Monday, March 23, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Lent -- March 15, 2015

Going to the Other Side

Guest Preacher:  Reverend Sharon Stewart

Isaiah 43:14-21

Gods Mercy and Israels Unfaithfulness
This is what the Lord says
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
    and bring down as fugitives all the Babylonians,
    in the ships in which they took pride.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    Israels Creator, your King.
This is what the Lord says
    he who made a way through the sea,
    a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
    the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
    extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,
    the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
    the people I formed for myself
    that they may proclaim my praise.

Mark 4:35-41; Mark 5:1

Jesus Calms the Storm

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, Let us go over to the other side. 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, Teacher, dont you care if we drown?
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, Quiet! Be still! Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?
41 They were terrified and asked each other, Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!

5:1 - They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.

Jesus said, Lets go to the other side: going to the other side. This can mean many places - the other side of the lake; the other side of the street. In Pittsburgh we know a lot about going to the other side of the river; more than 29 bridges cross the three rivers. If you cross a bridge in Pittsburgh, you will experience a different venue, on the other side; a different type of landscaping;  homes and neighborhoodsYou begin to see life from a different perspective. That is what it was like for the disciples. They were called to a new experience as followers of Jesus. They were going from a predominately Jewish area to a Gentile region, the Gerasenes.

In this story from the Gospel of Mark,  after Jesus spoke with the crowds he said, lets go to the other side. The disciples trusted him; he was their teacher and they knew he was tired. So they began to take care of the rowing as Jesus slept in the back of the boat. Many of the disciples were experienced fisherman so they knew the sea well. Suddenly a storm came upon them. Remember when you were a child and you could hear the thunder and wind; it shook the house and could be very frightening. In the similar way, the disciples were in this thunderous, explosive squall as the wind was blowing and the water was splashing into the boat. Yet Jesus remained asleep on the soft cushion; they wondered, doesnt he care; why is he not helping? They woke him up.

So Jesus stood up; he rebuked the demonic fury of the wind and waves. Then, what followed was a dead calm.

It was so profound that it sucked the life out of the chaos and it restored order to the sea. This dead calm had a life of its own. After the waves were coming into the boat and the wind tossing them to and fro, there was quiet. We can imagine that it was so quiet it must have been unnerving. Instead of celebrating the calm and order that came from Jesus rebuking the sea, the disciples were terrified. The Greek work used here is fo-be-ō - to be struck with fear.  Why was this calm so unnerving? Perhaps there is another window into the story that we need to see today.

Maybe we need to reflect on his questions to the disciples: Why are you afraid? Why are you now afraid? 

Remember Jesus disciples were very accustomed to storms/the chaos.  Almost half of them have been fishermen their whole lives. The storms were disruptive to their flow of rowing across the sea yet they had experienced these kinds of storms before; what they were not familiar with was this kind of calm.

Jesus seemed to get that they were reflecting on what just happened. There was the storm and then this sudden calm. He asked them, Why are you terrified, dont you have faith? The calm came suddenly, there was no more frantic rowing, the wild crazy winds were gone. Notice that it was after Jesus calmed the wind and waves that they were terrified. Often times we have the adrenaline rush and the intuition to deal with the chaos, the storms but it is in the reflecting about the storms and the chaos that can be unnerving. In the calm and quiet time of reflection we think about how we reacted, we begin to breath and recover. In the calm, we begin to grow from past experiences.

As Jesus and the disciples went to the other side, they were given a time of calm; a time to recover and a time prepare for the next thing. They were going to a place to learn, cross ethnic barriers and to experience the work of the Lord in another culture. 

Today, I want to share a story about modern day disciples or apostles who were also sent to the other side of the ocean to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We were sent during the calm; calm from months of civil war in South Sudan.

In January of 2015, five pastors and one young adult  traveled from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC to Dubai and finally to Juba South Sudan in Africa, it took 24 hours to go to the other side.

In the scriptures we read about Sudan. It is referred to as Cush, Nubia and Ethiopia. Cush is a term for the people descended from Cush; the grandson of Noah, and it refers to the country immediately south of Egypt along the Nile.

We hear about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 who was the treasurer of Queen Candice who ruled in present day Northern Sudan. He traveled to Jerusalem to worship. When the Eunuch met Philip he interpreted the scriptures from Isaiah that the eunuch was reading; then Philip Baptized him.  He became a baptized Christian convert. We see here that back in the 1st century, God was doing a new thing. The history of the Christian church in Sudan began in AD 37 with an Ethiopian Eunuch.

The church in Sudan grew steadily, and in the third century many coptic Egyptian Christians fled to Sudan to escape the persecutions of the Roman emperors. Strong Christian communities were flourishing in Sudan (Cush). By the 6th century, Christianity had become the official religion of these Sudanese kingdoms. Archaeologists have unearthed over a hundred churches dating back to this period. Many of these churches have elaborate Christian paintings on the walls. Sudan contains the oldest community of Christians in Africa - who have suffered some of the worst persecutions in the world.

