Tag Archive: Rwanda


Sermon from July 12 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

These texts today about Israel losing God’s favor and Herod beheading John the Baptist are not exactly pick me ups.  They’re the kind of texts where you respond to “the Word of the Lord” with “Thanks be to God?!”  What on earth does this have to say to us? Where is the good news? However, these are stories that, oddly enough, have to do with our every day lives.

In Rwanda, one of the first places we visited was the genocide memorial in Nyamata.  It was a Catholic Church that had been the site of the killing of 10,000 people in 4 days.  There, on display, within the walls of this church were the skulls of some of the victims.  I was horrified.  And yet, I knew I had to be there.  I had to learn from what I saw before me.  When we had time to walk around, I found myself in front of those skulls, praying that I would never forget what I had seen.  I asked God that I might know what lesson I was to take away from that place.  The answer came in the form of a question: how many times have I hurt others or caused death in their lives with my words or deeds?

Staring at that gruesome scene, I realized that the truth of the matter is that we all have the potential to do harm to one another.  Maybe not in such stark ways, but in a thousand different ways each and every day.  The potential is there and the temptation to power and force always beckoning.  As the famous Lord Acton quote goes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Herod and his wife succumbed to power.  John’s words of truth spoken against them stung and eventually, they proved to be too threatening to the established power.  Herod’s wife Herodias wanted John dead and Herod, for the sake of an oath and to save face among his contemporaries, would not refuse her.

The established court priest and prophet Amaziah didn’t like that the farmer prophet Amos was speaking on his turf – in the king’s sanctuary at Bethel – and saying such negative things about Israel and the king! So Amaziah tried to get Amos to leave, but Amos was following a higher calling.

Jesus and his disciples set out, preaching and teaching, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near and that all people should turn once more toward God.  But this proved threatening to the established religious leaders, to Rome and to those who wanted to put themselves first, rather than God.  Jesus would be crucified and many of his first followers martyred for speaking of God’s kingdom and against the powers that wanted to coerce and manipulate.

We are often threatened by words of truth – they have power – they challenge us, shake us out of our comfort zones and complacency, cause us to reconsider what we thought we had figured out, and make us squirm.  Sometimes we become frustrated or angry because we know that what has been said is something that is really too close for comfort.  Words can make us angry because they pull back the masks we present to the world and ourselves, and we cannot hide the truth from ourselves or anyone else anymore.  Words can cut to the heart and we see revealed, all too clearly, that with which we are struggling.

These words can be read or heard in Scripture, preached from the pulpit, heard in a song, from people we know and love, or even from strangers.  I know that I hate it when someone else speaks that kind of uncomfortable truth to me.  They say something and it’s absolutely irritating because I know in my heart of hearts that the other person is right, but I don’t want to admit it or deal with it.  And now that whatever I was conveniently trying to ignore is out in the open, I have to deal with it.  Has anyone else experienced this?

As much as this can be incredibly uncomfortable, challenging and even painful, it is one of ways I know I learn.  And I give thanks for the people in my life who are patient and wise guides, able to shepherd me through this learning process.  Those who speak truth and gently urge me to give up the power and control I think I have in favor for the forgiveness and healing of Christ.  We all need people and communities that can hold us accountable and call us to be the people God is calling us to be.

Because that’s the paradox of the Gospel.  Real power – power that isn’t coercive or manipulative – springs forth from the cross of Christ.  It was through Christ’s weakness and vulnerability that salvation came about.  It is through death that we are able to experience new life.  It’s through letting go of the things we want to hold so tightly – being right, important, intelligent, rich, or even our mistakes – that we discover true freedom and the power of Christ’s love to heal and redeem.  And without being in touch with those places where we have sinned or fallen short, the good news remains something that sounds good, but stays at arm’s length and cannot change our lives.

The cross, and following Christ, bid us to die to ourselves.  Being a disciple is hard.  Following Christ will cause us to examine our lives and let go of things we thought important in order to follow God.  It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  But it is profoundly good.  And the Holy Spirit is always guiding and strengthening us to follow.  Following God frees us to become more open to what God is doing in the world – to see things through the lens of the cross and resurrection, and to work on behalf of God’s kingdom.

It’s like a scene from A League of Their Own, about the women’s baseball league started during World War II.  In that scene, coach Jimmy Duggan, speaks passionately about baseball to Dottie, an amazing player, who is leaving the league now that her husband is back from war.  Jimmy says, “Dottie, if you want to go back to Oregon and make a hundred babies, great, I’m in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.” When Dottie says, “It just got too hard,” Jimmy responds:  “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great!”

