September 8, 2008


I managed to preach the same sermon two Sundays in a row, last week at Christ Church in North Bay, Ontario and today at St. John's in Northampton, Massachusetts. The text is below.

Despite the usual last minute hesitations and regrets - "the whole thing is garbage!" - I was overall pleased with how it turned out. Regular readers of this blog will note it is basically a summation of some of my greatest hits.

In a neat new development in the addition of multi-media to this blog, Christ Church recorded me and posted the audio on their web site. So you can listen and follow along with the text below, if you so choose. Click this link and choose the August 31 sermon.

Here's the text.

7 September 2008
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA
Jesse Zink

Let us pray.
God of love and truth, grant us the grace and courage to faithfully and honestly fulfill your mission in this world. Amen.

I should begin by saying thank you for your welcome in again letting me into this pulpit to share with you some of my experience. But I should also add a warning: for much of the last year, I have been attending a Xhosa-language church in South Africa where the average service length is three hours and the sermon a minimum forty-five minutes. It has taught me a thing or two about patience... and about preaching. So if in a little while, you find yourself looking at your watch and thinking, “Gee, he’s passed several good stopping points but he’s still talking,” let me just say in preemptive defense, long sermons are all I now know.

A year ago, I spoke to you about my decision to become a missionary, through the national church’s Young Adult Service Corps program. I told you about how before I could make the decision I had to come to peace with the “m-word” and the mixed history of overseas Christian mission. But what I learned and what allowed me to take on this new role in my life is the idea that as a missionary, it is not my job to convert the masses or thump the Bible. What I needed to realize was that as a missionary, my primary job is to acknowledge God’s mission in this world and figure out how I am able to be a part of it. God’s mission is one of reconciliation, of bringing people together and to God. Seen this way, we are all missionaries, all of us called in our own specific contexts in life to take part in this mission of reconciliation and do our bit to heal our broken world. And the mission of all the baptized happens not just on the other side of the world but equally in our own local communities.

For the last year, my context has been a South African one. I’ve been working at a community center in a shantytown outside of Mthatha, South Africa. Mthatha is the economic center of one of South Africa’s poorest regions. The demographic indicators of people in the region are among the worst in the country - higher unemployment, lower income levels, higher infant mortality, lower educational levels, higher crime rates, and, of course, a higher HIV prevalence rate in a country that already has more infected people than any other in the world. South Africa has 11 official languages and the one that is dominant in Mthatha is Xhosa, an African language distinguished by its clicks.

Just outside Mthatha, about a mile walk from the edge of town, is a shantytown known as Itipini. In Xhosa, Itipini means “at the dump” and it’s an accurate name for a community that initially began as a community of people who scavenged off the old municipal dump. That landfill has since been closed but the community has persisted, about 2500 people living in shacks made of corrugated tin, old car parts, pieces of canvas, and whatever else can be found to provide some protection from the elements. All of them are leaky and are drafty, none of them have electricity or running water, and the area is full of old trash that people still sometimes illegally add to.

For about the last 15 years, a woman named Jenny McConnachie, who is an Episcopal missionary from the Diocese of Western North Carolina, has been running a community center right in the middle of Itipini, funded entirely by a non-government organization she created called African Medical Mission. It began simply as a primary-care clinic and that is still a major focus. Jenny and another nurse see an average of 30 to 40 patients a day, with a variety of ailments, ranging from colds and headaches to complications caused by tuberculosis and HIV. Over time, new services have been added and there is now a pre-school, after-school program, and feeding program for single mothers and people with HIV. In addition, we try to help families pay school fees and buy school uniforms every year, expenses that are often out of reach when you live on a few dollars a day.

