Guest Sermon by Caroline Kurtz
Passage: Acts 2:1-21
Date: June 4, 2017
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Caroline Kurtz
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So picture this: Harold Kurtz, my dad, whom many of you knew, is about thirty years old. He has gone with his wife and three young daughters, including both Janie and me, to Ethiopia. He has been in language school. Now he has malaria, boomeranging from chills to fever. He wants to be part of the mission meetings that are being held, but the mission doctors are telling him to stay in bed. They finally let him attend the meetings if he will lie on a couch in the back of the room.
The question of Maji mission station comes up. Have the Presbyterians stretched themselves too thin? Should the station be closed? From the back of the room, what Dad called his barnyard voice rings out—No, no, the Kurtzes will keep Maji open!
Now Maji, you have to understand, was the most remote post, 350 mountainous miles from the capital, a week’s drive on a World War II Italian road. Not maybe the most convenient place to work or to raise little girls. But an inspired choice, and I say that on Pentecost Sunday, and I mean it literally. That choice gave us girls an idyllic childhood in a place of great beauty, where we felt deeply loved by the community. And it set in motion blessings for many more than our family.
Fast forward eight years, and Dad is now totally demoralized. The tiny church in Maji has not thrived. It has barely even grown. And one of the upcoming church leaders has just committed suicide. Dad is about ready to resign from the mission field, come back to Portland, and start over. Fortunately, his bosses and mentors rescued Dad’s career by sending him to Fuller Seminary for a year. He returned to Ethiopia to lead the mission in planting more culturally appropriate churches. That was 1966.
By 1976, Dad was working on turning over all mission lands and resources to the Ethio-pians. A communist regime has taken over, His Majesty has been deposed and killed, and the revolution is turning brutal.
The church in Maji never did do anything more than straggle along. Now, the lukewarm Christians saw the writing on the wall and became Communist comrades. The local government nationalized the small church building. They tore the rough eucalyptus branch cross off the front and plastered over the hole. They turned it into a vet clinic, to inoculate cattle and mules from sleeping sickness.
One of my friends in Maji tells me that as he and a few others continued to pray secretly in their homes, they would pass the little church and feel encouraged. Encouraged? The plaster repair work on the front made the rough shape of a cross. To these faithful, hopeful people, it was like a secret code, a promise—this negative space cross on the vet clinic reminded them that the Holy Spirit was still with them.
During the communist era in Ethiopia, Christians were persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured. The church went underground. With all the missionaries gone, the translated hymns were forgotten. Young people were inspired to write Ethiopian songs of praise, songs of sorrow, songs of faith. When the communist government fell, the church movement in Ethiopia exploded.
I went back to Ethiopia to teach English just before the communist regime fell. I worked in Addis Ababa. I made friends with a doctor who had gone through the Maji mission school. I watched and wondered what was happening in Maji.
Eventually, Dad and I went back to Maji together. We helped the tiny straggly church reclaim the tiny church building. But an Ethiopian pastor from the denomination reproached the Maji church leaders: “The gospel has been in Maji for fifty years, and you have fifty members! Something is wrong here.”
Dad piled on and quoted the passage from II Timothy and said, “You have not been given a spirit of bondage, barrenet, but a spirit of freedom, arrinet.” I’m sure you can imagine him, the earnest orator he was: not barrenet but arrinet.
But nothing seemed to bring the Maji church to life.
Now the plot thickens. And I have to say, this is a hero’s tale, with all the hopefulness and all the hurdles and trials of any hero’s journey. The struggling humans who never quite gave up in Maji are heroes, yes, but the real hero here is the Holy Spirit. Because these events could not have been masterminded by any human.
In 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines plane was hijacked on its way to Nairobi, Kenya. The plane went down in the ocean. 125 people died, only 50 survived. Of those 50, one was my doctor friend from Maji.
As he waited for rescue after the crash, he promised to dedicate his life in a new way to God’s work. He and his wife spent several years praying and fasting every Wednesday, and then he enrolled in a seminary night-school program. He began to make regular visits to Maji. He led the straggling Christians in prayer walks around the church and the former mission compound. They spent whole nights in confession, the visits and animal sacrifices they had made to local shamans all through the years, just in case. Admitting they’d been involved in human rights abuses, in cruelty to their neighbors during the Communist era.
And suddenly—sixty years after Dad went to Maji, guess what! It was the fullness of time.
The Maji church is now full to overflowing. They have planted half a dozen daughter churches. They’re building a church building three times the size of the old one. A month ago they had a youth conference that overflowed the new church. They have begun to come to me for help in serving the community.
The midwife had been delivering babies at night by flashlight because the electric grid is stalled 50 miles from Maji. Church leaders asked me for help, and last October I took a 50-watt solar unit to the clinic in Maji. Beth has talked about that.
In the fullness of time I found technical support for going further—designing a project that will empower the church women to start a solar co-op. At the least, we’ll bring light into the homes of families in the Maji District. At the most, this project may act as a prototype for bringing power to the 80 million Ethiopians who have no access to the grid.
Let me end with a story from a recent visit to Maji. I spent a day walking, interviewing people to see what they know about solar power and whether they are interested. I described to an older woman what we would bring—a unit something like what we put on the clinic. I said we would have a service person to replace batteries as they wear out, which they will, and to repair wires the mice nibble, which they will. I said it might cost about $5 a month. She listened very carefully.
Would she be interested? I asked. Could she afford that?
She threw up her hands and said, “If by the power of God something like this would come to me, YES I would pay what you are asking!”
This has become a byword for me—if by the power of God!
Only the Spirit of God could have brought together all the pieces—me, the Maji church, my doctor friend, my electric co-op colleagues. Only by the power of God will we move forward and get all the pieces to fit, to bless the lives of God’s beloved people in the Maji District. Only by the power of God will the Spirit move in the hearts of Americans for seed money. And only by the power of God will I succeed in my role as a bridge to bring people together across eleven time zones.
On Pentecost Sunday, let us thank God for the Spirit who works in all of our hearts, no matter how long it takes. Praise to the one who brings us out of spiritual, emotional, or physical darkness into light. Who brings us out of bondage, barrenet, into freedom, arrinet.