Sunday, October 21, 2012

A sermon by Craig Lemming for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St.Paul.

For the sake of Him who came among us as one who serves. Amen.

“Who’s that, Ma?”

“That’s God, my darling.”

“But that’s not what God looks like!”

“No one knows what God looks like, my dear, but that’s God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Now, no more silliness; on our way out, shake hands with Father Forbes, thank him for his sermon, and then we’ll have a cup of tea and a nice slice of cake.”

I was perplexed. My granny, who I was convinced knew everything, clearly did not know what God looked like. You see, I was seven years old, and I knew exactly what God looked like. Whoever painted that banner that hangs in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Zimbabwe got the image of God completely wrong, and as a result had confused my poor granny. I had a very clear image of what God looked like in my seven-year-old mind’s eye.

God certainly was not that grumpy old man with a bushy beard, and fierce blue eyes that scowled at the onlooker under his enormous, bejeweled crown; who sat rotund in a rich, golden robe, upon a massive throne, holding a scepter in his right hand and planet earth in his left.

No. The image of God that I held so dearly in my heart and mind was that of a nurse. God was tall and slender. She wore a pristine nurse’s uniform complete with a snow white apron, a white cap with a small red cross on it, and highly polished sensible, brown shoes. God was in perpetual motion, constantly tending to the sick, the suffering, the unwanted, and the unloved. Her hands were always lifting, scrubbing, carrying, polishing, soothing, wiping, cleaning, caressing, hugging, healing, and loving away the ugliness of this world. Her face was the picture of serenity. This was God. At seven, inexplicably, I knew that God was a nurse. Not a monarch. God was a servant.

By age eight or nine, however, after several failed attempts at trying to convince my family and teachers of this fact, I kept my image of God to myself. Now, aged thirty, the embers of my cherished childhood image of God have been rekindled by today’s Gospel: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

My parents grew up in racially-segregated and racially-oppressive Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe). Being of mixed race, or to use Zimbabwean terminology, being “coloured”, my parents were not afforded the opportunity to pursue their education after the age of 16. Both had to forfeit their dreams of going to university, and instead had to begin working. After they met, courted, and married, mum and dad made the education of their children their first priority. Their ultimate goal was to see their sons graduate from university, and to this end, they worked back-breaking hours incessantly, budgeted constantly,and invested everything they had in our education. My parents’ lives were a ransom for their sons to have every opportunity in independent Zimbabwe, which Rhodesian racism had robbed from them. Zimbabwe, formerly the British colony Rhodesia, was and indeed still is steeped in English conventions. As such, domestic servants are part of everyday life in all middle- and upper-class households.

It was 1977 in Salisbury,Rhodesia (present day Harare, Zimbabwe). My newly-wed parents were planning to move out of their flat into their first house a year before my older brother Miguel was due to arrive. With a child on the way, my parents sought out a domestic servant. Ivy was introduced to my parents by their next door neighbor’s servant, Doreen, Ivy’s sister.

Ivy was a revolutionary in her own way. As a young twenty-something, Ivy had fled her abusive husband with her daughter Gloria, leaving her rural village, her five brothers, two sisters, and everything she knew and loved in order to find a job in the capital city that would afford Gloria the education and the opportunities that the racially-oppressive Rhodesian government had denied Ivy.

Only five feet tall, and as Alexander McCall Smith describes Precious Ramotswe in his best-selling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, Ivy was of a “traditional build”, who enjoyed drinking countless cups of African tea and eating sugar cane, as she enjoyed her tea breaks in the African sun, chatting, laughing, and gossiping with the other domestic servants that worked on our block.

Ivy’s fist pounded on our back door at precisely 6 am every weekday to wake us all up for work and school. Every weekday for twenty-five years, Ivy made our breakfast; made our beds; dusted, swept, and polished every room in the house; scrubbed the bathrooms; hand-washed and ironed the laundry; prepared all the meat and vegetables for my mother to cook supper; served our tea at precisely 5 o’clock; fed the dogs; made sure our homework was completed; and on several occasions cooked delicious, traditional Zimbabwean meals for me and my brother in her tiny apartment in the basement of our home, where she encouraged us to speak in Shona (Zimbabwe’s most widely-spoken traditional language), since my parents only spoke English upstairs.

