"Watching Disciple Making in Mali"
by Jackson H. Day
Christ United Methodist Church, Columbia, MD
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany -- January 26, 2003
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20
It's a pleasure to be with you this morning. For those of you
who don't know me, I'm a clergy member of this congregation,
and Pastor Gladys asked me to preach this morning because she
has been away at a training conference for the Disciple Bible
Study program. I'm dressed like this because I just returned from
more than two weeks in Mali, West Africa, where several of us
visited Joanne Gray, a high school classmate who is a Southern
Baptist missionary. With her husband, she developed a program
for us that took us out to remote villages on a long drive eastward
Today's Scripture readings for the third Sunday after the Epiphany are a perfect complement to the trip. This is a time in our church calendar when we focus on the life and teachings of Christ and what they can mean for us, as well as on Old Testament passages which relate to them. In this morning's Old Testament lesson God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah was really the first missionary described in the Bible, and he was not happy about it. He didn't want to leave home, and he didn't think the people in Nineveh deserved any of God's good gifts anyway. If you read the whole book you'll read the famous part where, in trying to avoid God's call, Jonah got swallowed by a big fish - sometimes it's called a whale. Finally Jonah agreed to bring God's message to Nineveh, but his motivation was flawed. He didn't actually want Nineveh to accept God's message; he was really looking forward to watching the big show -- fire and brimstone raining down when they rejected it. Imagine Jonah's disappointment when Nineveh repented of its sins and accepted God's message anyway despite the failings of a very mixed up messenger!
In today's Gospel lesson, we hear the familiar passage of Jesus calling the first disciples. They were fishermen, and he told them that if they would follow him, they would fish for people instead. Finally, in the epistle lesson, we hear St. Paul talk to us of the shortness of the days and the urgency of getting about our Lord's business.
Keep these passages in mind as I share with you six things I learned in Mali.
Mali is the world's third poorest country. Like most third world countries, the city streets are dirty and clogged with people. There are beggars. In the villages people live in two room houses made of mud bricks, with dirt floors. We visited one family whose crops had failed this year and they harvested only one bag of rice to feed a dozen people for the next year. With our suitcases and cameras and personal extra pounds of flesh, we were very conscious of how different our economic circumstances were.
They welcomed us with water and an offer to share their food. All of us were given Malian names so that they could feel we were part of them. I am Samba Sacko. Fran is Korotumi Doumbia. When people meet, there is an elaborate greeting ritual. Questions are asked about how things are in one's life, about one's children, about one's health. It concludes with an exchange of blessings. As you see one's hosts gathered about in a village, with their families, you become conscious of an intricate web of relationships. You may not have much, but you are a part of something where there is respect and love and expectations. You are not alone. It struck me how in achieving the material prosperity of our western world, we are constantly in danger of losing the essentials. There are ways that those who live in a Malian village are far richer than we are.
One day we were in a town called Segou. It was the day after we had driven all day from Bamako. We had left the main road and gone to visit some Christians in a town. They had taken us to another village to show off their new school building. Then we had gone to find a village of fisherfolk. These folk live on a camp on the Niger River, a river that starts in Guinee and travels eastward through Mali, then through Niger and Nigeria, where it meets the sea. I was amazed that for the most part the soil is so dry that most of the time you have the river and then next to it dry reddish dirt with nothing growing. We had our suitcases in the back of the two pickup trucks as we drove along roads kicking up clouds of reddish dust. Our suitcases will never be the same.
In Segou we visited an artist who designs cloth art using
natural dyes and mud. We watched the dyes being made in large
vats over a wood fire. We saw how putting particular muds on
the cloth could color it, or bleach it.
I have a confession to make. I have been prejudiced
against French people, holding in my mind a picture of people
who were cold, arrogant, and, especially, condemning of anyone
making poor attempts to use the French language. I took 2 years
of French in high school and one more in college and never had a
chance to practice it. Well, Mali was an opportunity, since they
speak Bambara or French, but not much English. I found myself
using French to explain to a night watchman why he should let
me in at 3 AM, and using French to carry on a conversation with
a Taureg tribesman named Mohammed who walked beside my
camel on sand dunes outside of Timbuktu.
Lesson 4. You can make a difference if you look for society's outcasts.
