Many of you will know that my brother and I returned this past week from a mission trip to eastern Africa, to the Diocese of Tanga in northeast Tanzania. We traveled with seven other friends of our community, men and women – a physician, a veterinarian, a nurse-midwife, three businesspeople, a teacher – where we brothers renewed our own friendships with our Anglican sisters and brothers, and introduced these seven new friends. It was an amazing journey for body and soul: for body, because of both the distance and the climate (this being the height of summer in sub-Sahara Africa); and soul, because we beheld so much richness. It took our breath away, or maybe just the opposite: it gave us new breath, like the breath of God’s spirit moving in creation over the waters, over the land, God’s spirit, the rûah. i I think we were given breath, given God’s spirit on this pilgrimage to a distant land.
One day we traveled from the town of Korogwe – which you could hardly find on any map – to the village of Mgombezi, which you won’t find on a map. This was a journey by land cruiser down one of the interminable dirt roads, potholes large enough to dislodge molars, up into the hills to this little village without electricity, without running water, without most things which we here would presume our inalienable rights and necessities. We were to meet a large number of people, and we arrived at Mgombezi late, typically late, to this village Anglican church, and there was no one around. We climbed out of our two land cruisers, ours being the only vehicles this village had probably seen for a very long time, to an empty church yard, the church doors still open, the church empty. The other members of the group would presume the church was empty as we approached the doorway. I knew otherwise. I’ve had the privilege of visiting Mgombezi a number of times, and each time it’s the same. Mgombezi is a village of orphans, children orphaned mostly because of their parents’ dying of AIDS, or tuberculosis, or malaria, or diarrhea, or diabetes, or starvation, or a combination of it all, leaving this village of orphans. At first there were only a few orphans who had come to live in Mgombezi with their relatives – grandmothers or aunts or cousins. There’s no orphanage in Mgombezi. Orphanages are not really the African way, because everyone belongs. It would be almost unheard of that an orphaned child would not have somewhere to belong. But because of the AIDS pandemic, and global warming with its sub-Sahara drought which seems unending, the lack of access to everything we would know one needs to be alive and well, there are so many orphans and now even some orphanages… but not in Mgombezi. In Mgombezi there are only guardians. Distant relatives, friends of distant relatives, good and caring souls, ever-so-poor economically, who have come to help with the orphans who just keep coming: 20, then 40, then 100, then hundreds to this area. I knew that when we walked through the doorway of this seemingly-abandoned village church, there would be a sea of faces. To the right of the aisle would be the orphaned children, boys and girls, sitting silently, straight upright on benches without backs; and on our left, a sea of faces of the guardians who have taken in these children – taken them into their huts and into their hearts. As I say, I’ve been to Mgombezi before, and I knew this is what would await our group inside the doorway. And it was so. Such beautiful children. Not many of them were clean, not clean by our standards. You change your cleanliness standards if you have to walk more than a half hour down from a ragged hilltop to a fetid river full of crocodiles, from where you draw your water for drinking and cooking and bathing. Beautiful children wearing the most colorful outfits: T-shirt types on their tops and shorts, mostly, some girls in dresses, and flip flops on their feet, some of them. Some barefooted. Colorful outfits, not “color coordinated” as we would say: castaway clothes, many of them with holes and rips. What they had on their backs were their clothes, their only clothes. Very shy. Tanzanian children are very shy, most of them, at least by our standards. Very respectful, many of them too respectful, by our standards: sitting, watching, waiting for us to arrive. And their guardians on the other side. All of them sitting so silently. Waiting for us. Waiting for God. We were God. I know they gave thanks to God for our coming. We gave thanks to God for their receiving us. It was a different face of God which happened countless times during our 11 days of travel. So incredibly moving. I’ve corrected myself saying it took our breath away; in actuality, I think it gave us breath in the sense of God’s breath, God’s spirit, moving through creation since the beginning.
