(Note: I left the written version of this sitting on the
printer and had to deliver it from memory. So, this might be somewhat different
than what those who were there remember!)
Gospel: Matthew 10:32-42
Please be seated.
Good morning. For those of
you who might not know me, let me tell you a bit of my story.
I have just returned to the
US for a few weeks after having lived and worked in Cameroon, in Africa, for
the past two years as a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas or VSO. How I
got there was very much a case of: “Those who find their life
will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Beginning while I was at the
School for Deacons (I graduated in 2004), I lost everything that I had considered
to be “my life.” My church, the church that what sponsoring me for holy orders,
exploded and split apart and most of my friends, including my spouse, left. I
left my well-paying senior management job. My partner of 17 years got lung
cancer and died. I sold most of my possessions, then my house, then most of the
rest of my possessions. Even my cat who had been with me for 15 years died.
And what did I find? Well,
initially, I thought I found that I was free to be a missionary. But I even
lost that opportunity. At which point I realized that I was in a position to
take a volunteer position. And as these things go, within a month of completing
my application to VSO, I had my initial interview and four months later, I was
landing at the airport in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Now, there was some
opposition from my family. My mother and one of my brothers both thought I was
being irresponsible in not having a “real” job.
And I don’t think our Bishop really understood why I was leaving to work
overseas. But as our Gospel tells us, “one’s foes will be members of one’s own
But now, for at least the
second time in my life, I am so clear that the life I lost was not really *my*
life but rather some life I thought I was supposed to lead or thought others expected
me to lead or I somehow needed to lead. Now, it is obvious that that’s all
poppycock. I know what I’m called to and I’ve known it most of my life. I had
always come up with some reason or excuse why I couldn’t or shouldn’t live and
work in the developing world. But now I am finally becoming either brave enough
or faithful enough to follow my call.
So now I want to talk to you
First a few basic facts about
Cameroon. Cameroon is about the size of California and sits on the west side of
Africa, just below Nigeria. It is part of Central Africa and shares a currency
with Chad, Gabon, and Equitorial Guinea. There are 9 Provinces, 2 of which are
English speaking, or Anglophone, including the North West where I was living
and working. The other 7 are French speaking or francophone. Each Province has
a capital town which is pretty substantial. The major cities in the country are
Yaoundé, which is the capital, and Douala, which is the main business center.
As I mentioned, my mother and
brother and maybe my Bishop didn’t think going to Africa for two years as a
volunteer was such a good idea. But we live in a very independent culture.
Individual self-sufficiency and choice are very high values. So, whatever my
mother and brother think does not impact me very much. I am an adult after all
and haven’t lived at home for over 30 years. And though my Bishop may not have
understood, he honored my decision.
In contrast, most cultures in
Africa are extremely relationship-oriented and one’s self is defined by one’s
relationships – son, daughter, mother, wife.
One’s parents and siblings have a say in how one lives, no matter what
your age or how far away you live. One example of how this occurs is — among
the Bukiga in Uganda, after a woman has her first child, her name literally
changes and everyone refers to her as “Mama whatever her child’s name is”.
So, in Africa, it is a much
more stressful, painful thing to love Jesus more than one’s mother or father.
And that in and of itself can feel like losing one’s life.
And yet, as they grow and
become parents, loving God above all becomes their salvation. It gives them a
level of faith and detachment that allows them to cope with hardship and loss
and grief and know that God is with them. Thus, in situations that would easily
cause most of us to despair, they are firm in their faith and able to accept
life as it comes.
Like my friend Francis.
Francis had a small shop directly across from my house. This was one of those
shops that has all the necessities you need on a moment’s notice – sugar,
creamer, eggs, toilet paper, candles (for when the lights go out), beer, that
sort of thing. I was Francis’ best customer and really appreciated the convenience
of having a shop right there.
Francis was a bit sad and
lonely because his wife, along with his daughter and their baby, lived outside
of Bamenda because she was studying at the teacher’s college. Francis and his
son lived in town because it was the best place for Francis to make money from
his shop and for his son to go to school.
If Francis loved his wife and
children more than God, he likely would not have put up with this situation.
But because he loved God more and understands that his calling is to provide
the best life possible for his children, he knows that this is an investment in
his family’s earning power and therefore and investment in his childrens’
Now let me tell you about my
friend and coworker Eric Ngang. Eric is the Coordinator of the North West
Association of Development Organizations, which is one of the groups that I
worked with in Bamenda, Cameroon. When Eric was a child, his parents were poor
and his father died when he was still young, I think about 7 or 8. His mother
struggled to continue to pay his school fees, but after he finished 7th
grade (what they call “first school leaver certificate”) when he was probably
about 11 or 12, there was no more money for him to continue his education, so
his mother sent him to live and work for some relatives in Douala. For a couple
of years, he worked for this family — cleaning, babysitting, etc. Somehow
during this time, another of his uncles met him and realized that he was very
smart and told his mother he wanted to send him back to school. So, he returned
to Bamenda and entered the Presbyterian High School. Because of his time in
Douala, which is in the francophone part of the country, he now spoke French
and was one of a very few actually bilingual students at his bilingual high
school. Most of the students were either French-speaking or English-speaking.
Not only did this enable him to interact with more of his classmates than most,
it also endeared him to several of his francophone teachers. He was indeed
smart and did very well in school, becoming “head boy” when he was still a
sophomore and graduating first in his class. Unfortunately, by this time, his
mother had also passed away. However, fortunately, his performance in high
school was good enough to secure him a place at the national University, even
though he didn’t have the money to bribe his way in. He did very well at
University also and again graduated first in his class.
To me, his whole story is
full of losing his life for Christ’s sake only to find yet a better, truer
Now, most of his University
classmates are living in Europe or the US and they send him e-mails all the
time telling him he should leave Cameroon. “You were the best in our class, why
are you still in Cameroon?” Every Cameroonian wants to get out of Cameroon.
But Eric wants to serve his
community. He would like to go to graduate school in Europe or the US to study
international development or environmental science. Yet he is so clear about
his commitment to return to live and work in Cameroon that he plans to get
married before he leaves to go to school.
Those who lose their life of
prestige and wealth and status for Jesus’ sake will find their life of purpose
and meaning and impact. And none of these, including my friend Eric, will lose
their reward. AMEN.