Altar arrangement by Colleen Coughenour; items from the collection of Rev. Wells.
World Communion Sunday at Lakewood UCC was celebrated with an emphasis on the church in Africa. All the music in the service–hymns, anthem, prelude, offertory, and postlude–were of African origin. The pictures below are of the choir singing an African anthem with the accompaniment of percussion instruments.
Below is the podcast of Rev. Wells’ sermon for World Communion Sunday, followed by a text version of that sermon. The recording begins with Liturgist, Susan Sherwood, reading Exodus 17:1-7 and John 7:37-38, followed by Rev. Well’s sermon.
To listen, right-click (HERE) and select the save link option and play the downloaded file with your computer’s media player. If you have a one-button mouse (on a Mac), press and hold the “Control” key and click the link and select the save link option.
Sermon Title: Lessons from Africa
World Communion Sunday
Scripture Lessons: Exodus 17:1-7 and John 7:37-38
A land of tremendous natural resources, the home of iconic wildlife, the cradle of humanity, and the site of stunning natural beauty, Africa is incredible. Our family had the opportunity to go to Kenya in 1995. I remember flying over the Sahara Desert. You look out the window of the plane and all that can be seen is sand. An hour later, you look again. Sand. Several hours later. Still more sand. It was unbelievable. But Africa is HUGE. It is as big as China, India, the US, and most of Europe combined. The population is 1.69 billion people with subSaharan Africa being the fastest growing region on the earth. Africa is stunning.
The problems there are stunning as well. About 25% of the population is HIV positive. There are over a million deaths a year attributed to AIDS. Malaria is still of epidemic proportions in Africa. The deforestation rate is twice that in the rest of the world with 90% of the population relying on wood for fuel for cooking and heating. There is the the assault on the animal population by poachers. 35,000 elephants were killed last year. There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left. The rhino, lion, and Grevy’s zebra are also under attack. We can add to that the toxic legacy of the colonial era in which rich countries raped Africa of its natural resources. There continues to be political unrest and war in many parts of Africa and we hear of Boko Haram and other groups fomenting violence. There is a huge refugee problem as people leave areas of violence and war seeking safety. And there is drought and famine to contend with. And, now, we hear daily of the erupting Ebola crisis. There are over 7,000 people with Ebola and about half that many deaths to date.
The suffering of Africa is tragic. If ever there were a place ripe for cynicism and despair, it is Africa. This continent in crisis has so many reasons to cry out and complain and lament like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. Surely the people of Africa could cry out for water. And for food.
Given the problems of Africa today, one could expect this to be a godless land. All these troubles and sufferings. How could there be a good and loving God? Has God abandoned Africa? Are the people forsaken? And yet Christianity has deep roots in Africa and is growing and thriving. There are many churches in Africa: Episcopal, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Evangelical. There are many, many expressions of Christianity in Africa. And the people are dedicated in their faith. The ethics and values of Christianity blend very well with traditional tribal cultures. There is the focus on hospitality, on community, on consensus, on forgiveness, and on solidarity. This fits well with the teachings of Jesus.
The people of Africa can also identify with the sufferings of Jesus. He, too, traveled from place to place, as the refugees of Africa. He lived under a repressive regime. He was concerned with fulling the basic needs of people for food, water, and community. Jesus faced death threats and violence and hardship. He was killed. And through it all, he maintained his trust and love of God. This is the kind of faith that we see in the people of Africa.
In the face of so many problems, the Christians of Africa still appreciate God’s blessings. They rejoice in the gift of life. They gather to praise God. When we were in Africa, we stopped by a church in a rural small town to see a friend of our family. The women had gathered at this church for a retreat over Saturday and Sunday. The woman we knew had walked 6 hours to get to the church. She left on Friday as the sun went down to avoid the heat of the day. She carried food to share with the others who would gather there. They slept on the bare wood of the church floor. They prayed and sang all day Saturday and into Sunday. Then, Sunday, at sundown, they began their walk home, in the cool of dusk, another 6 hour trek. People in Africa routinely walk hours to go to church each week. I was stunned. Here, people find it hard to manage a 10 minute drive and an hour or so for church on Sunday morning. Have these Africans nothing else to do? Hardly. They labor intensively to eke a subsistence existence from the land. It is time consuming and taxing. And yet they make time for church. They have a saying. “For us, religion is like our skin.” It is fundamentally part of who we are. It is not like clothing that we take on and off and change. [Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy compiled by Joseph G. Healey]
For these Christians of Africa, their faith pervades their lives. When a baby is born, they rejoice. When a baby dies, they entrust the child to God, trust God to heal their grief, and rejoice that the child has gone to the heart of love. They serve one another and others around them. A child at a doctor’s office shares a precious piece of candy with another sick child. A child carries a sibling on a long journey feeling no sense of burden or resentment. A girl knits a blanket for her new baby brother using thorns from a nearby tree as knitting needles. A government worker who abused the lepers under his care is buried by those same lepers who have forgiven him and taken care of him in his last days. People with next to nothing kneel and pray in gratitude for the blessings they have received. [From Once Upon a Time in Africa] These are not the arrogant, spoiled Hebrews of the wilderness. They are resilient, strong, and trusting. If there is a stick and a rock, they will work for water. And they will share each and every drop. They are unsparing in generosity – with food, water, clothes, and material possessions, as well as time, gratitude, hospitality, service, and forgiveness.
