Let me begin by saying what a privilege and honor it is to be leading worship today among you and with my family. We have come to depend on one another for nearly everything this past year and it feels best when we are working and serving together.
I also want to take the opportunity to thank Belmont for your support in so many ways – both quiet and grand. For meals upon our return, for individual emails and cards, for newsletter articles and reading our blog. And also for the generosity of the Lenten offering just a couple months ago that will pay for our family health insurance. And for the gas and repairs on the Rav4 purchased with money from the fundraiser before we left. We traveled nearly 28,000 miles in 9 months in a country the size of PA. The wear and tear on the dust roads is incredible, but the car has been great! And we thank you for provided these much-needed funds to reach the local churches and pastors that we have gone to serve.
Your gifts and offerings are the hand of God in our lives.
Finally, I want you to know that Belmont has touched, quite literally, nearly every corner and circuit of Malawi. And wherever we go, the pastor introduces us as the latest gift from Belmont UMC. Sometimes we feel like we happen to be Belmonters who have heard the call to mission, but with each introduction we are reminded that we have been called out of and sent by you. We remain a part of Belmont and are your connection to your amazing ministry in Malawi.
So thank you – from our family and from the family of the Malawi UMC.
Now let us pray…
In the scripture readings for today we encounter prophets, Jesus and the disciples all trying to follow faithfully, to remain true to their callings amidst the distractions, grief and daily realities that tempt them away from the God who knows them and calls them.
Elijah is about to be taken up in a whirlwind. Everyone knows it – Elijah, his protégé Elisha, and the prophets they encounter in each town they travel through. He gives Elisha every opportunity to stay behind, but Elisha persists walking with Elijah or the entire journey. Even his fellow prophets try to dissuade him, but Elisha goes forward.
Finally as they approach the Jordan Elijah asks, “Elisha, what can I do for you?” “Give me a double share of your spirit,” he responds. Elijah concedes on one condition, “You must see me be taken away from you.” On the face that seems simple – watch and see.
But then it doesn’t happen – not right away. Elijah isn’t immediately taken up. Scripture says they just keep walking and talking. What must Elisha have been thinking? Was tempted to become complacent by the mundane conversation and the exhaustion of walking? Or was he tempted to become paranoid or anxious – scanning the sky or looking suspiciously at each passerby? We don’t know what he was thinking but we do know that somehow he kept his focus, kept his gaze on Elijah, responding with faith.
And then when the moment does arrive – dramatic and powerful in a whirlwind and scary and wonderful with chariots and horses of fire he still resists the temptation to look away. Elisha cries for his friend, for his mentor, “Father, Father!” And somehow he keeps his focus and sees Elijah taken up, an amazing effort and commitment to his calling.
Now fast forward to Luke, where the story and even the language are parallel. Jesus, at the end of his ministry has set his face to Jerusalem before he is taken up.
But it seems his disciples are having a more difficult time keeping their focus than Elisha.
While Elisha was able to remain faithful in the face of the discouragement from his peers, James and John are distracted. When tasked making preparations, instead of remaining focused on Jesus and their call they are tempted by revenge. They are angry that the Samaritans will not receive Jesus and they feel deeply the rejection of their Lord and teacher. They forget their task, their goal and look away, wanting to rain down fire. But Jesus rebukes them and refocuses them on the road ahead.
In Malawi we face these same temptations to look away, to become angry and distracted by the pain of our friends when they are rejected or abused.
Walking and talking as Elijah and Elisha did is like walking the dust road from our house to Tiwasunge, the HIV/AIDS organization where Jeff has worked to help them start a small business and where we have both found healing among the sick. We walk and talk with Lucy and Tereza, the Director and Project Coordinator. Rejected and abused by their own families because of the HIV status, they have started a community for others called, “Let us keep them”. We claim to want a double share of their compassion, dedication and strength. But it’s hard not to look away from the realities around them and around us, to deny our calling.
We are tempted to look away from the disease that has thinned our friends faces.
To look away from the children of the community who are already listed as orphans even if their parents still live because their death is certain
To look away from the pain of rejection and abuse that makes this organization necessary.
But when we can stay focused, we see miracles. When we looked with open eyes and bared souls at a deadly diagnosis, we saw a woman healed overnight. When we can gaze with them at the suffering, we are blessed with deeper relationships. When we don’t pull away from these women even knowing that one day cry, “Mother, Mother” when they are taken up, they pour out a double portion of their spirit upon us.
Another disciple along the road says he wants to follow Jesus. And Jesus does not encourage or deny him, but focuses his gaze on the journey, one where he will have no place to lay his head. Jesus does not trick or sugar-coat. There are no smoke and mirrors.
As they say in Malawi, living the gospel is “no joke”. Pastors follow the call to serve knowing that they will not receive their promised salaries, men and women start nursery schools without books, pencils, toys and crayons, congregations worship without buildings or hymn book or Bibles. They know the commitment they are making and they join together celebrating the abundance they find and the daily blessings of God.