We traveled during Christmastide, and so, of course, we sang with our Anglican friends The First Noel… in Swahili, as best we could. We saw so many people in so many different places – schools equipped with students and teachers but missing books and desks and chairs and sometimes missing the only meal that the pupils would have had that day. Hospitals and dispensaries, which sometimes have electricity, sometimes have medication, sometimes have water, but always with an abundance of patient patients, those who could get there on foot or on the back of a truck or, if they were lucky, in a crowded bus. We saw heroic people living with AIDS and with the moral stigma, sometimes superstitious stigma, of what AIDS means: heroic people, determined people, beautiful people. We were asked if we would we stop to see a patient along the dirt roadway? Along the way, a jarring dirt road on which we had traveled for hours up into the hill country to villages which seldom see vehicles, almost never see a mzungu, a white person, an Anglo. He was sitting on the ground, on the dirt, beside the road, this patient patient, with his wife and other family members at his side, and the rest of the village. An old man, maybe 45 years old: beautiful, sweet eyes, and such a gentle and ready smile. And tremors, his hands shaking uncontrollably, a shaking which would stop – immediately stop, so our physician-friend told us – with the medication prescribed for him. His wife had the prescription in hand, the empty bottle. The family simply didn’t have the money for the prescription, being peasant farmers… which is true for most of the entire country of Tanzania. They are subsistence farmers, at least those who are able to farm. Our stopping along the road may conjure up in your mind’s eye the gospel scene of the Good Samaritan. It did in ours. And our group gladly gave this man and his family some help. But I would leave you with the wrong impression if you ascribed particular virtue to our group. This man, his family, his village, gave us an opportunity to be blessed – “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” Jesus says – and we parted from this man and his family with tears in our eyes and with a real sense of being blessed by God’s spirit through this dear man. Before we had gotten back into our vehicle our group, the mzungus, gathered around this man and his family to offer a prayer. I knelt to before him, taking his hands and the hands of his wife and family members who gladly knelt with us, and I, being the priest, wearing my SSJE cross, traced the sign of the cross on this gentle man’s forehead. I prayed for healing in the name of Jesus, and I kissed his trembling hands. And his family offered deep thanks on their faces, and in their words, asante sana, asante sana – thank you, thank you – they echoed, and he and his family and the entire village warmly welcomed us to come again, karibuni tena! Welcome! Come back! We then road for a long while in silence, just taking in this sure sense of God’s blessing in our meeting with this poor, gentle man and his family. As we drove our Tanzanian guide mentioned something in passing about that particular village, the Muslim village, he said. And I said, “the man?” “The man beside the road was Muslim?” The man on whose forehead I had traced the cross and prayed for healing in the name of Jesus, who, with his family, his village, had greeted us with such kindness and welcome, where we had so clearly experienced God’s blessing. Yes, this Muslim man in this Muslim village, our guide said.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” ii Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the forthcoming Messiah, and then God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant isles, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews, people like many of us. How will we know? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work? What will be the outward sign, the evidence, the fruit of God’s spirit among us? Justice. Justice to the nations. The opening words of Isaiah, God’s prophet, about the forthcoming Messiah, and then the opening words of Jesus, whom we name the Messiah, are about justice.iii In the scriptures, the moral notion of justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical notion of justice is that everyone is given their due. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” (I hear the silence of those orphaned children in Mgombezi when I hear these words.) “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” The descriptions of God’s servant not breaking the bruised reed nor quenching the smoldering wick indicate a gentle respect for others, even a detection of strength in their weakness.iv It is true. There is strength witnessed in another’s courageous weakness. We saw it, again and again. And the Prophet Isaiah closes with the words, “He [that is, the Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical notion of justice is that everyone is given their due.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus, a baptism in which we share. Momentarily we will be invited to renew our own baptismal promises. There is one phrase in our baptismal promises which I find particularly poignant: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The English word “dignity” – our respect for the dignity of every human being – comes from the Latin, dignitatem, which means worthiness. And the English word “worthiness” comes from an Old English root from which we get the word “worship.” That to which we give the highest renown and reverence we worship: our pledging to respect the dignity of every human being is about our ascribing worthiness to others, reverencing them, acknowledging God’s presence in them. I would say, it is especially true for those whom we could count as least or last or seemingly lost. To ascribe dignity, worthiness to them. Jesus even went on to say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”v The reason that we are reminded to bequeath dignity, a reverent worthiness, to other people – especially the least and the last and the lost – is not about our showing the love of God to others. It’s not that, at least not first. We’re reminded about doing this, we renew our pledge to do this, so that we will first receive the love of God in a way which we cannot buy or control or predetermine. We receive a much fuller picture of God, the fullness of God, in the face and form of those whom we could deem the poorest, because this is how God has revealed himself in Jesus, poor Jesus. In respecting the dignity of every human being, especially those who show up poorly on our own lists, we will especially know the love of God, so much love of God that we can’t help but share it. To love as we have been loved.
Here this group I’ve told you about, traveled from the United States – the richest nation in the world – to Tanzania, one of the very poorest nations of the world, economically destitute. And it’s only in the face of such poverty that we realize our own poverty and the incredible richness, inner richness, of these beautiful people in sub-Sahara Africa. You could rightfully ask, “Must I travel thousands of miles to sub Sahara Africa to be reminded of this truth?” And I would say, “yes.” Yes, some of us do, clearly, for our own sakes and for our own salvation, and so that we can bring the message home to you all. Most of you don’t have to travel to Africa to discover this: God’s real presence is among the least and last and seemingly lost. In ancient folklore – western folklore, African folklore – there is a recurring storyline about a person on a quest for meaning, and he or she often travels far away to find the treasure. Inevitably the person ends up coming home and finding the treasure where they began, under their own porch. Where you will find abject poverty will most likely be under your own roof. It will be with some family member, a close friend, a professional colleague, a fellow volunteer, someone whom you can easily find pathetic, without one plea. It’s probably with someone very near. Respect their dignity. You will see in them, poor as they are, a new face of God, someone who is as worthy as you to receive their due. And you will most likely meet Jesus in them: “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”vi
iii See Luke 4:16-21, Jesus’ reading from Isaiah 61:1-3 when Jesus begins his public ministry: “When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
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