(Modified 2021-10-10: Added audio recording of this sermon)
(Following the sermon text below is an Appendix with supporting material.)
St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church. October 10, 2021. Sermon on Matthew 6:25-33
May the Spirit of God the Father and of Son, the crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, our true and everlasting righteousness, inspire us to listen and understand the Word of life that nourishes and preserves our bodies and souls into eternal life. Amen.
The opening sentence to the Gospel reading today, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25), seems contradictory to the Canadian cultural and social spirit for the Thanksgiving weekend, where the emphasis is mostly about celebrating the human merits and everything else, we think is a result of our success.
In our contemporary consumerist, capitalistic and individualistic culture Thanksgiving has been turned into a celebration of our human obsession with success, about everything that goes well per our expectations, seeing the family together in good health and eating great food. We give thanks to God for what we have achieved, either through our personal merits and through family business and connection. We take credit for everything and push God’s grace to consumerism margin, where God receives only what is left after human gratification because we mention the name of God in passing rather than acknowledging God as the main source of our sustenance.
This is not what the Harvest Thanksgiving holiday was meant to be since, for example, the first Thanksgiving holiday was held in Canada in 1872 to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales from a serious illness. While recovery from illness or wellbeing is closer to the original purpose of Thanksgiving, to acknowledge God’s power and providence for creation, the original purpose of Harvest Thanksgiving is to give God the offering of plant and animal produce from the farm—to return the favour to God for his unending blessing of harvest we are enjoying.
The problem is that what this harvest, for which we are thankful, entails has been lost through centuries of economic and cultural tempering with Christian tradition of Harvest Thanksgiving.
Please bear with me as we reflect together on the general context in the gospel passage because Harvest Thanksgiving should be a little different from the consumerist and individualistic culture that has currently hijacked the Harvest Thanksgiving.
Obviously, the connecting word ‘therefore’ at the beginning of the gospel reading signals a continuing conversation from the previous chapters and verses. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God (also known as kingdom of heaven) and what defiles it. Jesus’s teaching, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10), serves as a warning for similar concerns about the kingdom of God in today’s gospel reading: “But strive (seek) first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt.6: 32, 33).
While we show that we are thankful for the natural world that God has given us and what we receive from it as a result of God’s blessing, there is more to God’s providence and love for us. We should give priority to the Lord Jesus Christ, our righteousness and sustenance, putting aside all that keeps us busy to the extent that we forget Almighty God is our true source of life.
Acknowledging God as the creator, father, provider and sustainer of the universe and of life is the harvest of righteousness, to which we are invited to enjoy by seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness in Jesus Christ, and then everything else will be given to us.
The delusion of the West, where we think we can plan for and control or direct life trajectories from birth to death, including planning for our death, leaving instructions on how to manage money when we are dead and our wishes about where and when to be buried, whether in the same grave as our great grandparents and parents, has been exposed. All these are lesser issues than life itself because God is the sustainer of life and knows his plans for us (Jeremiah 29:11).
What does God’s grace look like? It depends on the individuals who experience it, but we all have the opportunity to acknowledge there is a higher power that has control over life.
Here is my story, for which I remember God’s grace and love in my life.
I usually do not share my refugee and family story, but that has changed recently after I received an invitation from Mrs. Joanne Farmer, a wonderful teacher and diversity advocate from Regina Huda School, to share my refugee journey and experience with Grade 12 students who had completed reading or in the middle of reading my poem, ‘Dear My Child.’
Joanne and I arranged the meeting on September 14, 2021, in which I had the privilege and honour to meet with Grade 12 students and answer their questions over Zoom. I have attached Appendix A for those who may be interested in reading about the thoughts behind the poem.
This meeting was a life changing moment because it reminded me not only about my personal journey as a former refugee and a new parent, but also the greatest love story that usually slips under the rug because it is a different kind of love that we do not hear about in Canadian culture because we are blessed with great peace and security opportunities, and parents do not have to choose among different threats against human life.
My parents neither abandoned me nor gave me up during my childhood, but I grew up in the refugee camp without them. They fulfilled their parental love and responsibilities by sending me to the refugee camp at about 13 or 15 years old. My father, because the father had the final say about my fate after his repeated encounters with the rebel army that forcefully recruited the boys into the rebel army, envisioned a different world where I would be safe from forceful recruitment into the army or death during attack of the villages, a world where God is the controller of the events because my father was powerless to protect me from the soldiers and war calamities.
