Friday, August 15, 2008

Africa


I think I managed to wait at least three or four posts until I busted out the Jesus.

I went to South Africa and Lesotho this summer. The picture on the left is from a visit to an after school program near JoBurg, where they asked us if we knew Beyonce.
This is the sermon I gave to my church last week:


I worked at Lancaster Theological Seminary this summer. Above my desk, there was a magnet, left by the previous secretary, which said “Jesus is coming—look busy.”

I believe the magnet was silly reminder to stop checking my email and get back to work, but it raises an interesting point. If we really believe Jesus is coming back, we shouldn’t just look busy, we should be busy. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “If Jesus came back right now and saw you doing that,” well, what would happen? What would Jesus see if he came back now, in 2008?

There are 33 million people living with AIDS around the world, 67% in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are parents without children and children without parents. There are limited supplies of anti-retroviral drugs that often don’t work because people don’t have food to take them with. Jesus would see this.

Jesus would also see our hours wasted arguing over pew cushions rather than talking about the suffering of our brothers and sisters. He would be aware of our ignorance and complacency.

In the scripture, Jesus tells Peter three times to take care of his flock. Feed my lambs, he asks. Take care of my sheep, he says. Feed my sheep, he tells us. Jesus is telling us we have a responsibility to other people.

Let’s take a look at what the disciples are doing at the beginning of the story. They’re fishing. Now, Jesus left his disciples to go and spread the word—and he comes back, and they’re fishing. They’ve left any kind of ministry behind and gone back to what they know. We do this all the time. We come to church on Sunday, go to a conference, watch an episode of Oprah, and want to change the world. But its much easier to fall back into what comforts us, what we’re used to doing. But Jesus doesn’t come back and chastise the disciples for being in the fishing boat.

Instead, Jesus has breakfast with them. I imagine it was this wonderful reunion, Jesus with his best friends again, after all that they had been through. But Jesus interrupts their happy get together by asking Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

This is a loaded question. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells Simon Peter he’ll deny Jesus three times. And he does. This is a potentially painful moment for Simon Peter, to own up to his mistake in front of Jesus himself.

“Yes Lord, you know I love you,” is his reply. “Then feed my lambs,” Jesus tells him.

Adding insult to injury, Jesus asks a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter replies again, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” “Then take care of my sheep.”

Jesus asks Simon Peter a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter replies, perhaps a bit frustrated, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

“Then feed my sheep.”

I flew twenty hours to South Africa and Lesotho. Most people wouldn’t be able to find Lesotho on a map—it’s tiny and landlocked inside South Africa. Life expectancy is around 40 and an alarming percentage of the population is infected with AIDS. The tin shacks and unhidden poverty stand in stark contrast to the beauty of the mountains that surround it.

But there is something peculiar about the people of Lesotho. It is considered rude to not say hello when passing someone—anyone—on the street. People eagerly fed us even though they had little to eat themselves. While our government is giving an atrociously low amount to help with AIDS and poverty in their country, they held none of it against us. People in Lesotho had no qualms about embracing us into their lives—they were inexplicably kind and generous.

The most moving account of this came from a wonderful pastor who traveled with us, Megan Huesgen, who had served as a UCC Mission Intern in Lesotho in 2001. As Megan and the people of Morija watched the events of September 11th unfold, people started coming forward, offering to help Megan pay for a plane ticket back home to be with her family. People who probably didn’t know where their next meal was coming from suddenly saw Megan’s situation as a priority. She had become part of them, and they, as she would undoubtedly attest, had become part of her. Megan was both shepherd and sheep during her time in Lesotho.

There is a word for this commonly used in South Africa. Ubuntu, which literally means. “I am because you are.” It means that we, as human beings, cannot function without others. We depend on other people just as other people depend on us. Most of us don’t grow our own food. Most of us cannot teach ourselves. Most of us cannot build a house, perform open heart surgery, or make our own clothes. But ubuntu speaks not only to our needs, but to our humanity. Desmond Tutu describes it like this:

Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.

This is labeled a “traditional African concept” that we actually witnessed. But this shouldn’t be a new concept to us. The United Church of Christ came together so that “they may all be one.” The basic principle behind ubuntu is to love one another, love your neighbors, love your enemies, what you do to the least of these you do to me. Jesus tells us over and over again.

Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. We need to be told more than once because we don’t always do a great job of this.

Jesus Christ, to put it simply, died so we could have another chance to get things right. Jesus says to us, like he said to Simon Peter, I don’t care what you did yesterday, your sins are forgiven, so your previous failures should never stop you from getting back in the game.

But let’s not forget Jesus rose again and asked his disciple, Simon Peter, who had previously let him down, “Do you love me?” When we answer yes, I expect that Jesus’ reply would be the same. “Then feed my sheep.”

Jesus came back and we are told he is coming back. But until that time we are entrusted with his people. The common mistake we make, I think, as Christians, is that we understand Jesus rose again, told us what to do, and then went away, but will come back again “soon”. I challenge you to look at what Jesus did in a different light. Jesus commissions Simon Peter to take care of his people—all people—and then disappears. We shouldn’t just be waiting for him to come back, we have a job to do. We need to stop watching the clock. We need to stop saying “later”. Jesus Christ died. Jesus Christ was buried. Jesus Christ rose from the dead and commanded us to “feed his sheep”, to love one another. The end of the chapter says nothing of Jesus ascending again, so it’s my belief that whenever we do these things—feed his sheep, love one another, practice ubuntu—Jesus is there.

1 comment:

Marc said...

was this before or after you fainted?

but in all seriousness, I saw the same thing in the Dominican Republic. People living in dirt floor barely standing houses offered us food, made dinner for us.

Also, the theme for the camp that I worked at was Ubuntu. It even says it on our bracelets, although it is misspelled, "Unbuntu" with that extra "n."