Seek the Shalom: a sermon from South Africa preached October 13th at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Springs, Diocese of the Highveld

Sanibonani

Good Morning

I have come to the conclusion that the people of St. Peter and St. Paul really love the Lord their God.  Really, you must, because you wake up in time to get to a Sunday service at 8:15 in the morning.  Every week.  You must love Jesus a great deal.  Most of us visiting you don’t go to church until 11 in the morning.  I’m not sure what that says about us, but it tells me you must love God.

Our group at St. Peter and St. Paul

Even this early in the morning, I want to focus my attention on the reading we have from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is not an easy character.  Jeremiah is not the sort of man you’d want to invite to a dinner party.  He is a gloom and doom prophet.  Jeremiah’s nickname among the rabbis was the “weeping prophet” because Jeremiah is the prophet of the exile.  In the 6th century BC the Babylonian exile be3gan.  The people of Israel are taken from the Promised Land and brought to Babylon.  As we hear in the psalm:

By the Waters of Babylon

Where we sat down

And there we wept

When we remembered Zion

Jeremiah is the prophet who has to tell the people about their exile in Babylon.  His job is made harder because Hananiah, a supposed prophet, a false prophet, has told the people their exile will not last long.  They will only be in Babylon for two years.  Jeremiah has to tell the people it will be much, much longer.

The words of the prophet in this letter to the exiles are difficult, but one word really stuck with me.  The word was “I.”  God says, “I, I God have sent you into exile.”  In the Hebrew God doesn’t actually use a pronoun, but the first person singular “galah.”  I have exiled you.  This is tricky.  God is in the exile.

I read a translation of this word “exile” that made it a bit more real for me.  “Exile” is such a “bible word.”  Exile to me sounds like something that happened a long time ago to a people far away.  The translation I read was in Spanish: “Los he deportado.”  I, God, have DEPORTED you.

“Deported” is a word with contemporary significance.  At St. John’s Church in Washington, I work with our Spanish language congregation.  At 1pm we have a congregation of immigrants, which is something we have in common with you.  At St. Peter and St. Paul you also have a 1pm immigrant congregation.  Your congregation is from Zimbabwe.  Ours is from Latin America.  In the years I have been at St. John’s some of our Spanish speaking members have been deported.  They have been taken from the country where they have made their homes and sent to a place they may not have seen since they were small children.

Deportation is miserable.  Deportation breaks up families.  Deportation takes people from their homes.

As we toured the Apartheid museum and Soweto yesterday, I read again and again about people who were forced, by economic conditions, religious persecution, or by armed force to move, to leave home.  I read about people who were deported.  South Africa knows about deportation.  South Africa knows about Exile.

Exile is something familiar to us, not just a word about people in the Bible a long time ago.  Exile is a contemporary reality.  There are exiles today, from Syria, from Zimbabwe, from countries with broken economies.

There are also more personal exiles.  Anyone who has lost a parent or a loved one also knows about exile.  When you lose someone who makes a house home to you, you know about exile.  Loss of jobs.  Loss of friends.  Loss can often cause a feeling of exile.  Exiles can be big and public and exiles can be small and private.

But don’t miss the good news in the prophet Jeremiah’s words today.  Yes, even weeping prophets can bring good news.

God is the God of the exile.  God is with God’s people, even in the Exile.  God is with us in exile.

People who have come through great loss will tell you that, while they would never choose to suffer loss, they would also never give back the learning and the growth that come through loss.  I know many people who became followers of Jesus when they hit rock bottom.

It is hard for me to think of God as the God of the Exile.  It is easier to think of God as the God of liberation, the God of the Exodus.  It is easy to see the work of God in liberation God’s people.  Yes, God is a God of liberation.  Our God is the God of the Exodus.  Our God always works for our freedom.  Our God is ALSO the God of exile.

So, what do we do with exile?

Hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah, the words of God for the people in exile:

“Build houses and live in them.  Plant gardens and eat what they produce.”

When people come to me asking for a new spiritual discipline.  When they are frustrated by something in their life and want a new way to pray, I often say, “Go plant a garden.”  Often these people seeking advice look at me like I am very strange, which I am, but I think planting a garden is very spiritual.

