Thursday, September 28, 2006

an appeal for africa university and the haiti mission hiv/aids clinic

Note to friends in the blogosphere: please circulate this appeal/sermon....and please consider making a gift to africa university and the haiti hiv/aids clinic of providence umc on world communion sunday. You can send a check, payable to PUMC and marked "Miracle Offering: Africa U/Haiti". 100% of the funds will go directly to meeting human needs, through the teaching ministry of Africa University and the healing ministry of the Haiti HIV/Aids Clinic. The message, below, is an explanation of the offering and the need. And pray for our church---we are taking a step of faith here!

So Jesus is deep in conversation with his closest friends. He poses a question: Who do others say that I am? It is an interesting question, Jesus speaking with the disciples as they are traveling through the hill country of the northern Galilee. It continues to be an interesting question. Jesus remains the object of curiosity, debate, even division. And there would be varying answers to that question in our world.

q Who do secular people say Jesus is? And so you can count on Jesus being on the cover of Newsweek and Time at Christmas and Easter, with the usual articles questioning the virgin birth & the resurrection?

q Who does my Muslim friend say Jesus is?

q Who is Jesus for my Jewish friends?

q Who is Jesus for conservatives?

q Who is Jesus for liberals?

The answers are different. He is a wise teacher. He is a prophet. He is a rabbi. He is Lord and Savior. He is an advocate for the marginalized. He is the greatest salesman who ever lived; He is a storyteller, He is the most effective leader, He is a non-violent revolutionary.

Different answers. Jesus wants to know what the disciples are hearing. Who do others say that I am? Some say John The Baptist (they were often said to be rivals); Some say Elijah (this was a compliment); some say you’re one of the prophets.

At this point the question shifts, from a seminar in comparative religion to one that is more personal: who do you say that I am?

It is more than an interesting question. It is a crucial question. Who do you say that I am? There are many interesting questions that pop up in religious circles: When will the world end? Which Bible translation do you prefer? Which denomination is the best? Which style of worship should we use? How long should a sermon be? Maybe you’re asking that one now. Which mission project should we support? Which ministry meets my need or life stage or issue?

These are interesting questions, worthy of our curiousity, discussion, debate. But these are not the crucial questions. The crucial question Jesus asks of you and me, is: who do you say that I am?

Years ago I was in Cochabamba, Bolivia, preaching in a small Methodist Church. At the conclusion of the service Gustavo, the pastor, asked the leaders to come to the altar. About eight came, men and women, younger and older. He was going to commission them for leadership. I wondered what question he would ask them: Will you support the church? No, he asked another question, a more crucial question: Who do you say that Jesus is?

He asked them each individually. Who do you say that Jesus is?

A woman spoke: Jesus welcomes children.

An older man was next: He is savior and Lord.

Then a younger man: He loves the poor.

Then an older woman: He is the bread of life.

Then a young adult, she looked college age: He is the light of the world.

Who do you say that Jesus is? How would you answer the question?

Peter, always the first to speak, answers. You are the Christ, you are the Messiah. At this moment, the Rabbi Jesus might be thinking “they are grasping this, they are getting it, it is sinking in”. And then he says to them, “don’t tell anyone about this conversation”.

Then he decides, “okay, they are getting it, I am going to go a little deeper…maybe this is a teachable moment”. And so he tells them that the son of man will suffer, mainly at the hands of the religious people, that he will suffer, and be killed, that on the third day he will rise.

In Matthew 16 we have more of Peter’s response, which is only hinted at here. No, Peter says. This will never happen to you! This is not the outcome we wanted, hoped for, dreamed about. No, surely not, Peter says.

At this point, Jesus rebukes Peter. What stirs up this response in Jesus? It might be the idea that he could somehow avoid the cross and the suffering and the death. It could be that Peter has identified something that Jesus is himself struggling with. Later, when Jesus prays “let this cup pass from me” in the garden, this all makes sense.

Then Jesus shifts the conversation again. Follow me, take up cross.

Do you sense the shift, the transition? His cross becomes our cross, his suffering becomes our suffering, his story becomes our story. If I am a follower of Jesus, it turns out to be something more than having a fish sticker on the back of my car, or a cross around my neck, or a Bible that is underlined and highlighted in lots of different colors. These are all good things…but something more is at stake---the cross, the suffering, the death, all of this might very well have something to do with us. Jesus is saying this is who I am”. He is also saying, this is who you are”.

