The New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia is a favorite stop on our way out of Pittsburgh.
The Youth Group from the church/Open Door is spending the week at the Qualla Boundary with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. We are staying at the Cherokee United Methodist Church, and we came in order to encounter aspects of the culture, our faith, ourselves, and our world in order to learn something about being more fully God’s people in this world. To get here, we left Crafton Heights immediately after church on Sunday and drove approximately ten hours south.
These smiles kept us going all day long! 521 miles!
The PLAN was to spend this day laying the groundwork for the construction of a deck and porch for a family in need. However, for the first time in memory, we’ve had a day that is simply a “rain out”. Buckets and buckets of water poured across the Great Smoky Mountains, and we were forced to adapt our plan. We spent the morning wandering through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which contained a number of informative displays concerning the history and culture of the people who lived here when the Europeans showed up in North America. We learned about pottery, games (like stickball and lacrosse), and handicrafts; we saw something impressive about the empowerment that the Cherokee traditionally accorded to the women in their midst; and we were saddened to read of “the removal”, or the “Trail of Tears”. In fact, the church in which we’re staying is the oldest Native American congregation in the Eastern USA, and it boasted about 440 members in the year prior to the “removal”. Three years later, the church had only 40 members.
I was haunted by this quote in the museum…
We spent the afternoon, in Paige’s words, “pretending it’s a retreat: let’s get to know each other!” You might have enjoyed working a puzzle or playing Apples to Apples; I know I got a kick out of Tim doing his best Jimmy Stewart impression to a group of adolescents who have absolutely no idea who Mr. Stewart is. When the weather gave us a little bit of a break we took a quick trip to measure out our job site and a brief hike to the beautiful Mingo Falls.
A little “Apples to Apples” on a rainy Monday!
The Group at the Falls
If the success of the trip is measured in how much wood gets cut or how deep the holes we dig are, well, today was a washout. But if we’re here to encounter and be encountered, well, then – today was a success. And hey – no splinters!
On August 6, we commissioned our Youth Mission Team for a week of service at the Cherokee Mission in partnership with the Cherokee United Methodist Church in the Qualla Boundary in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Our texts for the day included Luke 8:19-21 and Ephesians 2, selected verses.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the link below:
In an hour and a half or so, a group of young people will climb into the vans and drive 521 miles south to the little town of Cherokee, North Carolina, where we’ll engage in our mission service and learning trip for this year. For some folks, this is “old hat” – heck, a few of these travelers have been halfway around the world with me at one point or another. But for at least four of us, this is the first Mission Trip with the Crafton Heights church. I would suspect that for most of the group, this is the first visit to a Native American Community. I would suspect that there are some nervous questions popping up in some young minds:
What will we be doing?
What are these people like?
Am I going to have to talk to people I don’t know?
Am I going to have to talk to people I DO know?
What will there be to eat?
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share a bit about a time when my mind was filled with questions like that. In January of 2013, I was privileged to take part in a trip to the newest country in the world – South Sudan. Three of us from the USA and three from Malawi were going there to talk about the possibility of our churches becoming partners in ministry and mission. Not only had I never been to South Sudan before, I never knew anyone who had. When I arrived, we went to our guest house and I was told that the next morning I’d be preaching at a local church that would worship using Arabic as well as the language of the Nuer people.
Some of you might be surprised to hear this, but I get really, really nervous when I have to preach to people I don’t know. I wonder what I could possibly say that would make any sense to them. I don’t know their lives, their problems, their dreams… and, in this case, I didn’t know their language. Well, my friend Madut agreed to translate for me, and I told them a story. Listen:
My grandfather lived in a tiny town in Western New York. He had two sisters. Aunt Marian and her husband, Uncle Wilson, lived in a small house in town with their children. Would you believe me if I told you that they had 21 children? Two of them died in infancy, but nineteen survived. 21 people in one small house! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met a few of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them at all.
When Aunt Marian died, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered. In fact, the obituary listed all of her descendants, and then in the place where the community is usually invited to “calling hours”, it said, “blood relatives only”. The Funeral Home was not big enough for her family and her friends. I got to town and I ate breakfast in the local diner, and I mentioned that I was a relative of Aunt Marian’s, in town for the funeral. At another table, a man got a look of surprise on his face and said, “You’re in her family? Really? Me too!” As I wandered through that little town all day, every time I turned around, I found myself bumping into relatives that I never knew I had.
