Faith In Real Life Blog
Why Church? “Why Go On a Mission Trip?”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Prtesbyterian Church
July 27, 2023
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.” 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you as a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 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.” 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
In terms of today’s scripture, our anxiety about which category (sheep or goat) we fit into diverts us from the important teachings about loving contained in the passage. In this parable the king refers to ‘seeing’ over and over again. The ‘least of these’ will always be trapped by secular categories until we ‘see’ them. Every human being needs to be seen and it is only when we see past our assumptions about others—and what they (and we) ‘deserve’—can we begin to connect with people who seem so radically different from us. Only then can we see that what they need is what we need and vice versa—what we need is what they need. When we see our common humanity, when we see the needs of others, new connections and new wholeness can begin. Scripturally, we are a new creation, and it is what God wants for us. Without such awareness we remain bound by our limited view of what is important in life. We may acquire many things but our failure to ‘see’ will isolate us. The cliche, ‘you can’t take it with you’ reveals a frightening truth about lives devoted to self and to acquisition. This passage is about our faith claim that a life well lived is a life of ‘seeing’, service and connection. Such loving is eternal.
Unfortunately, the truism that anything that can be used can be misused applies to scripture. We are just as likely to turn the passage into what we must do rather than seeing the grace and new creation we are being offered. It is easy to imagine that the primary purpose of a mission trip is to give us a chance to be mindful and to serve. Almost by definition, we see the thirsty, the hungry, the poor, the stranger, etc. and have an opportunity to serve and to care. And, since responding to those human needs seems to be a prerequisite for salvation, mission trips become an investment in eternal life-insurance. Such thinking makes service a way to earn our salvation instead of an organic way to express our gratitude for all that we have been given. Following God’s mandate to see and to serve is very important but the WHY we honor them is much more so. The physical acts of service can be identical but the heart that motivates them can be completely opposite.
That said, let’s look at some of the benefits of mission trips. First and perhaps most important, mission trips offer a concrete way to see differently. When that happens, we are transformed. Mission trips, advertised as service to others—and they do provide service to others—become vehicles of learning and transformation for us. Following are a few of such benefits:
Almost every person I have ever talked to about their mission trip experience report they received more than they gave. Mission trips are as much about us as they are about those we went to serve.
In real life it turns out that service and regard always benefit us—-even when it is hard and inconvenient. That is one of the most counterintuitive truths about our faith.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.