Fair warning – this post is much longer than usual. I’ll have a regular post up after Easter worship. This is the text of a sermon I have been asked to give at the closing ceremony for English classes, which will take place on April 26.
Scripture: Isaiah 55:10-11 (Common English Bible)
Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
And don’t return there without watering the earth,
Making it conceive and yield plants
And providing seed to the sower and food to the eater
So is my word that comes from my mouth
It does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
And accomplishes what I intend.
Comme la pluie et la neige descendent des cieux,
Et n’y retourent pas, sans avoir arrosé, fécondé la terre,
Et fait germer les plantes,
Sans avoir donné de la semence au semeur
Et du pain à celui qui mange,
Ainsi en est-il de ma parole, qui sort de ma bouche:
Elle ne retourne point à moi sans effet,
Sans avoir exécuté ma volonté
Et accompli mes desseins.
When I retired from my work, the first thing I did was to come to Congo with Rev. Maman Sharon Watkins, Maman Sandra Gourdet, Rev. Rick Spleth, and others, to witness the signing of the Partnership Agreement with the Mbandaka Post. This visit changed forever my understanding of how God’s people could live out their faith. I found here a Christianity more alive, more hospitable, more Christ-like, and more profound than I had ever experienced before.
After returning to the USA, it was necessary to decide what to do when I no longer went to work every day. I chose to learn to play a small stringed instrument, a dulcimer from my native state, so that there would always be music near me. Another task was to learn to teach English, thinking I might teach the Burmese immigrants who are members of the church that meets in the sanctuary of our parish.
Some years went by. Your PSP and Maman Rosette, President of the Partnership Committee, came to visit Indiana in 2009. I led a group of pilgrims to Mbandaka in 2011. At that time, your leaders spoke to us of the urgent need for more of you to learn English, so you could better communicate with the rest of the world, and especially to hear English as it was spoken by an American. The Indiana pilgrims and I returned home, but this concern would not leave my thoughts.
I learned from the time that I was a small child that God calls people to do the tasks that are needed for the kingdom. I also learned that it did not go well for those who did not answer that call, such as Jonah. As a young adult, I came to believe that God had given me special skills in science and mathematics so I could work as a chemist, helping to create medicine that could help sick people get better. I loved this work, which I did for over 30 years; I learned new skills and became even better at the job.
But after retirement from this work, what was I to do? After the 2011 visit, more and more I heard a voice saying, “You must go back to Congo and teach English.” This was difficult – I did not believe I had the skills to do this job. I discussed the call with your leaders when they came to Indiana in 2012, and they said, “Yes, you must come.” So I spent the next year studying, gathering material, preparing to do something I had never done before, answering the call that would not go away.
During this preparation, I thought often about those who God called, and what skills they had for the difficult task ahead. I thought of:
• Noah, called to build an ark, something that had never been done before
• Abraham, who had to pack up all of his family and goods, and leave his native country
• Joseph, arrogant with his brothers, sold as a slave before becoming the leader who saved his people from famine
• Moses, who could not speak well, called to pronounce God’s commandment to Pharaoh and lead his people to freedom
• Deborah, a woman, who led her people to battle and brought peace to the land
• David, a shepherd, who became a great king
• Esther, a member of a captive nation, who became a queen and rescued her people
• Saul, who hated Christians, becoming Paul, that great apostle
• Peter, who denied Christ, becoming the leader of the church
Sometimes, the call was not even specific. Jesus said only, “Follow me.” Fishermen, a tax collector, and others left their chosen work to take up new tasks and spread the good news.
God does not need certain messengers to spread his word so that his will can be done. The Word of God has all power within it. God speaks, and the word goes forth and accomplishes its purpose, in whatever way it is sent.
But sometimes God chooses to use humans as a way to send his Word into the world. The power of the Word is not dependent upon the goodness or the skill of the human who carries it – thanks be to God! When we read the Bible, we quickly learn that most of his chosen messengers were weak humans, often unskilled, frequently sinful, sometimes failing completely before they succeeded. Yet God chose them, and through them His will was done. Truly, God is great, and can find ways to use every one of us who accept the challenge to allow ourselves to be used by God.
The Word of God goes out, and it does not return empty. We don’t know God’s plans, but like the Word, we are sent out. We may not know why we are sent, but if we are faithful, we can believe that God’s will might be accomplished through us. What is required of us is to answer the call, to allow God to use us in whatever way is chosen, to accept that in answering the call, we will be strengthened for the task. What is most frightening is that we will be forever changed, transformed, when we become God’s messengers.
We are each one of us called to be a blessing, like the rain and the snow. We nourish God’s creation and God’s people. I pray that in my time here, you have been blessed and nourished, given a new skill that may be of value to you. You may not know how you will use the new language you have learned, but be assured, if you are faithful, it can become a blessing to many. The power will not be your own, but the strength to spread the Word will come directly from God, if you will allow it. Now you must take on the task which God has given you; continue to practice, to speak, to learn more so that you will be a better messenger. Remember that as you are sharing your faith, it is the very Word of God that is on your lips.
Language, spoken and unspoken, is the way humans learn about others and about God. As you reach out to others, always leave room for the Spirit, who, when your language fails, will speak for you “in sighs too deep for words” (“par les soupirs inexprimables”) [Romans 8:26] . And do not forget that even if you “speak in tongues of angels, but don’t have love” (“parlerez les langues des anges, [mais] vous n’avez pas l’amour”), you are speaking words that will come back empty, because they are not God’s words. [1 Corinthians 13:1]
But do not be afraid to speak your new language, either. Our words are always imperfect, even when they are spoken correctly, because our understanding in this life is imperfect. Now “we see in a mirror, dimly” (nous voyons au moyen d’un miroir”) [1 Corinthians 13:12]. But in God’s time, we will see face-to-face. We will know completely, as we have been known (nous connaîtrons comme nous ont été connu), when God called us to be Christians. It is only in the final days that we will understand each other, and the Word of God, in all its glory.
When you encounter people who only speak English, and you share your words with them, do not become proud, because you are one of a few persons with whom they can speak. You must always remember that the words you speak, and the words you hear, are not yours alone. They are the very words of God coming through human voices. You must speak for all Congolese when you speak, and not only for yourself; and you must share the words you hear with others, because you are only a translator for the children of God. Speak truly, and gently; listen with your heart as well as your ears.
Use your English as often as possible to learn about the world outside of Congo. Listen to the radio; read books; use the internet when possible to find out what is happening around the world. Always try to see other cultures through your own eyes, not through the false images that you find in movies and on television. Get to know real people, not the actors who are pretending to be a certain kind of person.
Your gift now is language. Use it well; decide if what you hear is real or a false image; offer words of love; interpret for others so they can also become friends; speak words that help them understand that we are MOKO – one! And God’s Word, through you, will not come back empty, but will help accomplish what God intends for His people.
Go, be a blessing, like the rain, spreading God’s love throughout the world, for love is the one language that can be understood by all.