November 2, 2014
Emmanuel Lutheran Church
All Saints Sunday
Good morning! For those of you who I haven’t had the chance to meet yet, I am Pastor John’s daughter, Sarah. I am “the one who was away for the year”. And I am here today to share a little bit about what I was doing in Malaysia, how I ended up there, and to share with you how I see today’s celebration of All Saints Sunday through the lens of this past year.
To start off, let me tell you a little background on the program I was a part of this past year. I served as a missionary in Malaysia through the Lutheran church’s Young Adults in Global Mission (or YAGM) program. The YAGM program accepts young adults, ages 21-29 for a one year transformational journey to learn from and walk alongside our global partners in faith around the world. This year, there are 8 countries of service: Mexico, Argentina/Uruguay, United Kingdom, Hungary, Jerusalem/West Bank, Rwanda, Madagascar, and South Africa. You’ll notice I didn’t list Malaysia in that group, and you heard correctly; this year there are no YAGM participants in Malaysia due to difficulties in obtaining visas.
As a part of the YAGM program, participants are asked to raise approximately $4,000 to go toward the $11,000 total it costs to support one YAGM for one year. I am so thankful to be speaking to you today as a missionary who was supported by all of you. You helped make this year possible for me and for my fellow YAGM by supporting me in many ways, especially financially. To have this family who I only recently met upon my return step forward to support a girl they had never met means more to me than I can express, so I want to make sure you all leave today knowing how truly grateful I am for each of you, for your love, prayers, communication, and financial support.
The ELCA practices a model of mission called “accompaniment”. This means that missionaries are present as much to learn as they are to teach, that there is a mutual companionship among the ELCA and global partner churches, and that missionaries are not alone in their work, that they are connected and supported through the ELCA and it’s companions worldwide. The church I was affiliated with while in Malaysia was the Basal Christian Church of Malaysia (BCCM), a member of the Lutheran World Federation. And as an aside, today, according to my BCCM calendar that I am still using, is “Mission Sunday” in the BCCM. So our brothers and sisters in Malaysia are celebrating their role in God’s Mission today, and for that we also give thanks. YAGM are placed in communities and given site placements to live and work alongside our partners. I was living in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. If you know of the island of Borneo, that was my home this past year. And yes, it was hot. I had 2 site placements, in the mornings I worked at a BCCM kindergarten and in the afternoons, I worked at Sabah Cheshire Home, a non-governmental non-profit organization that serves as a home for adults with disabilities. I lived a few blocks from my school and church with my landlady Mrs. Soong.
I think the best way for me to describe the culture of Malaysia to you would be just a look at an average day for me. I lived in a mostly Chinese Buddhist neighborhood. I walked to kindergarten, a Christian Chinese mission school, and went from kindergarten to Cheshire Home, where I worked with mostly Muslim women. Just in my three main hubs, there was so much diversity. If I took the bus into town, I passed 1 Chinese Buddhist pagoda, 2 Christian churches, and 1 Islamic mosque. And if you want to talk about food, which I could tell you about for days, there was cultural representation of Chinese, Indian, Thai, and indigenous in any given shopping area. Ethnically and religiously, Malaysia is incredibly diverse, and this diversity is a normal reality of life. For any holiday, you could find a host inviting their friends of other religions or ethnicities to experience a celebration that is so sacred to them. The beauty of diversity is a lesson I will be forever grateful for from Malaysia.
So now you have a little background on the YAGM program, where I was this year, and Malaysian culture. I could talk about any of these for much longer, but for the sake of trying to beat my dad’s record, I’ll move on to the celebration for which we are gathered today: All Saint’s Sunday. The reason we celebrate All Saints Sunday is to remember those members of the church universal who have gone before us, who have impacted our life and faith. On this day, we think of those who have passed from this earth. Remembering people like my Grandma Derrick, who in her life taught me everything from how to make the perfect peach pie to who to read “Go, Dog, Go!” until I was tired of it (which was never) I would be silly to think that Grandma’s lessons taught in the kitchen and on the couch didn’t lead me to appreciate and seek to love, know, and serve those I encounter. Surely, Grandma’s life of service in many ways influenced the course my life has taken.
