My senior literature class at school just finished reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This is an incredible novel that takes place in present day Nigeria and follows the tragic hero Okonkwo through his rise to prominence in the Igbo clan, only to see him fall from grace to his eventual suicide at his hopelessness that the tribe has lost itself through European colonization.
Achebe was an African writer, the first really to gain international fame. In this, his first book, he is in part writing to refute the classic view of Africans as mindless barbarians who should be controlled, or heathens in need of rescuing.
The second half of the book explores the relationship between traditional African society and beliefs, and the European colonists and their beliefs, particularly Christianity. In this part, Okonkwo returns to his village after a seven-year banishment, only to find that the missionaries have managed to win over several converts, including his own son. Okonkwo believes his tribe has lost its spirit, not even willing to go to war to drive out the invaders.
The missionaries in the book are portrayed in two different ways. The first missionary, Mr. Brown, is compassionate and takes the time to understand the customs and traditions of the Igbo people. The second missionary, on the other hand, Reverend Smith, is uncompromising and strict in his beliefs, which leads to conflict.
The history and legacy of the spread of the Christian faith through colonization, in the Americas, in Africa, and in many other places, is wrought with violence, coercion, and cruelty. In many places, Christianity was forced upon people at the destruction of their cultures and traditions.
At the same time, the evangelization that took place was able to restore some of the most vulnerable of society to wholeness. In the Igbo tribe in Things Fall Apart, there were a number of groups of people who were at risk. If a woman gave birth to twins, it was considered an evil omen, and the twins were left in the forest to die. A woman who lost a child in childbirth or in infancy, was considered to be carrying an evil spirit. Anyone who had been convicted of committing an abominable act, was cast out from the tribe, forced to survive on their own outside the community.
When the Christian missionaries arrive, the first converts are the outcasts, and things continue on from there. The woman who had given birth to multiple sets of twins finds welcome and acceptance in the church. The woman who had lost a child in infancy finds solace. The sick, the infirm, the outcast: all find welcome in this new community.
This is the good news Jesus brings to us this Advent season. All are welcome! All can find shelter here! We find Isaiah’s proclamation echoing throughout the ages, the herald of good tidings: “lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” “The word of our God will stand forever!” This is good news, and is it any wonder that it calls out to those who are most vulnerable?
This morning, we have added water to the baptismal font. Water is a direct reminder of our baptism. Not only does water nourish us, and cleanse us, but the waters of baptism mark us as God’s own. The RCA liturgy for baptism includes these words: “Water cleanses, purifies, refreshes, sustains; Jesus Christ is living water. Through baptism, Christ calls us to new obedience: to love and trust God completely, to forsake the evil of the world, and to live a new and holy life. Yet, when we fall into sin, we must not despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, for baptism is the sign and seal of God’s eternal covenant of grace with us.” These words remind us of our own baptism and serve to call us to renewed and further action in God’s world.
In Christ, even the most destitute and rejected finds a home of peace. We see it throughout scripture. God’s preference and care for the poor, the sick, the alien, is overwhelming and inescapable. Jesus reaches out and touches the poor, the sick, even the dead, and where he goes, new life follows. When we look at the whole of scripture, we see that God is moving toward a restoration of all creation: the blind can see; the lame can walk; the last shall be first; the widow and the orphan are comforted; the alien finds a place. All of these, and so many more, find their place in God’s community through Christ.
But it is not just enough to know it, we have to work for it. There are forces in this world that fight against justice and wholeness. We have seen this in action with the refugee crisis in Europe. Millions of people have been fleeing deteriorating conditions in Syria, desperate for a new life. Yet what our leaders and talking heads have turned out is hateful rhetoric and fear mongering.
This isn’t a new thing either. Our country is one that is built on immigration, yet wave after wave of immigrants have been labeled, vilified, and oppressed in different ways: Italians, Irish-Catholics, Mexicans, Muslims…
We must actively work against the bigotry and fear by opening our arms and hearts in the manner of Jesus, to prepare the way of the Lord that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”
And we begin to work towards that day by gathering around this table. In this bread and this cup, we are reminded of our responsibility to God’s creation, particularly the most vulnerable. This meal helps to begin to restore us to where God desires us to be: his community, gathered in communion, working toward the wholeness of His creation. Amen.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.