Sunday, May 18, 2014

Praying in the Name of Jesus and the Nigerian Girls

Deborah, Awa​, Hauwa,​ Asabe, Mwa , Patiant ​, Saraya ​, Mary, ​ Gloria, Hanatu ​

Do you know what those names are? 10 of the Nigerian girls kidnapped a few weeks ago. Last week we heard about Jesus our Good Shepherd, who is the one who calls us each by name so that we can follow him. I’m going to be naming 180 of these girls throughout the sermon so that we can remember them in prayer.

Yanke, Muli, Fatima, Eli, Saratu, Deborah, Rahila, Luggwa, Kauna, Lydia ​

It seems like nearly every conversation I’ve had with a parishioner this week has involved some sort of response to this kidnapping—anger, grief, questioning “Where was God?” It is evidently on everyone’s hearts and minds—how can they be saved? What is the right response in the face of such evil… and when we are geographically so far away?

Gloria, Tabitha, Maifa, Ruth, Esther, Awa , Anthonia, Kume, Aisha, Nguba ​

There is power in a name. When demons are named, they retreat; when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name after the resurrection, she recognizes him. We know the power of names today in memorials—the Vietnam Memorial, the September 11th Memorial… we list the names as a way of remembering each individual who died—they are each unique, each had a family and friends, people who loved them, people who grieved for them.

Kwanta, Kummai, Esther, Hana, Rifkatu, Rebecca, Blessing, Ladi, Tabitha, Ruth ​

We get to hear Stephen’s name in the reading from Acts today—the first Deacon of the church, and the first martyr of the church. He has just given a long sermon in front of the council testifying to his faith in Jesus, and the response of the crowd is to stone him. Stephen dies in a way that mirrors Jesus—he commends his soul to God, and pleads for the forgiveness of his executioners.

Safiya, Na’omi, Solomi, Rhoda, Rebecca, Christy, Rebecca, Laraba, Saratu, Mary ​

We don’t often have the courage and dignity of Stephen—we don’t take the risk of proclaiming our faith boldly, no matter the consequences; and when we are faced with a hostile crowd we don’t hold on to our faith; we don’t look up to see the face of God; and we don’t usually pray for those who are hurting us to be forgiven.

Kauna, Christiana,Yana, Hauwa, Hadiza, Lydia, Ruth, Mary, Lugwa, Muwa ​

The crowd that stones Stephen is unnamed. Stoning is designed to be a nameless way of executing someone—no single person has to take responsibility. It was interesting to compare this with a hooded executioner some centuries later; or with our more recent executions by lethal injection in this country. The people controlling the drugs are still anonymous, hidden behind a wall from the witnesses to the execution.

Debora, Naomi, Hanatu, Hauwa, Juliana, Suzana, Saraya, Jummai, Mary, Jummai ​

The nameless crowd do lay their cloaks at the feet of Saul. Saul, who persecutes Christians until he is struck blind by Jesus on the road to Damascus and changes his name—at God’s instruction—to Paul. How many times in our lives do we want to literally change our names so that we can change who we are—to reorient ourselves towards a new identity? Perhaps towards one that is more Godly, more faithful, more forgiving.

Laraba, Hauwa, Confort, Hauwa, Hauwa, Yana, Laraba, Saraya, Glory, Na’omi ​

So many of these girls are named “Hauwa”. It’s a name I didn’t really know—but it’s the Arabic version of Eve. Eve who dwells in paradise, until she is expelled with Adam for our collective original sin of wanting to put ourselves in the place of God. Eve who is scapegoated for centuries by men as the cause of sin. I wonder what aspects of Hauwa make it popular in Nigeria—if it is just the sound, or some aspect of Eve’s story that resonates. Perhaps families name their girls Hauwa because they wanted them to grow up in paradise.

Godiya, Awa, Na’omi, Maryamu. Tabitha, Mary, Ladi, Rejoice, Luggwa, Comfort ​

The epistle of Peter today contains the verse, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” I wonder what was wrong with the stone that caused the builders to reject it. Jesus was rejected for being too soft, too peaceful, too humble. Jesus questioned too much, and didn’t do what the authorities wanted him to do. Perhaps, in his own human way, he was frail and cracked. And yet now he is our firm foundation.