After sneaking me into the UN cargo lorry in our local town, Panyagoor, my father said, “Your God will take care (protect) of you.” The lorry then took me to the unknown land of Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. We had heard terrible things about Kakuma as a place of growth for children, but Kakuma was safer than our village. The children in Kakuma might suffer and die from other calamities rather than bullets, which were the biggest threat to life in South Sudan.
I recently shared the similar refugee story with Victoria, an Evangelical Lutheran clergy, during the joint Evangelical Lutheran Synod and Qu’Appelle Diocesan Leadership Conference from September 28 – 30, 2021 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. I nicely connected with Victoria because Victoria hails from the neighbouring East African country of Tanzania, Victoria speaks Kiswahili, my second language after Dinka because I lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for about nine and half years without the support of my parents before I migrated to Canada, and Victoria identified with my war and refugee story because Victoria’s grandmother narrated to Victoria similar war story. The grandmother grew without her parents because at the age of about seven years old, the grandmother’s parents separated with her parents after a heavy attack in their local village during the colonial years in Tanzania. The grandmother’s parents put themselves as a human shield against the weapons from the enemies and told the grandmother to run away without stopping nor looking back. Unfortunately, the grandmother’s parents did not make it. She never saw or heard about her parents from childhood until her marriage and late adulthood.
The parents had given Victoria’s grandmother the gift of life and risked their own life hoping their daughter would live somewhere through God’s grace and love. What a great faith in God!
This is a great love story because my parents and the parents of Victoria’s grandmother did whatever they could for the safety of their children amidst difficult life situations.
What did Moses’s mother Jochebed do when she was faced with similar difficult situation about giving up her son to the Egyptian child murderers? With heavy heart and prayers Jochebed put her dear son Moses in a papyrus basket when the circumstances were unbearable and dropped him in the river (Exodus 2:1-10). While this was done such that whatever might happen to the son might happen out of the sight of the parent, the intention was the safety of the child.
This is the kind of love I am thankful about, which I appreciate my father and the rest of the family, and which I am also comfortable to share with you today. Happy Thanksgiving weekend.
However, these three stories are nothing compared to God’s grace and righteousness, which is the message of thanksgiving. When parents like mine and Moses’ make a radical decision because of their own powerlessness and vulnerability out of the situation and God steps in to secure the safety of the children, that is God’s grace.
We have no claim over God’s grace because it does not depend on our merits or hard work. We are only called to acknowledge God’s grace in our life and express our appreciation to God, like David and the pastoral writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4,5; Hebrews 2:9).
The teaching about seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness is a teaching against human obsession with self-glory and wealth. What matters is giving honour and glory to God, that is, whatever we do we should do it with the understanding that it does not give us the glory.
May God the Father whose grace has been fulfilled in incarnate Son and Lord Jesus Christ, our true and everlasting righteousness, guide us through his Holy Spirit to acknowledge his sustenance that nourishes and preserves our bodies and souls into eternal life. Amen.
Question for Nathaniel Athian Deng Mayen that Grade 12 Students at Regina Huda School asked about the poem, Dear My Child, published by the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation (Look Deeper, Speak Up Inspire Change, 2016 Poetry Competition)
Dear my child: Learning begins when you realize there are things you cannot control. Like, will you grow up in your country of birth? I was born in South Sudan; I grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp; Now I live and write this note in Canada. Despite living without the care of my family, I faced the challenges with what I like to think is courage like many of the world’s lost children Resilience is my bragging right. Listen! When life’s great changes occur, be proud because in changing, you will have learned. Respect your past, keep friendship with your present foster peace in the country you now call home. The world longs for coexistence Your loving parent
– Nathaniel Athian Deng Mayen, Regina, SK
- Please speak briefly about your experiences in the Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Kakuma Refugee Camp is overpopulated and climatically harsh because it is a home to about half a million refugees mainly from South Sudan (my country of origin), Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, and is located in an isolated semi-arid land in Kenya.
As a teenager, I did not mind about the overcrowding and harsh weather conditions. I played, ate, slept and went to school like other children. We were happy and contended with our lives.
However, lot of refugee stories and challenges of living in a foreign land, where some people may not know refugee experiences, were sometimes overwhelming to a teenage mind.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) is responsible for the operation and management of the refugee camp, including securing the land for refugee settlement, making agreement with the government of Kenya, and keeping the database for all refugees.
Countries like Canada request the UNHCR for the names of refugee persons to be resettled.
Opportunities for resettlement are limited. Government sponsorship is by lottery style.
Host community, Turkana, is sometimes not very receptive of the refugees and can seldom pose security threats in terms of physical attacks on refugees and restrictions of movement.
