A Parent’s Love
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, May 9th, 2021
There was not a cloud in the sky and it was ridiculously hot. Once inside, some spoke Creole. Some spoke French. Some spoke English with accents ranging from Ohio to the deep South. The bishop of the Episcopal Church in Haiti was decked out in full, colorful, liturgical vestments, holding his shepherd’s crook and wearing his impressive mitre. Hundreds of Haitians, along with those of us from the U.S. gathered on the mountainside and started singing. We sang our way to the front of the new church building in Trou Jacques, a small village on the island of La Gonave. The entrance was adorned with hundreds of red balloons and a thick red ribbon strung across the entrance.
I have no idea where all the young women wearing sparkling white wedding-like dresses had come from or how they could possibly be wearing anything so white after walking those muddy roads. At the same time, young men wore black slacks, crisp white shirts, and sported black bow ties. The young women and men were coming not only for the dedication of the new church building but to be baptized or to be confirmed in the faith.
We never stopped singing as we followed the bishop down a long and windy mountain road to the entrance of the church built by Haitians in memory of two beloved members of the church I was serving in Atlanta. So many obvious things divided those of us in that procession. Some carried a passport, had a pocket full of credit cards, and a wallet full of cash. Many there will never hold a passport, never own a credit card, and rarely have cash in their pocket. Some of us had made the long journey via air to the country of Haiti and then by boat to the tiny island of La Govave off the mainland, including my nephew, Sean. Most people in that village had not, nor ever would travel off the island of their birth. Those of us visiting Trou Jacques were accustomed to turning a handle and having clean water flow into our glass or from out showers or into our tubs. While many in that village, especially women, spent the majority of each day in search of clean water.
As the bishop cut the ribbon and the church filled with curious faces peering through every window and door, our differences did not suddenly disappear, but what united us started to rise to the surface. Over the course of a four-hour worship service, some of us sang familiar hymns in English while most sang the same tune in Creole, but we all sang to the glory of God. We all prayed the Lord’s Prayer in our own native language and we all ate from the same table of grace. In last week’s sermon, I shared an experience of unity I experienced in Haiti over forty years ago. Five years ago, in Trou Jacques, I received another such gift.
Some back story may prove helpful. Several years earlier, Jennell and I stood with Monsieur Bellegarde on a dismal piece of land in the isolated mountain village of Trou Jacques. The landscape was covered with weeds growing through discarded rebar. Our host pointed out that this neglected piece of land, now littered with the remnants of good intentions, was where an American church had once started a church building for the village. Monsieur Bellegarde went on to give us a tour of his village and everywhere we looked, I saw deprivation. There was no easily accessible water or electricity, no houses safe from the elements, numerous visual sights of good intentions of past international groups that had started projects, run out of money or will power, and left the citizens of the village bereft.
When Jennell and I asked the typical American questions to the Bellegardes, “What is the greatest need in your village? How can we best help?” the answer came quickly and definitively, and surprisingly, I am ashamed to say. The greatest need, our Haitian friend said, is not clean water or electricity, though those needs are great. Nor is it food or books, teachers or medical attention, though all those needs are great. Smiling a broad, confident smile, Monsieur Bellegarde answered, “Our greatest need is a Church!”
Being a pastor for most of my adult life, I had a certain affinity and appreciation for his response. Of course, the village needs a church! Every village and town, here and abroad needs a church. But looking around the village and hearing the response, “a church,” I wondered if he was saying what he thought this pastor would want to hear more than what he really thought. I pushed him about his answer, but it did not change. With unswerving conviction, he said, “Monsieur Charles, we need a church.”
So, in partnership with the village and through the generosity of members of the Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, three years later we returned to Trou Jacque for the dedication of the new church building. Jennell, Sean, and I, along with a delegation of friends from Atlanta, joined a joyous procession of people who had hiked several hours to be there. I will never forget turning a corner, with the Bay of Gonave on my left and looking ahead to see the newly built Church of St. Jacques and St. Phillipe, a church with doors and windows open not only to let in the bay breeze but open to all who wanted to taste of the goodness of God.
