Monday, May 5, 2014

The Sunday Sermon: On the Road with Jesus

Some of the most memorable stories in Scripture are stories of the road: Abraham's emigration to Canaan; the Exodus wanderings; the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus; the encounter between the deacon Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road. Today's story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is much beloved: you only have to look at the number of Methodist churches called "Emmaus" to get a sense of the power of this story in the lives of many Christians and many congregations.

The metaphor of journey for the spiritual life is an easy one for us to grasp. We hear about it in popular song - "the long and winding road"; we experience it in books and movies - the yellow brick road to Oz, "The Hobbit or there and back again"; and we frequently use it in church: just think of what we say at the Peace: "Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself in your journey of faith, you are welcome here". The beloved Irish blessing prays, "May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back ..."

Whenever I read the Emmaus story I hear echoes of journeys in my own life, times when Jesus was there but I didn't know him; times when I was welcomed in from the road as Jesus was welcomed in; times when I have been surprised to encounter Jesus in something as ordinary as a conversation in the grocery store. And sometimes, the best way to respond to a story is with another story. So, two stories of the road:

When I was 14 my mother died. She and I were the only family members left in Belfast, so I went to boarding school in England. I remember the journey, two days before my 15th birthday; the ferry ride to North Wales; the drive with my youngest aunt, who so wanted to adopt me, but whose mothering I wasn't ready to accept; the first day at Wells before classes began, the school campus quiet, time to wander around the Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace before my dorm-mates arrived and my new life really began. I didn't know that Jesus was on the road with me, but he was. He was there in the form of Aunt Sally, longing to take care of me. He was there in the spirit of the ancient cathedral and school, wrapping its arms around me. He was there in the faculty who watched me carefully in case I needed some kind of intervention. I had not been ready for confirmation at age 12, but with time, I came to want to know Jesus in the breaking of the bread and I stepped forward for confirmation at 16, at last fully embracing my baptism and my Anglican identity. Jesus was on the road with me all the way, even when I didn't recognize him.

This time last year I had the privilege of representing my church on a visit to South Sudan. The parish has a long-standing relationship with a school in Juba and with a diocese in the far southwest of the country, right on the border where South Sudan, Congo, and Central African Republic meet, dead center of the continent. In all the years of the relationship, it has never been deemed safe enough for members of the church to go visit - until last year.

The week after Easter, three of us from the parish flew out from Washington to Juba via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a long, long flight and then a shorter flight, arriving in Juba utterly exhausted. After a short night at the Episcopal Church's guest house we took an early-morning UN flight to Yambio, 500 miles west of Juba. The Bishop and his driver met us and took us the rest of the way to Ezo on the only road in that part of the country: 100 miles of red dirt road in an inadequate SUV: miles and miles of bush, the only motorized vehicles belonging to the UN or NGOs; pot holes on a scale that required us to stop each time and decide: do we drive around this one or down into it and out the other side? Enormous mango trees loaded with fruit, almost invisible footpaths from the road that led to clearings with villages of tukuls - home-made brick huts with roofs of branches surrounded by cassava plants and populated by people, goats, and chickens in about equal numbers.

Before we left Yambio we stopped by a Roman Catholic church, where the Bishop had arranged with his friend the Catholic priest to pick up bags of Communion wafers. The folks in Ezo don't usually have the resources for the wafers that we take for granted, but with such distinguished guests - us - they wanted to be sure that Communion was everything we would expect (apart from wine - they don't do alcohol). And so the bread of heaven came with us on the road.

