A Sermon at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd
The General Theological Seminary, New York
February 17, 2015
Amen, Amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
When I was told that I was to preach on the feast of Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda and martyr, I had a little Brian Williams episode. I told several people that I had a classmate in my entering class at CDSP in 1976 who arrived six weeks late for the beginning of classes because he had to walk to Nairobi, Kenya from Uganda because his archbishop had been killed by the government of Idi Amin. The problem is, that when I looked up the death of Archbishop Janani Luwum, he was killed on February 17, 1977, at least five months after John Mbishibishi arrived in Berkeley, California to start classes.
I remember talking with John after the Archbishop was killed, and John knew him, but only from a distance. His bishop and diocese were further south than Janani Luwum had been before being made Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. I conflated two events in my memory, much like Brian Williams did. Since some people here don’t remember the 1970s, I’ll review the relevant history here. Idi Amin was the commander of the army of Uganda who supported Milton Obote in 1967 when he suspended the constitution and took all powers of the government himself. A few years later, each correctly judged that the other could not be trusted—Amin acted first and took over in a military coup. He was able to consolidate his power because hardly anyone could believe that anyone would be as brutal and corrupt as Obote.
For Idi Amin it was about personal power and obedience to his whims. He would use ideological or religious justification to attack groups that he suspected might be loyal to someone else, including entire ethnic groups such as those who had been Obote’s base of support. He deported nearly 600,000 Ugandans of Asian ancestry and seized their businesses. He shifted his allegiance from Israel to Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya because of military and financial support. And in July of 1976, he invited terrorists who had hijacked an Air France flight to Israel to land and keep the plane and their hostages at the Entebbe airport in Kampala. Israeli commandos raided that airport and rescued most of hostages, killing the hijackers and a number of Ugandan soldiers. Idi Amin was humiliated and became furious and retaliated violently.
My classmate, John Mbishibishi was scheduled to fly out of Kampala a week or two later. It seemed to him like it would be better to go to another airport, so he walked to Nairobi, though it meant missing our 5 week intensive Greek and Music boot camp and the first week of the fall quarter.
The biography in Lesser Feasts and Fasts says that Janani Luwum was responsible for twenty-four congregations when he was first ordained. My classmate John wasn’t in charge of quite as many congregations as Archibishop Luwum was, maybe as few as eight or as many as thirteen (I can’t remember), even though he had already been ordained for several years before coming to the U.S. I do remember that he had to found a school in every village, because, as strict evangelicals, people had to be able to read the Bible before the church would agree to baptize them as adults, or to baptize their children. John said that it was a very big thing for him, after several years of ministry, that the church was able to procure a bicycle for him so he didn’t have to run between the villages.
In context, this is regular ministry, not really so much different or more challenging than the ministry which we are called to in this century and this country. As Archbishop, Janani Luwum had responsibility for a large and diverse community and a number of institutions, including Makerere University. President-for-Life Amin regarded both the church, which included many people from ethnic groups from whom Obote had drawn support, and their university as threats to him and his government. Amin’s soldiers ransacked the University that summer and the Archbishop spoke up in defense of the university and the Christian people of Uganda. He had little choice. It was his responsibility to speak the truth, and even many of those who tried to placate, support or befriend Amin ended up being the object of his anger and violence. In February 1977, unidentified people stormed into Luwum’s house searched it, and produced weapons they claimed they had found there. Christian leaders were rounded up and accused of plotting to kill Amin. Eventually most of them were released, but not Janani Luwum. As his colleagues left, he said to one of them, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.”
That’s pretty matter of fact. And I must say, that John Mbishibishi was also matter of fact in describing his own life, not dramatic or self-interested, the facts speak for themselves. We needn’t assume that Archbishop Luwum was not anxious or did not feel fear of what he was about to go through. But he knew this text: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He was not afraid to accept the reality that resulted from his choices. And he had been choosing, in his entire life as a Christian and as a priest, to be forthright for the good of others.
We think of martyrs as having dramatic lives, or at least dramatic deaths. We think of them as superheroes of the faith. But they are just people, who live Christian life day by day. It takes courage to tell the truth and it takes courage to be accountable for your decisions. There is always a cost. Sometimes Christians live in dramatic situations, and the cost they pay is dramatic. I am quite confident, that living or dead, in fantasy or in person, Janani Luwum would regard nothing as a greater compliment than to have it said of him that he was a Christian. He was a grain of wheat that fell to the earth and died, but has borne much fruit.
But another thing that the Archbishop would definitely say, is that it is not Janani Luwum that we remember, but Jesus, who glorified God in his hour. As he was lifted up, he draws all people to himself, to the mercy of God, the Glory of God, and his tender care for us. Brothers and sisters, let us join with Janani Luwum as servants of the living God.