My role in Itipini is an ever-evolving one. Some days I find myself in the clinic, helping who I can and trying to keep a handle on some of the crowds we get. This is a particular challenge, given the immense language barrier that stands between me and our clients. Sometimes I find myself driving patients to the hospital for advanced care and trying to advocate for them. When you’re weak and dying from HIV, getting yourself to the hospital can be an insurmountable challenge. And when the health-care system is overwhelmed with patients, sometimes having someone along who can speak for you ensures you get seen. Other days, my work is simpler. I play my guitar with the pre-school or after-school children. Or I work with the high-school students and try to teach them English. Or I sit around in the kitchen with the women who cook and distribute the food and work on my Xhosa and catch up on the latest gossip.

These various tasks have, over time, helped me overcome my initial cluelessness about what I could actually do and have drawn me into the community, welcomed by the people who live there, trusted by those who are suffering, and become so enmeshed in life there, I’ve felt compelled to extend my one-year commitment. So while I’m back here now, it is not the permanent sort of return I envisioned last year at this time. I’ll be returning to Mthatha and Itipini in a few weeks to carry on.

I should say, however, that this was not an easy decision for me. While I’ve just described some of the things I am able to do in Itipini, I hope you do not get the impression that I feel, say, effective or useful there. In fact, on most days, it is just the opposite. The language and culture barriers are so huge that every little thing takes so much more effort and energy than I think it should. Coming in contact with so many people who are so poor and so sick and have fallen so far below the standards and quality of life we should expect as a minimum for our brothers and sisters in Christ can be overwhelming and exhausting. The problems seem so insurmountable and inter-related as to be insoluble, certainly not by whatever little effort I am able to contribute. It is an incredibly humbling feeling to show up in a place, full of enthusiasm and a desire to “do good” and realize that it sometimes takes a little more than that to produce anything tangible and tangible results, of course, are what my Western-educated mind demands. And because it takes so much energy to figure anything out, once you realize what needs to be done, you’re too exhausted to actually do it.

Turning away for a moment from my experience, let’s consider for a moment this morning’s Gospel passage. The passage is the hallmark instance of Jesus’ explicit teachings about reconciliation. Jesus tells his followers what to do when confronted with the sort of conflict and division that will surely occur in any group of his followers, namely, sit down and talk with the offending person in private and seek resolution. If that fails, return in a small group and again seek resolution. Jesus doesn’t make this explicit but it’s clear, I think, from the passage, that the people involved in this effort must, as Paul will later write, “speak the truth in love” to one another, that is, approach the situation with a genuine desire to understand where the other person is coming from but also honestly relate one’s own grievances and issues.

Though the teaching in this passage directly concerns life in the small communities that followed Jesus around the Holy Land during his life, I think this passage still speaks to us in this era as we seek to understand our own role in God’s mission.

To begin - and this is obvious but worth saying anyway - reconciliation presupposes conflict. In God’s mission, that conflict is initially Adam and Eve’s original sin that caused humankind to fall away from God’s perfect creation. But not only are the first people separated from God, they begin to separate themselves from each other - Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and on and on. The separation from the Divine and from each other continues throughout the history of Israel. In the Incarnation, God sends his only son to heal those divisions.

But we didn’t quite get that message and now today - when it is common to speak of a worldwide body of Christ - we still find ourselves beset by divisions and conflicts. We see these conflicts in any number of particular ways but I want to suggest to you there is one overriding conflict that currently divides the members of God’s creation from one another. That is the conflict between those of us who have so much, who know that when we wake up tomorrow morning there will be something to eat, who are confident in our access to life’s necessities - in short, those of us who are secure in our existence - and on the other hand, those of our brothers and sisters who have none of this security, who fear if they get sick or injured, there will be no cure, there will be no work, there will be no food, who feel they have no power over the course of their own lives. I know there has been uncertainty about the future of the rich-world economy lately but even still, when we compare our relative positions here to that of people in, say, Mthatha, there are not adjectives sufficient to describe the size of the yawning chasm between us and them. And I am sure you can think of ways in which this secure-insecure divide is present even in this community. It is this conflict more than any other, I think, that divides the members of our worldwide body of Christ against each other, impeding our relationships not only with one another but in our effort to come closer to Christ. We see the implications of this conflict all over - in the worldwide food shortage that affects the poorest among us the most, in the effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change, and even, I think, in the struggles over power and authority within our own Anglican Communion. From our position of security here, what do we need to do to achieve the unity Jesus prayed for among his followers?