Follow me. Take up the cross. I know people who follow Jesus, who take up the cross, and you do too. People who love the poor, even when it is difficult to love the poor. People who welcome children even when it is exhausting to welcome children. People who shine with God’s light in some pretty dark places. People who share their bread with the hungry even when they do not have enough.

I have preached on the cross before, and I commented in one sermon that we don’t have to go looking for the cross, the cross will find us. If our eyes are open, the cross will find us, if our hands are extended, the cross will find us.

We are sometimes tempted to put the cross down, or to say “I can’t carry it”. But there is Jesus, saying follow me, carry the cross. Christianity is not primarily a system of beliefs (philosophy) or a collection of laws (ethics). Christianity is deciding to follow Jesus.

You see, Jesus is not leading a seminar in comparative religion. He is like a physician doing surgery on us, removing all of the stuff that gets in the way of the flow of his grace in us and through us. He is trying to clear away the distractions, about what other people think, what other people are doing---the spiritual masters called these attachments--and he is forcing us to think about our lives, where they are headed, why they matter, what they mean.

If you save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life, for the sake of the gospel, you will find it. Sometimes God gives us an opportunity to test all of this. I want to share an opportunity with you. I heard an African American pastor this summer and one of the words of advice he gave was the “preach the announcement”! That is what I am about to do.

In two weeks, we will be observing World Communion Sunday, on October 1. On this day we celebrate the fact that we come to the Lord’s Table with brothers and sisters from all over the world. A number of the choirs will sing and Jim Salley from Africa University will preach. It will be one of the more memorable sermons that you will hear in your lifetime. If you have Panthers tickets, come at 8:30!

On that day, we will receive a Miracle Offering for Africa University and for the Haiti Mission. Let me say a word about each of these missions. Christianity is exploding on the continent of Africa. According the director of World Vision, The AIDS pandemic is the humanitarian disaster of all time. Africa University, founded in 1992, is a United Methodist institution in Zimbabwe that trains students in healthcare, theology, agriculture, and conflict resolution. Our missions leaders in consultation with the Africa University staff have determined a need for two faculty houses. We would like to build these homes in the near future, and a team of Providence members, led by Marcia Conston, will journey to Zimbabwe to meet our brothers and sisters there.

Providence has been involved in the Haiti Mission for twenty-seven years. A couple of years ago Alice White told me of an emerging need for an AIDS clinic alongside the work in Tovar. As a part of the last capital campaign, three sons gave the funds in memory of their father to establish the AIDS clinic. A physician has stepped forward who is willing to work on a very part time basis there, and we need to cover a portion of his salary, which is subsistence by our standards.

Africa University and the Haiti AIDS clinic are explicitly Christian missions. They are also missions with people who can never repay us. What is true for people is also institutions. If we lose our lives, we find them. When the church was putting together the latest capital campaign, some of our leaders had the vision to include in the campaign 10% for outreach beyond us. If we want our members to give 10% of their income beyond themselves to God’s work, why can’t the church do that? And so 10% of the capital campaign, almost $500,000, will go toward people who can never repay us: a young person coming out of foster care; a mother or a child with Aids in Haiti; a professor or a student at Africa University.

Let me say it in another way. Perhaps you have benefited from the opportunity to receive an education, or perhaps your children have been educated. Or perhaps they are in school now. As you think about the opportunity that has come to you, imagine parents in Africa who pray for the same opportunity for their children.

Perhaps you have benefited from excellent medical care. Maybe you are here this morning because of the knowledge, skills and intervention of a physician or a nurse. As you think about the care you have received, imagine someone in northern Haiti whose life will be saved as they receive the same medical care.

Let me say it in yet another way. In his life Jesus spent his time doing two things. He was a teacher, and he was a healer. What better way to carry on his work than in a university and a health clinic, staffed by his followers, who are there to represent him. What better way to discover that the story of our lives is actually his story. I am with you always”, he says, “even unto the end of the world”.

I hope you will consider giving the largest offering you have ever given to a mission cause on October 1. It will be a great day. It will be a miracle.

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