We were as much Ivy’s sons as we were our parents’. Ivy made sure that our school uniforms were pristine; shoes were polished; lunches, homework, sports kit, and musical instruments were neatly packed in our satchels; and always maintained and enforced the same standards of discipline that my parents had established. Ivy’s enormous, sunny smile (made all the more lovable by the numerous gaps in between her teeth) greeted us every morning and bid us good night every evening. Ivy laughed with us and we laughed with Ivy in times of celebration; and Ivy wept with us, and we wept with Ivy in times of grief and suffering. Despite her meager income, and the costs of putting Gloria through school, Ivy somehow managed to always give us each a pair of socks or a handkerchief for Christmas. Ivy watched over my family and protected us and our household like a lioness.

When my brother and I left home for university, my parents moved into a smaller home. It was then that Ivy retired from her life of service in 2001, and with the help of my parents, finally settled in a house of her own. She took in tenants for her income, and would always telephone mum to see that everything was in order in the new house, and she would also telephone “her sons” here in America to be sure that we were happy and that we never forgot where we came from.

Ivy lost her life to cancer in 2009. The day before Ivy died, upon her request, my parents collected her from her house, and drove Ivy’s shrunken, cancer-riddled body back to her rural village where she wished to die and to be buried. After my parents had watched and prayed with Ivy, moments before they had to leave, Ivy clung to mother and wept. In tears, she said, “I’m ready to be with the Lord. Madame, give my boys all my love. Give my boys all my blessings. I love God, I love you, I love the boss, and I love my sons.” Ivy died peacefully the next morning.

In this age of entitlement, narcissism, and selfishness, why are servants such an intriguing subject in novels, films, and TV series? Why am I haunted by Mr. Stevens and Ms. Kenton in The Remains of the Day? Why am I, and I suspect many of my fellow Anglophiles here, devoted Downton Abbey fanatics? Why do we always fall in love with Susanna, the Countess’s maid in Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro during every scene she’s in? Why does Viola Davis’s command performance as Abilene Cooper in the movie The Help leave us in tears? Why do the lives of servants give us pause? Could it be that in observing a servant’s life a chord is struck that resonates deeply with our authentic self? That the true essence of our humanity is an insatiable thirst to serve each other? That true fulfillment is achieved through service? Could it be our recognition of that universal truth of African philosophy Ubuntu, which my personal hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes as a concept that is “very difficult to render into a Western language… It is to say: ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…”

Ivy’s life was a ransom for her daughter Gloria’s, who is now happily married, settled in England, and raising her own children. My family’s lives were inextricably bound up in the life, the love, and the service of Ivy, and she in ours. My parents, my grandmother, my brother, Ivy, my teachers, my priests, my friends, all these giants upon whose shoulders I now stand have given portions of their lives as a ransom for my own. It is my greatest hope that some day I will have the courage to make my life a ransom for someone else’s. For me to give even a fraction of what Ivy gave to me would be my deepest contentment and my greatest fulfillment.

A question posed by God to Job in today’s reading made me ponder the mystery behind my strange childhood image of God as a nurse. God asks:

“Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?”

 After wrestling with this question, my favorite verse from Psalm 51 came to mind:

“For behold, you desire truth in my innermost being; and in secret you shall make me to know wisdom.”

What is your innermost image of God? What does God look like deep within you?

What does that image tell you about the truth that God desires in your innermost being?

What wisdom is God teaching you in secret?

The answer for me was surprisingly simple. God is a nurse. That truth is couched in my innermost being. It is wisdom that God had taught to me as a child in secret. At the age of seven it seemed that nobody understood this secret wisdom; none of my family and none of my teachers. When I told Ivy my secret, her enormous, sunny smile beamed. Ivy understood this wisdom perfectly.

In the words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, let us pray:

Lord, teach me to be generous.

Teach me to serve you as you deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to ask for reward,

save that of knowing that I do your will.


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