Published by Ronald Steed,
MISSION | MAASAI | VINCENT DONOVAN
Sermon: The Lion is God
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT ¹. Taken from readings for Proper 6 ²
"His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it…" | Photo by Ron Steed in Florence Italy
I’ve been reading a remarkable book lately by Vincent Donovan³ called "Christianity Rediscovered". In it, Vincent, who is a catholic priest, tells of his mission to the Maasai people in Tanzania in the 1960s. The Maasai were famously impervious to Christianity to the point that many believed that it was impossible to convert them.
But not Vincent. What Vincent discovered was that much that passes for Christianity in the Western Churches today has a LOT more to do with Western CULTURE than with the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. If Vincent could strip away the cultural parts of Western Christianity, and convey just the "Naked Gospel" as he put it, he might have a chance. He and the Maasai people were largely successful together. And… he learned a few things along the way.
God is already present, at work in cultures we know nothing about | Photo by Ron Steed in the Merrett Family Forest, Mystic, CT
First, Vincent learned that he was not bringing God or God’s love to the Maasai; God was already there ahead of him and had been for centuries. He said: "Goodness and kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were here before I got here." He learned the importance of culture to a people, and that God was already working on the Maasai people THROUGH their culture and their faith to bring to them to God. And so Vincent learned that Western Christianity is NOT the only culture that God acts thorough, and to force another people like the Maasai to adopt to western notions of church is to make the fundamental error of confusing western culture with the gospel of Christ. They are not the same.
I want to pause here for a moment to think about the implications of this. Many of us, me included, when we first embark on church-related works of charity or justice, imagine that the whole enterprise hangs on us… that WE are the ones bringing hope and help, expertise and wealth, a lifetime of American success, optimism, and self-confidence to these poor people who are suffering such poverty and ignorance. We think we are bringing God to a place where God has been absent.
None of that is true. God is always already there ahead of us working through cultures that are nothing at all like our own. If we’re really astute, we might even discover that we are NOT the ones bringing salvation to people experiencing poverty, but rather, WE are the ones being saved by people who are rich in gifts and eager to share them with us, and who happen also to be experiencing financial poverty that is not unlike the spiritual poverty WE might be suffering.
Faith is Like a Lion
The second thing Vincent learned from the Maasai was about faith. Vincent’s faith had been waning, and he was bitterly upset, maybe even angry, with the way missionary work was done by the Western Christian churches in Africa. It was the Maasai who fixed his faith, and not his own church.
It was the Maasai who fixed his faith | Photo by Ron Steed
A Maasai Elder told him that Vincent’s faith was too detached… it was too intellectual. He said Vincent’s faith "was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act… He said for a [person] really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his [front paws], pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a [person] believes. This is what faith is." 1
Vincent came to understand from this Maasai elder, that faith was a full body experience. I think we see this full body faith, the faith of a lion taking down it’s prey, played out in today’s readings.
Hastening, Laughing, Heartbreaking
Three men suddenly appear at Abraham’s tent, and you can tell by Abraham’s full body response that these are not just three wandering Arameans, but perhaps angels of God or even God itself. Abraham RAN from the tent to meet them, he HASTENED into the tent to Sarah and told her to act QUICKLY (3 measures of flour makes enough bread for a village by the way!), he RAN to the herd to get a calf and HASTENED the servant to prepare it. All of this he set before the three men. That’s a lot of food and a lot of urgency. That kind of over-the-top-faith looks a lot like the Maasai Elder’s lion to me.
Mountain Laurel blooms being, and coming into being | Photo by Ron Steed
The men bring unexpected news that Sarah will be a mother, news so shocking that Sarah laughs, but hides it out of fear. And, the men’s prediction actually came to pass, she had a child named Isaac. With this, Sarah says, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me." This isn’t just a smile or a chuckle that Sarah is feeling, this is full throated, whole body, knee-slapping joy. And, it is contagious joy… the whole community will share in it when she tells the story, which she will certainly do! Her laughter sounds like the Maasi Elder’s lion to my ear.
In today’s gospel, Jesus feels compassion for the people, because they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Now, the English word "compassion" seems like weak-tea to me… it does not quite plumb-the-depths of what is meant here. The Greek word used is splagch-NI-zomai, which means a deep, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tear-welling emotion that Luke says the Good Samaritan felt when he encountered the broken man in the ditch, and that the father felt when he saw his young prodigal son returned home over the horizon. What Jesus feels for his neighbors is full-body heartbreak… it sounds to me a whole lot like that Maasai Elder’s lion.
Closer Than We Think, and Heartbroken…
This is the good news of Christ, the Naked Gospel stripped of Western Culture, that Vincent brought to the Maasai and that I am proclaiming to you. First that God is close to us… as close as three men standing at a tent entrance, as close as Jesus walking with his disciples among the crowds, closer to us that we are to ourselves. Then, that we worship a God who feels splagch-NI-zomai for us… gut-wrenching full-body heartbreak for everyone… because we are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Ones for whom God experienced heartbreak | Photo by Ron Steed
God feels heartbreak for Americans and North Koreans, for Dakota people and for Maasai people, for Christians and Taoists and Hindus, for victims of injustice and for perpetrators of injustice. God feels this for everybody, everywhere. And, God feels a especially hurt for the poor, the sick, and the lonely; for those in homeless shelters, for one in hospitals, for those at food banks, for those far from home in strange-lands-not-their-own.
God responds to this heartbreak by pouring love and Spirit into every human heart; love and Spirit that gives us, if we listen to them, a sense of urgency as we hasten to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Sometimes, when we encounter God especially present in the moment, we might have the same contagious and joyful laughter that Sarah had. Sometimes in the Spirit, we might feel that we have faith like a lion… a faith that is full bodied… all in. We might think that we ARE the lion.
Another Thing Learned…
What Vincent brought to the Maasai was the words that described something they already had, but did not see in it’s fullness. What they Maasai gave Vincent was something just as valuable… something more about the ways of God. The Maasai Elder said: "We did not search you out, Padri," …"We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think WE are the lion. In the end, the lion is God."
Friends, we are all being searched for by one whose nose and eyes and ears perk up at our presence. This one is all in… they will use their whole body to take us down… to envelop us and draw us into themselves. We think WE humans are the hunters on Earth… no friends, we are the PREY for God’s love that NONE of us can outrun.
¹ This sermon was delivered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT, for Proper 6 of Ordinary Time, June 18, 2023
³ Read more about Vincent Donovan here