Of course, that’s been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. I show up in town, and find my way to a restaurant or a church, and every single day I run into people who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas… We are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!
The Apostle Paul lived for a while in the little town of Ephesus. While he was there, he started a church. Things didn’t always go well for that church, and in fact by the time he got around to writing them several years after he’d moved away, they were bickering and feuding amongst themselves. He had to remind them that they were all one family because of what Jesus Christ has done. They hadn’t come from the same place, of course; they didn’t speak the same languages or know the same stories – but everybody at the church in Ephesus was being built into the same family as the people in Rome, or Jerusalem, or anywhere else that God was working in the world.
My grandfather had another sister: my great-Aunt Mae. She and her husband, Uncle Glenn lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. When my parents dragged me into her presence as a child, she never seemed particularly happy to see me. However, once I was grown, if I came through town town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry so much the time, and I felt like there was nothing I could do that would make her happy..
Fortunately for me, my Aunt Mae lived to be an old woman, and as I matured, I came to see things a little differently. The more I got to know her, the more I understood that she wasn’t really mad at me or any of the other people around her. If she was angry, she was mad at the world, frustrated with God, or disappointed in herself… because she never had any children. Here her sister had 21 kids, for crying out loud, all crammed into that tiny house – and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.
This learning leads me to my second point: just as I did not understand the pain that my Aunt Mae may have had, there are many, many people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. We’re going to travel to Cherokee, North Carolina. What do those folks worry about? What are they afraid of? What makes them really, really happy? If we’re being honest, we have to say that most of us have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. So we’ll drive down there and hang out with them for a while.
Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to someone in my family who is aching or who is rejoicing and ask our Father to bring the thing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do but to show up and care.
So here is what happened next: as my Aunt Mae got close to the end of her life, she made me promise that I would preach her funeral. By that time I had learned that I never said “no” to Aunt Mae! When she died, every one of Aunt Marian’s surviving children showed up at the church. I can still picture them, all in the back left section of the church. At one point, I invited the congregation to share a word of testimony about the ways that Mae’s life had affected them.
One by one, Aunt Marian’s children stood up and said things like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the work of the farm: the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them. And she loved them. And they loved her. It was my deep and abiding privilege to be able to hear them tell stories about the way that our Aunt Mae showed them love.
So this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return: It seems to me that what my family has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other.
When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” When we come face to face with the Lord, it doesn’t seem as though there will be a test on doctrine, or church history, or political correctness. I think he’ll ask us, “Do you love me? Do you know I love you? And Have you followed me in my love for the rest of the family?”
Whether you are going on a mission trip to a new place with people you don’t know or not, know this, beloved:
Your family is bigger than you can ever imagine it being. We are limited by time and space and experience, but we can and will transcend those limits, sooner or later. You don’t know everyone in your family, and you won’t immediately recognize them. That beautiful blonde girl? That gay couple? That refugee who has crept through mud and muck? That kid who smells bad, or the guy who doesn’t look like you? Who are you to say that they’re not family? Just because you don’t recognize them? And when you do recognize them, you might not like them that much. That’s ok.
The different members of your family have been hurt in ways that you can’t see, and they have experienced pain that you don’t know about, and they hope for things of which you cannot conceive. Their experience may lead them to treat you in ways that rub you the wrong way. That’s ok. It is their hurt, their pain, their hope. You can’t take it away from them, or get them past it. And Jesus does not expect you to do any of that.
What Jesus does seem to expect, however, is that you treat them with love. To do your best to remind them of the fact that we are in the same family, and to share kindness and grace as best you can. When you are out and about with your family, remember to ask them to put up with you when you are falling short, and to extend to them that same courtesy when you can tell that it’s not their best day.
A long time ago, we had a program here at the church called “Kids Klub.” As scores of young people came in and out of this building for crafts and music and recreation, we had only one rule: “I am a child of God – please treat me that way.”
Whether you’re heading to North Carolina this afternoon, Malawi later this month, or just going to stop by Giant Eagle on the way home, it’s good advice. Remember who you are. And remember who you’ll be meeting. Treat each other like you know that. Thanks be to God for people who remember that we are, in fact, children of God. Amen.