We Survived

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Psalm 105:1-11, 37-45

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
    tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
    seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,[a]
    children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

He is the Lord our God;
    his judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever,
    of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
    his sworn promise to Isaac,
10 which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
    to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
11 saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan
    as your portion for an inheritance.”

Then he brought Israel[d] out with silver and gold,
    and there was no one among their tribes who stumbled.
38 Egypt was glad when they departed,
    for dread of them had fallen upon it.
39 He spread a cloud for a covering,
    and fire to give light by night.
40 They asked, and he brought quails,
    and gave them food from heaven in abundance.
41 He opened the rock, and water gushed out;
    it flowed through the desert like a river.
42 For he remembered his holy promise,
    and Abraham, his servant.

43 So he brought his people out with joy,
    his chosen ones with singing.
44 He gave them the lands of the nations,
    and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples,
45 that they might keep his statutes
    and observe his laws.
Praise the Lord!

Many of my friends and relatives who are Jewish tell me that you can accurately sum up most of Jewish history, and explain every Jewish holiday with one simple sentence:

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”

In fact, I found out this week there is a Passover song that has as its chorus:

 They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat

They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet

So they chase us to the border

There’s a parting of the water

Tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat

 Although it’s certainly irreverent, there is something to this little ditty that might resonate as we consider the Psalm we heard today. It is a reminder that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

The history of Judaism has been filled with dire and tragic events that threatened its very survival from the very beginning. Certainly, the odds have always been against this still small group of people. And yet, they have survived. Wars. Starvation. Exile. Genocide. A rhyming cycle of threat and survival.

So it is that faithful Jews continue to recite the history of God’s covenantal faithfulness, in shared rituals, to teach children and reconfirm for adults of every generation after generation after generation. When they gather in the synagogue or at the family dinner table on Shabbat, the liturgy recites the certainty of God’s faithfulness in the past, in the present,  and into the future.

passover-origAt Passover, for example, the family gathers at the table and each person from the youngest to the oldest is given a Haggadah which is studied, read and discussed. The youngest children ask questions about the story and the meal – why those gathered are eating particular foods and reading particular texts in particular ways.

The Passover meal itself is a multi-sensory teaching experience in smells and sights and tastes – the bitter herbs, the salt water, the matzah, the lamb shank – which tell the story of Jewish oppression and deliverance.

1930sArnold EaglePassover is a story-telling event, repeated over and over again, so none of God’s mighty works are ever forgotten.

There is a passage in the Haggadah which reads, “In each and every generation, someone rises to destroy us, but the Holy One who is Blessed rescues us from their hands.”

The Passover ritual and the story it tells makes meaning, but not only of peoples’ suffering. The stories tell the history of God’s blessing which shapes all of Jewish life.

As far as we can tell, Psalm 105 came into being during one of those times of great suffering for the Jewish people.

Psalm 105 came into being during the exile –  a pivotal point in Hebrew scripture.

Everything the people held dear had been destroyed. Civic, religious, and political institutions had been laid to rubble.  Jerusalem was trashed. The temple, gone. The Davidic dynasty had utterly failed.  Some people were carted off to Babylon.  Those who remained in Judea faced starvation and death.

The world, as God’s people had known it, no longer made sense.

All the color had drained from their lives. The landscape surrounding them was bleak.

And it is in this bleak space that faithful people remembered God’s goodness.

It is in this bleak place that faithful people told the story of God’s love and mercy.

It is in this bleak place that faithful people not only told the story, but made the story into poetry.

And they put the poetry to music, which is something we lose in our English translations.

The world as they’d known it had fallen apart, but they remembered. And they sang. Praises to the One who had created them from before the beginning of time.

Praises to the One who had redeemed them throughout history.

Praises to the One who they trusted to lead them out of a bleak present and into a promised future held together by covenant.

I’ve only cried on an airplane twice in my life.  The first time was on the approach to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the summer of 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed that city.new-orleans_050907_1234396

The second time was when our plane landed at the very optimistically named Juba International Airport in South Sudan in January 2015.juba-airport

In both circumstances, I wept because I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was seeing hell on earth.  The only difference is that New Orleans’ hell, although certainly made worse by humans, was largely a result of a natural disaster.

As anyone who knows anything about South Sudan can tell you, the unrelenting hell that has marked the country’s past half-century has been entirely man made.  The suffering in that part of the world is a result of people killing people for reasons as ancient as tribal and religious conflict, as historical as colonialism, and as mercenary as oil revenues.

As a result, the entire population of what once was Sudan, and is now Sudan and South Sudan, has been traumatized.  You can see it from the moment your step off a plane in Juba.  The people of South Sudan are trapped in a nightmare that hasn’t ended, and will not end, until there is peace.

The congregations and pastors that make up Presbyterian Evangelical Church in South Sudan have not been immune from the trauma. In fact, most of the pastors I met in Juba are exiles.  Many were forced out of northern Sudan after the south gained its independence in 2011. As a result of the peace agreement that established South Sudan, hundreds of thousands of Christian and traditional African religious adherents were forced to leave their lives in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in and return to what the Sudanese government considered their “ancestral homeland.”

