A Sermon for Sunday July 17, 2011, Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 58:6-9; Matthew 25:34-40
During the National Prayer Breakfast in 2006, keynote speaker Bono, world renowned humanitarian and frontman of the legendary rock group U2, made the following remarks about global poverty, which included references to two of the scripture texts that were read this morning:
The one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. “If you remove the yolk from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places” (Isaiah 58:10)
It’s not a coincidence that in the Scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times. It’s not an accident. That’s a lot of airtime, 2,100 mentions. You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the poor. ‘As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.’ (Matthew 25:40). 
Many of us are familiar with the biblical passages regarding God’s call to do justice for the poor and oppressed, particularly Matthew 25. The verse, “For as you have done to the least of these who are my brothers and sisters you have done unto me” is a central tenant of the Christian faith and a core belief that drives the mission and outreach ministries of this church. And yet, like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, we are often puzzled as to when we saw that Christ was hungry and gave him food or thirsty and gave him drink, or a stranger and welcomed him or naked and gave him clothing, or sick or in prison and visited him. After a week of doing challenging mission work in Honduras, the second poorest country in the world, one of the youth (on the last evening of our trip) confessed to our group of 28: “This has been a great experience and I’m glad we came, but I don’t feel like I’ve done anything.”
Teaching a Sunday School lesson for 30 impoverished Honduran children at Mt. Horeb Evangelical Presbyterian Church; helping church members Juan and Maria build a cement block bathroom and kitchen extension on their existing home where they reside with their grown daughters and their elementary and toddler-aged grand-children; playing soccer and making friendship bracelets with 50 kids at Hogar Diamante, a home for troubled boys who are often ripped from their families by drugs and gang activity; forming friendships with the staff and their families at the ranch house where we stayed during the trip—all in the busy, crowded and poverty-stricken capital city of Tegucigalpa—seemed natural and routine. Some folks in the group, I’ve recently discovered, are not sure we did anything extraordinary—they don’t quite feel that we made much difference at all in Honduras, that they made a transforming impact on people’s lives.
It’s a normal feeling and a valid sentiment that mustn’t be dismissed. We certainly did good things under the guidance of PCUSA missionaries Tim and Gloria Wheeler who since 1990 have worked with Heifer International in Honduras. But we didn’t change the system of poverty, oppression and injustice that exists in the country.
The people we encountered are still poor, still hungry, still suffering, still struggling to find jobs that will keep a roof over their head and put food on their family’s table. Hondurans like the boys at Hogar Diamante still battle the allure of drugs, gangs, and subsequently violence and death that plague their neighborhoods…even after they’ve been treated with love and care by teachers and reconciled with their loving families.
For all intents and purposes, Honduras is still the same poor and undeveloped country today as it was before 18 youth, 9 adults and I embarked on our mission trip. Therefore, it is understandably difficult to see that our week’s work of service actually changed and improved the lives of 100 people much less the more than 1 million that reside in Tegucigalpa…as one of our youth, rising senior Mirabella G., can attest:
I’ve struggled to believe that our group did anything for Juan and Maria and their family. We improved their day-to-day life, but they’re still living in abject poverty. They might live a little longer, but their financial status hasn’t changed. We didn’t give them a better place in society, a better education, or better jobs. Just a kitchen made of brick and a flushing toilet. The world they live in is so corrupt, I can’t imagine them suddenly being able to go to college and get real jobs just because they don’t have to go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? It won’t be sudden. I’ve come to realize that our presence will have long-term effects on the family.
Tim, Gloria, and Heifer International have a vision to help others make a sustainable living, learn trades and skills, and build communities that will grow to prosper. While the family is still in poverty, their lives are steadily improving. Juan and Maria will receive an eco-stove for their kitchen, which will be more efficient and sanitary than their little gas-burning contraption. Hopefully, Juan and Maria’s daughters Amanda and Roxanne will be able to work and earn enough to have groceries every week. And Juan and Maria’s grandchildren, Sarah and Catherine, have the opportunity to get a high school education, which could help them earn enough to go to college, or to send their own children.
By going to Honduras and making a connection with this family, we’ve empowered them to better themselves. We planted the seeds, seeds of hope that will spread through the community in Tegucigalpa. It’s not going to happen overnight, but maybe someday they’ll be able to overcome the poverty and oppression. We will have helped “the least of these” to become great. I’d thought we’d done nothing for these people, but in fact, we’ve helped them begin to achieve things on their own. Supported by the love we shared with them that week, they can finish building their house and move on to building their lives.