A hundred and fifty years ago, Europeans thought of Timbuktu as being the very end of the earth, because it was at the far end of the Sahara desert and a number of explorers lost their lives trying to get there. The Taureg tribesmen we talked with said it still takes a camel caravan 60 days to make the round trip from Timbuktu to Morocco and back. We did meet a Swiss couple who had travelled from Algeria to Timbuktu and then on south in Mali by dirt bike. But we got there the easy way, by airplane, landing at a new airport the Saudis have built in Timbuktu as part of their foreign aid program.
Our host in Timbuktu was a Malian Baptist minister. He took us on a tour of Timbuktu - we saw the houses where the successful explorers had stayed a hundred and fifty years ago - and also showed us the work he was doing. How do you build up a church in a town where virtually everybody is a Muslim? He had found the way. You start with the outcasts - the people nobody else wants, but God wants. We visited a sewing school that he runs for single women with children. The room was full of women sitting behind sewing machines operated by foot treadles. You don't have to convert in order to be in the program, but many do.
Lesson 5. If you want peoples' attention, tell a story.
West Africa is the home of the griot, the traditional story teller made famous in Alex Haley's book, Roots. The griots memorize and retell the stories that remind people of who they are and where they have come from, who the heroes are and what the good and bad things are. When it comes to the stories of faith, however, the people are mostly Muslim and the Koran carries references to Old Testament heroes rather than the stories themselves. For instance, I looked up Job in the Koran and there are just two verses. If you want to learn more of Job, you have to go to the Bible. So our hosts, the missionaries have identified the major stories of the Old and New Testament and developed a ministry of story telling. They tell the stories, and then people discuss the implications, and out of these discussions and the changed lives that result, they are adding to the numbers of Christian believers in Mali.
Lesson 6. Christ sets us free from customs that hold us back.
One of the customs that is challenging for those of us who have grown up in North America is eating from a common bowl. I guess sometime growing up I learned it wasn't pleasant to have food all over my hands. But in Mali, you sit around a big bowl of rice with a sauce, or a breadlike cake made of millet with a sauce and reach in with your right hand to grab a mouthful. Only your right hand -- your left hand is your bathroom hand and never touches food.
I noticed the first time we ate in a Malian village that only men from the village joined us. The custom is that men ate first, and then women and children ate the left overs. What about the western women who were with us? Since they weren't about to wait for the left overs, they were being treated as "honorary men."
Amidst my guilt feelings about having so much more wealth than those around us, I added the guilt feeling of participating in a world where men are very privileged compared to women.
Our final night at a village was a big celebration. This particular village's way of festivity was a late night show with marionettes, villagers dressed up in costumes of birds and sheep, horses and tigers. Early in the evening a Christian griot led in a session of sung stories; he would tell a line and then a chorus led by his wife would repeat it. Then we ate.
His wife and another woman joined us. By now I was used to only men joining us, and I asked our hosts what made the difference. "They are Christian," I was told, "and they have learned, in the words of Galatians, that 'as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'(1) In our Bible Studies the women join the men in the discussion. It's a new experience."
Not all at once, but in small and then big ways, becoming a Christian means becoming free from customs that don't respect our true status as sons and daughters of God.
Think once again of this morning's Gospel lesson. "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Jesus was using an analogy, and the analogy goes only so far.
When we fish for fish, it's not for the sake of the fish. If we are successful, we end up with a big pile of fish; we gain food and perhaps if we are commercial fishermen, we gain a living for ourselves -- but at the fish's expense. The fish lose so that we might gain. In using this picture, Jesus is emphasizing the patience required, the attention to where the fish are and how they may be behaving, the cleverness we may have to exhibit, the persistence that is required.
But there is a radical difference when we fish for people. When we fish for fish, the fish die, but when we fish for people, the people live. Our fishing for people is for peoples' benefit. Often evangelism doesn't seem to get that, and sometimes when people approach us with what should be a saving message, we sense in our gut that all they really want is a body count. In Mali, it was clear to me that the villagers were cared about for themselves, and that all the fishing was done for their benefit. They were loved, by God and by those God had sent from America. That is a model that cannot fail us as we seek our own ways to make Jesus' words about fishing for people real in our own lives.
1. Galatians 3:27-28
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