There is one area where the church of Africa has lost its way and that is around homosexuality. Church groups in Africa mobilize their substantial faith and energy to promote homophobia, to advocate for laws that punish gay people even with death. Are they concerned with covering their bases to avoid God’s wrath? Is this to distinguish them from non-Christians and those who practice animistic religions? Is it to resist the West. I don’t know. In traditional tribal societies, homosexuality was accepted as special. A gay person was often considered holy because he was different. They were thought to have special powers. Maybe being anti gay is a way to undermine the power of superstition associated with traditional religions. But in any case, the church of Africa is definitely at odds with the churches of the west and the rest of the world in its vehemence against homosexuality. While other churches may see it as sin, they do not advocate for the death penalty. But, hopefully, there will be a transformation soon. New living water will flow. And the people will be cleansed and healed and reconciled of this sin of homophobia.
When we were in Kenya, one of the vehicles we used had a leak in the radiator. We had to constantly seek out sources of water to fill the radiator. This could be very challenging. At one point, we had to stop by the side of the road at night. We could go no further. We were not in a town or village, but out on a remote road. We got out of the wagon and looked around. Three men were walking down the road. They stopped to talk with us. We told them about our problem. Oh, water? There’s some right here. Jeff took the two empty jugs and went with the men down a steep, grassy slope. Then I could no longer see him, and the kids and I waited at the car. I am not given to alarmism but it did occur to me that I might never see my husband again. About 10 minutes later, the three men came back up the hill with Jeff right behind them struggling with the two jugs evidently filled with water. Jeff thanked the men for their help and offered to pay them something. Oh, no. They refused, saying they were Christians. And off they went. To church? Who knows.
Evidently, at the bottom of the hill was a pvc pipe above the ground. The men took Jeff right to a spot where the pipes had been connected and could be separated so that the water could be accessed. He filled the jugs and they put the pipes back together and came up the hill. Who would have known about the pipe and the location of the break to open the pipe? These men knew exactly what to do. Amazing! Like a stick and a rock, as far as we were concerned. And off we went back to Nairobi.
For the Christians of Africa, religion is truly their skin. The Christians of Africa are constantly in need and trusting God to sustain them. And they are willing to gather the elders, climb the mountain, find the rock, and strike it with the stick. Whatever it takes. They are willing to work in partnership with God to sustain life. And the joy, trust, and faith that they show is as beautiful as any view of the Rift Valley, or Mount Kilimanjaro, or Victoria Falls.
This World Communion Sunday Christians around the world celebrate communion as a symbol of the unity of the body of Christ. We all come to the table together. We rejoice in our common bond through Jesus. Praising God. Following Jesus. Serving the world. Christ Jesus is the host at communion. We are all guests. There is no one superior or inferior, no one above or below, we are all side by side.
Historically, we of the west have taken from Africa. Natural resources. Labor. In recent times, we have given to Africa. Assistance and aid. Maybe motivated by guilt. Maybe with a patronizing attitude of condescension. But this World Communion Sunday invites us to think about coming to the table as a community, as equals, as sisters and brothers. In this spirit, we see that there is much that we have to learn from Africa. The Christians of Africa have much to teach us about faith, trust, service and community. African Christians exhibit trust in a God who seeks nothing but our highest good. And they partner with that God in any way they can for the good of the world.
Pediatrician Alan Jamison was in Liberia when the Ebola virus broke out and the country slipped into chaos. He treated as many patients as he could before being called back to the US by his sponsoring organization. But Dr. Jamison wants to go back to Africa. “This is where the need is,” he said. “This is my calling.” [The Christian Century, 10/1/14, p. 8] It may be hard to understand why Dr. Jamison wants to go back to a place so dangerous and fraught with problems. I imagine that Dr. Jamison wants to go back to Africa because he senses the deep hope and faith of the people. Their spirit of love and community has infected him. And he wants to be part of that context of faith and trust even in the face of horrific suffering. The Christians of Africa have no fear. With no grumbling, but gladly, rejoicing, probably with drums and dance, they strike the rock with the stick. And living water flows. For all. Amen.