Trying to follow God is hard.  I’m sure Amos, who was a simple farmer, called to be a prophet by God, had his moments of thinking, “this is an awful gig – I don’t want to do this.”  But he knew he had to.  And John the Baptist, as wild and unconventional as he was, probably knew that speaking the truth to the king and to all people would end up getting him in trouble, but he pressed on, knowing he was called to proclaim God’s truth.  Jesus sent out the disciples knowing that they would encounter those who wouldn’t want to listen.  And we, too, are called to listen to what God is proclaiming to us and to share that news with the world.  It is hard, but in doing so we experience new life and resurrection.  And the good news is that God never ceases trying to reach us, calling us to be transformed by God’s grace, and to share the good news with the world.

Words, especially words of truth, can catch us off guard and frustrate, irritate, or challenge us.  But they can also help us to turn once more toward God.  As the Psalmist says “I will listen to what the LORD God is saying.”  Are we listening? What is God saying to us today? Are there things God is calling you to reexamine in your life?

Maybe what you hear is that God is calling you to step out of your comfort zone to follow God into a new place or a new task.  Amos was a simple farmer when God called him to be a prophet.  How might God be calling you?

The stories of Amos and John the Baptist remind us that we need God’s word and other people to speak truth to us, even if it’s hard to hear.  We need that help to remove the masks we wear, to challenge us to examine our sins, to encourage us to seek forgiveness, and to live in God’s grace.  Thanks be to God for the prophets old and new who point toward God and call us to follow.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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Sermon from June 28 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

Imana ishyimwe! Praise God! Our mission trip to Rwanda was a incredibly eye-opening and moving journey. On the one hand, I learned up close about the depth of human hatred and depravity. On the other, I left feeling like I had never encountered such a depth of joy in all my travels. How could both of these things be present in the same place and even among the same people? As I reflect and try to understand, I can only think that it is because we were able to glimpse both death and resurrection.

During the genocide in 1994, men were both disproportionately the perpetrators and victims. Afterward, some 70 percent of the country was women. Many of whom had been abused, raped, wounded, and widowed. Or whose families had perpetrated crimes against others and were now in prison. How would they be able to go on after such a horrific tragedy? Men had been breadwinners and now the world had been shaken to the core. Those who were left were hurting, sick, suffering from PTSD, dealing with poverty, and finding it nearly impossible to build trust or community.

I think about the woman in the lesson this morning. She had suffered with hemorrhages for twelve agonizing years. No one could help her. And because of her disease, she was unclean and isolated from society. She must have felt so completely cut off from everything she once knew and enjoyed. Perhaps she had once loved life in her village, but now it was a place of isolation, loneliness, hurt and distrust. How could there be hope for a future?

After the woman in the Gospel quietly touches Jesus’ clothes to receive healing, she is unable to hide any longer. She tells him her whole story about all the doctors, the years of suffering, the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and shame, and how she knew she would be better if she could only touch even his clothes. Jesus looks at her and says gently, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

I hear this story and I think about those Rwandan women after the genocide, and what they must have gone through. They, too, struggled to find hope and a future. They, too, must have felt relegated to the land of the dead as opposed to the land of the living. They, too, must have felt shame for what they suffered or what they or others had done.

But slowly, things began to change. Women began to realize that in order to move forward, they needed to work together. They gathered to talk and weave. Hutu and Tutsi women began sitting together, side-by-side, weaving peace baskets, which nest to show how intricate and how long a process the road to peace and reconciliation is. All over Rwanda, co-ops have formed. People have come together across ethnic lines to begin building, or weaving, a future for their country and for their children.

We were blessed to experience this healing and resurrection in many places on our trip, but particularly in the villages of Gitarama and Nyange. In Gitarama, we participated in Azizi Life, an experience shadowing Rwandan women for the day, learning about their lives, and having the amazing opportunity to share cross-culturally.

While there, we helped prepare lunch, we harvested and planted sweet potatoes, we collected water by walking to the spring with jerry cans, we cut elephant grass and balanced it on our heads to take to the cow, we ate lunch together, prayed, sang and danced, and learned how to make earrings and bracelets from banana leaves. It was incredible. Together, these women have a co-op and they make beautiful handicrafts to sell around the world. They receive a fair wage and are able to support themselves and their families.

