Brenda Wagner is the Synod Malaria Coordinator in the Northeastern Minnesota Synod, where she also serves as synod vice president. We are very grateful to Brenda for sharing this sermon with us: a wonderful meditation for International Women's Day.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, from God the creator and from the Holy Spirit who unites us in a worldwide family of faith.
If you had asked me when I was in my early 20's what I would be doing when I was 40-something, I'm pretty sure I would not have said that I would be preaching here this morning. In my early twenties, I had my path for life pretty much mapped out. You see, I was an English teacher and I imagined that I would always be in English teacher. But you and I both know that life isn't a straightforward highway all the time.....second careers and third careers and detours are common. And that's where we find Simon Peter this morning in today's gospel lesson. On the cusp of a second career........the whole new world of a sheep tender. After denying Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest, Peter is given a fresh start. And the only interview question from Jesus? "Peter, do you love me?" And the job? "Tend my sheep."
I think you and I both know that we could just as easily insert our names into that brief second-career job interview.......Jesus asks, (insert name) do you love me? Like Peter, I hope we are all ready to answer, "Yes, Lord, you know that I do." The stumbling block for most of us is not the interview......it is the job that comes along with that answer......tending sheep and feeding lambs. Who are these sheep anyway? Where are these lambs? What do they need? What do they eat? How can I help? I've never really been a sheep tender and I don't know how to go about it. And there is just one of me....what can I do?
Let me tell you about just a few of the sheep in God's pasture.....a few of our brothers and sisters in Africa and their struggles with the disease of malaria.
Fiona Kobusingye is a church leader in Uganda on the frontlines of the fight again malaria. Her family has had far too much experience with this disease. Fiona says, "For us, it is a devastating disease. As a little girl, I already suffered from malaria, as did my parents, sisters and brothers. Two of my sisters and my son died from the disease. Just last year, I lost my nephew, an active young boy 14 years old, to malaria. Another nephew died just months ago, as I myself lay stricken with sickness in a different hospital. He was a brilliant and gifted 16 year-old, and the pride of our family. We miss him terribly." Fiona is one of God's sheep.
Pastor Kelly Derrick was one of five women from St. Philip Lutheran Church in Roanoke, VA who traveled to Malawi in partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in that country. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet, their richness of faith was without measure. The women spent four days working with their sister parish, Mponela and got to know Pastor Anthony Maseke and his wife Elizabeth their three sons, and daughter Wakesa. The women spent time blowing bubbles with the boys, Wakesa and the other children of the parish. The trip was amazing and life transforming.
Wakesa Maseka pictured with her mother, Elizabeth
But on May 24, after the women had arrived back in Virginia, they received word that Wakesa Maseke had died of malaria. She was three years old. She got sick shortly after they left Malawi, and just one week later she died.
Moke, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is 4 years old and has had fever and no appetite for 5 days. "Usually he plays all day long, but now he is totally listless," explains Nsadisa, his 25 year old mother. As she speaks, Nsadisa's eyes are dark with fear; two of her children died last year, one from diarrhea and one from malaria. Moke's chances are not good. A child born in the Democratic Republic of Congo is estimated to have an average of eight episodes of malaria every year. This is the equivalent of 60 to 100 million episodes per year - each of them potentially deadly. Approximately 180,000 Congolese children under five do not recover from malaria.
Malaria is one of the top three diseases in the world that kill children. A child dies every 60 seconds from malaria. Anywhere from half a million to a million people in the world die each year from this disease, most of them children and pregnant women, and millions more are infected, many multiple times. Nearly half the world's population lives in areas prone to malaria. The southern United States used to be one of these areas.....in fact the CDC was originally formed specifically to fight malaria. The statistics about this disease are bad enough, but the really heart-wrenching fact is that malaria is entirely treatable and entirely preventable.....it was successfully eliminated in the United States in the 1950's. The treatments and preventions that would work in Africa and all over the world are within reach.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, "I never realized malaria was such a huge problem - those statistics are startling, but what does that have to do with me, half a world away?
What can I do about a problem that is so big?"
Our answer to those questions can be found in our gospel lesson for today. There on an Easter beach as day breaks, Jesus is waiting for us, waiting to feed us, asking, "Do you love me?" His love for us and our love for him is a love full of action......a love with results. Just remember, this is vastly different than a love with conditions...... we know we cannot earn God's love. It is a free gift of grace......Because God cares, we can care. Because God has chosen us to be witnesses, we can stand with our sisters and brothers in Africa and around the world and say "no" to diseases of poverty like malaria.
God's lambs are all around us......here in (name of place) and in Malawi, Uganda and Nigeria. God's sheep live in huts, in double-wides, in skyscrapers, in yurts and on the streets. God's lambs are children like Waseka and Moke, they are children like (insert name), they are adults like you and me and Fiona. And far too many of those lambs are suffering and dying from diseases of poverty like malaria.
"Tend my lambs," Jesus says. "Tend my sheep." Did you know that the mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite are nocturnal? The simple act of sleeping under an insecticide-treated bed net can dramatically reduce the chances of contracting malaria. A bed net big enough for four people is $10. And did you know that the six-day course of medication to effectively treat a child with malaria costs about $2.00. Children are dying of a disease that can be treated with $2.00 worth of medicine if it is given early in the course of the illness. Maybe sheep tending is not so difficult after all.
There is a way to help and there is hope.
When we tend God's sheep, we are not alone. Jesus is there too, feeding us and multiplying and blessing the work of our hands.......for our hands are doing the work of his hands. Love frees us to be people of action, people of hope. Even when we stumble and fail like Peter, Jesus gives us a fresh start. We are freed to be Easter people, living in the joy of the resurrection. We are freed to serve.....freed to be sheep tenders, just like Simon Peter. People of God, Jesus is asking, "Do you love me?" And he is giving you your new job description, "Get out there and tend some sheep."