A simple and desperate hope in the Unseen

CaptureSermon delivered on 11th August at IGWA 2013

(Please note the context of this sermon – authored by a recently returned cross-cultural worker coming to terms with being back home. It is not my usual exegetical style and it is quite an emotional piece for this writer. I was tempted not to post this but I think it worthwhile just in case others may be in a similar boat)

You have to forgive me – I’m still getting used to this country called Australia. The last sermon I gave was actually at a little Sudanese refugee church near our house in Maadi, Egypt, and I was working with a translator. Please pick me up if I instinctively pause after each sentence for the translator to repeat my thoughts in Arabic or if I attempt to communicate in my broken Arabic.

My text today is taken from the lectionary. I’m a Lutheran by trade and one of things I like about our worship is that when you use the lectionary the text chooses you. You don’t go looking for a text to support what you want to say – the text is waiting for you to delve into it, probe the corners, bring light to the unseen.

One of the other great things about it is that it connects us with many brother and sisters across the world, in the catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and other denominations which focus on the same reading each Sunday in turn.

But this is all well and good. Things aren’t easy when you reach a weekend when the lectionaries have slight differences between them and you end up starting a sermon on the wrong passage.

For years I have had a nokia phone but to be fair mine was a little more up market to my wife’s phone. Robyn still doggedly requests a monochrome phone that does no more than make calls and texts. Within 3 weeks of arriving back in Australia I had an iPhone and an iPad in my hand given to me as essential tools of the trade as a school principal. But as I installed my bible software on my iPhone and got used to where things were I made a mistake with the reading that was set down for today. Three times actually. So to be honest, this message is really about the sermon I’m not giving and why. There is a constant theme running through all of these passages – as we will see.

I almost leapt for joy when I thought that one of the texts set down for today was from the opening of Ecclesiastes, the one where we read “meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless. I have seen everything under the sun and it is all a meaningless chasing after the wind”.

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun…it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1)

Why would I want to talk about this?  Robyn and I sometimes talk about our Cairo experience as like being in an abusive marriage. We fell in love too young, didn’t ask the right questions and when we hurt we thought it was our fault and deep down we thought they loved us so that meant the way we were treated was ok.

Cairo took a great deal out of us. Don’t mistake me – we don’t for one second regret our time in Cairo but there is a need for us to be honest about cross cultural work. We have seen what happens to those that go into it without a sound theology and a sound faith and the right heart. Everything seems so meaningless. At the end of our first year in Cairo working with refugee teachers, pastors and doctors we had not made progress. The practice of all three groups was the same as it was when we arrived. It felt like all we had done was have an expensive and disappointing holiday.

“All streams run to the ocean but it is never full…” (Ecclesiastes 1)

As I stand before you I don’t have anything figured out fully. I do feel a fair percentage of the time that things are pretty meaningless. Robyn and I spent our life savings and the funds of others to serve a people that took everything we had and more without gratitude. We worked beside people who were living very comfortable lifestyles all the while takings funds from churches who thought they were doing good work. I lectured students who were less interested in submitting to the word of God as they were in beating others into submission using the word of God for their own monetary and status gains.

We get back to Australia and see that a cup of coffee costs what feeding 20 primary school students at my refugee school does. We hear of a looming refugee crises in our country after leaving a country that actually has a refugee crises as a poor country tries to house perhaps up to 4 million refugees in their borders. I read in the paper the day after Rudd became our Prime Minister again – “Rudd defeats Gillard in bloody coup”. Really?

“it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1)

As I have said to some of you, many people talk to us and say one of two things – “wow, Egypt, that must have been amazing.” As if we had been working as young professionals in London or Paris on a gap year. Or the other, “Gee, you must be glad to be out there now that the poo has hit the fan and tanks are in the streets” Well, perhaps we would be if we didn’t have friends living and working there that may be increased danger and if we didn’t know that as the Egyptian government refuses to fulfil its UN obligations, every time the country becomes unstable, key workers with refugees leave, and they are left alone.

Right now I love Ecclesiastes. But alas I had the wrong lectionary reading.