But, I would like to broaden this celebration to anyone, even the living saints, to celebrate those in our lives, present and past, who have lead us into a greater understanding of who Jesus is through who they were or are on this earth. The “cloud of witnesses” that Paul talks about in Hebrews includes those past, present, and those who are yet to come. God works in our lives through a network of people so great that we may not even recognize it. In this past year alone, I am aware of the saints of this and other churches who supported me, family, professors, and coworkers who lead me to discern YAGM as a call by God. And, I am aware of countless saints I encountered while in Malaysia who very literally helped me survive at times. And there are so many more who I am unaware of, people who God has worked through to guide, correct, and teach me more of who God is and who God is calling me to be.
I mentioned my landlady earlier, Mrs. Soong. Mrs. Soong is a saint.
This year started off really hard. In a sense, I was mourning- mourning the loss of a lot that was familiar and comfortable. I was away from my family and friends, I had a language barrier in many but not all places, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do at work or how to ask for help. One evening, I came home and didn’t have much to do. So I sat with Mrs. Soong while she watched the news in Chinese, and she translated for me, telling me what was happening in the world. Mrs. Soong had a serious intuition. I hardly ever had to tell her what I was feeling or experiencing, she always just seemed to know. I had spent that day sitting and observing in my kindergarten class, and then had spent most of my afternoon with one particular resident at Cheshire Home throwing a balloon back and forth. I hadn’t done much. As we sat watching TV, eating crackers, Mrs. Soong looked at me and said, “You’ll get busy. But for now, I’m really happy to have you here with me.” In that moment, I felt understood, recognized and cared for. Feelings I didn’t even know I was seeking at the time. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
True to Mrs. Soong’s promise, I got busy. December was a wild month. We had non-stop Christmas caroling and Christmas parties. So of course, as tends to happen when you’re going, going, going, I got sick. If we want to talk about unpleasant things, I’d put having a fever in a tropical country on that list. I woke up and was very aware very quickly that I was not feeling well at all. When I’m sick, I cry. It’s an unfortunate reaction. I walked downstairs crying, and Mrs. Soong emerged from the kitchen. Through tears, I told her I was sick, and she said, “Hey! Don’t cry. I love you!” she sent me up to my bed, and kept porridge and water coming to my room until my fever went away and I was well. While I was on the opposite side of the world from my original home of Lexington, SC, I learned in that moment that I have a home in Malaysia, and I have a grandma who loves me and will take care of me. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Like most parts about life in Malaysia, I could talk about Mrs. Soong for days. But what I want you to know most about her is that she showed me a clearer picture of who Jesus is. I don’t know if you caught this earlier, but Mrs. Soong was only my landlady. The only responsibilities she had were to provide me with a place to stay and to address any problems that arose within the house. But she did much more than that. She comforted me, fed me, talked with me, drove me to church… she showed me incredible hospitality, treating me as family.
Today’s Gospel reading is familiar to us as “The Beatitudes”. The beatitudes recognize the weak, the suffering, and the poor in spirit and give hope to the brokenness in this world. But the beatitudes also serve as a charge to the saints.
It is the saints who comfort us when we mourn, who give us a clearer picture of the kingdom of heaven when we are lacking in spirit, who demonstrate righteousness and mercy. The saints show us who God is by actively demonstrating the love and grace of God through their everyday lives. They teach us but they also empower us to go and do likewise in this world. When I would come home feeling empty, spending time with Mrs. Soong left me renewed and ready to enter back into a hectic day at school or challenging day at Cheshire Home. Because of Mrs. Soong’s love and hospitality, I feel more empowered and driven to practice love and hospitality to those I encounter.
The Beatitudes teach us about the kingdom of heaven. Filled with grace, God’s blessing is to those who we would least expect, and God’s promise is to use the least likely. This year, I was wrapped in prayer and support by family, friends and church families- some who I will never meet. I was welcomed, cared for, and comforted by new friends, newfound family, and new church families in Malaysia. Throughout the year I was both teaching and learning, helping when I could and being helped more than I expected. This, friends, is a look into the kingdom of heaven- God using the most unexpected of people in the most unexpected of places to reveal God’s self in this world.
Today, I remember Mrs. Soong as one among countless saints. And we give thanks for the work of all the saints in this church, in our lives, and in this world- those who teach us how to live as Christ calls us and charge us to go into the world to do the same.