Sitting on Our Host's Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

Sitting on Our Host’s Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

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With Pauline who Taught Me (Errr… tried to teach me!) How to Make Banana Leaf Earrings and a Bracelet

I found myself sitting on the front porch of our host’s home filled with joy – not wanting the moment to end. We had been so warmly embraced by these women. Their smiles and laughter made me overflow with joy. So much so that when I went to say goodbye and thank you to our host, I found myself tearing up with gratitude. How could this come from the unfathomable depth of suffering of the genocide?

In Nyange, we sat with the village elders with whom Pr. John, Robin’s husband, has been working. They are rebuilding their community by working together to decide what is important for them as a whole. Together, they have decided that they are most in need of new roofs. And in the process, Pr. John has been coaching and encouraging them so that they can put together an action plan, hold meetings, make presentations to government officials, and reflect on their project and its effectiveness. I asked them what has changed as a result of this and one woman said, “We used to not even want to wash our clothes. We were ashamed and we didn’t want to interact with one another. Now we want to take care of ourselves. We are even discussing family planning. We can make presentations to people without being afraid.” Each one of them mentioned how their confidence had increased – how they are once again able to look others in the eye.

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

I hear in that an echo of the woman from the Gospel. She was healed and able to tell her story of her movement from death to life. These communities have been healed, by the grace of God at work in the world and by their faith that there could be a future. And now they are able to tell their stories – to share the joy of their resurrection with us. To point to what God can do – crossing all walls and boundaries and bringing resurrection from the darkest depths of hatred and death.

The day after our Azizi Life experience we heard about the shooting in Charleston. I was sad. I was angry. We had just visited a church in Rwanda that was the site of the killing of 10,000 people. Now here was a shooting in a church in our own backyard. Why? Why do we continue to hurt one another? Our sin runs deep. Racism, lack of compassion for those who are different, hard hearts unwilling to learn and grow and change… We have an opportunity at this moment to begin to discuss what has happened and to work together across races and ethnicities to build a better future for all people. I know that Christ can bring life out of this hurt and death – I know that more deeply after visiting Rwanda. But are we open to his working in us to do so?

Christ healed a woman on the fringes of society and brought her back into her community. He is at work in Rwanda through women and men working together to rebuild their communities. And he is at work even now, starting conversations and reconciliation among Americans in communities across the country. Might we, like the disciples, be overcome with amazement at what God is able to do. Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

God’s Wild Kingdom

This past Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

 

ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν… The kingdom of heaven is like a pastor who stepped into the pulpit one Sunday speaking foreign words. The listeners were confused and unsettled, wondering how they could interpret what she was saying.

Yes, like foreign words heard early in the morning, the kingdom of God is surprising, baffling and catches us off-guard – making us sit up and pay attention. Oh, and by the way, those words, ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν…,mean “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Now you can rest easy – I promise I won’t use anymore Greek today!

There are basically six different parables in this week’s Gospel – six! It seems as if Jesus is trying every possible way to get the disciples to grasp what he is speaking about. He’s already told them the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds. And now we hear these other parables about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. At the end, Jesus even asks them “have you understood all this?” They answer “yes,” but I’m wondering if they actually did understand or if they just needed to get past the parables!

These parables may seem disparate, but each one of them offers a glimpse into a different aspect of God’s kingdom – like facets on a diamond. The first speaks of God’s kingdom as one that begins small, spreads like a wild and invasive weed, and becomes a tree – a welcoming place where birds, symbolizing the people of many nations, make their home.

The second parable offers that the kingdom is like a tiny bit of yeast that permeates, lightens and expands our entire world. The next two parables describe the kingdom like a priceless treasure or pearl for which someone sacrifices and gives up everything in order to keep the newfound treasure.

The fifth parable reminds us that there is both good and bad within the kingdom, since it’s like an abundant catch of fish that needs to be sorted onshore. And Jesus’ final parable tells us that the kingdom is like the head of the house who not only brings out new treasures, but refurbishes the old to make it new again.

We speak about the kingdom of God and being a part of it by serving God and others. We even pray that it will come every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But I find that it’s easy to forget what the words “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” really mean. These parables help to present a fuller picture and call us to reexamine our thoughts and beliefs about God’s kingdom. They declare that the kingdom is priceless, powerful and grows in amazing, often unseen ways.