So I again attempted to use my iPad to get the verse for this week and I landed at Luke 12:22-34

Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? (Luke 12:22-26)

I have to be honest. Right now I can’t stand this verse. Yes I am feeling a little down about things but hearing such trite comments as ‘do not worry’ does not. And I have heard my fair share of things from various quarters. People say “It is great that you are home and I’m sure God has things in control”. Yes he does. He is God after all but what I do know is when I arrived at African Hope we had 6 volunteers pulling hours at the school in crucial roles. Now I know there are 2 and there haven’t been any refugees able to fill those roles.

God may have things under control but I know what is happening to refugees on the street. I know the fear that the Christian community feels in Egypt right now. I know the problems of the Egyptian families who want Education, employment, healthcare and a Fair justice system. This is being denied to them.

We are, as many of you have experienced yourself, experiencing some form of culture shock. I find myself feeling more unsafe walking home in the dark from my school in the suburbs of Melbourne than I did walking home after lectures in Cairo. I see men walking near Robyn as a threat and I still suspect that the salad that I am about to eat will probably give me stomach issues later on.

I worked at the school in Cairo until 5pm on the day we left and took phone calls in the taxi on the way to the airport. We spent 4 days in South Africa to give us a break and then arrived back in Adelaide. We spent a week at home, a week in Melbourne trying to find a house, a week back at home while I prepared to give a presentation at a national religious educator conference and then I started as a principal of a lovely little Christian school in the suburbs of Melbourne. We left Cairo on the 14th of June and I started as principal of the school officially on the 15th of July.

I am tired. I am burnt out. I am weary. I am hurting. I have very little left to give.

But for some reason I get out of bed and go to my job and do my best to love the staff and students in my learning community. I’m here giving workshops and talking to you now when part of me honestly wants to be a few minutes down the road having a coffee or perhaps next door still sleeping.

God has a sense of humour. My school in Cairo had about 15 different African nations represented in the staff and students and another 15 nations in the volunteers. I was looking forward to having a break from the problems of working with a migrant/refugee community

At my school in Melbourne I just enrolled students from 7 different nations for 2014. Nice going God.

You find Lutheran schools in two places – Lutheran heartlands or new housing divisions where there is demand. My church doesn’t plant schools where the population can’t afford it. The one exception is probably my school. It serves a low income area of Melbourne that has seen wave and wave of migrant groups come through. At the same time the only Lutheran school leader with refugee and migrant experience comes home at the exact same time that the only Lutheran school in the country serving a migrant/refugee community needs a leader.

This isn’t what a wanted. Robyn and I needed time to recover. We wanted to move into the Adelaide Hills, Robyn would do some study and I would settle into a small country school to find ourselves and figure out how to live in Australia. God had different ideas.

I applied for and missed out on several other teaching jobs. The job I ended up with was the one that I didn’t apply for and didn’t even know existed.

Some tell me this is all proof that God had a plan for us. This is all evidence that he had a specific plan for you they say. But this does nothing to comfort me. Good hearted Christians who quote “Do not worry” to me do nothing but rub salt into some very raw wounds.

I find myself leaving long hours and stressful work in Cairo to long hours and stressful work in Melbourne. I was away from my family and friends in Cairo and I am away from my family and friends in Melbourne. Was that part of God’s plan too? That I am away from the people I love again? Is it God’s plan that people exist in suffering communities around the world each day?

It seems of often that when something good happens we like to say simple things like this. What do we do when things don’t go so well? Is that not part of God’s plan, suggesting that he is a very selective God, doling out goodness to the faithful? We have to dig deeper in to what God is doing instead of just offering single sentences in an attempt to comfort others.

I can see that our work now in Melbourne brings good things to those in our new community. In my state of mind however – that doesn’t make me feel better.

So I finally figured out my lectionary problems and got the verse I meant to talk about and it is this from Luke 11:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Luke 11:32-34)

I was blessed to spend the last few days in retreat with a group of principals with the Jesuit brothers in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. The Jesuit brothers and sisters are a truly amazing group who seek to always care for other people. Service is a cornerstone to their faith. The brother there told us a story.