The UNHCR contracts different UN, international and local agencies, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), and the International Windle Trust-Kenya (WTK) to facilitate the delivery of education, food, water, security (police), shelter or tents, and other basic needs, such as agricultural products to the refugees.
In short, you live in a refugee camp under the responsibility of the UNHCR that owns your life.
- Can you please tell us more about why you were living without the care of your family?
I fled from my country South Sudan because of civil war. My parents are still alive, but they had to send me to the refugee camp to protect me from the forceful recruitment into the rebel army. Different parts of South Sudan are still in dire needs of food and security.
Parent’s love can be painful. Parents make choices that they believe are in the best interest of their children. This is the message the poem is trying to put across by naming the places I lived.
I remember very well when I bid my father a goodbye. He blessed me and said the following words, “Your God will take care of you. I cannot protect you as your earthly father.”
That was how we were separated because they were powerless to protect me from the forces of child soldier, and there were no phones at the time to communicate until I came to Canada.
- What were you feeling when you first arrived in Canada?
I was relieved. I knew my physical and health safety was guaranteed, irrespective of other challenges that I may face in Canada and living further away from my relatives and family.
I had some basic education to participate in conversation and seek job opportunities. I studied in Kakuma until I successfully completed high school and was sponsored by the World University Services of Canada, Student Refugee Program, to the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.
WUSC/SRP Local Committee volunteers at the University of Saskatchewan were very helpful and understanding of the new students and their refugee experiences.
You may be interested to learn that Canada has a great reputation overseas before you arrive in this country and learn more about the realities of homelessness, indigenous residential schools, and discrimination for different groups of citizens in this welcoming country.
- What were some of the challenges you faced, which you made reference to in your poem?
The challenges were mainly weather changes, cultural differences, homesickness (missing friends and relatives), and uncertainty about future (will I make it successfully in my studies?)
- Who is your poem addressed to?
My child, of course. However, the persona is a perceived child, that is, can be anybody I love.
I was single at the time, but I was thinking like a parent, considering my own story when I departed ways with my father and the entire family, and the benefits that I have found in the hardest kind of love that my parents showed me. I do think about this experience as a parent.
- At what point did you consider Canada to be your home?
I admired Canada and its hospitality once I stepped my foot to this great land.
However, I never considered Canada my home until I completed my Master of Public Administration (MPA) in 2016, when I wrote the poem, and then found a purpose in life.
I completed bachelor of social work (BSW) in January 2014 and did not get a job in social work careers until September 2014. With student loan increasing and my merger wages through janitorial services could not sustain me, I enrolled in MPA program and took more student loan.
In my final year for MPA, I successfully completed internship interview with the Saskatchewan College of Paramedics and Saskatchewan Association of Medical Radiation Technologists. The success in the interview and the paid internship gave me motivation that the future was brighter.
My supervisors, Jacqueline and Chelsea, were great leaders who flashed in me a lot of strengths that I never utilized. They helped me with connection with government and executive personnel.
When I wrote the poem during my internship, the supervisors were the first to read it and encouraged me to submit it to the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation poetry and spoken word contest, entitled, Look Deeper, Speak Up, Inspire Change.
- Did you write this poem first for your child, or did you always intend it to be for a public audience?
The poem has always been intended for public audience. Of course, as I mentioned, I have always been thinking about the parent’s love and care for the child. I have been wondering whether I can make some sacrifices like my parents did for me and my other siblings.
In particular, what can the parent do in times of war and displacement? Words, in any form, can be a great source of motivation and resilience, and that is the message I wanted to pass on.
- Can you give us a specific example of your resilience?
Resilience is about approaching the challenges beforehand with great hope and optimism, and live positively so that the present life obstacles do not break you down or distract you from your future life and career dreams.
I have given examples about how I pursued my studies in Kakuma Refugee Camp amidst different teenage life challenges. I also made the choice to enroll in MPA graduate program when I did not find job after completing BSW. I made this decision hoping that one day the skills I would acquire in social work and public administration would benefit me and my family.
- What inspired you to write poetry?
The theme of the SCIC contest was intriguing. I could not resist sharing my own experience of refugee, especially now that I found some purpose and encouragement after my paid internship.
I also love writing. It is one of my untapped potentials. Some writings are in my drive, but I have not considered publishing a memoir at the moment because of the situation in my country.
Finally, storytelling is the greatest gift I have learned from my parents and from my Jieeng (Dinka) ethnic culture in South Sudan. Children are taught life skills through storytelling and singing. Advice is given through the storytelling, singing and other artistic means. Through poetry, I play the role of the elder and parent. My experience has been with the elderly people in the church and in the local community where I live. This is one reason I studied social work to continue to interact with the elderly and children, wherever I might practice the career.