As we drove, the Bishop told us stories of the hardships his people have endured, thanks to the long civil war and more recently the Lord's Resistance Army, a gang of paramilitary thugs who hang out in the bush just across the border and make periodic incursions. The stories were heartbreaking: babies kidnapped and abandoned in the bush; people killed or spared arbitrarily; families separated for years. Most of the clergy have wives and children on the other side of the country or in Uganda or Kenya where they are safe and can get an education; the clergy remain in Ezo without salaries because their hearts burn within them to bring the Gospel to their people. The Christians of Sudan have really endured a kind of crucifixion over the last 50 years. Their hopes for a new life, new independence, have been repeatedly crushed by internal violence as well as the challenges of illiteracy, the lack of clean water, and endemic malaria. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is how little the outside world knows about their plight. Sudan rarely makes the headlines or even the small print of the news. Unlike those disciples on the Emmaus road, the Sudanese aren't astonished that visitors know little of their story, but they are deeply grateful for those who come to be their guests. They readily recognize Jesus in the faces of those who join hands with them.

Six hours down the road we arrived at the bishop's compound, a couple of miles from the border and an unknown distance from the Lord's Resistance Army. I was as much at the end of my tether as I have ever been, beyond hungry, jetlagged, sleep-deprived. The Bishop and his family and clergy were kindness itself. In an economy where nobody earns a monetary income, they had sacrificed to find the gas to drive to the airfield and back. They fed us royally - rice, fresh eggs, honey, even goat stew, and all the bottled water we could want. There was almost certainly a plan for a grand reception later in the evening, with clergy walking or cycling some distance to meet us. They hardly ever get visitors from outside Sudan, and a white, female priest is a rarity indeed.

I'm ashamed now to relate that all I could do once we arrived and ate a late lunch was retire to my guest house - a tiny, two-twin-bed hut on the edge of the compound - and collapse for about 15 hours of sleep. If there was a reception I never knew it.

The amazing thing about our experience was how the people's love of Jesus shone through the horror and sadness of their history. Every time we stopped along the way, our host gave thanks for safe travel and prayed for the next leg of the journey. We saw this throughout our visit: constant love and gratitude for the smallest of blessings: waking up in the morning, a cup of tea, the safe landing of an airplane. Jesus was ever present in their journey of faith.

On the Sunday morning, the third Sunday of Easter - this Sunday, we were treated to a wonderful worship service in the church, a long open-walled structure with a leafy roof. People came from miles around - on foot - to join in the celebration, which was truncated to only 2 1/2 hours out of concern for our Western wimpishness. We had musical presentations by the children, the youth, the Mother's Union, the elders, and the young adults. I preached, with the Bishop's secretary translating sentence by sentence into the Zande language.

As we took bread, blessed and broke it, and as we gave it to each other, I was deeply aware of the presence of the risen Christ among us: in the babies nursing at their mothers' breasts, in the elders with their deeply creased faces and eyes that held decades of suffering, in the kids who weren't quite sure if we were fully human but who couldn't take their eyes off us, in the white uniforms of the Mothers' Union and the very Anglican vestments of the clergy, in the priest who dashed off as the service was ending to take Communion to a bed-ridden grandfather, and above all in the incredible generosity and hospitality of these people who have suffered so much and who yet know Jesus in every moment of their life.

The next day we got up and returned to Juba, where we met with the Archbishop's staff and the people of the St. Francis Basic School. It fell to me to try and mediate between the two on a conflict over control of the school; I wasn't terribly successful. But when we returned to the US a few days later I carried with me a new sense of how Jesus had been made known to us and to our Sudanese brothers and sisters, in the breaking of the bread.

We don't have to go to the other side of the world to recognize Jesus. He is right here among us, in the people we know and the people we don't know. We shall know him in the stories of pain and suffering we hear. We shall know him on the roads we travel. We shall know him in the breaking of the bread at the altar, and at our kitchen tables. Where will you know Jesus today? On the road going home from church? In the face of a homeless man in Balboa Park? In the beauty of our worship here at St. Paul's? Wherever you find him, may your prayer be, "Stay with us. Abide with us. Be known to us on the roads we travel, however near or far, however dangerous the journey. Stay with us and be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread."

The Very Rev. Penny Bridges
4 May 2014

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