Sermon for Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 14, 2018
Kurt Hellmann, Guest Preacher
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Z. Larson

Scriptures for the day: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Kurt Hellmann’s Sermon

Maybe it was my initial lack of understanding of the language, or maybe it was a cultural norm I was just starting to get used to, but invitations were usually voiced with a one simple word — MOK — which translated from the Khmer simply means Come.

Or better yet, if I was within view, an invitation would simply be given by a beckoning with the hand. However, there is one significant distinction to note with how that is done in Southeast Asia. Here in the US, it’s common to wave someone over with your palm facing up. In Cambodia, it’s actually palm down. According to our own culture that would appear as a shooing-away motion, in fact the opposite of invitation to come over. Needless to say, it was discombobulating and took some time to acclimate to these types of invitations of beckoning or invitations of just a single word without additional explanation.

There was one particular weekend where I received an invitation that I’ll never forget. I was with one of my closest friends and co-workers and his family at the time; his name is Prasith. Shortly after meeting his relatives I received the succinct and classic invitation–MOK. So I promptly followed them into their car and we drove off together.

After several kilometers on winding and dusty roads, we stopped at a large water reservoir and got out to stand at its shores. After a few moments, Prasith’s aunt began to tell me of how she built this reservoir we were overlooking. She was one of the thousands of Cambodians that were forced into a labor camp to build this 40 years ago—a time in Cambodia commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, a regime rose to power and sought to bring Cambodia back to its ancient glory, an agrarian utopia of sorts. A period of genocide ensued while the regime targeted any Cambodian that was educated, religious, or held public status in fear that these Cambodians would pose a threat to the regime’s ultimate and horrific goals. As a result, nearly a fourth of the nation’s population died–equating to 2 million lives lost–including two of Prasith’s aunt’s brothers who died in the harsh working condition of the reservoir we were now overlooking.

While I still don’t know the right words to describe the overwhelming heartbreak I felt that day, I do however know that I was, and am today, glad I was able to hear her story. It’s an immense privilege to hear such a personal, painful, yet eye-opening experience. And while I felt powerless to help, simply listening to her offered a way where I could help hold onto the story and its hardship. A way of helping that went beyond my hands or my feet.

So here we are in the season of epiphany in the liturgical year. In the gospel today we read about the cynic Nathanael experiencing his own epiphany, his own personal realization, and coming to a new perspective that Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God. Needing only a semblance of connection with Jesus, his suspicion, doubt, and negativity about this man “from Nazareth” suddenly vanished. And it’s important to note in this story that there is a catalyst for this change—a simple invitation from Philip, an invitation of three words: COME AND SEE. And it was these three words which ultimately allowed Nathanael to undergo a miraculous change of heart— obliterating his initial damaging preconceived notions.

I think today we all have our presumptions and fears about encountering the unknown or the unfamiliar—of person or place. And it’s in such instances where the invitation of “come and see” is not necessarily welcomed; or if it is, it’s met with stigma or cynicism. This hesitation or reluctance is seen in the narratives and single-sided stories that are present all around us—across our politics, economics, and cultural landscape. Our presumptions seek to categorize people or places into a single pigeonhole, or even a single word.

Our president made remarks making headlines last week, bashing entire places through an ignorant blanket statement about nations and their lack of worth. It’s sadly uncanny how similar the words of Donald Trump are to those of Nathanael that we read today. Nathanael asks Philip with a mocking tone, “What good can come from Nazareth?” The parallels to President Trump’s words about immigration are stark. His words, I think, can best be paraphrased through this question of Nathanael nearly word for word: “What good can come out of THOSE [   ] countries?” Feel free to insert the expletive yourself.

And let’s be clear, the president’s words are cruel, racist, and hurtful at best; at their worst they steal away the aptitude, beauty, dignity, and humanness from places and people in Haiti and nations in Africa. it not only saddens me, but disturbs me at just how narrow and ignorant the perspective present in our current leadership is. I think there’s an immediate need for an invitation to be offered to COME and to SEE. And, as the YAGM program currently sends dozens of young adults to serve in 4 countries across the continent of Africa every year, I’m sure our young adults past and present would be happy to oblige in extending the invitation. Speaking of my own experience in Cambodia, of which I’m sure our president would have no kind words to share, I bore witness to people and their stories that exemplify incredible strength, perseverance, and a sense of fearless and pure hope that I have yet to witness anywhere else in my 23 years of life.

I think this invitation of to COME and to SEE goes beyond just the seeing, though. It extends into our other senses. This invitation is to Come and Taste, Come and Hear, Come and Smell, Come and Feel. There is more to this world; its people and places are so much more than a single category or narrative.

To explain further, I want to share about a favorite pastime in my host community. This activity is called GOY LAYNG—which translates to “sit play”. GOY LAYNG is the colloquial equivalent for “hanging out” or spending unstructured time together. But with one distinction, GOY LAYNG requires being stationary with others, to sit and relax, to simply talk, to enjoy the breeze or scenery, to taste sweet mango or freshly sliced papaya, or to share a coca cola in the shade—all in the presence of neighbors, friends, family, or even strangers. The pastime of GOY LAYNG is an intentional time to relish in the proximity and closeness of other people. In the grand scheme of things, the act of simply being with other people is the epitome of what is means to accept the invitation of to Come and See. I learned that simply being proximate with people leads to listening, understanding, and transformation by the places and stories I encountered.

Through this activity, I also learned that mission and service is not only done with our hands or our feet, but more so with our eyes, ears and our hearts. This way of service is best depicted by the ELCA’s theme of mission called accompaniment, which aims to walk – not in front or behind, but alongside, shoulder to shoulder – with our neighbors in efforts of solidarity, of mutuality, and of interdependence—both here and across the world.

And sure, the invitation to engage the unknown or unfamiliar may be much harder to accept or act upon. But let us remember that the invitation is present to be with those painted inaccurately with single-sided stories—more often than not marginalized or vulnerable groups of people. The invitation may come in ways much different from those with which we may be familiar, such as a downward facing palm, one simple and short word without much explanation. But that’s where we as followers of Christ are called to be – in those places, being present with others, extending ourselves past what is comfortable, past what is familiar, past what is known.

To end, I’ll share words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that aptly encourage us with the invitation to simply, yet actively be with others across our community and world.

“We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Come and See. And taste. And feel. And smell. And hear. The invitation awaits. Amen.