Mirabella and I had a lengthy discussion on a Facebook messaging thread about how, despite this realization that she’s shared, she is still not 100 percent sure if our presence in Honduras had or will have an impact on the people who live there. Mirabella said that she would’ve liked to share more personal stories from her experience in Honduras, but was concerned they weren’t nearly as positive and uplifting. She wrote, “There wasn’t much in those moments that seemed hopeful.” I replied, “It’s completely understandable and normal for you and others to have the feelings you do. I’ve had those feelings and will have them again. I for sure have them about Haiti.” Truth be told, I also have similar feelings of hopelessness regarding Honduras as well as the turmoil in Sudan and the Middle East. I convince myself at times that no amount of mission work will change the suffering and injustice that millions endure in those areas every day.
The world is a broken and messy place where human beings are treated inhumanely. To observe that messiness first-hand—to literally stand in the mud and muck of the poverty that surrounds and nearly suffocates good people like Juan and Maria and their family—is overwhelming. Seeing such misery makes it that much harder to return to the comforts of home. Even with a renewed sense of humility and gratefulness for a poverty-free life, it is tough to resume day-to-day living in the U.S. As several youth affirmed in Facebook statuses the day after the group returned from Honduras, “we are forever changed.”
We are forever changed. All of us to be exact, those serving and those being served, are forever changed…because we have seen the face of God in one another. We or more specifically the youth and adults who went to Honduras have seen Christ-in-the-flesh in our friends, our family and most definitely in the poor, the sick, the stranger and the prisoner.
The mission team shared food and drink with Juan and Maria and her family and their friends who helped work on their kitchen and bathroom. Many of the youth intentionally bought sodas and snacks from a local gas station for our bus drivers Carlos and Nehemiahs and for our guide and protector Don Jose. The entire group prepared and shared a July 4th feast of hamburgers and hot-dogs with avocado and salsa toppings with the ranch’s kitchen staff, Luisa and Almeda, and their families. Brigid Richardson cooked a safe and healthy meal of rice and plantains for Juan and Maria’s youngest grandchild, 2-year-old Wilbur.
When you give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, you give food and drink to Christ.
The mission team built relationships with people they never met. The youth played games with Almeda’s two boys Steven and Kevin and some of the adults read stories to them or gave them plastic spider toys or let them draw in their journals. Our young people laughed, sang songs and acted silly with Juan and Maria’s grandchildren. They had conversations with troubled 11-year-old boys on the benches of Hogar Diamante. They spent hours patiently showing some of the younger boys how to make a friendship bracelet. They walked into a children’s classroom in a church they had never seen and taught a lesson on Jesus calming the storm that was tossing the disciples’ boat to and thro.
When you welcome the stranger, you welcome Christ.
The youth and adults gave friendship bracelets to the guys at Hogar Diamante, to Juan and Maria’s family and to random children on the streets of Tegucigalpa. At the end of the week, each member of the mission team piled several of their belongings in a corner of the meeting room at the ranch—shirts, hats, tennis shoes, boots, shorts, jeans, jackets and more—to be distributed by Gloria Wheeler to those in need of clothing. The group also took up a collection of money to give to the kitchen staff, Nehemiahs and Don Jose so they could buy clothing or other items for themselves and their family if they so chose.
When you clothe the naked, you clothe Christ.
The mission team took care of one another. They rotated among the various jobs and made sure each person was getting plenty of water and taking a break from the heat by sitting in the shade. Margo Vuchetich and Missy Thurlow, nurse and occupational therapist by trade, respectively, gave us medicine for headaches, ointment for sore muscles and a lot of TLC, especially when a couple of team members were hugging the toilet on the last day. The team helped with the building of a kitchen and bathroom that, as Mirabella mentioned earlier, will make conditions more sanitary and thus healthier and safer for Juan and Maria’s family.
When you care for the sick, you care for Christ.
The youth and adults spent an entire week with people who are imprisoned by poverty and oppression as a result of corrupt government officials, wealthy landowners and greedy businessmen who look out for their own self-interests. The mission team made two visits to Hogar Diamante to be with boys who some courageous Honduran adults are trying to keep from a life of prison.
When you spend time with the prisoner, you spend time with Christ.
Caring for others as we would for Christ is not something we can deny or avoid. As group of Latin American bishops and priests once explained in 1977:
As the followers of Christ that we are trying to be, we cannot fail to show our solidarity with the suffering—the imprisoned, the marginalized, the persecuted—for Christ himself identifies himself with them. We once again assure the people of our support and our service in the fulfillment of our specific mission as preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ who came to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.”
