Sermon for Pentecost VI (Year A)
July 24, 2011
Christ Church Andover
Proper 12 (A): 1 Kings 3: 5-12; Romans 8: 26-39; Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Good morning. My name is Jodi Mikalachki, and I bring you greetings from the people of St. James's Episcopal Church in Porter Square, Cambridge, my home parish, and from the people of Buye Diocese in northern Burundi, where I have served since 2008. That's when I first met your Rector, The Reverend Jeff Gill, when we both attended a conference in Rwanda, and got to know each other better during a long bus ride through Burundi. Jeff has faithfully encouraged me ever since, and I am so grateful for this opportunity now to share with all of you at Christ Church about my experience of seeking the Kingdom of Heaven on the ground in Burundi.
I went to Burundi with the Mennonite Central Committee, an organization dedicated to bringing relief, fostering sustainable community development, and building justice and peace throughout the world. They assigned me to a school in a rural area that had been started by a small organization of Twa people, or pygmies, an extremely poor and marginalized minority group that has had little access to education or other institutions of Burundian society. The school also serves poor children from Burundi's other two ethnic groups -- Hutus and Tutsis -- and so I had an entrée into a diverse rural community in the heart of Africa. It's a very poor community, with the marks of Burundi’s eleven-year civil war still upon it: fire-blackened shells that were once solid brick homes; abandoned fields; and a climate of mistrust and fear that is just below the surface. One of the first phrases I learned there was “turashonje—we’re hungry,” frequently spoken to me by children as I greeted them on the road.
At the same time, it's a very hopeful community. Primary education is now free in Burundi, and children of illiterate parents are rising through that system, class by class. Some have made it into the ranks of secondary school, and may be trained to become teachers themselves, or nurses, lab technicians, mechanics and drivers, clerical workers, electricians, or small entrepreneurs. In 2010, I participated as an international observer in Burundi's second set of national elections since the end of the civil war. Turnout was high, polls were staffed with competent and well-trained workers, and with the exception of some areas around the capital, there was very little violence. Farmers can now plant knowing that they will be around to reap a harvest, and I have seen many signs of small investments to improve land, businesses, and homes. Indeed, most of the youth I work with are confident that they will have better lives than their parents did -- that they are having better lives even now, less than a decade out of a devastating civil war. They are eager to continue their studies, not to get out of their rural environment, but rather, so that they can use their skills and knowledge to develop it. These are modest beginnings in the midst of what is still a heartbreakingly poor community, yet surely we can discern something like the Kingdom of Heaven breaking through.
What does Jesus tell us about the Kingdom in the parables we heard today? It's like a mustard seed, something so small and dark you couldn't possibly see it once it falls on the ground, that grows into the greatest of shrubs and even a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. It's like yeast that a woman mixes, or in another translation, hides in three measures of flour so that it can rise and become bread. It's like a treasure, hidden in a field, found and hidden again so the finder may in joy sell everything to buy that field. It's like one pearl of great value, found by a merchant after much searching, and purchased at the price of everything that merchant has. And it's like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. The Kingdom of Heaven is like things we can't see with our everyday eyes -- a tiny, dark seed on the ground; yeast mixed into flour; buried treasure; a net below the water; one pearl of great value sorted out from other fine ones and a multitude of the ordinary and substandard. But it's real, and it's active -- growing, rising, throwing and catching, inspiring joy and encouraging sacrifice. It's dynamic in its relationships, causing those who encounter it to make nests in its branches, to go in joy and sell all they have, to rise as loaves and to be gathered as fishes. And everywhere, even in throwing out the bad to separate the evil from the righteous, it manifests as abundance -- that Kingdom-of-Heaven abundance that comes when we trust in small beginnings, when we show up to do our job of baking, or farming, or sorting pearls or fish. And paradoxically, that same Kingdom of Heaven can move us in joy to give up everything our work and skill and planning and perseverance have won us, to possess that one greater thing toward which all our striving is oriented, that one pearl of great value that has been drawing us like a magnet all along.
