It was the custom in an African tribe that, when a boy reached a certain age, his elders would send him out into the world beyond the village to bring back something of value to share with the tribe. In this rite of passage, boys would return with all kinds of treasures and wonders: brilliant kente textiles, luminous gem stones and rare ivory carvings, beautiful tanned leather and pelts.
One year, as the returning young travelers showed off their treasures to the elders, one boy stood off to the side. He had brought back no trinket or object. When it was his turn, the elders asked the boy, "What is the most valuable thing you have found on your journey?"
The boy replied, "The thing of value I have discovered cannot be held in the hand."
"Why not? Is it too big or too delicate to hold?"
"It can be big or small, delicate or strong."
"Well, then, where is it?" asked the elders.
"It is here," the boy said, touching a finger to the side of his head. "In our brains. You see, I found on my journey that the most valuable thing in the world is an idea because you must believe in it and work very hard to bring it to life." [Original source unknown. Adapted from Bits & Pieces.]
In the Gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to bring to life the "idea" of his Good News: what they had experienced on the journey with him, what they had seen and heard. To that end, Jesus promises the coming of another "Advocate," the Spirit of God that inspires us and animates us to make for the perfect union of Jesus' words and our works - to bring to life the idea of God in our midst.
Bringing the Gospel, the idea of God in Jesus to life is what St. Paul does, in our 1st reading today, for he speaks to the inhabitants of Athens from the Areopagus. Using their own place of worship, he connects them with the faith that he has been called to tell them about.
“As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you…`In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, `For we too are his offspring.' Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
Paul connects their worship with Jesus, for the one they worship is not to be found living in shrines made by human hands, they are to find the one who was raised by God from the dead. Not in gold, silver or stone, but God who became one of us in Jesus. That is our heritage today, a faith passed on to us to keep the story, the idea of God come down to us in Jesus, to continue the story by our words and actions today. And the power of the Spirit, as promised, is with us in such ministry.
There is a French film called Of God and Men, which recounts the true story of a small monastery of Trappist monks in a mountain village of Algeria in the 1990s. In the gruesome violence of the Algerian civil war, the community of nine monks was an oasis of peace and compassion in the midst of the horror around them. The monks lived humbly, simply and happily among their Muslim neighbors, keeping their garden and bees, offering hospitality in their guest house and medical care to all who came to their small clinic.
They did not try to convert any of their Muslim neighbors to their faith; the simple generosity of their lives was a bridge between Christianity and Islam. As the violence escalated, the government urged the monks to abandon the abbey. The monks anguished over what to do.
A Muslim villager asked one of the monks if they were going to leave. A brother shrugged, "We're like birds on a branch. We don't know if we'll leave." But a woman of the village pleaded: "No, we are the birds. You are the branch. If you go, we'll lose our footing."
They never left. Sadly, seven of the nine monks were kidnapped by an armed militia group. They died either at the hands of the militia group or accidently by an Algerian army attack against the rebels.
But their lives were filled with the Spirit of God, giving life to their faith, of God in Jesus Christ.
In the peace and blessing engendered in their simple lives, the Trappist monks of Tibhirine became the branch of God's love for both their Muslim and Christian neighbors. They were a sign of the Spirit of God speaking in all that is just and right, in every word of compassion, in the simplest and most unheralded acts of reconciliation and peace.
The Spirit promised by Jesus to his followers "advocates" for what is good, right and just, despite our skepticism, rejection and blindness to the things of God in our world. May the Advocate guide us in whatever opportunities we all have to be branches of hope and healing for those desperately seeking a place of peace, in shelters of sustenance, hospitality and care.
And I invite you to do 2 specific things, like last week’s invitation to be stone catchers and not stone throwers, we have two opportunities to be led by the Spirit this week:
(1) This week I invite you to pray “Thy Kingdom Come” – from Ascension Day (Thursday) to Pentecost (June 4) These 11 days, Thy Kingdom Come, is a campaign initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, seeks to refocus Christians worldwide around the world on the early disciples’ example, like St. Paul in Athens. Archbishop Welby wants people to know “what it means to follow Christ and what an amazing journey that takes you on.” Let us pray the prayer…
(2) Today I also invite you to consider the Presiding Bishops of EC & ELCA call to join with Christians around the USA to pray, fast, and advocate for programs that help the least among us, those struggling with poverty and hunger. “At the invitation of Bread for the World, we join with ecumenical partners and pledge to lead our congregations and ministries in fasting, prayer and advocacy, recognizing the need to engage our hearts, bodies, and communities together to combat poverty. As the call to prayer articulates,
‘We fast to fortify our advocacy in solidarity with families who are struggling with hunger. We fast to be in solidarity with neighbors who suffer famine, who have been displaced, and who are vulnerable to conflict and climate change. We fast with immigrants who are trying to make a better future for their families and now face the risk of deportation. We fast in solidarity with families on SNAP, who often run out of food & benefits by the 21st of each month.’”
The call is for each of us to fast on the 21st of each month through December 2018 – and to pray & advocate for those who have no voice. Join with me and let us pray on BCP p. 826.