Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love in action - a sermon on John 15 for Christian Aid week

Much of this material comes from the resources provided by Christian Aid. The story of the community of Gbap is as re-told by Revd Anne le Bas on the PRCL lists, and as so often I'm inspired by her words.

It's that time of year again.
The time of year when you find yourself feverishly cudgelling your brains to remember which is the smallest state in Australia;
when teddy bears abseiling down church towers become almost commonplace;
when more than 200,000 people wander around their neighbourhoods posting bright red envelopes through every door – and even have the courage to go back later in the hope that they may have been filled with money.
Christian Aid emerged from the rubble of post-war Europe and has been making a difference to the poorest communities ever since.


Well, of course, the clue is here in this morning's gospel, as we hear more of Jesus's great farewell speech.
I wonder what the disciples made of it.
Did they realise that all this talk about of love and of fruitfulness was part of a long goodbye...preparation for the moment when Jesus would hand on the baton to them and leave them with the task of loving the world into God's kingdom?

I very much doubt if they did.
Mostly, I expect, they were baffled as usual, distracted by speculation as to what kind of fruit lasted beyond its normal season, indignant that as free men anyone might ever consider them servants, brought up short by the suggestion that friendship might involve personal cost
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends
Did they imagine, for a moment, what “to love one another as I have loved you” might actually mean?
The scope of the love on offer?
The meaning of the lesson in progress?
Every teacher knows the delight of working themselves out of a job, of recognising that the student has fully embraced all they were being taught...
The greatest teacher of all time is about to put his own skills to the test...
We read with the perfect perspective of hindsight but for the disciples – literally students- Jesus had not yet progressed from “do what I say” to “do what I do” as he became a parable himself, dying and rising to show what LOVE really means.

Jesus knows that if his followers look to him to supply the answers forever, they will never be able to exercise the ministry they are meant for. He doesn’t want the distorted relationship of a master and servants, based on a power dynamic that stacks the cards against the weak . He wants them to learn to trust themselves, so that they can act boldly with their own initiative. God has been incarnate – made flesh – in Jesus. Now Jesus, the Word of God, invites them, invites US,to something new...He will not tell us what to say, put words into our mouths, but instead helps us to find our own God-given voice, to be words of God ourselves. We, like the twelve, are to live out the incarnation by becoming God's love in action.

So what?
Can we hear today's gospel and then go home unchanged to a Sunday roast and a glass of sherry?
That call to love in action MUST make a difference...and Christian Aid week gives us the opportunity both to see love at work and to join in.
Let me tell you a story.
Come with me, if you will, all the way to Sierra Leone on the West African coast.

The region was once a centre of the transatlantic slave trade, with slaves being shipped from its ports. When slaves began to gain their freedom some returned to Africa, supported by white British philanthropists. But most had no idea where their ancestors had come from and no way of returning to their roots. So a colony was formed in the early 19th Century , arbitrarily carved out of what seemed to be spare land and
groups of slaves were settled there, regardless of where their ancestors
might actually have hailed from. It might have seemed like a good idea at
the time, but it was riven with problems. There were bitter conflicts with
the existing population of the land. There were no natural connections
within the new population. The new settlement was heavily dependent on
British protection and soon it simply became an outpost of the expanding
British Empire. It was a prime spot, a gateway into a continent that was
increasingly being exploited for its rich natural resources. Independence
didn’t finally come until 1961 but it is no surprise that even after that it
has been a very rough ride. This is a nation which was built on the rubble
of slavery – the ultimate distorted relationship - and then pushed around by
nations with agendas of their own ever since.

No wonder it has been hard for it to establish its own identity, find its
own dignity and exercise its own power wisely. Eventually it erupted into
bitter civil war in the 1990’s which lasted over a decade and left the
country in ruins.

That’s the backdrop to the work Christian Aid is doing, supporting those who
are trying to re-establish themselves in villages that have been razed to
the ground, on farmland that’s been abandoned and reverted to nature, with
infrastructure that has been destroyed. Sierra Leone’s people are great
survivors. Simply to have got through these tough times and still have the
urge to try again shows that. They are full of ingenuity, enterprise and
energy. What they have lacked though, are the basic tools for rebuilding.
One in five families doesn’t even have enough to eat – the most fundamental
necessity. It’s like being expected to climb Mount Everest in bare feet.
And that’s where Christian Aid and its partner organisations have come in.

The particular project whose story Christian Aid is telling this week is in
a village called Gbap (pronounced Bap). One woman there, Mary Samuel, put
its problems in a nutshell..  “If we had food today,” Mary said, “what would
we eat the next day?” There was nothing to rely on, no certainty about the
future. But things have changed for her since the Methodist Church of Sierra
Leone, which is supported by Christian Aid, came to their tow. It encouraged
the people of Gbap to set up a village development committee so that they
could decide for themselves what they needed to do. It was a simple thing,
but through it the people of Gbap were given a voice.

They decided to set up a food production group. With the Church’s
assistance, they distributed seeds and tools to local farmers. They trained
them in more effective agricultural practices, so that they could cultivate
the floodplain outside the town and develop a rice farm and a cassava plot.
They negotiated the loan of a tractor, and that meant they could plough more
land and produce more food.
Inspired by this, one thing led to another. They are now building an work
centre to house a cassava-grater and rice-thresher – vital machines that
will help them process their raw produce into something that will sell for a
higher price at the market. And they have built a new school – a long overdue replacement for the crumbling building they had before, which was so unsafe that many parents
refused to send their children there.

Christian Aid believes that poverty is, at its heart, an issue of power. And in their approach to development, we try to avoid models of ‘donor and beneficiary’, to work instead as equal partners,  friends sharing power together. 
This year, the people of Gbap have been empowered to take their future into their own hands to speak out for change and look towards a better future. And in hearing their story, we too can be changed. Mary Samuel looks at the changes to her village and comments: ‘Today we are
seeing something which has come from us.” That’s what’s made the
difference. The people of Gbap have learned to see themselves not as pawns
in the games played by national and international forces beyond their power
to influence, but as people who can take their own future into their own
hands and do something about it.

Not servants but friends...equal partners in the work of loving the world into God's kingdom.
Let's join in too.

Will you pray with me now?

Gracious God, who bids us to love one another
May we listen to the voices of all who speak out for a more loving world.
Inspire us to gifts of love and friendship;
Sustain us when we stand together for change
and transform our offerings
so that we may become part of the miracle of your Love.

Bless the gifts that we offer
Bless the work we will do
And bless all who bear witness
to our support for your people on the edge
Bless all our endeavours
and our small contributions
and transform them into fruit that endures.

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