Losing Your Life, Finding Your Reward:
With Gratitude to Sierra Leone's Orphans
For Sunday August 28, 2011
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Exodus 3:1–15 or Jeremiah 15:15–21
Psalm 105:1–6, 23–26, 45c or Psalm 26:1–8
Last week my daughter returned home from an eight week internship at an orphanage in Sierra Leone. I've been to Africa six times, and Megan had been twice before, so we had realistic expectations before she went. Nevertheless, her trip photos were a disturbing reminder of how many people in the Majority World live today. They were also an invitation to consider this week's gospel with fresh eyes and ears.
The Portuguese started trading slaves in Sierra Leone in 1462, and were soon joined by the Dutch, the French and the British. The British colonized the country in 1808. After these five hundred years of plunder and pillage, Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961. Government corruption and incompetence, and the agitation of the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor (now on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity), then provoked a civil war from 1991 until 2001.
Sierra Leone's civil war killed 50,000 people and displaced a million more. The war devastated the country's infrastructure, destroyed the economy, and traumatized ordinary citizens with rape, torture, mutilation, and rebel terror. Given this history, it's no surprise that in 2010 Sierra Leone ranked 158th out of 169 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Today about half of its people live on jumi.25 a day.
In some ways the kids at the orphanage where my daughter went are the lucky ones. And yet the Banta Children's Village has no running water. Sporadic electricity means no refrigeration. The children eat three meals a day, but some of them still have discolored hair due to lack of protein. A loaf of bread is a luxury. It's only fifty miles from the capital of Freetown to the orphanage, but the trip takes ten hours in a rickety "puta-puta" on barely passable roads.
One day a Romanian bauxite miner asked my daughter, "Why would you ever come to a place like this?!" It's a good question. Going to Sierra Leone isn't a resume-builder or career-enhancer. Getting there is expensive. There are obvious health and safety risks. Sleeping under a mosquito net on a foam "mattress" doesn't encourage sweet dreams. Most unsettling of all, maybe, is that you can't play with the fire of such life experiences without the fire playing with you.
The gospel for this week suggests a response to the miner's question: "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day raised to life… If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:22, 24–25).
Those who follow Jesus pattern their life after his self-sacrificial example. In showing us the light and love of God, resurrection life came only after persecution by religious leaders, betrayal by his closest disciples, and a gruesome execution by the Roman state.
This prediction of Jesus about his divine destiny was followed by the denial of Peter: "Perish the thought, Lord! This shall never happen to you!" Jesus rebuked Peter with the harshest of words: "Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." It's disturbing how easy it is to hold the hand of the devil, all for what we think are good reasons.
This week's Old Testament reading paints a different picture of God's saving power in human history. After 430 years of bondage, God liberated Israel from Egypt by the exodus. The exodus was a drama of political liberation in the concrete here and now, of miraculous deliverance from economic exploitation, of God's mighty acts of power in regal display. In the exodus God dramatically intervened to shatter the enemy, work wonders, and break the powers of bondage. And so the exodus echoes throughout the Bible as a reminder of God's power to save, and is celebrated at Passover today by Jews.
Does God still perform such mighty acts of miraculous power? Believers in places like Sierra Leone would say I'm crazy even to ask such a question, and they're probably right. And so I pray such prayers every day. Like Moses I beg God, "let the power of the Lord be great, as you have promised!" (Numbers 14:17). With Isaiah I cajole God to "come down" and perform "awesome things we did not expect" (Isaiah 64). And with Paul I pray for God to do "exceeding abundantly beyond all that I ask or even imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).
Nonetheless, the alternate reading in Jeremiah reminds us that God works in exile as well as in exodus, and that he doesn't always perform mighty acts of miracles. Jeremiah was a protagonist in Israel's exile to Babylon. Whereas Moses confronted enemy Egypt, Jeremiah confronted his own nation about their destiny with disaster. To the prophets, priests and kings of Judah, Jeremiah preached an unpatriotic, seditious, and judgmental message: "Stop giving our people reckless lies and false hopes. Stop betraying them with your delusional messages of comfort and hope. National disaster is just around the corner."
Deportation to pagan Babylon was unthinkable, beyond comprehension. What had happened? Where were God's mighty acts of deliverance? Was not Israel God's inviolable and elect people? How could he relinquish them to a pagan enemy? Exile to Babylon began a period of subjugation, servitude, banishment and captivity. It signaled failure, isolation, loneliness, and punishment. Certainly it meant despair.
But exile was just as much a place of redemption as exodus: "'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11). God is present in exodus, but equally present in exile.
For his forty years of faithfulness to God's call, Jeremiah was beaten (20:2), threatened with death (26:8), imprisoned (37:15), thrown down a well (38:6), and derided as an unpatriotic traitor. Almost no one listened to him. He was an isolated man of "reproach" among his own people (15:15). Early believers thus often viewed Jeremiah as a Christ-figure: in dying to self we live to God and for others. In losing our lives we find them. True resurrection will follow real death.
Whether in exodus or exile, whether in Sierra Leone or London, God promises his presence. When Moses doubted his deepest self ("Who am I?"), God assured him, "I will be with you" (Exodus 3:12). To Jeremiah he promised the exact same thing: "Do not be afraid, for I am with you" (Jeremiah 1:8). And to his disciples Jesus promised: "For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done" (Matthew 16:27).
Image credits: (1–3) Megan Clendenin.