As the scriptures state in Isaiah 18:2, The Sudanese are a tall people, a smooth skinned people, with a violent history. The Christians in Sudan have been longing for independence; to be free from persecution and most recently from Islamic, Sharia law.
In 2011, the people of South Sudan finally achieved independence after years of struggle and warfare. As a result of the peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese were forced to leave their homes in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in order to come back to their ancestral homeland in the south. They were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in an under-developed land with little infrastructure and very few  resources. The worlds newest country was among the worlds poorest countries. But they had hope; they had religious freedom and they were away from oppression. For 2 years, there was growth and joy in South Sudan, the beginnings of a plan for self-governance and a longing to emerge into a more developed future.

However, in December of 2013, a political conflict developed into a clash within the South Sudanese military. The ethnic and tribally-based violence erupted into a full-scale civil war. Within months, two million people were displaced from their homes. And although the situation has improved enough for us to visit, the fighting continues even to this day in different parts of South Sudan.
So, why, why did we go to the other side to a place where there has been years of stormy chaos? Perhaps it was because, just like the disciples needed to go to the other side of the Lake, we desired to expand our relationships; develop relationships with our brothers and sisters on the other side of the ocean; to love one our brothers and sisters in Christ from different ethnic groups. In South Sudan there are 74 ethnic groups.  We met with the pastors from several ethnic groups all from the South Sudanese Presbyterian Evangelical Churches. For a long time Christians in Sudan felt alone and abandoned. We heard them say, We are a hidden people fighting a forgotten war. It has been so important to let them know: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. There are people who are praying and who care enough to have sent us to be present with you.
Most of these pastors came from the North Sudan; recently they had to build new churches with new congregants; then when the tribal war broke out in December of 2013, they lost these buildings, homes were looted and many friends and relatives died.  Thousands of displaced people sought shelter at the U.N. South Sudan Mission in Juba; Many of the displaced fear going home even though Juba has been relatively calm.
Some of the pastors we were with have not been out of the UN camp since the war broke out in December 2013. The purpose of our trip was to spend time with leaders and mission co-workers in worship, retreat, celebration, and listening. We invited them to go with us out of the city into a to place where there was calm, a retreat center called RECONCILE in the town YEI.
During our week at the retreat center, we learned that many of the pastors living in deplorable conditions in the UN Camps had very little privacy. All day long they hear the sounds of discontent children crying; restless teenagers, frustrated parents and there is very little to do. Most of them did not feel well; malaria, colds and stomach pains are some of the concerns that spoke to us about.
Our brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced post traumatic stress; the pastors struggled with talking about their past; what they have seen and experienced. Thinking about the past was too painful. It many ways  it was terrifying. One of the workshops that we went through was about Post Trauma Stress. Watching the looks on the faces was so telling; there was pain yet amazing hope. During free time, they began to talk about the fighting that has occurred between tribes, what has caused the conflict; how to solve it; they talked and laughed into the night. You could see relief and joy in their faces. Hope for the future; hope for a peaceful nation where there is freedom to preach the gospel. During this calm on the other side we heard our brothers and sisters talk together; they were breaking down barriers as these pastors from different tribes were developing deeper relationships and beginning to trust each other.
At one point, I said to the general secretary; My heart aches for tall of you; so many of you have lost your homes; families need to live in another country; and you have experienced such trauma and suffering. He said,
We are grateful that you are here to stand with us; to listen to our stories. You need to remember that this is our sin; we need to learn how to get along with each other. Our tribes are fighting; we are using this time of calm for God to teach us; for us to learn about each other. Thank you for giving us this calm space to talk and to heal. We need to teach our church, our community; pray for peace; pray that we may have peace.

Not only are they dealing with their own brokenness but they have the pressures from many countries trying to control and influence them. There are many other nations interested in their oil and other resources.
Yet, Philip did not blame others; he was able to name the chaos of his country. He said, it is our sin; we are fighting; it is our doing; we need to learn how to get along. We are recognizing our own sin and talking about it together; owning our part in the storm.
During this calm at the retreat center, it was a sacred time of sharing. It was a time to build relationships, cross tribal and ethnic barriers and begin to see ways of reconciliation as a nation. You must understand, the Christians in Sudan have experienced years and years of warfare; the current generation in South Sudan has never lived without war. Yet, they are strong; they have learned to have faith; a faith that drives out fear. They are learning to break down the barriers between ethnic groups; to talk and to listen to each other. It was a time of reconciliation and healing.
How refreshing! As we got to know our brother and sisters on the other side, we realized how much we can learn from them. In one way or another we all experienced transformation in South Sudan. As areas in our personal lives were awakened that week; some of us began to see areas in our own lives that need healing; in the calm we were reminded that ALL are broken; all of us have areas of fear during the storms and during the calm times in our life.
As we returned to North America, we could not help but ask; what is God saying to us now? Do we have our own version of ethnic and tribal wars? What kinds of barriers do we need to cross for reconciliation in our family? In our neighborhood? In our church? In the denomination? In political parties?
As Jesus disciples we can be assured that Jesus is with us during the storms. We are also called to listen during the calm. As individuals and as a community we can ask, what is on the other side for us? Are we willing to be unnerved by the calm and to get clarity about ways to break down barriers? Are we willing to seek reconciliation; to seek forgiveness and to forgive? What is on the other side for you? Will it be freedom from a burden; a relief?

Jesus said, I am with you. I will show you the way! Jesus said, get in the boat and lets go to the other side! Be Still; be quiet..Do not be afraid. Have faith. I am with you!