Sermon at Trinity Cathedral, Monrovia, Liberia

January 3, 2010

Greetings from around The Episcopal Church .

“Alleluia, a savior is born to us, who will gather together people from the north and from the ends of the earth.” Jesus’ birth in our midst is fruit borne of that ancient dream for restoration and homecoming. The homecoming isn’t yet finished in our own day, but it is well begun in the one who took on human flesh and made his home among us.

This very nation of Liberia began in homecoming, in the restoration of peoples forcibly enslaved and exiled to North America and the Caribbean. Like ransomed Israel, the people who would form Liberia began to stream homeward nearly 200 years ago. Yet the work of homecoming is far from finished in this land. The homeward journeys of the 1800s also meant that others were pushed out of their homes. The years since have given rise to many struggles over whose home this nation would be. The violence of the last decades is stark reminder that the prince of peace still has much to do.

Jeremiah reminds his hearers that God’s dream of restoration is like living in a watered garden, where grain and wine and oil abound. Liberia certainly has the capacity to become a garden like that. The haunting question is how the gardeners, both here and far away, will help to make it bloom.

I spent Christmas at home, in the desert of southern Nevada – not too far from what some call the wasteland of Las Vegas. The surrounding landscape is filled with the images of the Bible – desolate valleys, hardly any of them filled with springs, and a few far-flung oases where the presence of water makes for a lush and very local harvest, like the date orchard at the bottom of Death Valley. This time of year it’s cold, freezing at night and only single digits in the daytime. When you fly over that desert you see almost no water on the surface, but you can see its promise in the lines of sparse vegetation running through the low places, signs of water under the surface.

I doubt there is much of anyplace in Liberia that’s quite as dry as that, even in the middle of the harmattan. Yet the spiritual dryness of people still dealing with the grief and loss of the recent violence is just as desolate. The task of this church community is to water that dryness. God’s promise in our midst is very much like those desert hints of water below a dry and rocky surface. You and I can be that greenness, signifying life – life that comes from roots that reach deep into the heart of God. That greenness has the capacity to feed and shelter others, to offer life and sustenance in a barren land.

The psalmist insists that God is life in the barrenness, both sun and shield for those in need – shade when the sun is too intense, like midday around here, but also sun for those lost in a wintry desert or wandering these streets at midnight. How will this community serve those who are thirsty for light and hope and more abundant life?

I was surprised to discover that Liberia has the highest population growth rate in the world. When the average woman bears 6 or 7 children in her lifetime, it’s almost always a response to chaos and life’s radical uncertainty. That chaos is evident in the fact that that average woman is likely to lose at least one of those 6 or 7 children she bears. Only Afghanistan and Sierra Leone have higher infant mortality rates. The world into which Jesus was born was not all that different.

How does the good news of God’s love get translated into the chaos around us? Caring for and teaching children has long been one of the Episcopal Church’s primary works of mission here, and that will continue to be of immense importance in the years ahead. You have some ability to help each child in this nation grow up able to use all the gifts God has given her or him, and the doing of that work will begin to change this place into something more like the watered garden God has in mind. Those who partner in that work, even from far away, will also begin to discover a watered garden.

The holy child who is born among us yet again is an ever-present reminder of the unique value of each human life, for each human being offers us a glimpse of the divine, each one is an image of God. Joseph was willing to risk his life for the sake of a child he believes is not his own – what about us?

To what lengths will we go to care for the children around us? Can we see the frightened child within the tough and brash former soldier? Are we willing to go in search of that child within, the one who needs to be loved and healed into wholeness? Are we willing to confront our own fear in doing that work of love?

The sad reality is that even great lengths cannot guarantee that any child will grow into one capable of building a watered garden. A great irony took place on Christmas day when a well brought up and carefully educated young man tried to blow up an airplane. He was willing to give his own life in order to kill many others, but ultimately he failed, yet his actions have caused and will cause untold disruption and chaos for many millions of travelers across the world. What went astray, how did the promise of his youthful garden turn to dry and dusty desert? What lack of hope led in the same direction here?

Joseph responds to the chaos of his native country by listening to a dream, and he takes the baby Jesus and his mother off to Egypt in search of safety. The challenge for many here in Liberia is to dream the dream of greater safety for all right here at home in this land. It’s a risky dream, to think of building a more hopeful life in spite of immense challenges. The decision to take that risk comes out of hope, and for some it comes in the absence of any other option – yet it’s a decision for life, not for death. The very name of this nation is rooted in hope for more abundant life, for freedom, or as we would say, to grow into the full stature of Christ.

The full stature of the one whose birth we celebrate at this season is to become servant of all. The birth of love incarnate in our midst is an invitation to risk all we are and have for the sake of more abundant life – to make that risk for the sake of the whole world, rather than ourselves alone. Jesus leads us down that garden path toward more abundant life, in spite of the risks.

The way of the world is to choose violence and death. That’s Herod’s response to his own fear, and it is often the response of the desperate and hopeless. The holy way of peace requires confronting our fears, and choosing life instead, even when all the hope you can see is a faint and sketchy green line on the dry sand of the desert.

Where and how will you make that decision for life?