The exiles were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in a sparsely-populated, under-developed new country with little infrastructure and few easily-developed resources.  Many of the pastors I met had led well-established, thriving churches in Khartoum, and are now struggling to make a living by doing church work in South Sudan.  The more well-educated pastors who speak English have been able to get work in the South Sudan government.  The rest are struggling mightily.

The first wave of exiles came to South Sudan in 2011, as I said.  But in late 2013, a civil war broke out in South Sudan and violence has no stopped in any significant way that might allow the country to get back on its feet.  In fact, in the past 9 months, the violence has become even worse.

More pastors and church members – this time coming from within South Sudan — have come to Juba.  Many have lost friends, family, and their churches to the war.  In fact, it is safe to say that nearly every pastor I met from the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church is in exile, a stranger in a strange and sometimes dangerous land.

When you talk to these pastors, the trauma in their eyes is the first thing you notice.  They’ve been deeply broken by the death and destruction they’ve witnessed.  Some of the pastors have no option but to live but in the United Nations refugee camps. There are three of these UN camps in Juba, each containing thousands of refugees.  Other pastors are living in cramped quarters with friends and other family members.  One of the pastors I met is living in a 2 room apartment with 20 other people including his wife and 5 children.

131230201820-02-south-sudan-1229-horizontal-large-galleryAlthough the city of Juba is South Sudan’s capital city, there is no infrastructure to speak of, no safe water, no schools or healthcare, few paved roads, and an ever-growing population suffering from rampant disease and malnutrition.  It is a city of politicians and bureaucrats living behind gated walls, and a civilian population that resembles walking wounded. When we visited in 2015, Juba was relatively safe compared to the rest of South Sudan.

Today, the war has come to Juba, and many of the exiled pastors we met have been exiled again out of Juba into neighboring countries.https://harpers.org/archive/2017/07/ghost-nation/

It is easy to forget God’s faithfulness when the worst happens.  The crushing diagnosis.  The deep loss.   Exile from friends or family.  When we are stressed or anxious or afraid or in pain, we can easily lapse into a sort of spiritual amnesia.  In the face of so much sorrow, we forget all that is good and what God has done for us.

We wonder if God has gone off and left us altogether. Or we doubt if God exists at all because it sure doesn’t look like it.  We forget God’s promises, God’s goodness and God’s call to us.  We are lost in waves of grief and panic.  Well-meaning friends may tell us that our problem is we don’t have enough faith or have done something to deserve the hell we’re experiencing.

What continues to amaze me about the people and churches with whom I prayed and worshipped with in South Sudan is that despite all evidence to the contrary, is they believe with their whole hearts that God has not forgotten them.  That God has not abandoned them.DSCN0045

They are confident in God’s faithfulness. They know their story. They know their place in God’s story. They sing their story and they celebrate and praise God as if their lives depend upon it.

Because of course, their lives do depend upon it.

The exiles in South Sudan know what the exiles who sang Psalm 105 know.

Our faith is not what saves us.  Only God saves us.

God saves us not because we are good, but because God is good.

God saves us not because we are powerful, but because God is powerful beyond our comprehension.

And it is in those horrible moments,

In a time when we feel most vulnerable,

that we most fully experience the grace and power of God.

God understands our exhaustion and our fear, and will meet us in that place.

I know all of that is true.  But when I saw the suffering I saw in South Sudan, it made me angry with God.  When I see the brokenness in families and neighborhoods and systems and other situations much closer to home, it makes me angry that God doesn’t do something about it.  So many days, I am not only angry beyond belief, but tired. Tired of seeing the bad guys win.  Tired of seeing the poor get poorer.

In those moments and hours and days when we feel things are falling apart everywhere, brothers and sisters, there is no more urgent need, no more pressing task than for God’s people to remember who we are.

This is a historical moment in which we most need to follow our ancient brothers and sisters in the faith in praising God, in poetry, in song, in art, and in words.

When life feels to be at its worst, Psalm 105 challenges us to dig deep and sing our own song.

Do you remember the wonderful works God has done?

Do you remember God’s miracles?

When God gave us breath and body?

Do you remember when God grafted us into Jesus Christ and into a community of faith in our baptism?

The promises given, the covenant created, over the font of blessing?

Do you remember?

Remember when we found a church in which we were welcomed and loved?

Remember?

The fire that did not destroy us?

The death of a pastor that did not destroy us?

The separations and accusations and grief that did not destroy us?

Remember the cloud of God’s mercy and love that covered us by day,

And the fire of God’s spirit that led us through dark times?

Remember how you survived?

You survived.

Remember?

Do you remember the sweetness of the days in which God brought you out with joy, God’s chosen and cherished ones? Singing. Working. Worshiping. Together.

God remembers.

And when we remember,

we remain astonished by what God has done for us,

And reclaim our holy place in a very old story

Of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac.

Of South Sudan,

Of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Of you and of me.

A story that is still being written.

But, through Jesus Christ, we know the end of the story will be

Love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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