In that moment, I finally understood the wisdom of what my Haitian friend had insisted to me three years earlier. I was finally able to climb out of my forest of all that is lacking in Haiti to see the majestic abundance of God and God’s people at work in Trou Jacques, manifest in this beautiful new church building. At last, I was able to see that this new structure will be a treasured gathering place to worship on Sundays, but it will be so much more. It will also be a community health center for Haitians to receive vaccines, a job training center, an educational center, and a place of refuge from hurricanes and storms. Most importantly, I saw that though this new beautiful building stood before us, the church in Trou Jacques had existed when this new building was a distant dream.
We may not realize it, but Jesus spoke these words from John’s Gospel to his disciples before there was the first church building: “The glory that you [O God] have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Listen to Jesus speak to his disciples in John’s Gospel and it is a chorus of “that they may be one.”
Jesus was no fool. He knew how often people are divided, badly divided. He knew how we tend to distinguish ourselves based on our differences. “I’m a Presbyterian.” “I’m a Catholic” “I’m a Baptist.” “I’m a Republican.” “I’m a Democrat.” He knew how often people hold onto their differences like well-earned trophies. He had listened to his own followers fight over who is first among all the disciples and who deserves an express pass to heaven because of their exemplary Christian sacrifice.
Offering a prayer for his friends just before he would be arrested, tortured, and executed, Jesus prays that they will rise above all their differences and all their hierarchical leanings. He prays to God asking not that every person know and keep their place, but that all his children be one and live into that non-hierarchical unity. He prays a vision for the church long before Pentecost and the birth of the new church.
In some grace-filled ways, my short time in Haiti gave me a much clearer vision of God’s vision for the church, in the words of Jesus: “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” It is not only a prayer by Jesus; it is the calling for every Christian and every church. It is the prayer and calling for those gathered in the heat of Trou Jacques, those seated in the historic sanctuary of Cove, or those worshiping today in the park. On this day that we pay tribute to special women in our lives, our mothers, it is a prayer for our divine Parent’s love to shape us and guide how we live together.
Months ago, I walked into the Cove sanctuary for my weekly Thursday ritual of preaching to empty pews. I opened the door and saw that the floors had been sanded and stained and I smelled the lingering aroma of polyurethane. I smiled with profound gratitude for John Anderson’s labor of love, refinishing the floors on hands and knees through this long pandemic, aided by the hands and hearts of Walter Mehring and Tom Shields.
At that moment, a God-given light of insight shined for me. As much as I love our little, brick sanctuary on the hill, and I do, and as much as I look forward to worshiping inside it again, and I do, Cove Presbyterian Church is so much more than the building with that name on the plaque outside.
Standing in that empty sanctuary, I soon realized that it was not empty at all. For you are Cove Presbyterian Church. It is your faith, your prayers, your generosity, your vision that has kept us united even when we have been apart for well over a year. Monsieur Bellegarde understood that truth about church long before it dawned on me. He realized that Trou Jacques needed a church building, but that it could be built because he knew that it already existed in people united by our Parent’s love, people who cared for, forgave, and loved each other long before this new building was built.
I cannot tell you when we will be back inside our sanctuary, but I can tell you that Cove Presbyterian Church is alive and well, because of you. Are we of the same mind about much of anything? Not really. Are we united by our Parent’s love that calls us together in worship and praise, mission and service? Absolutely!
So, two Sundays before Pentecost, trust in our Parent’s love who holds us together even we can only see each other on a screen. Trust in our Parent’s love that inspires us to see beyond all that divides us to the unity that ties us together in Christ. Trust in the words of Jesus whenever you feel discouraged and wonder how unity will ever overcome division in our society, in our families, in our churches. Trust in the words of Jesus whenever you lose perspective and let yourself believe that you and I are in charge of unity. Trust in the God who makes us one from mountain villages in Haiti to lovely hillsides outside Charlottesville.
Take in a long, deep breath and trust in our Parent’s love.