Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wade in the Waters of Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ, the over-the-top love of God, and the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, amen.

The invocation I just said was from Zephania Kameeta, one of the Lutheran Bishops of Namibia, spoken to us at the beginning of the sermon he preached on May 14th in Sam Nujoma stadium with 10,000 Lutherans from all over Africa and the world.  Beforehand we were told that the entire service that Sunday morning would be about 4 hours long. I wish I were kidding. I wish THEY were kidding! But they were pretty right on the money with that estimation.
Me and the Bishop of Hong Kong

It was very long, but it was very awesome. There was the usual sermon, scripture, and big holy amazing confusion of Holy Communion. In addition, Lutherans from the 7 regions of the Lutheran World Federation gave testimony to the mixed bag of the Lutheran legacy around the world, how we have been simultaneously saint and sinner over the centuries. There was also a time of sharing with the youth and young adults in the LWF. And the singing. Lots and lots of singing. We sang hymns and songs from just about every continent that day, and even a few that some of us Americans were familiar with. I saw surprised that we sang Wade in the Water. But not surprised to sing A Mighty Fortress. You can’t have a commemoration of the Reformation without singing A Mighty Fortress!

But in addition to the old Lutherans favorites, we learned NEW favorite songs over the week, songs that came from all corners of the globe, like the Namibian ones we learned to day. The songs we learned seemed to cross cultures and unite language differences.
Take this hymn, originally written in Farsi by Roozbeh Najar-nejad, called Con Rizad. In English, the words go,
As the rain of your spirit pours out, over my desert heart,
gardens spring from wilderness and flowers bloom with your touch.
A surprise healing comes near, I’m renewed, fully alive.
A new song flows from my lips, and its sound counters my fear.
My success found in his name, all the dry places made green,
and the green busting with flowers.

It might seem a little weird to talk about water on Pentecost Sunday, when most of the time we hear about the tongues of flame on the disciples and the fire of the Holy Spirit that burns within us. But there are plenty of times that water is associated with the Holy Spirit too, and we heard plenty of references today – Jesus talking about living water from the Holy Spirit, and Paul saying we drink of one spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to live as much as we need H2O.

The Middle East is a place of dry desert, as I saw as I walked off my plane in Qatar into the 100-degree heat. Jesus lived in a different part of the Middle East, one just as dry back then as it is now. Thirst was an ever-present companion as Jesus traveled the hot and dusty roads of Palestine. And it was just as true when Jesus visited the annual Festival of Booths in Jerusalem. The last day of this festival included ceremonies around water and praying for rain, so Jesus’ call to the thirsty makes sense. And just 3 chapters before this, in John 4, Jesus spoke to the woman at the well as she drew water for herself in the thirstiest part of the day – and Jesus tells her then: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  If you remember back to Lent, this woman’s dry life suddenly burst into bloom as a new song filled her lips and drowned her fear, just like in the hymn in Farsi, sung centuries later.

Namibia too is mostly desert. In fact, the Namib desert, from where Namibia gets its name, is the oldest desert in Africa. Almost nothing grows there, and the few plants there survive on the fog that rolls in off the ocean each morning and condenses into a few drops of precious water. Almost right next door to the Namib desert is yet another desert – the Kalahari! I’m sorry to say, the real Kalahari is pretty much the opposite of an indoor water park!

May is the dry season in Namibia, moving toward fall, with cooler mornings and evenings. There was a drought going on, but in the hotel and conference center, we were fairly isolated from life out in the city of Windhoek the capital city, where the drought was real. For us, we took showers, brushed our teeth, drank coffee or tea, and filled our water bottles, like at home.

We can have water whenever we need it.  We turn on the tap, run to the store, grab some out of the fridge without thinking. We buy a bottle of water, drink it, then throw away the bottle when we’re done. We throw things away then we are done with them, or when they are inconvenient for us. But water, and our planet, is too precious to treat this way.
One of the daily themes was “Creation not for sale.” Martin Kopp from France told us, “All creation groans under the weight of imbalance, overuse, and misuse…As people of faith, we are called to live in right relationship to creation and not exhaust it.”

Creation belongs to God, and was given to all of us, at it is not for sale.
During the week we learned that our drinking water, renewed daily in large containers used to fill our reusable water bottles, had been donated to us fresh every day from a local. At no cost. Absolutely free.

This precious gift in our coffee, tea, in the water we drank, every single day came from the Namibian soil. It’s part of me now, and it’s also part of you now too. As I have been exhaling in this room, you are breathing part of what I exhaled, and have taken part of Namibia into you too. It’s part of you now. This water unites all of us.

Living water, the one spirit we all drink in our baptisms, makes our desert hearts bloom and drowns our fear. This water makes us grow so that we can bear fruit for the world, growing like trees planted and tended by Jesus. But not fruit we get to keep. We thirsty people are quenched for the sake of others, to bear fruit that we will be giving away.
There isn’t a lot of fruit native to Namibia. But Makalani nuts are plentiful, and come from a tree native to Namibia. Each of us were give a nut, hand carved with the theme for the week by a local artisan from Windhoek, to wear during the assembly. We worshiped together among trees in the cool of the morning and evening in a huge tent set up in the parking lot of the hotel, planted to shade the cars that were normally there. Trees, in the middle of a parking lot, in the middle of a desert country, suddenly found itself in the middle of a thousand Lutherans.

We who were gathered that week weren’t Cretans, Medes, and Elamites, but there were representations of us from the modern-day Middle East, parts of Asia, Rome and most of Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Indonesia. We spoke as many languages as the disciples at Pentecost did, and more.  We were united in the language of the Spirit, in song and in worship, in the bread and in the wine, all together sheltered under the tree of the cross.

We are the legacy of the disciples on the day of Pentecost, by the very fact that WE ARE STILL HERE. We are still herenow, in THIS place -  thousands of years after them, on foreign soil, speaking a language that didn’t even exist yet.

The Spirit poured out on us leads us to see visions and dream dreams, and draws us forward into a future we can’t quite see yet. The waters swirling around us seem dark and scary, but here is exactly where we are called to be – wading in the water, as the old African American spiritual challenges us. By way, thousands of Africans sang that song during the Global Commemorations, singing with the voices of another century and another continent. Wade, in the water, Children, the song goes. God’s gonna trouble the water. God’s gonna lead us into that future.

As we wade, we ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, along with Namibians, Indonesians, Germans, Bolivians, Tanzanians, Canadians, Koreans, Swedes, Americans, Pennsylvanians. Today and every day, we have need of you. Come Holy Spirit, come to be in us. Amen.

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