The man was walking alongside the river late one night, trying to get from one place to the next, neither of them being home, but needing to keep going. It was a cold night, clear and crisp, with the stars shining brightly above him and the waters flowing smoothly beside him and the path laid out easily below him. Other people were walking that path beside the river with him, people also intent on getting from one place to the next, hoping that they could end their journeys for the day sooner rather than later, for no one likes to be out at night, especially when they were not at home.
And then the man heard the young men in the group ahead of him singing, singing songs loudly and joyfully (what, he thought, was there to be joyful about on this night, when it seemed so dark and life was getting more difficult with each rising of the sun?), praising God (which God? he wondered) and telling some sort of story with their songs (what story? he wanted to know).
The man continued to walk along, following these singers, feeling better for hearing them but not understanding why.
Finally, he asked the young men: Who are you singing about? What God are you praising? What is the meaning of this joyful music? What do you have to be happy about? (For the man was hearing these songs and asking these questions at the very end of a long and brutal war, a war in which his people suffered mightily at the hands of a greater and very oppressive enemy.)
And then the young men began to speak, to tell the story of another young man, from a place very far away in a land barely known to them. They told of how angels had appeared in the sky, singing, “Glory to God on high.” They told of how this one young man was God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, who would save their people, who healed the sick and gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, who made the lame not just walk but leap like deer, who raised people from the dead, who fed the hungry and who filled their hearts with joy … with love … and most of all, with hope. And they told him, “Whatever you are looking for, you will find it in this man from this faraway land.”
As the young men spoke, the man’s heart was filled with that love, and he began to feel the joy and for the first time in a very long time, he began to believe that he, too, would find hope in a world that for so very long had seemed so very hopeless.
Then he asked them, “Where are you staying?”
And they replied, “Come and see.”
So he went and he saw and he heard and he believed. All night long, they talked and sang and prayed, and before the sun came up on the new morning, the man who had been walking alongside the river on a very dark night believed. He had not seen the man who gave such promise to the world, he did not know the whole story, and yet … he knew enough, enough to believe. He continued to learn the story from the youths, and he went to church, and three years later, he was baptized, and seven years after that, he was confirmed, and then he, too, became an evangelist, he, too, became the one walking along the river, singing the songs, and one day, years later, he became a priest.
And now he is the one who tells the story and gives people hope, and he is the one who teaches and preaches and pastors and baptizes and marries and buries the people.
All because one night, one cold, crisp Christmas Eve night, in the deepest part of South Sudan, walking alongside the River Nile, he heard Christmas songs being sung and the Christmas story being told, and when the young men said to him, “Come and see,” he went and saw and he believed.
• • •
The group gathered on the dock by the Bay of Gonave in Haiti, looking across the 2-mile stretch of open water to the Isle of Gonave. They were going, some for the first time, to see the tiny church of St. Simon and St. Jude in a village precariously perched atop one of the island’s mountain ridges, a church that only a year before had been but a dream but now was ready to be consecrated.
Normally, the trip across the bay came via a two-hour ferry ride, but on this day, a non-governmental organization was loaning the use of a speedboat to take the group across. Forty minutes later, they landed on the island, a fairly desolate place smack dab in the craw of the western end of the island of Hispaniola, where in 1492, Christopher Columbus had sailed the ocean blue and landed, bringing Christianity with him.
Somewhere on the heights of Gonave was a tiny village, if it even could be called that, known as Platon Balai, a wind-swept place of rocks and scrub brush, with little fresh water, little arable land and a population of hardy souls who for years had wanted a church of their own but had no way to build one. Until a group of Christians arrived – some from Arkansas, some from Georgia. Over the years, a medical clinic had been built nearby. Then a school room. And now, finally, after intense story-telling followed by even more intense fund-raising followed by incredibly hard work, a church had been built, a real church, made of concrete blocks with a tin roof well secured to withstand the storms and hurricanes that routinely attacked Haiti.
All the people needed now was the Bishop of Haiti to come to consecrate St. Simon and St. Jude, the bishop to come and bless the place and the people, to celebrate a Eucharist and baptize and confirm.
So he came, this Bishop, who once had served as the priest on the island, caring for the few thousand hardy souls who lived there, planting parishes without church buildings, organizing the people, praying with them and for them. The bishop led the group of Americans over the water by speedboat, then across the island on sorry excuses for roads and paths in borrowed SUVs for two hours, and then on foot on a meandering path that cut back and forth through the brush and up the mountain for another hour until the donkeys that had been rented finally caught up, and then by donkey ride up the rest of the mountain for yet another hour.