In answering that question, we should acknowledge that first of all, we’re not going to achieve that unity in our lifetime and reconciliation will never fully come about. But it is still the goal we need to strive for, to do our part and trust God to do the rest. And in doing so, I think there is a pretty clear process we can follow to work towards the goal of reconciliation and it is a process similar to the one Jesus lays out in this morning’s Gospel. I’ve come to call it the three Rs of mission.

The first R is a fancy word I learned in my ivory tower days. It is reification, a word that means to make real. Ideas and concepts, when reified, lose their abstraction and become concrete. Jesus doesn’t use this word in the Gospel but when he commands us to go to the source of the problem directly - and not rely on secondhand reports or our own perception of the issue - he is telling us we must address the problem as it really is and not as we want it to be. For me, this past year has reified in broad scope the lifestyle and challenges facing people in Itipini. For instance, before I left for Mthatha, I knew a lot of the horrific statistics of how HIV and AIDS are endemic in sub-Saharan Africa. I had seen pictures of people emaciated and dying from the disease. I had read stories about how the deaths of care-givers had led to child-headed households and a rapidly growing number of orphans throughout the region. Now that I’ve worked there for a year, those statistics and that book knowledge has become real in a very vivid and disturbing way. I can - and later this morning, I will - tell you the stories of particular individuals, particular children of God, who suffered and died from HIV before my eyes. The HIV epidemic is now indelibly imprinted in my mind not as a story of statistics and pictures but as the names and faces of particular individuals, some of whom I considered my friends before they died and whose death I still mourn. If we are to work towards effective reconciliation within our worldwide body of Christ, it is this sort of knowledge, this reification of how they live, of how they suffer, and of the challenges facing them, that is a crucial first step. To use a less fancy word, we could also call this “realize.” We need to acknowledge the reality of the lives of those who are different to us. And again, this can happen here and overseas. If you wind me up, I’ll talk about Itipini for as long as you are willing to listen - and probably longer. And there are other missionaries like me all over the world. But there are also missionaries right here in Northampton and we can learn from them and learn from the people with whom they work.

The second R proceeds from the first. Once we have reified and learned about the reality of these lives, we can begin to build relationships with these people, equally our brothers and sisters in Christ as the person sitting next to you this morning. In our own day and age, the trend is towards a continued separation into smaller and smaller groups. But I don’t think that is what Jesus wants. For one thing, his was a life devoted towards reaching out towards those who had traditionally been cast out - the fishermen and the tax collectors, for instance - and then, when those Apostles became comfortable in their new status, Jesus reached father, to the lepers and the beggars with whom at first even the Apostles did not want to associate. When Jesus says we must go to the offending member of the community and speak with him, Jesus is calling us into relationship with that person. We begin to work towards reconciliation when we reach out to the people who are outside of our immediate groups and resist the impulse to turn further into a smaller community.

In this past year, I have formed some deep and, I pray, enduring relationships with people in Mthatha and particularly in Itipini. On the surface, my new friends are nothing like me - many don’t speak a word of English, those who are my age often have two or three children, they don’t have the kind of education I have, and so on. And yet more than any other single factor, it is these relationships that are keeping me in Itipini for another year. The reason I got out of bed in the morning and looked forward to going to Itipini this past year is that I wanted to continue to learn from my new friends and build these relationships deeper. And again, you don’t have to go halfway across the world to find people who are different to us. That can happen right in this congregation.

There’s something important that both reification and relationship-building share: they don’t require us to do much; rather our success depends on who we are. We are called human beings and not human doings for a reason. In Itipini, I first realized this in my first week when I was working with some pre-school children and understood that given the language and culture barriers at that point, I wouldn’t be able to teach them anything specific or concrete. But by choosing to be present with them and be a smiling and hopefully gracious presence, I could on some level continue to be an effective missionary. Reification takes nothing more than a willingness to truly and honestly see and recognize what is right before our eyes. Relationship-building does not require specific actions so much as an open and welcoming attitude towards those we meet.

