St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
September 21, 2014
Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ…”
At just about this time last year a group of us were winding down our first Best Practices for Haiti Medical Missions Symposium. Our goal at this symposium had been to bring together Haitian and American medical personnel and administrators to discuss how we might improve our healthcare mission efforts in Haiti.
We believed that it was time to identify ways in which we could better support each other through the pooling of information and resources. We also believed that it was critical to stress the concept of sustainability and to identify ways to ensure that our mission work would remain alive and well in Haiti, standing on its own two feet, without our support, once we had departed.
In other words – we agreed that to continue to do healthcare mission business as usual would not be terribly effective. We wanted to spearhead an initiative that would get us out of our box and into a more effective place.
You might ask, how did we come to this point? Why did we need yet again another meeting – a meeting, some people said, that would take up a great deal of precious time, and would probably, like so many other meetings, lead nowhere? What was wrong with the way that we had always done the business of mission work? Look at all the time and money we had spent over the years sending in teams to distribute medications and provide two to three day clinics. Wasn’t that enough? Wouldn’t it be enough in the future?
I would be less than honest if I did not tell you that I experienced no small degree of fear and trepidation as I stood at the podium and delivered my opening remarks. What if my colleagues and I were exaggerating the need for a re-examination of how we as missioners do business? What if our thoughts regarding the ineffectiveness and oftentimes destructive effects of “parachute” clinics were met with open hostility?
With over 45 participants registered to attend, the thought of going out on a limb and suggesting that we identify a different way of delivering healthcare in Haiti felt risky – but, it also felt necessary. Too many projects were languishing; too many people were operating in the dark with no knowledge of who was doing what; too many men, women and children in Haiti were dying of malnutrition and other diseases that are so easily prevented and so quickly cured. Too many people went for months before seeing a doctor for a painful illness or injury. A new way for US healthcare missioners had to be found - A way that would bring healthcare to Haitians 24/7, not just a few days each year.
As I prepared for the symposium I spoke with many people, read many articles on mission work, and I prayed a lot!
Support from the Presiding Bishop’s office buoyed my spirits. Bishop Katharine said in a brief conference call that we had early on in the planning process, “Go for it. We are in full support of this effort.” Well, that was good news!
Dwight Zscheile’s Book, People of the Way, also inspired me. Zscheile writes, “…Christian mission involves something more than the mere giving of resources. It is an invitation to a deeper, more transformational engagement…Jesus gives of his whole self, relinquishing his higher status, in order to empower his followers, to the point that where, at the end of his ministry with them, they move from being servants to being friends. This is a much more profound reordering of relationships than being a mere benefactor. A far more mutual, reciprocal sharing is at the heart of Jesus’ community and its mission in the world.” (p.26)
A transformational healthcare engagement – that’s what we wanted, needed.
Throughout his book, Zscheile emphasizes that mission must not be our mission, but rather it must be God’s mission. When we go out into the world we are doing God’s will, not our will.
We are not benefactors offering charity; we are disciples spreading the good news and empowering others.
No one states this more clearly than Archbishop Desmond Tutu who says of mission, “We are God carriers.” And, “UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who summed it all up perfectly when he said, “Our goal is simple but daunting -- prosperity and dignity for all in a world where humankind lives in harmony with nature.”
God’s mission – not our misson. What was God’s mission for the medical teams as they embarked on their annual and semi-annual trips to Haiti? Did we make a practice of discerning that before each trip? Did we see ourselves as God carriers or medical benefactors?
As I read, reflected and conferred with colleagues, I came to see more clearly what Best Practices for us in the healthcare mission field means. Of course, it means delivering the highest standard of medical care possible, but perhaps more importantly, it means advocating for prosperity, well-being and dignity for all. It means the transformation of a health starved world into a world in which all people have access to the basic care needed to maintain their dignity as children of God. It means a world in which we as missioners are God carriers as we seek to empower the people of Haiti, and other health starved countries, through our work as missioners whose hearts and minds are, without fail, always focused on the Five Marks of Mission:
To proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God – that vision of a healed world, bigger than all of us, that needs each of us in creating it.
To teach, baptize, and nurture believers – the work of encouragement and formation; living on the road, always looking for new believers.
To respond to human need with loving service – caring for people who need comfort in the midst of grief, liberation from prisons, and hope in the face of loss and darkness.
To transform unjust systems of society – the courage to challenge all kinds of violence, pursue peace and reconciliation and counter the hate, exclusion, and evil of this world with love.
To care for the earth – the garden in which we are set, filled with resources to be stewarded for the good of every creature.
As missioners for Christ we are called to go into the world proclaiming God and living out God’s mission, not our mission. That is indeed our “best practice.” And in order to achieve that best practice we need to work in harmony and in unity, all moving in the same direction with the same agenda -God’s agenda, for us and for the world.
Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard underscores the reality that God’s Kingdom’s is filled with bounty and grace for all. Being on the receiving end of God’s gifts is not dependent on ethnicity, geographical location, social or economic status, or any of the many other variables we have come to use as discriminating factors. God’s gifts are for all, all who enter the Kingdom through his Son, Jesus Christ. All followers, all believers are eligible for an equal share of dignity, harmony and love.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians written from his jail cell in Philippi addresses the challenges that these fledgling Christian’s are experiencing. He urges them to stand united in the face of adversity, to come together as one in remaining committed advocates of their newfound faith in Jesus.
Paul warned his followers that the work is hard, but that the outcome is fruitful – “And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”
If we stand together in one spirit in the face of disbelief, scorn and hardship, we will be drawn closer and closer to God. Our unity in the spirit and our courage in being God carriers will allow us to build and to strengthen God’s Kingdom here on earth – to make it sustainable. These are our best practices.
In two weeks the Second Annual Best Practices for Haiti Medical Missions will be held in Atlanta, Georgia. Once again we have over 45 participants from Haiti and America registered. Once again we will address the challenges we face in delivering best practices medicine that reflect best practices Christianity. Once again we will struggle with language, culture, racism, and the grim reality of poverty and politics as we continue our work of coming together in unity of spirit to find a way to bring sustainable healthcare to Haiti.
Once again, we will pray, as we did last year, that this will not just be another meeting – all words and no action.
I can assure you that last year’s prayers were most definitely heard. The past twelve months have been action-packed - rocky, scary, and exciting. The challenges we have faced and will continue to face are monumental; the work never-ending. In the end, however, we are no different than any other disciple. Indeed, we are journeying alongside the thousands of other God carriers who seek to widen and strengthen God’s world in myriad missional activities. We are in good company as we strive for best practices Christianity and sustainable prosperity and dignity in a world where all humankind lives in harmony.
As it happens so frequently, our best practices marching orders come from Paul when he writes to the Philippians, “…live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come to see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponent.”
We are a missional church. That means our work is hard and that it is never-ending. We are a light to those who wander in darkness, and a comfort to those in pain. We are an advocate for those who suffer from injustice and a protector of God’s heavenly kingdom. As we proceed on our missional path, let us pray that Paul’s exhortation continues to ring in our ears and enter into the words of our prayers and the seeds of our work.
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ…”