Have you heard the expression “we’re putting down roots.”  When we “put down roots” we are settling down.  Planting a garden teaches us that the work of God is often slow.  It takes time for the roots to grow.  I remember being a little kid, planting seeds, watering them, and then running back out to the garden every 10 minutes or so hoping to see my plants grow.  God’s work is often slow.

God’s work can be fragile, like a seedling.  God’s work often takes a lot of indirect labor.  We have to tend the soil to grow healthy gardens.  We have to compost and watch out for bugs, and do all sorts of things that are not directly related to the little plants growing up.  We have to work to create a healthy atmosphere to allow growth.  See how much spirituality you can learn in the slow work of gardening?

Jeremiah tells the people to put down roots.  This was not easy for the people to do.  They want swift salvation.  They want to go home.  Now.  “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?” they ask in that psalm.   But eventually they learned to sing in Babylon.  God was with the people in Babylon, even in Babylon.  God is with us always.

The last line we have from Jeremiah is one of the best, and the most challenging I think, in all of scripture:

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.

It actually reads “seek the SHALOM of the city, for in its SHALOM you will find your SHALOM.”

Seek the peace.  Seek the wholeness.  Seek the blessing of God for these Babylonians you are stuck with.  As I said, these are not easy words.  Part of the reason we Americans come to South Africa is as pilgrims.  We come to see a place where the people are trying to overcome great divides.  We come to see a country where God’s people are learning to seek the shalom of the other.  Granted, we know that South Africa is still learning.  We in the United States have a lot to learn from you.  We all have a lot to learn from God.

What we hear from Jeremiah today is that God can be found even in the toughest situations.

God has work to do on us even after our liberation.

God is not through with us.

God will never be through with us.

God is always a step ahead of us, inviting us to know God’s peace.  Inviting us to work for the peace, the shalom of the people among whom we find ourselves.  God is always inviting us to know that we will find our shalom, our wholeness, in the wholeness of our neighbors.  God’s word to all of us exiles is this: You will find your peace, when you know that your wholeness is tied to the wholeness of all God’s people.  Shalom.

South Africa 1, the journey narrative

July 15-6
We began the trip with an 18 hour plane ride and arrived in Johannesburg pretty jet-lagged. We started our adventure with a trip to the mall to pick up necessities like power converters and a cell phone sim card. It was amazing to both Sam and I the impressive amount of globalization in Johannesburg. Joburg is an incredibly metropolitan city, with some of the biggest security fences I’ve seen in my entire life. The population lives divided one from another by huge walls. Some have access to the mall which has everything from Prada to the Apple Store, but 80% of the population lives in the Townships and is fenced out. We stayed with a good friend from USD, the incomparable Ms. Juana Purchase. She was an incredible hostess and it was wonderful to reconnect and see her life in South Africa.
July 17-19 Safari Time!
We went with a small company to the Kruger National Park on Safari for 3 days. We had a blast and saw too many animals to count.

Elephant in Kruger Park

The highlights were definitely the elephant and lions. Our guide William was entertaining. Afrikaaner to the core, he listened to Rugby on the radio and told us stories of when he was a riot police officer in the Soweto Township during the Apartheid era. The physical beauty of South Africa was an important part of our trip, and the Kruger and surrounding area were a good introduction to this.

July 20-21 Joburg part 2
We had another two days in Johannesburg. We spent the first touring Pretoria and the capital, seeing the beautiful government buildings. We also visited a neighborhood that looked like it dropped right out of Ranch Santa Fe in San Diego, golf resort style with incredible houses. The division between haves and have nots is more extreme than anywhere I’ve ever seen. The next day we headed to the “Cradle of Humanity” where we saw the fossilized remains of ancient humans, some impressive caves, and an even more impressive Small World-style water ride through the elements of creation.