Saraya, Sicker, Talata, Rejoice, Deborah, Salomi, Mary, Ruth, Esther, Esther ​

Contrast that damaged cornerstone with the stones for stoning Stephen. What is the purpose of a stone—is it to build or to kill? Jesus himself changes Peter’s name from Simon to Peter because he intends Peter to be the rock of the church; Saul to Paul; Simon to Peter. New life and ministries coming from new names.

Esther, Helen, Margret, Deborah, Filo, Febi, Ruth, Racheal, Rifkatu, Mairama

My friends and I sometimes refer to the first half of the Gospel today as the “funeral Gospel”—we read it at so many funerals. I love it because I find its vision of heaven expansive—there are many dwelling places, for many sorts of people, not just a single structure. I often find that either the person who has died is a person of faith and their family who are planning the funeral are not; or that the person who has died was of ambivalent faith and the people planning the service are people for whom faith is important. To have the vision of a heaven where maybe some people live closer to the center of town and others are more towards the edge is good to me. There’s a home for everyone that will keep us in community but also keep us diverse.

Saratu, Jinkai, Margret, Yana, Grace, Amina, Palmata, Awagana, Pindar, Yana ​

But I heard another interpretation of that image this week—there are many dwelling places in heaven, and we don’t get to choose which one we live in, or who our roommate is. We are thrown together with people who are so different from we are in a way that we avoid on earth. There is something to that, too.

Saraya, Hauwa, Hauwa, Hauwa,Maryamu, Maimuna, Rebeca, Liyatu, Rifkatu

Jesus is going before us to prepare a place where the things that prevent us from truly being one people—and following one Lord, one faith, and one baptism—will be washed away. Where relationships that would be unimaginable in this world are part of paradise. We could be in paradise with these girls—or maybe even their kidnappers. Sauls, before they become Pauls.

Naomi, Deborah, Ladi, Asabe, Maryamu, Ruth, Mary, Abigail, Deborah, Saraya ​

It’s a chilling thought. The idea that the men responsible for this have names. And are still human beings even if they are acting in such an inhuman way. That they too are descended from the Adam and Hauwa of paradise, that the sin that banished us all from the Garden is to have tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil—because now we know what is good, and we know what is evil, and we can name what has been done to these girls as evil; these were not actions done out of ignorance.

Maryamu, Zara, Maryamu, Lydia, Laraba, Na’omi, Rahila, Ruth , Ladi, Mary ​

But still, in the Eden myth, we only know the difference between good and evil because Adam and Eve were unable to follow the one command of God—there was only one thing they had to avoid doing, and that is precisely what they did. Avoiding sin is so hard for us humans.

Deborah, Hauwa, Hauwa, Serah, Aishatu, Aishatu, Hauwa, Hamsatu, Mairama

In the Gospel today, Philip wants Jesus to give him proof. He wants to see the Father. He wants his doubts and fears satisfied. But faith is not about having our doubts and fears satisfied. It is tempting to say to God, with the offer of prayer that Jesus invites in the Gospel, “Jesus, in your name I ask you to release these girls in Nigeria.” Because Jesus says that whatever you ask in my name I will do. It is completely understandable to make this a test like Philip’s test for Jesus: If you just do this one thing, then I will believe—then I will be able to follow you.

Hanatu, Monica, Margret, Docas, Rhoda, Rifkatu, Saratu, Naomi, Hauwa, Rahap ​

Jesus is not holding the girls captive, though. Men are. It is not for God to descend from heaven and create some sort of supernatural rescue; it is for us human beings to intervene; to declare the preciousness of life, especially female life, not just in this instance, but in so many others. Because if we were to name all the women and girls and boys and men kidnapped and sold from their families around the world every year, we would be here all day.

Hauwa, Ihyi, Hasana, Rakiya, Halima, Aisha, Kabu, Yayi, Falta, Kwadugu

Jesus, we pray in your name, and in the names of all the girls we have named today, not as a test; not as a proof of our faith, but out of love. Please, help us human beings find a way to release these girls, your children, from the men who are holding them. And help us find a way to value life enough that no person will be stolen, or kidnapped, or trafficked by another one of your children. Amen.