Living in Burundi has been like that for me. I'd like to share a story with you of one way I experienced the Kingdom of Heaven on the ground there. It's about a four-year-old boy named Arnot. Arnot is a Twa boy, and he lives with his family in a settlement about fifteen minutes' walk from my home. He's the youngest in his family, and two years ago, his parents sent him to begin pre-school when he was barely three. He walked there with his older brother Derrick, who then continued up the hill to the primary school. Arnot did not want to start school that year. Every day, he sat in the back of the classroom and cried, hard, with a concentration and endurance surprising in such a little boy. At that time, I was coming down from the high school once or twice a week to develop instructional games with the pre-school teachers, which we would try out together on their young charges, who were delighted to go outside and use their whole bodies in a lesson. Arnot would stand off to the side, surprised into betraying interest, until a teacher would invite him to join us and he'd return to his stubborn, angry crying. He kept it up for three months, finally winning the right to stay home, to the relief of everyone except his mother.
This past school year, Arnot started again at age four. He seemed much readier for school, and happier interacting with classmates. Over the year he sat out, we had worked a broad transformation of the pre-school, substituting locally woven grass mats and low tables for the rows of tiny desks in which the children had previously sat to chant numbers, letters, and French words they didn't understand. The teachers had participated in workshops, field trips, and a week-long seminar, and we had all worked together to create new teaching materials. When Arnot came back readier to learn, he also came back to a much better learning environment for small children. He could still be a handful for his teachers and his classmates, but he could also concentrate and do some very good work. Since I was assigned fulltime to the pre-school by then, I got to watch his progress. One of the things I appreciated was his love for color. When his class had a coloring assignment, his teachers typically handed out one pencil crayon to each child. Most would work with the single color they'd been given. Arnot, however, organized his whole table to trade crayons so that he could use as many colors as possible. He accomplished this quietly and without any apparent conflict or ill will. Many of his tablemates' drawings were the better for it. His own coloring was beautiful, full of energy and playfulness, a little boy's artistic delight fairly leaping off the page. I wish I could have taken him to the Chihuly exhibit at the MFA. Like the great glass artist, Arnot never met a color he didn't like.
At the beginning of second term, I noticed Arnot was missing school again. "Where's Arnot?" I asked the other kids from his hill. "Yarahiye!" they cried out -- He burned himself. I walked over to his settlement late that afternoon and found him lying in front of his family's house, naked on a mat. Most of one leg, the inside knee of the other, and a spot on his forehead were raw. In my limited Kirundi, I tried to ask his mother whether he'd been burned by fire or water, and she cut in excitedly to say, "No, no, we must not put water on it!" Arnot had fallen in the fire, and they'd taken him to a health center run by the Daughters of Charity on a neighboring hill. Since he's under five, he receives free healthcare in Burundi, so the Sisters were able to give him a full course of antibiotics and train his family in how to care for his burns. Arnot lay very still that afternoon, his thin limbs exposed, his face stubbornly closed as it had been during his first, aborted school year. I tried running through some of the things we'd been doing the week before in his class: "What color is my dress? How many fingers? What does a cow say?" Arnot slowly rolled onto his stomach and covered his head. But the many other children gathering started answering, and soon we had a lively chorus of animal sounds going, led by Arnot's brother Derrick, who is also very good at imitating animal faces. I started some of the songs we sing in the pre-school, and they were picked up and supplemented by a couple of the high school girls I'd taught the year before. I'd begun learning some traditional Twa songs, and tried to get the high school girls to start them, but they didn't know them well enough. By this time it was dusk, and many adults, returning from work in their neighbors' fields or their own, were also gathering near us. A senior Twa matron named Gakobwa managed to recognize the song I was trying to start, and she got it going in earnest. As that evening's communal fire crackled into life, children, youth, and adults began dancing in front of Arnot's mat to a lively Twa song that praises those who have honored the community by saying "they're dressed in stars."