There was a Christian community in the 17th century that had no priest and they were in a very isolated area. An elderly brother agreed to come and visit the community. The trip would be very arduous and it would take days of walking. At the time he was to leave he became very ill, so ill that he could not leave his bed. He called a young monk to him, gave him his sermon and sent him on his way to preach in his place.

After a long tiring journey the monk arrived with sermon in hand ready to give the congregation the sermon on behalf of the elderly sick monk.

The community gathered from all around ready to hear this sermon. They sat and waited. The young monk opened the sermon and found a sermon contained in a single word – the single word was ‘other’.

As Father Michael Himes mentioned in his lecture I showed during my workshop – “the meaning of life is self-gift. The act of giving one’s life to another in service”

A colleague of mine wrote of this passage from Luke:

Jesus is not telling us to sell our possessions and give to the poor? Ok –here we go again – taking what Jesus said and watering it down to fit our comfortable Western lifestyle! But, it simply does not make sense though, to interpret this literally.  We cannot dispute the free gift … saved by grace … message. That is indelibly plastered across the whole of the New Testament, so we can be confident that Jesus is not giving us a conflicting story here. Perhaps the problem then is this … the “don’t have to do anything” formula to earn God’s favour too easily gets twisted to become … “there is nothing that we should do in response to God’s love for us”. Perhaps Jesus is reminding us, that we demonstrate that we have a life in Him, only when we reflect a response of love and care for those around us. Through and in Him, we should automatically look beyond ourselves and share what we have in order to enhance the well-being of others.

As Christians we know this through the living example of Christ whose service for the other brought forgiveness, mercy, justice and compassion.

And this is what gives me a reason to keep doing what I am doing when everything else in the world is telling me to stop. The work we do, the work we all pray for, give finances to, it brings us to the edge of ourselves and stretches us to extremes. If our centre is our own talk and belief in ourselves rather than belief in the other we will run into trouble. We will end up at the end of the road.

As Jesus said, humanity cannot live by bread, what humans create, but need the word of God to sustain us.

The lectionary always sets down an epistle reading to go with the gospel, OT and psalm. Today’s is from the 11th chapter of Hebrews. I just want to share the opening.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.  (Hebrews 11:1-3)

This is God’s business – making the seen from the unseen. Bringing meaning to the meaningless. Life to the desert and we go on. Of making this newly returned and worn out missionary purpose, comfort and direction. Not through focusing me inward but focussing me outward – to serve others.

Amongst my brokenness I am longing for a better country. A country where community is intact and not destroyed. A country where we welcome all. A country where serving is the norm. But that is not my reality it is not your reality. I long for our churches to be welcoming.

My grandfather once said to me. Tom, I can fix your problems with the church. All you need to do is get rid of all the sinners and you will have the perfect church. While it was a joke there is something quite profound in there.

As we turn to communion, this most precious event, we enter into an act where God does something unseen with the seen. He does something with bread and wine and blesses us through it.

My spiritual father Martin Luther would often say (loosely paraphrased!) ‘If you are tired, if you doubt your worthiness, if you feel God is far away, if you feel like everything is meaningless then come. Because here God is in a solid form to build faith.’

Take his body and blood, receive assurance, be empowered. In communion the unseen becomes seen, God is doing something beyond our perception. He is giving us a purse that never wears out and the strength to keep doing as he did, love his children.

What sustains me know and what got me out of bed this morning is a simple and desperate hope in the unseen. A faith which allows me despite what all I have seen and felt, despite how hopeless things appear, a faith in a God who is working for the other. My response is to do the same – live my life in service to the other. It isn’t a complicated message. As Cathy said so well last night, the markers for our life are loving God and loving others.

So my brothers and sisters, go, and life a life in service to others empowered by a God who does the same.

Know that amongst the seeming meaninglessness of it all – there can be found a God who is diligently serving the other beside us. Willing us on to live lives in sacrifice to others just as he does.

The blessing of almighty God, father son and holy spirit be with us now and forever. Amen.

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