After acknowledging the conflict, the first steps in effective mission, then, are to pick up and go to the people with whom the conflict exists. This is exactly what Jesus tells his followers to do in the Gospel passage this morning. It is also a message God’s followers hear again and again throughout the Bible, from Abraham told to “get up and go” to Isaiah who hears God ask, “who will go for us?” to the Apostles who hear first from Jesus, “come, follow me.” We hear much these days about the Millennium Development Goals and how the national church has committed itself to them as a framework for mission. The MDGs are an excellent tool to improving the living standards of billions of people around the world and I hope more and more people continue to take them seriously. But let’s also be serious about the strategies we use to achieve them. When we think about how to respond to the MDGs, is our question, “what organization can we write a check to?” or is it “how can we reify the situations facing these people and begin to build relationships with them?” Certainly, we need lots more checks to be written if we’re going to get anywhere, but I encourage you to ask yourself as you write the check, “In what way does this check proceed from a relationship and in what way does it further a relationship?” We will begin to move towards a more just future when people begin to commit to people.

I think even if we never get beyond these first two Rs, we have still done something effective. God is at work in that messy, complicated, and difficult business of breaking down language and cultural barriers. Indeed, mission, I believe, is as much in the the breaking down of the barriers as it is what happens when/if the barriers are broken down.

The final R is, naturally, reconciliation, God’s mission throughout history and the mission we are to find our role in. It’s hard to provide a simple and compelling explanation of what reconciliation is other than to say that we should know it when we see it. It’s not just a relationship with someone else; rather I think it has to do with what we pledge ourselves to in the Baptismal covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Reconciliation happens when God’s children are allowed to be the people God has created them to be and not the people they have been turned into by the crushing and unmitigated circumstances of their existence.

I have a friend named Vuyelwa, who has an irrepressible joy and enthusiasm that bubbles over in her interactions with others. She is 21, has three children, and is HIV-positive. She is one of many people whom I have come to know as a result of my time in Itipini and one of the people I look forward to returning to in a few weeks. In my first probably 10 months in Mthatha, what I did for her was almost nothing. But what I learned from her - about how her father had abandoned her family, about how she had unwillingly and unexpectedly become pregnant, about how despite her best efforts, there was simply no work to be found - helped me understand more about how she lived and the overwhelming challenges she faced. Over time, a relationship between the two of us developed and between me and her children. Again, I think Vuyelwa was not responding to anything I’ve ever done for her but who I was to her and to her children. About three months ago, in conversation, Vuyelwa told me about how she had seen other people selling clothes in town and that it was something she could do as well. Together, we learned more about how this would work - the idea of making a living by selling clothes second-hand was something that had to be reified for me - and how much it would cost to begin. I was eventually able to loan her about $200 that we had decided was necessary to make a serious go of it. Since then, she has begun to travel to a nearby city, buy clothes in bulk, and re-sell them in Mthatha. And in a move that shocked me even though I should have expected it, she has even begun to repay me some of the initial loan out of her profits. Vuyelwa has a long way to go before she can even aspire to the secure lifestyle we have but I think she is at least moving in the right direction. Reconciliation takes time. Vuyelwa’s and my limited steps toward it so far would not have been possible had we not taken the time to understand each other first and realize what each could offer the other.

This morning’s Gospel passage concludes “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This is one of the most frequently-quoted of Jesus’ sayings yet it is as frequently divorced from its context. Jesus reminds us of his presence among us particularly when we are working towards reconciliation with our fellow members of the body of Christ. It is that effort towards reconciliation - beginning with an attempt to understand the position of our brothers and sisters in Christ and work towards relationship with them - that Christ honours and blesses and it is that mission - in Northampton, in Itipini, and everywhere in between - to which we must dedicate ourselves fully and completely.