By that time, Arnot was on his back again, propped up slightly against his eldest brother, Bienvenu, his big eyes following the dancers, and something almost like a smile on his thin face. Burundians of all ethnicities agree that dancing is the great treasure of the Twa. "Dressed In Stars" -- or, "Yambaye Inyenyeri" -- is an old treasure of theirs, and the Masters of Arnot's community brought it out that evening for a little boy doing something very new to them -- going to school. At the tender age of four, Arnot already knows many things that his elders do not: how to read and write numbers and letters; how to recite the alphabet; how to count and name colors in French; how to sit at a table and make art with colored pencils and paper. But his elders know so much more that he will need in order to survive and flourish into adulthood. As I sat beside Arnot's mat, doing my best to sing and move with them from my place on the ground, I felt that I was a scribe being trained for the Kingdom of Heaven, however little I understood of the deep history and culture of the community in which I was serving.
What came together on the ground around Arnot to make the Kingdom of Heaven real for me? Well, it included a major piece of public policy enacted into law in 2005 by the Burundian government, namely, free medical care for children under the age of five. It also included the long history of missionary service by the Daughters of Charity, made manifest in a good and well-stocked health center in a poor, rural area. It included the love and good care of Arnot's parents and brothers, who got him to the health center, followed its instructions, and ministered to his body and soul. It included the rich Twa culture of song and dance, kept alive in Arnot's community by Gakobwa and other elders. It included a viable pre-school for Twa, started and heroically sustained by a small community-based organization; and, apparently, it included my visit that afternoon, made possible by the support of an international aid and development organization dedicated to building peace and justice on the ground in small communities.
What makes the Kingdom of Heaven real for you? What are you participating in, perhaps without fully understanding how tall it will grow, how good it will taste, how many fish it will draw, or what great value it has? What field are you working where you might stumble upon hidden treasure? Is it government? Christian service? family life? education? the arts? fishing? farming? local activism? global mission? buying and selling? I ask, because I think Jesus' wide range of examples encourages us to believe that we can connect to the Kingdom of Heaven anywhere. For me, it happens to have come together at this time in rural Burundi. But that's not the only place I've known it, and I'm sure that there are many here who could show me treasures new and old in Andover.
Arnot started coming back to school just before I finished my service term. He would sit on the mats with the other kids in a kind of upright hurdle stretch, the less burned leg bent, the more badly burned one stretched out straight. If he felt another child getting into his space, he'd kick at them with his straight leg. Among the teachers, we exchanged amused and relieved glances over this. "Down but not out," we might have said to one another in English. I have a photograph of Arnot and two classmates from that last week, reciting the Lord's Prayer in French at the beginning of the day as they always do, sitting on the mats, screwing their faces up, and praying as loudly as they can in their high pitched voices. He's pulled his bad leg up, and is either grimacing or smiling.
Do they understand what they're praying? No, of course not. I didn't even understand the Lord's Prayer in my own language, let alone French, at their age, but I'm very glad I had it pressed into the soft wax of my young memory bank. "Have you understood all this?" Jesus asks his disciples after a series of deceptively simple analogies to the Kingdom of Heaven. "Yes," they all answer, just as my Burundian secondary students always did when I asked if they were following the lesson. As often as not, they weren't, but they understood a lot more about where we were than I did. There's so much I don't understand about Burundi, its history and culture, its conflicts, and its amazing will to live again after the terror and violence it has endured. It makes me hesitant, at times, to talk about Burundi, as I have just been doing, knowing how much I must be missing, and how much I may be flattening an old and complex culture. Burundi's such a new treasure for me -- for most of us, I would imagine. I ask you to pray for those small signs of the Kingdom in Burundi: for the mustard seeds and the leaven of its new beginnings, so evident in children like Arnot; for the treasures and pearls of great value turning up in unexpected places as schools and health centers; for a network of laws and practices that can hold a reconciling nation together without discrimination or premature judgment; and for the Solomon-like wisdom to discern and bring out exactly what is needed from Burundi's treasure house, both new and old. When a large and privileged nation such as ours stands in prayer with poor and nearly invisible Burundi, buried in the heart of Africa, we both grow into a great tree, and the birds of the air come and make their nests in our branches.