Whenever we do mission work in the name of Christ, regardless if it’s in Duluth or in Honduras, we—simply by our presence, by our being there—witness God’s love for creation and all of humanity. We don’t ride in on a white horse to save the day or push our own agendas and plans or set out to make a quick fix. Instead, we stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and (often without words) we communicate the message: We love you. You are a child of God. You are family. You are part of my story… and you are not alone.
And just as we do for Christ as we do for the least of these, we also receive, simultaneously, the same love in return which Anna Hoffman, a soon-to-be freshman at Georgia Tech, pointed out to me the other day:
When we go on trips to work with the poor we’re always told to look past racial, social and cultural differences. And I’m my opinion we do this! What surprised me was how well the Honduras we worked with looked past our differences. They didn’t see us as useless, ignorant Americans. They saw us as individuals trying to help their fellow man. Even though they knew we had wealth, I felt no prejudice or hard feelings from them. With these trips where the standard of living is so drastically different than our own, I sometimes worry about how the people will accept our help, but during this trip we might as well have been working on a family members’ house.
Whenever we are with the poor and oppressed and they with us, regardless if we don’t immediately make a vast improvement in their lives, the unexpected happens. Christ happens. God’s love and mercy happens. And by embracing those moments when God is happening and on the move, each of us come one step closer on God’s paths to the reality of the kingdom. A popular pastor and author put it this way:
Our standing in solidarity with the single parent, the unemployed, the refugee, our joining the God of the oppressed to work for justice in the world, doesn’t just make a difference for those who are suffering… It rescues us. Have you ever heard someone return from a trip to a third-world setting and talk about how the “people there” have nothing and yet they have so much joy?
Those with nothing but the clothes on their back, a few tortillas and a wage of $2 a day gave us as a mission team as much as we gave them, possibly more. What we have is an account of their suffering, their faithful perseverance and their longing for hope. What we have is their story, their lives of compassion and kindness to share with our friends, family, communities and world.
What we have is memories of how they treated us with mercy, kindness and love—Maria passing out our lunch; Juan insisting that we take breaks; Roxanne making tiny cards on colorful paper splattered with glitter and inscribing a note of thanks and a scripture verse inside for each one of us; Almeda and Luisa cooking for us; Don Jose shepherding us and bearing are workload.
What we have is a message that proclaims the gospel is real and the kingdom of God can be established in the here and now. Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision U.S., reminds us that:
The kingdom of which Christ spoke was one in which the poor, the sick, the grieving, cripples, slaves, women, children, widows, orphans, lepers, and aliens—“the least of these”—were to be lifted up and embraced by God. It was a world order in which justice was to become a reality, first in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ followers, and then to the wider society through their influence… The perfect kingdom of God was to begin on earth. … Proclaiming the whole gospel. … encompasses tangible compassion for the sick and the poor, as well as biblical justice, efforts to right the wrongs that are so prevalent in the world. This whole gospel is truly good news for the poor, and it is the foundation for a social revolution that has the power to change the world. 
Charlotte, Adam, Eric, Nicole, Mirabella, Colby, Anna, Brad, Harry, Sarah, Kelly, Amy, Hope, Evan, Luke, Molly, Chandler, Hannah Ruth, Nancy, Glen, Mary, Erik, Brigid, Greg, Missy, Margo and Jerry (and the entire congregation who supported these young people and adults on their mission trip to Honduras)—you encompassed tangible compassion for the sick and poor, as well as biblical justice, efforts to right the wrongs that are so prevalent in the world.
My friends, know deep in your hearts that your presence truly made all the difference in the world in Honduras—every breath, every step, every word, every action no matter how small or large. Believe with all your might that coincidence wasn’t the reason you were in Honduras and are now back to share an experience that is full of wonder, joy, laments, humility, gratefulness, doubts, questions and righteous anger.
Each one of you was chosen to embody God’s love for those in need and to experience God’s love in return. Each one of you has been on one of God’s paths that led you to this moment in your lives. Each one of you, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, has given “yourself to the hungry” and satisfied “the desire of the afflicted” and “your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places.”
Don’t underestimate what you can and are doing for the least of these or what they are doing for you through the simple acts of loving and being. Keep faith and hope. Continue onward on God’s paths, always being in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Don’t delay and never hesitate because…
God’s love and mercy for the poor and all people is happening—God is on the move!
 On The Move, Bono, 2006
 We Drink From Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, 20th Anniversary Edition, Gustavo Guiterrez, 2003
 Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto For the Church in Exile, Rob Bell and Don Golden, 2008
 The Hole In Our Gospel, Richard Stearns, 2010