When Jesus spoke these words, he was speaking in the shadow of the Roman Empire. This was an incredibly powerful and unforgiving empire, ruling the lives of not only Roman citizens, but also slaves and conquered peoples, crushing rebellions and dissenters underfoot. Speaking of the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of Rome was radical and dangerous. Remember, part of Jesus’ sentence leading to the crucifixion dealt with him being a king and having a kingdom – something seen as a direct threat to Rome.

But I think we forget that we, too, have kingdoms and empires –we have things that rule over us and our lives. In some places, perhaps it is an oppressive government. But we cannot forget all of the other things that we allow to rule us – money, anger, fear, prejudice, material goods, gossip, anxiety, ourselves… The list could go on and on. And how often are we content to live under these rulers!

It is striking that Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven as something that people rush out and sacrifice all they have had previously to obtain. This sounds like a terrible maneuver or investment strategy to our ears, but it means putting our trust solely in God. And the people in these parables don’t grudgingly sacrifice their things or their old way of life to follow God. No, they do it with joy: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” They are excited and brimming with joy because they know the kingdom of heaven is better than anything else. So what sacrifices have you made for God’s kingdom? And where does your allegiance lie – with the kingdoms and mindsets of this world or with the kingdom of heaven and God’s ways?

It is downright scary to ask these questions of ourselves because it means going against much of what society teaches us. Asking about what we can sacrifice for the idealistic and nearly impossible sounding kingdom of heaven flies in the face of what many would call common sense. And yet, that is our call as disciples of Christ – to live as God calls us to live, not as the world does. It makes us confront the prevailing storyline that there’s not enough to go around and that we therefore can never truly help those in need. Or that those who appear different than we are for one reason or another do not have the same hopes, dreams and needs as we do. It makes us confront the ideas that forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking are weak or foolish endeavors. It calls us to be people of radical hospitality and generosity.

The kingdom of heaven is beautiful and glorious, foreign and surprising given what we know of the world. To describe it using events of our own time, “The kingdom of heaven is like a beautiful land where the homeless and refugee feast at the table of God alongside the rich and well-connected. Where Palestinians and Jews see one another as brothers and sisters.   Where the boundaries of ethnicity, economic status, background, sexual orientation, and class melt away so that we finally see one another as fellow children of God.”

The kingdom of God is unexpected, mysterious and not yet fully established. And it can be incredibly difficult to keep faith and hope when there is so much around us that tells us so glaringly that there is pain, injustice and evil in the world.   But Christ is calling us to step out of our comfort zones and embrace God’s wild kingdom. To see glimpses of it breaking in. And it is breaking in.

Can you see it? It’s where Rwandan students like George and Bosco are receiving an education that will help them continue the transformation of their country. It’s in the smiles of children singing VBS songs and learning about God’s love. It’s breaking through when a Muslim professor in Iraq sacrifices his life in order to speak out against the persecution and murder of his Christian neighbors. It’s forgiveness and love instead of revenge and bitterness. It’s where someone generously and humbly offers the gifts they’ve been given to help others. And it is found in bread broken and wine shared among a diverse group of people.

The kingdom of heaven is popping up here and now in little and marvelous ways all over the world.  And maybe we can’t always see it because the bad and horrific news gets so much air time, but maybe we can take a page out of Solomon’s book and pray for an understanding mind – literally a listening heart – that will be able to see both the good and evil and discern God in the midst of it all.

And we can remember that no matter what happens, God is bringing this kingdom about.  Paul talks about this beautifully in his letter to the Romans when he says that nothing, including other kingdoms, empires, rulers, or even angels, can separate us from God’s incredible love.  Hearing that just makes me feel lighter somehow. No matter what hardship there is in our lives or in the world – no matter what horrors we hear about or experience – we are firmly embraced in God’s love. Knowing we are secure in Christ’s love, now and always – that is freedom to live and work for God’s kingdom.

There are so many kingdoms and rulers in our lives – so many things we can choose to serve. So who will we serve? Will we listen to Christ’s call to joyously be a part of God’s wild and growing kingdom, even if it involves hardship and sacrifice? Or will we be content to dwell in the kingdoms of this world?

I’d like to close with the words of a Taizé chant that have been echoing in my heart this week: “The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.” Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

This was Sunday’s sermon on the raising of Lazarus and the amazing new life Christ gives us right here, right now.  The text was John 11:1-45.

 

What does it mean to be raised from the dead?
And what does it mean to be Holy Spirit led?
What does it mean to be truly, abundantly alive?
And what does it mean in Christ to thrive?

