time away from the language to be dangerous. We were talking about the upcoming trip in August, and I wanted to say something like, “It will be good to know all your names and faces when we come in August.” The problem is I only remember how to speak Spanish in the present tense. So instead, I said something like, “I want to know your names and faces.” And the implication was that I wanted to know them NOW. So, all of a sudden, the conversation shifted, and each person quickly came to the camera and introduced themselves and how they were connected to the church. It wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened, but it definitely wasn’t what I intended! Something got lost in translation.
When Paul and Barnabas set out to Lystra to share the gospel with Gentiles, they were led by the Spirit to places and people they weren’t prepared to meet. As they set out on these journeys, they came across all kinds of situations where things were lost in translation. They didn’t know the language. They weren’t completely familiar with the customs. And yet, the Spirit worked through them despite their limitations. As Paul approached the crowd in Lystra, he saw a man with an eagerness to trust what Paul was saying, even if he didn’t completely understand what Paul was saying. The man appeared to be disabled, unable to walk because his foot was misshapen from birth. Despite the cultural and linguistic barriers, the good news of Jesus somehow was clear as they looked intently at one another. Nothing was lost in the looks of determination and compassion that were exchanged between the two of them. Faith was bubbling up in the man, and Paul could sense it. He wasn’t going to let some difference between them stand in the way of the Spirit changing the man’s life.
Now, it’s just as miraculous that the man trusted what Paul was saying as it was that the man was healed because of that faith. But the misunderstandings were not over. As the crowds saw the man spring to his feet, they reacted in the faith they knew, not the one that Paul and Barnabas came to proclaim. Their initial reaction was to lament – to tear their clothes, as if to say, “What have we done?! We’ve made a mess of this whole situation.” Then they found a way to speak of God’s power in a way the people might understand. They spoke of the God who created heaven and earth, who brings rain to their fields, and bountiful harvests to their tables. They peeled back the layers of the people’s understanding of their world to reveal the God who orchestrates it all.
It takes courage and faith to build relationships with people from other cultures. Whether those people live in another country, a different part of the city, or come from a different socioeconomic class, or experience life in a different generation. Whether you are deeply committed to global mission or not, the reality is that God calls all of us to engage in relationships and ministry that is cross-cultural. There is the potential for misunderstanding and potential for incredible transformation, both in our lives and the lives of those we connect with.
Along the way both will likely happen. The question to ask ourselves is what are we willing to bring to these experiences? Will we bring a willingness to allow the Spirit to use us to build bridges of understanding across cultures and differences? Will we trust that we are part of the ongoing story of Acts; that God chooses to work in us to use what we already have to share hope and healing across cultures and generations? Will we bring humility to recognize that we may not always get it right, but try anyway because we can’t help but want to be part of what God is doing? Will we bring curiosity about those we meet, wherever we encounter someone who is different from us in our daily lives or when traveling to meet our global partners? Like I said last week, our theme for Global Mission this year is “Because at the table…” because global mission is rooted in relationship. We never know what is possible at the table until we show up. And this isn’t just the case for global relationships, it’s the case for any relationship. God makes things happen that we couldn’t imagine happening when we gather at the table with grace, compassion, curiosity, and hope.
Earlier this week, I was talking to a group of people who were lamenting the breakdown of relationships in society, especially in neighborhoods. Someone in the group said, “It’s sad that people don’t know each other better. There are so many bad things that are happening because it seems we’re afraid to know each other.” They went on to reflect on all the shootings that have happened recently because someone pulled into the wrong driveway or rang the doorbell of the wrong house. I can’t understand how we’ve gotten to a place where we’re so afraid of each other that the first response to a stranger is to pull out a gun and actually shoot at another human being.
I wonder, friends, what would happen if we decided to change our perspective about the fear, if collectively we chose a different path. What if we leaned hard into curiosity about differences and chose not to be so afraid, even as we consider the risks? What if we chose to see those who are different from us, both near and far, not as suspicious, but as those we share a common humanity with and could see as potential friends. I have to believe this is how Pual and Barnabas approached their mission to the Gentiles. Without their willingness to be open to these strangers, to make mistakes in trying to know them, to be misunderstood, to keep trying to find a way to connect with those the Spirit called them to, I’m pretty sure this church and most other churches in the world wouldn’t exist today? What we see from the first missionaries in Acts is that faith calls us to trust that the Spirit leads us to people and places that we may not initially understand, but where misunderstandings can be overcome by compassion, curiosity, and dose of humility.
We have participated and been witness to these transformational experiences as we have built trusting relationships with our friends in Tanzania and Guatemala over the years. I’m deeply grateful for your commitment to these ministries and am excited to continue the work the Spirit has called us to in these partnerships. And, as we seek to strengthen the church around the world, let’s also be part of the reconciling work the Spirit calls us to in the everyday places of our lives. Set aside fear. Trust in hope. Reach out to those closest to us that may be different in one way or another. Learn from each other through curiosity, hope, and compassion how the Spirit is calling us to live as God’s people in this complex world. This is the way of the Spirit. This is the life to which we are called. Will it be messy sometimes? Of course. Will we always say or do the right thing? No. But that is what God’s grace is for. God, by the power of the Spirit, enables us to do more than we can ask or imagine. As people of faith, we have all we need to give to this work. So, what will you bring? Whatever it is, may it change us and change the world for the better. Amen.