The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) is a “daughter” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), so it should not be a surprise that the worship is similar to ours in many respects. We open with a hymn (on 1/27 we stood up, stood up for Jesus in the Nuer language), and then we confess our sin. We share the apostle’s creed and there are a couple of anthems from the choir (our drummer, Ron, has nothing on some of these guys!). There was another hymn (Jesus loves me), and then the Clerk of Session shared the announcements. Scripture was read, the morning’s prayer was offered, and then I preached (more on that in a minute). After the sermon, a little more singing from both choir and congregation as the offering is collected, some more prayers, and then the benediction.
At the conclusion of worship, the preacher comes out and shakes hands. The first person out shakes the preacher’s hand and stands next to him. Everyone who comes out shakes the hands of those who are there, and then joins the line – so by the time we have all come out, we have all shaken each other’s hands. W are then standing in a curling line around the front of the church. When we are lined up like that, then the choir comes out and sings one more song in the middle of the circle. It was wonderful!
But to the question: what did I preach?
I chose as my texts Ephesians 4:14-21 (the call to live as Christ’s own) and Matthew 12:46-50 (Jesus’ mother and brothers). And then, because I am not sure I have any right to speak into this culture, I told a story about my own – my family, actually.
I had two great-aunts who lived in the same tiny town. Aunt Marian had 21 children, and she lived in a small house in town. 21 children! Can you imagine? I sure could not. The were all older than me, of course, and while I met many of them when I was a boy, I didn’t know them. By the time of her death, I was living in another town an hour away. I went into the small town, where her 19 living children, 49 grandchildren, and 65 great grandchildren had gathered, and when I ate breakfast in a restaurant, I mentioned that I was a member of her family. Someone I never met exclaimed, “really? Me too!” In fact, every time I turned around, I was bumping into relatives that I had never known.
Of course, that has been my experience in the Church as well. Every place I travel, I meet sisters and brothers I never knew I had. People who look different than I do, who sing different songs or work in different places or have different ideas – we are not the same, of course – but we are family! Wonderful!
I had another great-Aunt – Aunt Mae. She and her husband lived on a big farm outside the small town. They never had any children. My earliest memories of Aunt Mae were that she was always mean and grouchy. She never seemed particularly happy to see me, but if I was in town and did not visit her, then she let me know that she was really unhappy about that. She just seemed so angry all the time.
As I grew up, I discovered a little about Aunt Mae, and I came to see that she wasn’t really mad at me. She was mad at the world, frustrated with God, disappointed in herself…because she never had any children. Here her sister-in-law had 21, and she had none. I cannot imagine the pain of that for her.
Which leads me to my second point: there are people in my family whose pain is simply unimaginable to me. I have no idea about the places that they hurt, or how, or why. Sometimes, the best I can do is to stand close to one in my family who aches and ask our Father to bring the kind of healing that is needed, because there is nothing I can do.
And here is the third thing I told my brothers and sisters about my family in the USA: when mean, grouchy Aunt Mae died, every one of Aunt Marian’s children showed up for the funeral. I heard stories like this: “I never had my own pair of new shoes until the summer I went to live with Aunt Mae.” Or, “The first time I ever owned a new suit or a new dress, it was when Aunt Mae took me shopping.” This is what that sad, disappointed, childless, and yes, grouchy old lady did: every year, she went to her sister-in-law’s home and took three or four children to live with her on the farm and help her and uncle Glenn with the cows, the eggs, the crops. And she cared for them.
And this, my friends, is the stunning conclusion to my first sermon to be translated into the language of the Nuer people – a people who have lived a life that I could not imagine- a life of persecution, of displacement, of exile and return. It seems to me that what my family at home has taught me is that at the end of the day, we are measured by how we treat each other. When Jesus talked about his family, he didn’t mention whether they knew his favorite songs or agreed with him on all the important issues of the day. He said, “The one who does the will of my Father – that one is my mother, my sister, my brother.”So my family is bigger than I can imagine. And it hurts in ways that I do not always understand. But my responsibility is to treat each one in love. To share kindness and grace as best I can. To ask them to put up with me where I fall short, and to try to offer them the same courtesy.
I told my family that I was glad to meet them, and that I would pray for them when they hurt and celebrate with them when they rejoiced, and that I would do my best to extend the love that Christ gave to me in the places where He sent me.
It was a good worship. And you have a beautiful family. Thanks be to God! Amen.