Below is my sermon from Darien, using these readings: Isaiah 58:6-9a, 1John 3:16-18, Matthew 25:31, 34-40
My name is Robin Denney, I am from California, and I was a member of the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps last year. I served as an agriculture instructor at a rural college in Liberia, West Africa, for one year. I very happy to have the opportunity to be here with you today.
We are gathered here today to join in the struggle against extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is something that we see in commercials on TV: dirty children with flies in their eyes. On the news we see people with their faces contorted with suffering. Sometimes our hearts are moved, but the commercial changes, and we move on with our lives.
I want to take you on a journey with me right now. I want to take you to Liberia for a few minutes. Liberia is a difficult place. Their civil war ended in 2003, and claimed the lives of 10% of the population. Poverty in Liberia is widespread, with more than 80% unemployment. The war destroyed so much, everything.
My students at the university were studying agriculture. They saw improving agriculture as the way forward for their country, and their passion and dedication inspired me. They wore western clothes, and the ones who could afford it drank beer in the evenings, sometimes to excess. Some of them cheated on their homework. They would sit around and argue with their friends about student politics and current events. In many ways they are like college students anywhere. But every single one of them, at some point in the last 15 years had a gun pointed at their head. Every one of them saw someone they cared about, murdered, and everyone one of them was forced to laugh as they watched atrocities.
My students wanted to get out into the communities and practice the development work they were learning about. So we started a community tree-planting project. We established 10 different orchards of Moringa trees, a tree that can be used to treat mal-nutrition, and my students did all of the promotion, and education with the communities. It was wonderful to get the chance to be out in the communities. The villages in Liberia are comprised of mud buildings with thatched roofs, with the occasional corrugated metal roof. The background is the tropical forests of Liberia. The women in the village spend much of their time cooking for the family. They also do a good portion of the farm work. The men work in agriculture unless they can find some other work. The children do chores like carrying the water, and helping with the cooking, but when they are not working, they are running around together. They build things, instead of using Leggos, they use garbage, and make cars that actually roll. They laugh and scream and chase each other. And if they can find a ball, they will play soccer until they fall down with exhaustion.
My students and I planted one of our Moringa orchards at a local orphanage. When we arrived with the trees, the children saw us a quarter of a mile away, and they ran down the hill, and across the rice patties to help us carry the trees. The girls were cradling the trees in their arms, and some of the boys were balancing them on their heads. I heard one girl say, “this is my tree, I’m going to water it every day.” And one of the boys said, “We’ll be eating it, and climbing it!” We showed the kids how to dig the holes and plant the trees, and pretty soon there was dirt flying everywhere, and kids running around laughing and squealing. These are real children.
One in five of these real children will die before reaching the age of five. And of the girls who survive, one in six of them will die in childbirth.
Suffering and death are things that, in our culture, we don’t expect to happen, and we are consumed by the fear that these things will happen to us. But in places like Liberia, they understand that everyone suffers and everyone dies. But they live their lives anyway, and focus on the things that matter most: relationships, caring for people, laughter, singing, dancing, and praising God.
We have so much to learn from the people of Liberia. We have so much to gain from entering into relationship with people who see life differently then we do. It’s not about feeling guilty, it’s not about having pity, it’s about opening ourselves to the experience, offering ourselves up in action. And it’s not about the outcome of our actions. The outcome of life is death. But everyone knows that it’s not your death that’s the most important thing, it’s how you live you life in between.
God’s call to us is clear in the readings we heard today:
“To loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.” [Isaiah 58:6-7]
From the Gospel—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick and in prison. And the reading from 1stJohn “Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” [1John 3:18]
Why is God calling us to do all of these things? Is it because God messed up, and we’re supposed to fix it? Let’s look back at the reading from 1stJohn. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” We do these things, because it is in the doing, and the trying, that the love of God abides within us. and that we become part of God’s redeeming love in the world. This is an epic journey that God is calling you to: a journey of extreme action. And God is calling you just as you are, right here, right now. This is dangerous work. It will open your eyes to the suffering of the world, and once the eyes of your heart are opened, they will never be closed again. The enormity of the despair of the world is so great, it feels as though we will drown in it. But it is only in being with that despair, that we can come to understand true joy: the joy that God’s love can redeem even this!
I invite you to take your service bulletin home with you tonight, and spend some time with these readings. Listen to where God is calling you in your life.
We are gathered here tonight to celebrate the Millennium Development Goals. The Millennium Development Goals are about action. In 2000, at the largest gathering of world leaders in history, they unanimously approved the Millennium Development Goals. 189 countries said, we are humanity, and we stand united. We believe that every human being deserves a life free from poverty, injustice, and oppression. We are the world, and we have the power to change the world, through partnership and action. These goals that they agreed on are for us, the modern translation of Jesus’ call to action. And they are this: To eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development.
We each are called, as surely as Mother Teresa was called into the gutters of Calcutta, to pick up the dying and care for them. God is calling us to offer up our broken selves, just as we are. Not some day when we have our lives together, and we are prepared. Right now, just as we are tonight. Sometimes we feel like God couldn’t possibly be calling us, God only calls people who have it together, and aren’t afraid. Let me tell you, I have never been as afraid as I was on that plane to Liberia. I was sure that I had made a terrible mistake, that God couldn’t possibly be calling me after all. Throughout my year in Liberia, I was messing up, doubting God, depressed, loosing my faith, and failing at every turn. But now I see that it was through moving beyond fear that my life, my heart, my self was transformed.
God is calling you beyond your fears to be transformed by Love…and action.