Yet another disciple is happy to follow Jesus – after he buries his father. He simply needs to give attention to and mourn with his family. But Jesus calls him to look forward, to seek life instead of focusing on death.
In Malawi one could simply move from one funeral to another. We have heard Rev. Mhone, our District Superintendent, say to his wife on more than one occasion, “let the dead bury the dead”. Because some weeks she goes from a neighbor’s house to her home village to a colleague’s home, sitting and mourning with grieving families. Funerals are daily and they are long.
Jeff and I went to the funeral of our neighbor’s 11-year-old son. We arrived at his grandmother’s house. The men stood outside and the women gathered inside, simply sitting on the floor and singing or listening to the singing. After about an hour and a half Moty said, “We can go now. We have done all we can.” We stood and left and other mourners would take our place.
Death is real and we have to attend to it, but at some point God says, “You can go now. Go and proclaim the good news. “ And we can follow Jesus back to life.
And finally there is the disciple who just wants to say good-bye to those at home. It’s about tying up loose ends, isn’t it? Making sure there are frozen casseroles in the freezer, the coffee pot is turned off, everyone is okay before we go. And loose ends – oh, for everyone who has traveled in Malawi or been on a mission trip you know that loose ends are the norm. Where our immigration file is a manila folder with Claire’s name written on it in sharpie marker as the primary contact. Where the grocery store may not stock yogurt or milk for six weeks at a time for no apparent reason. Where four of the 22 pastors have access to email and one pastor sold his phone in order to have money to get to Annual Conference. Loose ends are the name of the game.
But these loose ends don’t stop the power of the God’s transforming love. They don’t stand in the way of the good news reaching the most rural and the most hard-hearted. Our pastor, Collings Kaunda, had been unable to visit one of his rural churches for over a year for want of funds and transportation. But when we finally visited together in April we found a thriving church, robust leadership, youth dramas and a strong brick structure. Loose ends like an absent pastor and being overlooked as a site for a miracle church had not stopped them. They put their hand to the plow and never looked back.
The circumstances, emotions and demands on our time that attempt to distract us from our call are varied and many.
We may be lulled into complacency by the mundane and dailiness of life’s demands – kids, groceries, oil changes, meetings. Where do we find time to look up and look for Jesus in the midst of it all? Like Elisha, we might be tempted to become complacent or frantic about our calling.
Well-meaning friends and colleagues may distract us and persuade us to look away because they don’t want to see us get hurt. Or to tempt us to turn from our calling, wasting energy on revenge and hate.
Death can seem to rule the day. Our depression, apathy, and regrets can fill our thoughts and take over, convincing us that the most important thing is to sit and nurse these feelings of loss and pain.
And the desire to have everything in order, to be able to predict, control and manage the details of our call can paralyze us. When we can’t see around the bend in the road, it’s tempting to sit and imagine all the horrors that may be there instead of going forward, trusting in the God who called us there.
The power of scripture is that in a few short verses the prophets and the apostles paint these beautiful scenes where we can see ourselves and identify with those who have gone before us. We can see ourselves, see the power and beauty of a call fulfilled and the real challenges that spring up, literally “along the way”.
The transformation and privilege of living in Malawi is that these same challenges are laid bare with so little to hide the raw pain and joy of life.
To encounter old women holding their bellies and crying, “njala, njala”, “hunger, hunger” opens our eyes to the hungers we all have.
To live and work with persons with HIV/AIDS is to be reminded of our mortality and the precious time we all have
To know and see friends dying weekly is to realize the death and hurt in every family.
And to worship and sing and dance with these same people on Sunday mornings – is beautiful miracles churches, school classrooms, or under a mango tree – is to see the power and joy and reality of the good news of Jesus Christ. The songs come from heaven through their mouths. And their prayers are shouts and claps and demands of God that God will remain faithful to God’s identity – that God will reveal God’s self as Healer, Comforter, King. Worship is a taste of the glory to come and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
Friends, this is not just words on paper. These are not just beautiful stories and ancient literature. This is the good news of Jesus Christ with the power to change people’s lives, birth a new church and change the course of a nation. The gospel is not as powerful as the challenges we face, it is so much more powerful.
When we stay focused on the call of God, when we allow Jesus to refocus our gaze on the journey ahead, we will receive a double share of the Holy Spirit!
After Elijah went up in the whirlwind and was carried away by chariots and horses of fire, Elisha picked up his mantle. He called out to God and struck the River Jordan and he saw a miracle. The river parted and he crossed to the other side.
Today we are called to look full in the face of Jesus, to cry out to God, claim the life and power available to us, continuing on the journey with our eyes to Jesus. Miracles are at hand and we too will cross to the other side. Amen.