Ezra 8:21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. 22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. 24 Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests, namely, Sherebiah, Hashabiah and ten of their brothers, 25 and I weighed out to them the offering of silver and gold and the articles that the king, his advisers, his officials and all Israel present there had donated for the house of our God. 26 I weighed out to them 650 talents[c] of silver, silver articles weighing 100 talents,[d] 100 talents[e] of gold, 27 20 bowls of gold valued at 1,000 darics,[f] and two fine articles of polished bronze, as precious as gold. 28 I said to them, “You as well as these articles are consecrated to the LORD. The silver and gold are a freewill offering to the LORD, the God of your ancestors. 29 Guard them carefully until you weigh them out in the chambers of the house of the LORD in Jerusalem before the leading priests and the Levites and the family heads of Israel.” 30 Then the priests and Levites received the silver and gold and sacred articles that had been weighed out to be taken to the house of our God in Jerusalem. 31 On the twelfth day of the first month we set out from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. 32 So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days. 33 On the fourth day, in the house of our God, we weighed out the silver and gold and the sacred articles into the hands of Meremoth son of Uriah, the priest. Eleazar son of Phinehas was with him, and so were the Levites Jozabad son of Jeshua and Noadiah son of Binnui. 34 Everything was accounted for by number and weight, and the entire weight was recorded at that time.
Around sunset on a Friday evening in Orodara last month I asked the cook at the Mennonite guest house where this particular music was coming from (play softly).
“Somewhere in the middle of town,” he said. “It must be for a wedding.” he added.
“Can anyone just walk into the wedding party and enjoy the music?” I asked.
“Sure,” he replied. “Want me to take you?”
Soon I was on the back of his motorcycle, as he negotiated the rough roads, the darkness and the occasional goat or chicken or child in our path, trying to find where the raucous musical wedding party was taking place. After a few wrong turns, after asking a few people along the way, we came to a large crowd along the main drag in Orodara, near the main market. Someone pointed out an empty chair to me, and that was how I got a front row seat to a concert of two balaphon players and three drummers, plus a circle of women dancing in matching African print dresses. Children were running in and about the whole event, as you can hear now (play louder).
That journey, to that wedding celebration, through darkness, danger and the occasional wrong turn, is a picture to me of the journey which we also are on. Not just us, but the entire global church, including our friends and family in the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso, West Africa. In fact, I was often in journey mode and mentality, as one song which sustained me during the trip was the old hymn by John Henry Newman, “Lead, Kindly Light.” We sang it during the retreat I led with the missionary team, and some of them had never heard it before. But they said it was powerful, especially the ending words:
“…Lead thou me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent till the night is gone;
and with the dawn those angel faces smile,
which I have loved long since and lost a while.”
Soon after my arrival in Burkina Faso last month, I was reading in our church’s Bible reading program the passage you just heard from Ezra, chapter 8. Immediately the story of this perilous pilgrimage struck me as a powerful picture of our own personal journeys, as well as of the journey of the worldwide church of all places, cultures and ages: a caravan of people and priests coming home from their scattered places of exile in the Medo-Persian Empire, five hundred years before Christ, making their way to God’s great house of worship, recently-rebuilt, laden with treasures and tribute, given by God, to return to God, a people beset on all sides by the dangers and difficulties of the desert, and their enemies, without any real help from the world and its authorities, but with the promise of a safe arrival, as long as they stick together, as long as they are going in the right direction, and as long as they stick close to God in trust and prayer.
Now I know this is not the usual passage for the First Sunday of Lent, which we have just heard from Genesis 2 and the Gospel, about the testing which Adam and Eve failed, and the one over which Jesus prevailed. But Ezra’s story fits with this Sunday’s theme, of “Shaped by Testing.” For the dangerous and difficult journey of Ezra and his friends was also a test of faith and obedience, one which they could have failed had they not left Persia in the first place. Or one they could have failed had they demanded the protection of the king’s cavalry. At stake was their witness, and perhaps their freedom, for as the Chinese proverb says, “whoever eats with the king must have a very long spoon.” They could have failed by letting stragglers fall behind and into the hands of brigands and bandits. Or they could have pocketed some of the treasure for their own benefit along the way. But when they assembled at the temple in Jerusalem, not a person was missing. And when they weighed the treasure, every ounce was accounted for.
