Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief. Make these words more than words and give us the Spirit of Jesus.
The first time I heard the news about the two hundred and seventy Nigerian school girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram was last Sunday. I was sitting with the rest of the band at St. Augustine's Catholic Parish during worship. Fr. Gabriel, a priest from Nigeria, was preaching. In his sermon, he offered a litany of events, incredibly difficult events that had transpired in the preceding week as examples of how God does indeed respond when we are in our darkest moments. No matter how we may doubt, fear, or struggle, Jesus will walk through walls to get to us.
All the other events he listed I had heard of. There had been media coverage. People had been given the opportunity to respond to the needs of others.
The girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram on April 14. I had not heard the news until April 27. And it still wasn’t in the papers.
This week I heard the words of Cleopas, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there these days?”
So, like the stranger in our story, I asked, “what things?”
According to reports in the Guardian and Smithsonian Magazine's website, the girls are being sold as brides across the border in Cameroon and Chad for the equivalent of $12 each. This means, of course, that the girls are being sexually assaulted.
Boko Haram is a loosely knit organization. There appears to be no specific hierarchy, only the desire to carve out of Nigerian territory a so-called "pure" Islamic state. Their vision is beyond radical. Violence against other Muslims is not uncommon. They target churches and mosques with the same viciousness. This time they targeted the last school left in the region. They targeted the girls. Translated, Boko Haram means "western education is sinful." To educate girls, then, is a form of Western education. To educate girls is a sin. To sell them across the border is not.
And they need women. They need brides. The girls are being sold. Sold.
Parents are in the streets crying out for the government to do something, anything, but there has been no response. The capital city has recently been bombed. Some suspect it is the same militant group. They have threatened more violence if the search for the girls continues.
The parents feel utterly hopeless. Lost.
I sat there at St. Augustine’s with my mandolin in my lap simply heartbroken and astonished at the news that Fr. Gabriel shared.
"They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’”
I had always thought that the burning hearts was a good thing. And it is. But it’s good in the way that it tells the truth, the way that the scales are lifted from our eyes and we see the world for what it truly is and not the fantasy I would make of it.
It is in the breaking that we hear the truth.
It is in the breaking that we come to understand.
You see, I was one of those many people following the news about Donald Sterling's racist remarks about various basketball players including some of his own team, the L.A. Clippers. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was engrossed with the news, but it was everywhere. Unavoidable. International. And I got sucked in. I got sucked into a soap opera. A multi-millionaire turned out to be a racist jerk and so many were enthralled. Racism is alive and well, my friends, and it was a media frenzy. The frenzy to get all of that information, to take part in the melodrama in some small way, can be blinding.
And apparently racism sells papers. It sells. It sells better than a story about the abduction of girls in Africa. I had been hoodwinked. I had fallen for the distraction.
While I wasn't looking, while my back was turned, Boko Haram came to the school where these two hundred girls had just finished taking their final exam for the year, and they simply took them.
The girls have been impossible to find.
Column inches were impossible to find.
Only a couple of small online media outlets bothered to carry the story at all. Parents sought their children in the bush while I looked for more information in the papers and magazines. And today the story is how there has been no story. The story is still melodrama and we’re missing the truth, the reality of what happened in Nigeria on April 14th.
It wasn't until Fr. Gabriel started opening the scriptures that I heard the truth.
They came out of the woods and took our daughters.
They came out of the woods and took our sisters.
They took girls. Young women.
The women were the first to proclaim the resurrection.
They took the women.
Young Christian women, members of the Church of the Brethren, were taken.
Then they were sold for $12.
The National Council of Churches released a statement. In the statement was a plea from the general secretary of the Church of the Brethren in the US, Stan Noffsinger.
“We are grateful for the prayers of millions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews around the world. We pray God’s unconditional love will touch the consciences of the men who did this.”
It’s so important to hear this: Christians, Muslims, and Jews are praying. Boko Haram represents has religion but the religion of violence and death.
Several years ago, I received a message from a friend of mine, Ibrahim, a Muslim who lives in Pakistan who I had befriended on the internet. Our acquaintance is a rather hysterical tale and deserves telling, but perhaps another day. He sent the message to let me know that his sister, Maryam, had received a Fulbright to study psychology (family counseling, to be precise) at Northwestern University. She would be living near us and would need family. He wanted to know if we would be willing to be her family while she worked on her PhD.
Thus we broke bread with Maryam. In the breaking of bread we told our stories and our hearts were warmed. In the breaking of bread we learned how we might be family to one another.
But let’s return to Stan Noffsinger. He continues, “This act of cruel violence tears at the hearts of Brethren who are called as witnesses of God’s call to live in love and peace with our neighbors.”
Peter wrote to the churches that, "[we] have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. [We] have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God."
We are called to love, to demonstrate love, and to pray that others come to love.
Always, in the breaking of the scriptures and partaking of a meal, Jesus invites us into love.
In the breaking, we are called to love. In the breaking.
A grieving father of one of the school girls called on Nigeria’s President “to take the necessary measures to free our children. We really feel neglected. I am convinced that if these abducted girls were their own daughters, they would have done something." It is a cry for justice. It is a cry for love. He continued, "We call on the kidnappers to listen to our cry and sorrow and let our children come back home.”
Listen to our cry.
Listen to our sorrow.
May God warm the hearts of the kidnappers and those who have purchased the girls.
Would you have his courage? I'm not sure I would. "Listen to our cry and sorrow," he asked.
Would you have the courage of their mothers and sisters and neighbors who have been marching in the streets? “Give us back our girls!” is their cry.
Which is interesting, of course.
But it’s not the story.
We’re still not talking about the girls.
Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus road were heartbroken; not yet convinced about this story of women and a tomb.
But Jesus sat down with them. He heard their stories. And he offered his own.
He broke open the prophets, he told them the news, the truth of what had happened, and he broke bread with them. He told them the truth, not the melodrama, but the truth of the world.
The disciples on the road that day said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’
In the opening of scripture and the breaking of bread our hearts can burn.
Our hearts can burn together in the breaking.
We can have genuine mutual love.
We can love one another deeply from the heart in the breaking.
We can experience God's perfect love.
We can declare that love in the breaking.
We can live into that love in the breaking.
We don't have to wait for it.
We take it into ourselves and share it with the world.
Faith is never a hiding place. Never.
It's a place to face the complex realities of the world.
The communion table is where we tell the news of love and despair, of lost children, and ask ourselves what we might do, of how we too might break open the scriptures and do something.
Jesus steps into the mess. That's simply what Jesus does. Fr. Gabriel reminded me of this truth and our call to join Jesus in stepping squarely into the middle of the mess with him.
Today we will gather at a meal with Jesus. We will, like the disciples who broke bread with Jesus in our story this morning, be asked to remember the whole story.
Such a simple thing, really, an act of memory.
And yet, memory comes alive.
Memory becomes prophetic proclamation.
Communion can be our own proclamation that
no matter what distance,
no matter what hardship,
no matter how much time passes,
not even death can keep us from one another.
It is an act of faith that God's promises are true.
We are one body for we take of the One Body.
They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’
May our hearts burn.
May they bring the girls home.
It is their story we also remember today.