June 22-24 Cape Town Part 1
Next we headed to Cape Town to meet up with Ryan DeCook, a friend from USD who was one of my residents when I was an RA. Ryan is working with Africa Jam, and evangelical group that runs camps and afterschool programs for youth in the Townships. Ryan is particularly working in the township of Kayelitsha, and we spent a couple of afternoons in “the mansion” where they hold their meetings listening to the incredible choir (video to come later) and helping to teach some guitar lessons. Sadly Ryan was pretty sick while we were in CapeTown, so we spent a lot of the time lazing around and hoping he would feel well enough to accompany us to Grahamstown as planned, but his flu just got worse.
June 25-26 Grahamstown
We drove what we thought was a seven hour drive to Grahamstown through the Garden Route, an incredibly beautiful collection of villages and cliffs on the sea. The trip ended up taking 10 hours, and we spent most

The Monks, Anglican Holy Cross brothers

The Grahamstown Monks, order of The Holy Cross

of it reading “The Horizontal World: Growing Up in the Middle of Nowhere,” a book Sam was required to read so he can discuss it with the incoming freshmen at his college. The book was a disaster of a thing, but we barreled through and finished before we arrived at the monastery late that night. We spent the next day touring the Cathedral and town of Grahamstown with Cortney Dale, a new YASC volunteer in Grahamstown. It was fun to compare notes based on my YASC year in Honduras. We had a good time with the monks and even got to meet some of my new seminary classmates who were in town for a contextual theology class at the College of the Transformation, South Africa’s only residential seminary.

June 27-28 Queenstown
One drive over the mountains, a loss of several degrees Celsius in temperature, and one spare tire later we arrived in Bolotwa to stay with Monica and Heidi to Episcopalian/Roman Catholic missionary members of the association of Charles DeFoucalt. I went through the Christian Vacation edition of missionary training with Monica and Heidi several years ago and it was fun to reconnect and see the work they are doing which can be described as nothing short of miraculous. In three short years they have established parks and programs in three communities which have been devastated by AIDS. They employ an army of women who go to surrounding houses in the early morning to care for orphans and aging parents and generally build community. We were greeted with song in Ilinge, invited into several homes, and generally loved on by hundreds of people in the two townships we visited. It was amazing to see such incredible Kingdom-Community being generated.
July 29-30 Itipini, Mthatha
We drove on to Mthatha, the former capital of the Black Homeland. During Apartheid the White Government thought they might try and get 80% of the nations people to live in 14% of the land if they promised them self government. Mthatha grew exponentially as a city as a result and has a dramatically different feel than any other metropolitan area we visited. Basically, it feels more African. You hardly see a non-Black person, the roads in town are dangerously full of pedestrians, everything possible is for sale. We visited the poorest

Jesse just after playing for the kids

Jesse just after playing for the kids

of the poor communities where Jesse Zink, another YASC volunteer has been serving at the Itipini clinic. Itipini is Xhosa for “on the garbage dump,” and this is very descriptive. The people live in, under, on and around trash. For 20+ years Episcopalian missionaries have provided medical care to this community. It was impressive to see the infrastructure they have built with no water, no power, and surrounded by a dump. Every morning people receive food, children go to pre-school, people receive TB drugs and are treated for injuries. In the afternoon teens lift weights, sing in a choir, receive tutoring, and generally are kept occupied. Watching Jesse play “Johnny be good” while a room full of 3 year old danced around was a definite highlight. Jesse has a phenomenal blog here.
July 31-Aug 1 The Garden Route revisited
Rocks near the Knysna Heads

Rocks near the Knysna Heads

We began our slow trip back to Cape Town and stayed with the Monks in Grahamstown again. Monica and Heidi were there. It was a nice relaxing day before driving back down the garden route. We stopped in Knysna and saw the incredible coastline. The town is stunning, situated on a beautful bay, and we stayed in a hip little hostel. Unfortunately that night I had some bad seafood (never eat at the Greek Restaurant in Knysna). Sam was amazing and drove the rest of the way back to Cape Town the next day and then holed up with me and watched movies on TV as I groaned.
Aug 2-3 Cape Town part 2
I began to feel better Saturday morning and we were able to finish our time in Africa in style. We visited Desmond Tutu’s former cathedral in the morning and shopped for souvenirs. I got a sweet Djimbe and Sam a saxaphone made out of coke bottles. Then we headed to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life in prison. The museum is run by former political prisoners. It was incredible to see the tiny facility and to hear first hand

St. Georges Cathedral, Capetown

St. George's Cathedral, Capetown

what was endured by so many for the hope of freedom. The next morning we met up with two of my former residents, Ryan again and his freshmen roommate Anderson who happened to be visiting at the same time. We finished our time in South Africa with Eucharist at the Cathedral in Capetown before getting back on the plane to head home to Colorado.