- What can an immigrant or refugee do to foster peace in a new country, especially if he or she does not feel welcome there?
It is not wise to make people feel embarrassed, with statements such as “You are racist”, “You are sexist”, “You homophobic” etc., when other people hurt you or your child and beloved ones. People will run away and isolate you when you talk loudly about what they do wrong.
A lot of people need educate to learn more about us and themselves. Most of what translates into prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination begins first as lack of knowledge about others.
Although I did most of my lab assignments without group partners, or the instructor had to look for me partners in my first year in the university because most students did not come forward to be my partners, I handled the situation with positivity. I challenged myself to educate others about myself when the opportunity came up. I took it as a reality that the student did not know me and they preferred doing their work with those they probably knew in high school or country side or through family connections, etc.
However, even with such understanding, I did not condone discrimination. In the summer 2016, I went to Buffalo Narrows for an interview for the position of Community Youth Worker with the Ministry of Community Safety, Corrections and Policing. I had completed the first part of my interview over the phone, and after the manager appreciated the conversation, she scheduled an in-person interview in the office in Buffalo Narrows. She also requested for the copies of my educational credentials and criminal record check. Once I arrived in the office in Buffalo Narrows, the manager asked an interesting question: “so you are Nathaniel?” After I confirmed my identity, she did not complete the interview for which I had come for. She went into asking questions on whether I like fishing, and encouraged me to continue applying if other positions that did not work with First Nations came up. I knew I would not get the position, and sure I did not. I later checked the names of the successful applicants on the Ministry website, and the successful applicant did not have an indigenous ancestry! I wrote to the manager to notify that I checked the successful applicant did not have an Aboriginal ancestry and that I had found a different causal position as addiction counsellor. She was quiet for few minutes and then explained that there was a mistake in the hiring process because some people complained to higher management since the positing had not specified the requirements for Aboriginal persons, and that if I had told here right away in the office when we met, she might have reconsidered her position. Now I was at fault for not telling the manager who posted the position what she knew!
- What are your thoughts about why the world longs for coexistence?
Have you learned about globalization yet? The world is different from our parents’ times when they might have spent some weeks or months without seeing a person of different skin pigment.
Love can radiate to the atmosphere and heal lives traumatized by wars and displacement, etc.
- What did you know about Indigenous peoples in Canada when you first arrived here, and how do you feel about them now, especially children of Indigenous ancestry?
I knew nothing about Indigenous peoples of Canada when I first arrived to Saskatoon, Canada. I also did not learn about Aboriginal peoples during my citizenship preparation in Canada.
I did my cultural orientation in Nairobi, Kenya, and it was all about weather changes (winter dressing and how to prevent frost bites) and the laws and rules in the society so that I could not encounter problems with the law enforcement agencies, such as the police, in Canada.
I learned about the indigenous history and residential schools in the university, first faintly in two of my first-year classes and later intensively in my social work training.
My attitude towards Aboriginal children has always been positive because as a native in my country of origin I share a lot of cultural values with First Nations. These include family linkage through ancestry, kinship system, respect for elders, and care for extended family members.
When the news about the unmarked graves for the Indigenous children who died in the residential schools came out of Kamloops, BC, and Cowessess Reserve, Saskatchewan, this summer, I asked my half-brother, Joh, whom I sponsored to Canada in 2018, to write about kinship system in our native Jieeng community and the First Nations in Canada.
Joh made a great connection between the Jieeng children who were forced into the army and the First Nations children who were forced into residential schools, and how such action of the responsible government authorities highly affected kinship and relationships for children through the intergenerational trauma that resulted from historical atrocities for the children and elders.
For those who may be interested, I wrote the poem, Dear My Poem, when I was single in 2016. I returned to South Sudan and married in 2017. I sponsored my wife and daughter through family sponsorship to Canada in 2018 (September 13th is the anniversary for 3 years staying under the same roof). My wife and I are blessed with a second daughter who is now 2 years old.
I also sponsored two half-brothers and a cousin with two daughters. From one-member family, my family grew, and I remind the younger siblings and relatives about the values in the poem.
I have made St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church my home for spiritual nourishment and care for other refugees. We have a refugee sponsorship program to empower refugee families to reunite in Canada, giving vulnerable people the opportunity for resettlement to Canada for safety and education for children and families.
Thanks for your interest to learn about Canadian diversity through my poem, and for inviting me to share my experience with you today.