I speak today on this passage also because it was the one which I shared most often with our Burkinabe friends. I sensed that they too could identify with Ezra and his friends, being a scattered minority in a state of something like Exile, carrying God-given treasures of faith, hope and love, carrying riches and wealth in the form of righteous relationships, spiritual gifts for ministry and the fruits of the Spirit, on a difficult and dangerous journey toward God’s great home, where the worship is, according to John’s Revelation, a wedding feast, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
And it was not just the Burkinabe who seemed to identify with Ezra and his friends. I used this story again the Friday before last, on the last day of the missionary retreat, for a joint session of missionaries and leaders and representatives of the Burkinabe Mennonite churches. After reading the story, I asked them to split into groups of four, comprised of two Burkinabe and two missionaries to discuss the following two questions: 1) What dangers, trials and difficulties have you faced in your pilgrimage of faith thus far? and 2) What treasures do you see other people in your group of four carrying? I mean the treasures I just spoke of, by way of spiritual gifts, capacities for ministry, Christian character, talents, and so forth. Burkinabe Christians should share what they see in missionaries, and missionaries should share about what gifts they see in the Burkinabe Christians. If those sound like questions loaded so as to prompt people to understand each other better and to honor each other, they are. I plead guilty to both intentions. Because honor is the true currency and economy of that part of the world.
Then these groups of four were to come back and give a general report on what they shared. The discussions took longer than I had scheduled: a good sign. The results were gratifying. Some of the dangers and difficulties that the local church leaders reported included health matters, in a country where AIDS, malaria, meningitis, malnutrition, yellow fever, amoebas, giardiasis and other parasites are all rampant. There is sometimes persecution from both Muslims and those who practice traditional animistic religion. Oddly enough, sometimes those are one and the same persons, like imams who, for the right price, will do sorcery with verses from the Quran. Pastor Abdias Coulibaly, who preached in our church some five years ago, was beaten up a few years ago by devotees of one traditional tribal deity. Once a young man told me that, upon becoming Christian, sometimes his family withholds food and other material help from him, telling him, mockingly, “Go find what you need from your Jesus.” So we read together the words from Psalm 27: 10: “Even if my mother and father abandon me, you will receive me, O God.” In fact the whole psalm spoke to him, including the words, “When my enemies advance upon me to devour my flesh, I will not fear” for that is exactly how sorcerers express their threats: “My patron spirit, or my idol, will devour you” whether with sickness, poverty or madness.
Siaka Traore, who spoke here some four years ago, runs a bookstore and hardware business. He shared how people sometimes tried to bribe him to cut corners and play fast and loose with accounting and regulations for rewards they would offer. But he has always refused, only to see his business expand to three sites, and his reputation doing what no Madison Avenue publicity could ever do. But it was touch and go for a while.
Then there are the difficulties and dangers of poverty. Everything you hear about rising global food prices, rising prices for fuel and fertilizers, deteriorating soil and the disruptions of climate change and their effects on the poor is true in Burkina Faso. That squeeze has added an edge of desperation to the usual requests that a foreigner from a wealthy country gets for help with such things as buying medicine, cows, food, school supplies, even land. From what they see in Hollywood films and recycled TV shows, they find it hard to believe that anyone in our country cannot answer all these cries for help, or that anyone here is even suffering hunger, fear and poverty the way they do.
As for the missionaries, they spoke of what its like to live in three languages and two cultures day in and day out. Or of having all your plans, projects, deadlines, goals, and achievements mocked and destroyed by climate, disease, roads going to pot, ants in your pantry or goats in your garden, so that once again, you must explain to your supporters back home why you have still not yet achieved goals X, Y and Z for which they are supporting you. Sorry, but this is where timetables and deadlines go to die, but often to be replaced by better things, if you can learn to appreciate them. But try explaining to the mission board and the sending churches the reasons why you want to stay, which have to do more with people than with projects, with relationships more than with achievements. Talk about being “Shaped by Testing.”
