Michah 5:2-5a; Matthew 1:18-25
There is an episode of the iconic “mockumentary” television show The Office, in which main character Michael Scott, and coworker Andy Bernard, on a whim decide to join a three-month church young adult trip to Mexico to build a school, which they hear about while attending worship for a Christening. If you have ever watched The Office, then you know Steve Carrell’s portrayal of the awkward Dunder-Mifflin paper company branch manager is cringy and genuinely earnest, all at the same time.
As the young people are boarding the bus for their trip, there is a lineup of family members and friends clapping for them and cheering them on. This type of adoration gets Michael’s attention. He joins the throngs to wish them well and before he and anyone else knows it, he is on the bus, in his suit, on his way to Mexico. Andy is hungry for the same veneration, and so he leaps onto the bus with Michael, proclaiming, “I will not stand idly by while these Mexican villagers are sick.” The trip, of course, is to build a school.
After 45 minutes on the road, Michael asks, “What are we building down there again, like a hospital?” To which Andy responds, “I don’t know. I thought it was a gymnasium…”
Then Michael asks, “Why aren’t they building it themselves?
Andy says, “They don’t know how.”
To which Michael replies, “Do we know how? I don’t know how.”
This whole exchange takes place while Michael is wearing, under his suit jacket, a branded t-shirt for the trip someone gave him which says: “Faith in Action.”
These scenes cause me both to laugh and wince at how extreme the portrayal of these two self-serving individuals is who jump headlong onto a bus to meet their own needs, while I also marvel at how spot-on the parody of a certain type of faith-based service trip is. The labeling of “Faith in Action” in the television show got my attention, in such stark contrast to how Westminster understands that term and commitment.
In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton frames the harmful effects inflicted on individuals and communities in the name of Christian service. He describes a church in Mexico that was painted six times by six different groups in one summer, or a village in Honduras that received a well, but it kept breaking down. A group returned year after year and repaired it, only for it to break down again because the community didn’t have the resources or the training to fix the well themselves. Or there is the story of a church in Ecuador that was built by volunteers but was never used because the community didn’t have any need for it.
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone? Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake?”
How do we even know what anyone needs or wants if we do not ask and listen?
Lupton makes the point that, “Yes, many of our motives are noble. We want to invest in the lives of others. We want to engage people in life-changing experiences. Some of us are motivated by the teachings of Jesus- to clothe [those who are] naked, feed [those who are] hungry, and offer compassion to [those who are] oppressed.”
“Often, though, we miss the big picture because we view aid through the narrow lens of the needs of our organization or church- focusing on what will benefit ourteam the most- neglecting the best interests of those we would serve.”
I have been a participant on trips like this, not here at Westminster, but in other church contexts, trips led by those whose motives probably were “noble.” By the end of the week, the experience was about our group and what we learned and how accomplished we felt, how we benefited by what we did for another person or community. We built the stairs, hung the drywall, finished the roofing…took our picture next to it as our proof of a job well done, and then we got in our vans, and drove home.
There is certainly plenty of criticism of Lupton’s book, and so I reference him here cautiously. The main critique is that his book draws largely on his own experiences and absent from the conversation is a focus on advocacy and public policy work, or acknowledgment of structural and systemic reasons why poverty, lack of housing, limited access to health care or education persist. His is an oversimplification of the complexities of accompaniment, but there are things we can do with authentic and thoughtful partnership he describes.
Take the Nicaraguan village, for instance, that worked with a microlending organization in creating a plan for their well, from formulating a budget, to arranging a basic business plan, helping the villagers invest their own money, to connecting them with a Nicaraguan engineer. In the end, they owned and managed the well, which provided enough water that they could sell extra to a local government school, and of course, they could fix any needed repairs.
In our story from Genesis 18, we have verses that, in considering the whole arc of the narrative of Abraham and Sarah, might be thought of as rather mundane. There is a lot more that happens after verse 8, first and foremost being that the travelers ask Abraham where his wife Sarah is, and then one foretells, in a reiteration of the earlier Abrahamic covenant, that Sarah will have a child. Sarah overhears from her marginalized place and all she can do is laugh, for she and Abraham are well on in their years. But the prediction is true, and in due time, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, whose name in Hebrew means: one who laughs.
