This is a sermon I gave for Global Mission Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN on January 22, 2017. The Gospel text was Matthew 4: 12-23 (Jesus Begins to Preach, Jesus Calls His First Disciples). The theme of the sermon is adapted from “Passover Remembered” by Alla Renee Bozarth.Every day that I woke up in Cambodia this past year, I had to be ready to move at moment’s notice. I never quite knew what the day would hold or what my schedule would look like. One special, unexpected day was June 8, 2016. I woke up in Phnom Kravanh, Cambodia to the sound of horns honking as people began their work day. I could feel the intense sunlight beaming into my room, preparing for another 100-degree day. After eating breaking, my co-worker Vireak asked me if I wanted to accompany him for his work in some rural villages. I said yes.
To prepare for this journey, I grabbed my motorcycle helmet because we would be traveling by motorbike for hours. I grabbed my kroma (a scarf) – a necessity because it is used to wipe my sweat off in the hot sun. I grabbed my water bottle. And I grabbed my notebook, ready to take notes and learn whatever lesson Cambodia had to teach me that day. Vireak and I traveled around 50 kilometers that day by motorbike – we visited 5 villages and worked for many hours. June 8 stands out to me because Vireak was not only helping countless families with limited resources move out of poverty– but because Vireak spent hours teaching me, a foreigner and volunteer, about life in Cambodia. When I lived in Cambodia, I had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. This is exactly what Jesus’ first disciples have to teach us in today’s Gospel reading.Our Gospel reading today from Matthew, Chapter 4 tells the story of Jesus beginning his ministry. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee and sees some fishermen named Peter and Andrew. Jesus tells the fishermen to follow him, because Jesus will make them fish for people. And then something abrupt and shocking happens: without asking questions, Peter and Andrew IMMEDIATELY follow Jesus. Immediately. No questions asked. The story continues: Jesus went on and saw two more men named James and John and called to them. James and John immediately leave their boat and their father to follow Jesus. No questions asked. With urgency and immediacy, they follow Jesus. Inspired by this example from our Gospel, I want to challenge us today to reflect on being followers of God – how we are called act immediately and how we can pursue lasting justice and peace. I accepted the call to serve as a Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) volunteer in Cambodia for one year – from August 2015 to July 2016. The Young Adults in Global Mission program of the ELCA sends 80 young adults into global service each year to 13 countries around the world. My mission in Cambodia was to accompany: to walk alongside our global neighbors, to grow in relationship, to learn with them, and then come back to the ELCA to share the story. In my specific placement, I volunteered for Life With Dignity, a non-profit organization that works in rural development and serves the rural poor focusing on education, health and sanitation, skills training, agriculture, and rural banking. My other volunteer placement was as an English teacher at a local public school where I taught 300 students with the help of a local Cambodian teacher. But why did I accept this call to serve as a missionary in Cambodia? The main reason was to force myself to be uncomfortable, and to be challenged in extraordinary ways. I know that real growth and learning comes when we are outside our comfort zones.
On many occasions, my Cambodian friends would say to me: “Please, when you go home to America, tell people about Cambodia.” Every single Cambodian person I met was grateful that I, an American, had come to their small, often forgotten country. It is my honor to be here today to give you a glimpse of life in Cambodia. But I must share a piece of history to put things into context. From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia experienced one of the most brutal genocides in history. Over the course of a few years, 1.7 million people were systematically murdered – 20% of the population. All of the educated people were killed. Cambodians suffered intense psychological trauma from living through the horrors of a genocide. A handful of my friends told me their personal stories of forced labor, starvation, being split up from their families, and being refugees for years following the genocide. While a genocide is certainly an important part of Cambodia’s story, it does not define Cambodia or its people. The country of Cambodia and its hardworking, strong, and incredible citizens have been building their country back ever since. The Gospel of Jesus Christ call us to be there for others who have been suffering – especially for the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten.
So, from 1979 until now, Lutherans from around the world have been contributing to relief and development efforts in Cambodia. I got to see that work of our Global Church firsthand, for an entire year. Here are some examples of this work: we, the ELCA, helps women have access to leadership opportunities, loans and banking, and job skills training. The work of God means providing health and sanitation training, access to clean water, and a quality education to thousands of students. The work of Lutherans in Cambodia means sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to many people who have never heard of Jesus and have never felt God’s grace and love before. We should rejoice in this important work. I want you to come away from today knowing that you are a part of a church that is transforming lives around the world. The ELCA is showing up in places like Cambodia and we are accompanying our brothers and sisters in every corner of the Earth – from Jerusalem and the West Bank, to South Africa and Haiti.But there is so much more work to do, and this is where I turn the focus to you and me, as followers of Jesus. Our Gospel text from Matthew tells us the story of the first disciples’ decision to drop everything and follow Jesus. Those disciples followed Jesus immediately that day – but it wasn’t just a one-day service project. The disciples followed Jesus every day of their lives and committed themselves to a life of serving the outsiders and the marginalized. You and me – this is our calling. It a big calling – to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus’ love and mission was radical, and it is not easy work. But to be a follower of Jesus is to wake up every morning and be ready to get uncomfortable – to look beyond yourself, and to be ready to move as a follower of God.
I want to share a glimpse of how serving in Cambodia as a missionary has impacted me. One of the foremost lessons I felt so deeply while being abroad was that living in another country – being outside of America – made me feel the pain and joy of the world so much more deeply. Being outside of my comfort zone forced me to look beyond myself and really feel the pain of others. There were days in Cambodia where I would wake up and weep for the 65 million people who are displaced in the world today. These migrants and refugees are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the world right now. I would cry for those affected by changes in the climate, including farmers in Cambodia, whose livelihoods depend on the environment and so the uncertainty of agriculture production could send them into poverty. I would cry for children – especially the 35 million young girls in the world today – who don’t have access to an education.
Not only did I feel the suffering of others so deeply, but I experienced my own challenges that helped expand my empathy towards others. While living in Cambodia, I felt my race – the fact that I am white – every single day. By experiencing my race, my understanding of the fight for racial justice deepened. For one year, I lived as a wealthy person by the world’s standards and woke up every day knowing my wealth, standing, opportunities, and privilege. In Cambodia I lived in a brand new place and started a new life there, but I was lonely for most of the days. I can now understand the importance of hospitality because I was the outsider looking to be welcomed. This has been the value of global service for me: a deepening of my empathy and love, an understanding of the multiple fights for justice facing the world, and a renewed call to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So now that I have returned to the United States and live in Moorhead, I am following Jesus by working in our community. One example of my work now is that I serve as an English teacher for a woman named Gamila for 1 hour per week. Gamila and her family, who are originally from Sudan, live in south Moorhead. Gamila has her medical degree from Sudan but needs to learn English to practice as a doctor here. I know that each one of you has a different set of life experiences. Not everyone is able to do a year of global volunteering like I did. However, wherever you are, is the place God calls you to serve. Every day in this community of Fargo-Moorhead we have opportunities to listen to people who are different than us and to get outside of our comfort zone to be better followers of Jesus.
So thanks be to God for the work of our sisters and brothers in Cambodia and in so many other countries, and for the many incredible global mission ministries of this congregation. But I ask God to empower us today. May God work in each one of our hearts to be ready to show up at a moment’s notice for our neighbors who are oppressed, marginalized, and suffering. May God work in our church and its members to look beyond this one day of celebrating Global Mission, so that we commit ourselves to being peacemakers and justice-seekers every day in the name of Jesus Christ.