As for the second question—What treasures do you see your counterparts carrying on this perilous journey?–here’s what I heard: To the missionaries, the Burkinabe expressed appreciation that they would simply come, live, stay, set up home, even raise children in the dust and heat of dry season, the rivers of rain and mud in rainy season, the bugs, the trash, the snakes and scorpions, the constant interruptions and intensity of village life, rolling power blackouts and the difficulties of learning languages with five or more tones, such that confusing ba-LAN and BA-LAN is the difference between playing the balaphon, the instrument you just heard, and playing the porcupine. Not usually recommended. Most of all, they were thankful for the gospel of Jesus Christ and all that it implies for today, tomorrow and forever.
When it comes to the Burkinabe Christians, missionaries said that they understand and appreciate the costs and risks they have born to embrace the gospel and share it with others. They also appreciated the deep spiritual wisdom and integrity of the first and now second generation of leadership. In my time of de-briefing with national church leaders, I told them that I could see many signs of much growth and progress: thirteen churches where there used to be four; pastors either in place or in training; ethnic groups with Bible passages and worship songs in their own languages; multi-ethnic churches among groups that used to be at war with each other; and programs in place for raising up new leadership. When you’re in the middle of this, and for so many years, you can easily get tired and discouraged. But as an outsider, with a memory of what was 25 years ago, I could see this growth and affirm them for what God has done through them.
Today I recommend Ezra’s perilous pilgrimage as a picture by which to understand ourselves and our own journeys, even, our own place within the great desert caravan that is the church of Jesus Christ in all times and places. To the dangers and difficulties that our Burkinabe friends face I would add one unique to our time and place: our prosperity and our sense of entitlement to it. As our prosperity erodes and gives way to the fear of scarcity, I see another temptation rising in the form of those who would distract us and set us against each other, looking for scapegoats and victims, whether they be Muslims or undocumented foreigners or public servants. I left Africa when Lybia, Tunisia and Egypt were all in crisis, when even the school teachers in Burkina Faso were on strike, and came home to similar spectacles of anger, fear and division in my own country.
And now, a brutal earthquake in Japan. Common to all these crises, worldwide, is a very understandable fear of scarcity. Unfortunately, we’re being set at each other’s throats at the very time that Jesus would have us sit down together and share what bread we have, to find that God always gives us enough. God forbid that we in God’s global caravan that is the church should set upon each other and accomplish for our enemies what they cannot do by themselves. Ezra would tell us what he told his friends: “You as well as these articles [you carry] are consecrated to the LORD. The silver and gold are a freewill offering to the LORD, the God of your ancestors. Guard them carefully [not to hoard or spend on yourself alone, but] until you weigh them out in the chambers of the house of the LORD.” Because they are God’s treasures, entrusted to you, but meant to be shared and enjoyed by all. Hoarding is not only forbidden, its pointless.
That’s the paradox of the God-given treasure we are entrusted to carry on our journey to God’s house: its ours to carry, but only if we share it and return it. Like the story I told during the mission history class that I taught, about James Eliot, who was killed, along with four other missionaries some 60 years ago, by the very people they were trying to reach, the Auca Indians of Peru. His widow, Elizabeth Eliot, later read the following words in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Elizabeth, and the sister of one of the other martyred men, not only forgave the Auca Indians, they became the primary missionaries through whom the Auca were finally reached for Christ.
Eliot’s story seems to have struck the students quite deeply and powerfully. And his words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. The same is true for the treasures we carry and surrender at the end of our journey of homecoming, to the wedding celebration in God’s Great House of Joy and Praise. Will we snatch and hoard these treasures, like Adam and Eve tried to do, or will we surrender them in trust, like Jesus did, and like Ezra and his friends at the end of their journey?
In advance of that day, at the end of our journeys, our friends in Burkina Faso, missionary and national, would say to us, as we heard in the children’s story, “K’an Bayn:” May we meet.
To which we all reply: Amina! And (say with me, please) “K’an Bayn”
Even: “K’an Bayn Sooni:” May we meet soon. And may God show us “soon.”