“We go,” the bishop said, “where the people are. If we need to drive for two hours, then walk for an hour, then ride a donkey for another hour, that is what we do. We go,” he said, “to the people, and the church grows.”
At the summit, the group was greeted by 100 or so of the members of St. Simon and St. Jude, proudly showing off their new church, which they had built with their own hands, funded by churches – Episcopal, Presbyterian and Anglican – in Arkansas and Georgia. Those Americans had come to Haiti to meet the people, to listen to them. They had come and they had seen, and they had believed, and now, five years later, after multiple trips, after working hand in hand with the people of Gonave, they were here again, to see the fruits of their labors.
• • •
Come and see.
This is what Jesus said to the two disciples, Andrew and another, who were disciples of John the Baptizer, who had proclaimed Jesus as God’s Chosen One, as the Lamb of God, and who wanted to know where Jesus was staying.
Come and see.
If we want to live the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the same Gospel that called Andrew and then Simon and then the other disciples, and then the 3,000 and then Paul, and then the untold numbers who came after Paul, the same Gospel that eventually called those young men who sang as they walked along the river that Christmas Eve night in 1973, the same Gospel that called Father Paulo, the same Gospel that called the people of island of Gonave in Haiti, the same Gospel that called the people of Arkansas and Georgia … if you want to live that Gospel, all of these people say to you: Come and see.
Come and see the Gospel as it lives in places where the people have nothing else, where war and oppression and famine and disease and nature itself claim their lives in untold numbers, where despite the hardship of their lives, the people believe. They believe in the man who came from a small village in a despised place, the man who walked the land as they walked the land, who came to them and lived with them and blessed them, even though the powers and principalities told them, day after day, that they were not blessed.
Come and see your brothers and sisters in Christ in Sudan and Haiti, who are related to you not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism, because it is only when you have seen, with your eyes and with your hearts and with your souls, the tragedies that are their lives that you can see, with your eyes, and with your hearts and with your souls, how alive they are in the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
For the Gospel is alive – in places like Sudan, now split into two countries, where the wars that raged for five decades continue to this day; in places like Haiti, where four hurricanes in five weeks in 2008 was just the way life was, where a devastating earthquake in 2010 took the lives of 300,000 people and displaced another 1 million people – one-tenth of the population, in 38 seconds.
Your siblings in Christ are beckoning you: Come and see the Gospel come alive in their parishes, their schools, their villages. Come and see the Gospel come alive in their church-run schools, where all the children are given the education that the state denies them, because they are poor or from the wrong tribe or speak another language.
Come and see the Gospel come alive in their church-run clinics, where every single person who comes in for treatment is treated with dignity, even if they cannot pay.
Come and see the Gospel come alive in their evangelism revivals, where they preach the love of God in Christ Jesus to all of the people and proclaim God’s peace, which passes all understanding, and God’s justice, which rolls down like waters, and God’s reconciliation, which brings about God’s kingdom on this earth.
Come and see the Gospel come alive when your brothers and sisters in Christ proclaim God’s hope, in lands where the powers that be long ago proclaimed that for the poor and the destitute, for the people from the wrong tribe or ethnicity, that there was no hope from generation to generation.
Your Sudani siblings in Christ and your Haitian siblings in Christ join together to beg you:
And see. And believe.
For the Gospel is alive and well in Sudan and in Haiti, and they want you to know this. They want you to know this because they believe that if you know this, if you see it, with your eyes and with your hearts and with your souls, then you will be, as they are, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the greatest thing of all:
You, like they, will spread the love of God to all of God’s beloved children.
You, like they, will spread that love – that undefined yet powerful love – that captured Andrew and caused him to bring along Simon, who was to be called Cephas, which means Peter; the love that captured Paul and made him an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God; the love that on Christmas Eve 1973 captured your brother in Christ Paulo Ajang Thiel Lual; the love that captured the people on the island of Gonave in Haiti; the love that captured the people from Arkansas and Georgia, causing them to travel thousands of miles, by air, by water, by car, by foot, by donkey.
If this is what we do – if this is what we all do, spreading God’s love to those who are far off and those who are near, here in Newtown and there in Sudan and there in Haiti and everywhere in between – then we indeed will change the world, we indeed will bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.
Spreading God’s love, proclaiming God’s love, living God’s love … this is what we are called to do. It’s what they are striving and sometimes even dying to do in Sudan. It is what they are striving and sometimes even dying to do in Haiti.
Which is why they want you … to come … and see.
Sermon preached at Newtown United Methodist Church, Newtown, Pa., 12 February 2012, Year B.