What we heard Beth read is a simple story of three visitors and Abraham’s elaborate extension of hospitality. Or rather, Abraham’s ideas about hospitality and Sarah’s efforts in extending it. Professor Amanda Benckhuysen comments that Abraham extending such hospitality was common practice in the ancient Near East. It was “part of the moral fabric of daily life, a practice by which travelers had their basic needs tended to in a time before the advent of restaurants and inns.”
So, if Michael Scott’s approach to serving others is not the model, and maybe Abraham’s is not either, how does our understanding of God offer us another way? How do we live out the Golden Rule, as we heard in Matthew’s Gospel, in relationship to God and others?
Last week, Rev. Alanna Simone Tyler invited us to consider as she said, “the depth of God’s relationships with us and God’s commitment to accompany and equip us to enter relationship with one another characterized by God’s good purposes.
In his book Nazareth Manifesto, Samuel Wells proposes a radical reimagining of Christianity’s approach to “help and service,” taking us from a model of being “for” others in a toxic way to being “with” others in the ways Alanna was referring to in her sermon. He talks about the very nature of God, the nature of the Trinity, reminding us that we follow a God who is in relationship with God’s self. Thus, we are created to be in relationship with God and one another. In Wells’s words, “God is with us. These four words express the character of God, the identity of Jesus, the work of the Spirit. They are the Christian testimony about the past, witness in the present, and hope for the future. Each word offers itself as the heart of the gospel.”
His approach calls us to be with people in different ways, ways that do not see them as problems to be solved, but as holy mysteries to be entered. Being with is a “reciprocal process,” Wells says, and “it should undergird the whole of the church’s mission.”
He goes on to say, “God blesses relationships that are entered into where, despite disjunction of power, privilege, influence, or social ability, both parties expect to discover glory through presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, and enjoyment.”
What could have looked different using a framework of with instead of for in the encounter with the travelers Abraham and Sarah received? As soon as Abraham sees the visitors, he runs to meet them, carrying with him his assumptions about what their needs might be. He offers water that they might wash their feet and invites them to rest under the tree, which after traveling surely they would need. He continues with the meal plan, setting Sarah in motion to make cakes, he has a field hand prepare a calf, and along with curds and milk, lays it all out in front of them.
While the food and rest must have been appreciated, did they need directions? A repair on their packs? Balm for a wound? Did they not need anything tangible at all, but rather someone to listen to stories about their journey and be with them in prayer?
We hear that Abraham stood by them while they ate, but we don’t hear that Abraham was with them. He was doing the right thing, right? The good, moral, expected act of offering hospitality to the visiting strangers. Surely Abraham meant well…
Samuel Wells focuses on the role of presence in being with others, stating that, “Presence is the most basic element of being with: but presence itself is tremendously challenging…part of presence is the habit, perhaps discipline, of not seeking solutions.”
Was Abraham present with the three travelers? Did he have much practice in not seeking solutions? I suspect the very same might be challenging for some of us.
To return to Wells: “Creation arises from God’s desire to be with us…Creation is to bring about with. With means creation is God’s decision never to be except with us. We have no existence without this original decision; we have no flourishing without the participation and partnership that make up our side of creation. If we were to reimagine the interaction between the three travelers and Abraham and Sarah through this perspective, we can wonder what flourishing, participation, and partnership might have been possible.
Westminster has longstanding Global Partners in the West Bank of Palestine, Cameroon, and Cuba, and we have groups from Westminster in Cuba right now in solidarity with our Cuban friends. Rarely is anything constructed, painted, or produced when partners come together. Nothing is done for our global partners. Rather, visits build community and friendship, centering around prayer, worship, learning, and shared service. It is the epitome of with.
The Families, Youth, and Children leadership, under the guidance of Rev. Alexandra Jacob is making the concerted move away from youth “mission trips” to youth “service-learning trips.” The language shift is more than just nomenclature, for it is deeply rooted in a theological understanding of God with us and that we are with one another. In reflections from Alexandra and the youth, she shared that the term mission trip “evokes histories of injustice done to historically marginalized populations throughout the world in the name of Christian ‘mission,’ especially indigenous populations in the US. It also implies a power dynamic that we seek to avoid in our work – if we’re seeking to accompany and come alongside, the ‘us/them’ divide implied by the term ‘mission’ seems contrary to our purposes.”
