“He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” – First Sunday after Epiphany 2011

Today the people of the Sudan are going to the polls to vote in a referendum on the future of their country. In land area Sudan is Africa’s largest country and it is the tenth-largest country in the world. Bordered by nine other countries, it is central to the African and Arab worlds. Under the British administration the north and south were governed separately. In 1954, at the end of British rule, Arab north and African south were unified as one country. Civil wars lasting about 40 years ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This Agreement gave the south political autonomy for 6 years, to be followed in 2011 by a referendum (today) to decide whether or not it should become an independent country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Episcopal Church of Sudan is a member Church of the Anglican Communion. Its headquarters are in Juba, the most important city in the South. It is a significant voice in the life of Sudan. The Episcopal Church is neither pro- nor anti-secession, but rather pro peace and pro the right of self-determination, and is therefore seeking to ensure that the referendum of 9 January is carried out with due process, fairness and integrity. As well as encouraging as many Sudanese to vote, Archbishop Daniel Deng has asked for our prayers.

The Episcopal bishop of Chicago, Jeffrey Lee, has an article in the Chigago Tribune in which he reports on a recent visit to Renk, a Sudanese town situated on the border between Muslim north and Christian south. He expected to see civil war in miniature, two communities locked in unavoidable conflict. Instead, he discovered: “People living fragile lives in sometimes desperate economic conditions work together, regardless of religious differences, because they recognize that they depend on one another to survive.”

Bishop Lee goes on to identify the cause of Sudanese conflict. “It is a conflict in which men with self-serving political and financial motives have created a climate of terror, forcing people who fear for their lives, and the lives of their families, to seek security in whatever identity seems most advantageous. In such a climate, minorities are easy to identify, and their persecution easier to justify…  The problem is not ancient religious hatreds, but self-seeking political and religious figures who view the Christian and Muslim faithful as tinder for their conflagrations. The proper response to this reality is not to choose a side, but to encourage a sense of security and stability rooted in the recognition that many of Sudan’s people live lives so precarious that any impediment to cooperation is potentially lethal.”

In many places today people are living very precarious lives, and this is especially true of Christian minorities in Muslim countries. Recently there was a murderous attack on a Coptic congregation in Egypt, in which many were killed. The Copts are the native Christians of Egypt, whose church goes back to the beginnings of Christianity; they form about 10% of the Egyptian population, and these attacks make them feel very vulnerable. Such hostility is the normal experience for Christians in places like Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan. It would be very easy to see this as a Christian-Muslim conflict, but Bishop Lee’s comments about Sudan apply. It is violent people pursuing their own selfish agendas that stir up inter-communal hatred, in which many innocents will suffer. However difficult it may be, Christians and Muslims need to find ways of working together, to oppose extremists who only bring disaster to everyone.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the River Jordan to be baptised. Like the leper Naaman in the Old Testament story, to strip and enter Jordan was an act of humility. Naaman expected more attention from the prophet Elisha; he felt insulted by being told to wash himself – “are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?” But healing only comes with humility and listening to God. John the Baptist felt that Jesus didn’t need baptism: ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Jesus comes as the Servant of the Lord; his ministry is from first to last exercised in humility. Only to one who submits in humility and obedience will the heavens be opened, and the Spirit be given, and the Voice of the Father be heard.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

We could pray for the courage and humility to follow Jesus in the quiet and gentle path of the servant, who faithfully brings forth justice for the nations. And for the people of Sudan, as they oppose the creators of violence, and attempt to build a new, hopeful future.

 

 

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