John’s Gospel gives us a wonderful story,
About death, resurrection and God’s glory.
It all started with one of Jesus’ closest friends,
Who had an illness that was proving tough to mend.

Lazarus’ health was going quickly downhill,
And his sisters, deeply worried that he was so ill,
Sent messengers to Jesus in whom they believed,
But from his place that Rabbi chose not to leave.

In that time in which Jesus waited and stayed,
Dear Lazarus died and in a rock tomb was laid.
The sisters cried and the community mourned,
And when Jesus arrived, they all felt torn.

“If you had been here, he would not have died.”
Martha choked out to Jesus as she cried.
“And still I believe that whatever you ask,
for God it will not be too great a task.”

Seeing the pain of all who’d come together to grieve,
And filled with sorrow, that Death should cleave,
The gift of life from his own beloved friend,
Jesus went to the tomb – what should’ve been the end.

Then, loudly he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”
Out he came – he was alive, without a doubt!
But it wasn’t enough to leave him alive and wrapped,
Jesus asked others to unbind him – he wouldn’t be trapped.

He was miraculously free to go about his life,
But that meant that once again he entered the strife,
Of living in a world of pain, hurt and weariness –
A world sometimes filled with loneliness and dreariness.

Just as Jesus stood weeping at his friend’s tomb,
So we will soon stand in the dreary gloom
Of that Friday and Saturday that went down in history
Holy and terrible days shrouded in a veil of mystery.

But we know that this is never the end of the story;
At the end of those days is brilliant Easter glory,
The gracious light of the resurrection dawn,
The victory of Sin and Death forever gone!

Jesus doesn’t just promise resurrection down the road,
But also new life now that from his heart freely flows.
How often though, do we miss this invitation,
While struggling with life’s trials and tribulations?

We experience the sting of our own mistakes,
Feel the weight of our sins and the errors we make.
And how often do we hard-heartedly refuse to forgive,
Not realizing that we’re making it harder to live?

We suffer with terrible illnesses and situations,
We bear witness to wars among the nations.
We hear horrific tales of woe on the news,
And all of these stories have us singin’ the blues.

But against all of this Jesus offers a new way to live,
A way of hope, peace and joy that he alone can give.
He doesn’t promise we’ll avoid hardship as we travel,
Instead he’ll walk with us even when things unravel.

Being alive means stepping out of the cave,
It means shedding the clothes you wore in the grave,
Putting on the brilliant outfit of your baptism,
Embracing life as God’s child in Christ arisen.

It means listening deeply and trying hard to hear,
The calling of God whispered in your ear.
Seeking to use the gifts you’ve been given,
To make this world a place for kingdom livin’.

It means walking though life with a spirit of gratitude,
And cultivating a prayerful servant-leader attitude.
It means being vulnerable and loving others,
And getting hurt for doing so, against our druthers!

It means stepping out into the great unknown,
Going in faith, even shaking, outside our comfort zone,
Maybe meeting people we think are different from us,
Only to then ask – why were we making such a fuss?

It’s finding the magic and miracle in each human life,
Finding the beautiful and divine in a world simply rife
With all too much tough stuff, worry, fear and stress –
A world where God chose to be present nonetheless.

To each of us Jesus calls, as he did to poor Lazarus,
“Be free! Come out! Get out of your well-worn ruts!
Step into the sunlight and embrace the transformation
I’m working now in you – it’s a celebration!

Look at the things I’m doing around you all the time,
They range from the subtle to the outright sublime,
Still, they occur around the world every second –
Do you see them? Do you hear how they beckon?

I want you to take notice of the Spirit at work –
When you hear it, your ears upward should perk!
Whether it’s a story of reconciliation or hope,
Don’t keep it to yourself – no way, uh-uh, nope!

Share it with those you encounter along your way,
Look for the new life I’m bringing about here, today.
Healing and resurrection happen in great and small things,
Incredible schools in Rwanda – a flower blooming in spring.

I have set you free to be creative, bold and to serve,
So do not be afraid and gather up your nerve!
What dreams are you dreaming about this place?
How will you respond to my abundant grace?

Will you help one another through life’s struggle?
Will you prioritize knowing me as you schedule-juggle?
Will you give money to feed the poor and share my gospel?
Will you walk in faith and trust, doing the impossible?

You’re full of my Spirit and I’ve made you alive,
I’ve given you life and I want you to thrive,
So don’t stay locked away, trapped in your tomb,
But come out and change the world – BOOM!”

Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

 

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