I am grateful for Alexandra’s leadership, along with FYC leaders and youth for embracing service-learning trips as a way for these young people and those they come alongside each summer to discover together glory through presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, and enjoyment.
This past summer we had the opportunity as a family to visit the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. There we viewed an exhibit called, “Who Cares: Gender and Humanitarian Action.” The exhibit asked the question, “Who feels genuinely affected and moved…to provide care to others by working to meet their needs?” It presented “a broad selection of objects and little-known accounts spanning more than a century, [inviting us] to consider humanitarian action in all its diversity. Inspired by social justice movements seeking to counter racial and sexual discrimination, [the exhibit cast] a spotlight on figures who have long been excluded from humanitarian history.”
Along the walls were large displays asking the questions:
“Who makes the effort to take care of others?”
“What can we do to meet people’s needs?”
The exhibit was asking essentially, “How can we be with one another?”
I turned the corner at one point and came upon a photo of Eedah, a widowed mother of four who was in a refugee camp after fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Eedah was running a makeshift hair salon and beauty parlor in the camp, which offered those interned there a rare moment of physical comfort and relaxation. The photo showed Eedah, a broad smile on her face, under a bare bulb in a temporary structure, gently applying makeup to a woman seated, calm and peaceful, looking up at her with her eyes closed.
Eedah was with those also in the refugee camp, making the effort to care for others and to meet their expressed needs. She wasn’t trying to fix anything or solve anything. She was simply with.
Another photo portrayed human rights and environmental activist Pia Klemp, who between 2015 and 2020 led numerous rescue operations in the Mediterranean as captain of three different ships. “She rescued hundreds of migrants from drowning and may now face prison time as a result of the heavily politicized humanitarian aid situation.”
In 2019, she described her understanding of being with others, saying, “[Solidarity] means I don’t need to take on strangers’ problems, worries, or oppressions as my own. Solidarity means recognizing that all of these problems are mine from the start.”
Pia Klemp was with those who were migrating as she encountered them on rescue operations, as a living example of how followers of God are called to be with others.
In my early 20’s I led backcountry hiking and paddling trips, deep into remote woods and rivers of Michigan. As my own children are approaching the ages of those young people in my charge, I marvel at the responsibility I was given then and that we all survived unscathed! Part of my training was to become a “WFR,” a Wilderness First Responder. I went through an intense, 80-hour training course and a lot of it I have forgotten. I haven’t had much occasion to practice those skills in my current gig, thankfully, but one thing that stuck with me was something we were told in the first hour of the first day. Many of us live by the imperative that in an emergency, you don’t just stand there, you do something! Our training instilled in us the opposite: Don’t just do something, stand there!
We might extend that theologically to mean, “Don’t just do something, be with!”
Being with doesn’t allow us to be efficient, to find the easy fix or the safe solution. It asks much of us because it requires us to sit, listen, abide, partner, wait, and live into the relationships God places before us.
Being with is hard, and it can feel like it isn’t enough.
Samuel Wells speaks to that very criticism, that being with does too little to make a difference or make the world a better place. Some feel it does too little to show compassion or eradicate suffering, to fight structural evil and systemic injustice. He argues that the converse is true, that being with asks too much, rather than too little, and that is why we find “a hundred ways, practical and intellectual, to circumvent it.”
Beloved, we follow a God in Jesus Christ who is for us, but far beyond that is a God who is with us. Trusting in that, may we move into the world following the invitation to be fully with God, and fully with God’s people. May it be so.
 “The Christening,” The Office, Episode 7, Season 7. Original Air Date: November 4, 2010. Written by: Peter Ocko; Directed by: Alex Hardcastle.
 Lupton, Robert. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). (New York, Harper Collins) 2011, p. 15.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 11-13.
 Obtained online: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11/commentary-on-genesis-181-15-211-7, January 16, 2023.
 Wells, Samuel. A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God. (West Sussex, Wiley) 2015, p. 7.
 Ibid., 178, 187.
 Ibid., 186.
 Ibid., 177.
 Ibid., 232. (Italic added for emphasis)
 For more information: https://www.redcrossmuseum.ch/archives/who-cares-genre-et-action-humanitaire/
 Descriptions from introductory display boards at the exhibit.
 Quote from photo caption.
 Quote from photo caption.
 Wells, 296.