Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon: November 16

Some of you know that I was able to sneak away for a quiet retreat at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, MA this week. It was a birthday gift from my wife; she had 5 kids to taxi around for 2 days!

It was a restful and refreshing retreat. Reminds me that in the hustle and bustle of his ministry, Jesus often went up the mountain by himself to pray and seemingly recharge. It is something we all need to do, one way or another to take time away and rejuvenate ourselves for our journey.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us the Parable of the Talents, a stark reminder that we each have been entrusted with various gifts/talents for the Kingdom of God. We don't all have the same gifts, but God expects us to use whatever we have been given, to not to sit on those gifts, but God wants us to use the gifts, to show our faith, for the good of others.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” 

These words from T.S. Eliot remind me that our call to live out our faith & use our gifts, to take that first step and the next, and the next after that, is a risk, a risk that will lead us to where God calls us to go, further than we can imagine or sometimes even want to go.
Since May, the Ebola virus has devastated many countries in Western Africa. Thousands of people have died of the disease. Among the many courageous people are nurses like Josephine Finda Sellu and grave-digger Kandeh Kamara. Josephine, 42, is the deputy nurse matron at the government-run hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Kenema has been Sierra Leone's biggest death trap since the virus struck. Josephine is part of a select club: she is one of three surviving nurses of the original staff who did not become infected. They watched their patients die and their colleagues die, but they carried on.

Josephine thought about quitting - her family pleaded with her to quit. But she says, "There is a need for me to be around. I am a senior [nurse]. All the junior nurses look up to me." If she left, she says, "the whole thing would collapse."

In the campaign against the Ebola virus, the front line is stitched together by people like Josephine: doctors and nurses who give their lives to treat patients who will probably die; janitors who clean up lethal pools of vomit and waste so that beleaguered health centers can stay open; drivers who venture into villages overcome by illness to retrieve patients; body handlers charged with the dangerous task of keeping highly infectious corpses from sickening others.

Many of these health care workers died, some have fled - but many new recruits sign up willingly, often receiving little or no pay, sometimes giving up their homes, communities and even their families.

“If I don’t volunteer, who can do this work?” asked Kandeh, one of about 20 young men doing one of the dirtiest jobs in the campaign: finding and burying corpses across eastern Sierra Leone.

When the outbreak started months ago, Kandeh, 21, went to the health center in Kailahun and offered to help. When officials there said they could not pay him, he accepted anyway.

“There are no other people to do it, so we decided to do it just to help save our country,” he said of himself and the other young men. They call themselves “the burial boys.” Doctors Without Borders trained them to wear protective equipment and to safely clear out bodies potentially infected with Ebola.

Often family members and neighbors will not let health care works return to their homes and villages, terrified that they carry Ebola virus with them. Josephine even had to quell a revolt among her nurses who, at one point, threatened her if another nurse died. That's when her children pleaded with her not to go back to the hospital.

"It has been a nightmare for me," Josephine says. "Since the whole thing started I have cried a lot . . . It came to a time when I was thinking of quitting this job. It was too much for me . . . [But] you have no options. You have to go and save others. You see your colleagues dying, and you still go to work.

Josephine finds some reason for optimism, though. She has seen the flood of Ebola patients diminish. And she and her nurses are no longer alone in the fight. As she put on her protective suit and prepared for work. “By the grace of God, it will end,” she said.

"There are times when I say, 'Oh my God, I should have chosen secretarial,'" but her job as a healer, Josephine says, "is a call from God." [From "Those Who Serve Ebola Victims Soldier On" by Adam Nossiter and Ben C. Solomon, The New York Times, August 23, 2014.]
The parable of the talents focuses on the critical question of not what we possess in terms of talent and ability but our willingness to use our gifts to make the kingdom of God a reality here and now. We may have the skills to be a brilliant surgeon - or we may be able to bring healing to others by our simple but under-appreciated ability to listen to them in their pain; we may have the opportunity to influence the lives of many people - or we may be a good mom or dad to our own children; we may have the skills to manage big organizations that accomplish much good - or we may take a regular turn at the local soup kitchen. We may be a nurse providing care for the victims of a terrible disease or a burial boy helping clear infected bodies from the streets.

The Spirit of God prompts us to use our "talents" for the common good, to bring healing to the broken, to establish the Kingdom of God in our time and place. Such an investment is demanding sacrificial work, as Josephine and Kandeh well know. Whatever we can do, whatever our skills and resources enable us to do, the challenge of the Gospel is to be ready and willing to respond to the opportunities we have to give of ourselves generously for the sake of the Kingdom.

Let us use our gifts, taking steps, taking risks, using our talents so that God’s glory may be made manifest through what we do today. So then at the last, we may hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant of God; enter into the joy of your master.” Amen.

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