2012 04 13 Bridgeport Sermon
John 15:12, 16
Thank you for inviting me today and giving Lucia mother’s day off from preaching. Happy Mother’s Day to all you mom’s out there. When Lucia and I set the date I asked her what she wanted me to talk about. She said, just tell the stories.
It is impossible to tell the stories in 15 minutes. As I was preparing for this sermon, a litany of images, faces and memories flipped through my mind as I thought about what to tell you. Needless to say, this mission hasn’t been quite as I planned; being evacuated on a UN plane, being first an IDP – Internally Displaced person, and then a refugee, and now a homeless refugee, as I move from place to place, were definitely not in my plans. They were in God’s plans. As I sat in worship last Sunday I saw one of my favorite stained glass window lit up “just for me”.
It is a beautiful window, high up in the sanctuary, with a white dove and rays shooting off of it in all directions. In the early morning light it glows. I was reminded that the light of God is spread out in all directions and through all experiences. Through all these adventures God has allowed me to experience life as the people I will serve live it.
And through it all they work together to create this beautiful tapestry of God’s love. Each thread represented by a different color. Not too long ago they were just a dream. Once, the people were flat faces on a computer screen. I poured over countless google images during my discernment process to answer the call to go to South Sudan. Those images are flat no more. They have names and faces, I have walked their roads, sat by their river, shopped in their market and laughed, cried, worshipped and celebrated the sacraments of baptism with them. I hope, today, through a few words, that I can bring them to life for you.
The red represents the people of South Sudan and the bloodshed that began my journey – the blood shed during intertribal fighting that precipitated my evacuation. The blood shed that has shaped their lives for the past 56 years of civil war. It also represents the blood of Christ that ties us all together.
I was reading the lectionary for today and the words of Psalm 98 just came to life and seemed to dance before me. As they danced memories came pouring back and in the sadness of leaving, I was able to find the joy.
The joy in the words to the Psalm. The joy in the people and experiences along the way.
The people of South Sudan have lived hard lives in a harsh land. They have fled from soldiers, and rival tribe members, in the dead of night. They have lost family and friends, and yet they love and laugh. They celebrate the glory of God’s love and the small victories he blesses them with. And now, as a new nation they sing to the LORD a new song, and celebrate the marvelous things he has done – spare the life of a child, spare their village, their crops, provided fish in the river for food and the river itself for the water of life that sustains our faith, our crops and provides us drink and respite when we need it.
The orange represents the people of Malakal South Sudan. When I was evacuated from Akobo I went through some pretty rough times. I felt lost, alone, uncertain of my future and very afraid I will never see my friends from Akobo again.
God blessed me with an amazing community full of love and life and the opportunity to go and participate in a women’s leadership development conference. More than 30 women from 8 different tribes, some fighting each other, came together to learn new skills. They loved, laughed, worshipped together, broke bread and fellowshipped with each other.
One thing that sticks out in my mind during that week is the singing. We woke up to singing, went to sleep to it. We sang between every session and while sitting together at night under the African stars sharing the things women do – stories, gossip, advice and more.
The Psalm tells us to Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises; and those women did an excellent job.
I saw and heard joy in the streets of Malakal, pouring forth from the churches and in my heart as I walked among the people, sharing tea and culture lessons. I experienced the joy on their faces as I walked through town in my culture dress – a blue flowered scarf (pull out lowa) called a lowa with my head covered in a scarf . I heard the joyful noises in the voices of the pastors that greeted me at the church office as I sat and learned language and in the laughter of those teaching me as I stumbled over the unfamiliar sounds. I wish I could describe the joy on Sister Sara’s face when I joined in the Catholic Ash Wednesday worship service. The light of God’s love was shinning through as her face lit with an ear to ear smile.
The Psalm goes on to say, Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.
Yellow is for the joy in the singing praises. Oh, how the people of South Sudan and Ethiopia do such an excellent job of singing praises in spite of the difficult and challenging lives they live. Their voices are raised in praise, thanking God for his blessings.
Sitting under a tree at church in Akobo listening to the native drums, the electric sound of the “modern” church in Malakal, or in the more familiar churches in Addis where I worshipped in international congregations with familiar hymns of praise. Every one was singing praises to the Lord.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
Blue is the sea of people who poured through the guest house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia during my next stop, and sometimes, as we gathered on the grounds outside or at that dining room table, it roared with the laughter of stories told and shared. Old friends from my previous work in Ethiopia, popped in one after another.
And green is for the growth in missions as people come, one after another to answer the Great Commission, go and make disciples of all nations.
Mergersa, an Ethiopian who now lives in the US and returns to help his family and friends have a better life. Jim, an engineer who is answering God’s call to build a bridge – not just the physical structure that will save lives and allow people to cross the expanse of river safely during the rainy season. They are building a bridge of relationships that spread half the world, building relationships and connecting churches, individuals and a tiny village at the base of a mountain in Ethiopia.
Michael, a South Sudanese who is intent on building a school and improving the education in his home village in a land with a 95% illiteracy rate. He fled from South Sudan, a frightened boy running for his life, many years ago during the war and eventually ended up in the US.
PCUSA staff poured through on their way to visit other places and observe our mission work in action. With them came representatives of the Church of Ireland and the Church of Scotland, working together to build and strengthen ecumenical relationships. I was blessed to meet Mary, the Moderator Elect for Presbyterian Women as she joined the trip to better understand life in South Sudan as the women have chosen to support mission work there during the next trienum. Along with representatives of the Outreach Foundation and other Presbyteries who support world mission in Ethiopia and South Sudan, they traveled together working hard to find ways to do mission better and build and strengthen relationships.
8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD
God has given me a way to understand, have compassion for and to better relate to the people who have crossed my path on this journey. He has allowed me to experience the joy in finding and experiencing His presence along the way. My good friend Fritz preached the words “God meets us on the common ground – suffering” and now I can meet them there too. I left my home unexpectedly, leaving most of my worldly possessions behind in Akobo, not knowing if I would ever return. I fled to an unknown place, not knowing where or how I was going to live, for how long and what was in store for my future. Just like the people of Akobo and South Sudan during 56 years of war. I have now met them in their place of suffering. Now I understand their feelings of loss and hopelessness. Now I understand the man who told me there was no point in planting crops for someone else to eat. Now I can relate. Now I can have compassion. Now I know that God has wrapped us in this white ribbon of sameness and in the presence of His peace and understanding.
This ribbon (indigo) represents the fruit of the vine. The Gospel of John says 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, God chose to put us all together and bind us in His love. I know that their love for me is the fruit that will last throughout my lifetime and I pray that the fruit I left behind will last as well, and I pray for the fruit that will grow in our future time together be plentiful and multiply.
And so, we add the purple that represents the holiness of God, who tells us in John to love one another as he has loved us. For that is what has happened along this journey. Love has been poured out all along the way. My love for the people that have crossed my path; more importantly, the love that surrounds me every step of the way. From the people of Akobo who met me with such joy and welcome and hope for our future together to the people of Malakal who gave me shelter in a difficult time to the people of Addis who poured through my life. And I cannot forget to mention the people of this church and many others who have prayed me through this journey and will continue to pray for me as it goes forward into an unknown future.
We are bound in the holiness. We are woven together in the strength of this cross (pull out cross) that represents the strength of God’s reaching down to us and the strength we gain by reaching up to Him and in the arms stretched out to embrace each other and our friends throughout the world.
Thanks be to God.