Pentecost, Year B, 2015
Many of you are probably familiar with the story of Pentecost: when, after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in different languages, empowering them for ministry throughout the world.
When I finished seminary, I moved back to Omaha, Nebraska, where I had done my priestly discernment. Now the diocese—as well as the church where I worked—had a companion relationship with South Sudan. Since my title at the church was Assistant for Mission and Youth, mission work was part of my job. And since we had this companion relationship, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend about a month in South Sudan, on a trip led by one of my parishioners.
One day, after we had been in the tiny village of Maar for about a week, Bishop Ezekiel, the Bishop of the Diocese of Twic East, said that we were going to go to a neighboring village overnight for a huge service. Oh, and by the way we would be leaving in 40 minutes. So my parishioner and I went to our little huts and quickly packed overnight bags. We made the trek across the cracked roads to the village—now if you think the potholes are bad here, you’re sadly mistaken; they had holes in their roads so big a truck could fall in it, and that is not an exaggeration! We made it to the village where we were greeted by singing and dancing. We finally were served dinner at 9pm (we hadn’t had anything since earlier that morning). At dinner the Bishop casually mentioned that I would be preaching at the service in the morning. Well, I sort of lost my appetite after hearing that and quickly made my way back to the hut where I was staying to try and pound out a sermon. I was fortunate that my hut in this village had electricity so that I didn’t have to try and write by the light of a flashlight!
The Bishop had said that I could preach on anything. If you know me (and most other Episcopalians), you know that this would be another source of anxiety. There’s this story about 3 clergy people who gather together upon hearing the news that a meteor is headed straight for Earth. They discuss among themselves what they are going to preach at their churches that Sunday. The baptist minister decides he’s going to preach on how the congregation needs to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The Roman Catholic priest says he’s going to preach about returning to the one true church. The two of them look at the Episcopal priest and ask her what she’s going to preach on. She replies, “I’m going to preach on the lectionary, of course!”
It’s a funny story, but it has some truth to it: it would have been easier for me to try to preach on a specific passage than to try and choose from all the verses in the Bible. Luckily for me, I had been warned before traveling to South Sudan that I could be asked to preach at any moment, so I had been thinking about what I would preach on and had a few ideas ready.
In the morning the villagers let me borrow a cassock, surplice, and stole, and then we went into the church. The service was quite the production: 7 priests and 4 deacons were ordained, 30 people were confirmed, and 2 lay leaders were commissioned. The youth choir and Sunday School children performed. The service went something like this: the Bishop gave his welcome address, then there were songs and prayers, then the reading, then more songs and prayers, ordinations, confirmations, and commissions, more songs and prayers, the sermon, songs and dances, more songs and prayers, the offertory, and songs and prayers. The whole thing lasted about 3 1/2 hours!!
Now, while English is a common language in South Sudan, there are obviously other languages spoken. When I preached, I would speak a sentence, then someone would translate it into Dinka, then another person would translate the Dinka into Nuer. Some tribes in South Sudan are known for their agricultural prowess. The Dinka and Nuer, however, are known for their skill in herding cattle, which are a form of currency for many in South Sudan. Because of this shared expertise, the tribes have historically been antagonistic toward one another. But in the Diocese of Twic East, the Dinka and Nuer have been coming together, united by their mission to serve Christ and to make him known.
Do you remember the story of the tower of Babel? How, in the beginning, everyone in the world spoke the same language, and in their hubris they attempted to build a tower that would reach to heaven so they could “make a name for [them]selves” (Genesis 11:4). The Lord was not amused, and came down and “confuse[d] their language” (Gen 11:7). Because people were unable to communicate as they had before, the tower of Babel was abandoned and everyone scattered to the ends of the earth.
Flash forward to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they began speaking in different languages, so that everyone around them was able to hear the Good News in their own language. Pentecost began the process of reversing what happened at the tower of Babel.
In the small church in a remote village of South Sudan one January morning, some Dinka and Nuer and Americans were reunited under one banner: that of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a glimpse into the kingdom of God: people uniting across language, culture, race, and gender to worship God.
Jesus came to earth to bring God's people back into the fold, to remind us that each one of us is made in the image of God, loved unconditionally. Jesus showed us how to turn back to God and how to treat each other, and when he rose back up to heaven, he did not leave us to fend for ourselves. He sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate and Comforter.
At some point during the service it rained. I later found out that, because it is so rare, the people of South Sudan consider rain to be a good omen. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it also had something to do with the Holy Spirit.
The 7 deacons who were ordained priests that day.
Image found here.
The village of Maar was somewhere northwest of Bor, in Jonglei state
Image found here.