Christianity has been in Asia long before it came west to the Americas. Our Christian tradition reports the Apostle Thomas taking the faith to India in the first century. Many have born the assumption that since Hinduism and Buddhism have their roots in Asia cultures, Christianity would not easily take hold there. This is not true. Christianity has taken hold in Asia. In the Phillippines and Korea Christianity is strong. In China, Christianity's growth is exploding. There are 100's of millions of Christians in Asia. Alongside Christianity's growth, Islam has also taken deep roots in Asian cultures. Indonesia alone has more Muslims than the Middle East. Today, I would like to look more closely at one story of a tribe of people known as Karens.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
One day in late April 1828, A-Pyah Thee, a religious leader of a small obscure village of the Karen tribe in Burma, sent 30 of his villagers to see two white people who had just moved to the village of Tavoy. After a three-day journey, the entourage arrived at the door of Sarah and George Boardman, American Baptist Missionaries. Pulling out the Book of Common Prayer, the Karen delegation explained that 12 years earlier a white man had visited their village and instructed them on various religious practices and ceremonies. The man had left. Now, the village was divided about these teachings. One group had followed A-Pyah Thee, who assumed the position of teacher of this new faith. The problem was that none of them could read or speak English and only a few of them could speak Burmese.
They asked George Boardman to return to their village and explain the book to them. He promised to come in the future and gave them a tract in Burmese for their return trip (From Jay Riley Cases's essay, "Interpreting Karen Christianity," in The Changing Face of Christianity, edited by Lamin Sanneh and Joel A. Carpenter, Oxford U. Press, NY, NY, 2005, pp.135-136).
Over the next four months six additional Karen delegations, apparently from different villages, sought out the Boardmans. One constant factor among all these Karen Christians was their zeal for the Lord of Life! It was a zeal for the faith that existed before the fullness of the faith - from a Western perspective - had arrived in Burma. Over the next two decades, more than 16,000 Karen Christians were baptized into Christ - one sixth of their tribe. But, what was most amazing was the growth of this community of faith with little input from the Baptist missionaries. The missionaries didn't know what to make of "uncivilized" and "evangelistically" oriented Karen's whose zeal for Christ outdid the Baptists. (Ibid.).
The Karen culture was thousands of years old when Jesus Christ, through the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1816. The Karens were semi-nomadic people who lived on the margins of the dominant Burmese culture. They faced discrimination and mistreatment, for the Burmese saw them as a wild people. Few Karens embraced Buddhism. When Christian faith came along, they adopted some Christian practices while hanging onto some of their own.
The Karens had one God, Ywa. In their beliefs (before Christianity), Ywa was a perfect God - omniscient, omnipresent, unchangeable, and eternal. Ywa taught them to pray, honor their parents, love their enemies, and not to murder, steal, commit adultery, deceive others, swear, or worship other gods. The Baptists were convinced that Jews had come here first because their deep faith was so seemingly connected to Judaism in its covenantal nature. But that was never proven. The Karen Christians identified with Jesus who came from the margins and related to the poor. They had suffered persecution just like Jesus.
Although the Baptist missionaries continued to come to the Karens for one hundred years, Karen evangelists (not American Baptists) converted people by the thousands and kept far ahead of the missionaries with their own brand of Christianity. But, the Karens saw the white missionaries as people sent down from heaven and as such, part of God's plan for their salvation. In 1837, when Elisha Abbott visited a remote region of Burma where no white man had ever traveled, he arrived to find thousands of Karen converts awaiting baptism by his hand.
By casting themselves and Western culture as star actors from a superior culture, almost all missionaries approached non-Western people and cultures as second class. This was true well into the 20th Century and is still practiced by all too many missionaries yet today. With this approach, missionaries go into a culture reframing and remolding ancient and beautiful cultures into the dominant framework of their Western civilization through Christianity.
What is marvelous about the Karen Christians is that they took the Bible stories and Christian practices (coming out of Anglicanism) and reframed and remolded them into their context and culture before Westerners arrived to do this. In one sense, Karen Christians converted Western Christianity - especially the northern American Baptists - who learned lessons among the Karens that made them open to teaching elsewhere with a cautious eye to their own racialized thinking. After the Civil War, for example, American Baptist schools in the south were focused on training African Americans to be leaders, not just efficient working class laborers. From the Karen Christians and A-Pyah Thee, they had learned to trust the indigenous leaders of a people.
When trust is present, hope abounds. How often we find this true. When you trust your children, spouse or friends, hope is present there. When you trust a co-worker or a leader, you let go of old inhibitions and open yourself to new possibilities. In Genesis 9:8-17, we see God establish a new covenant with God's people. Before the flood, God had lost trust. After the flood, God reestablishes trust and hope in the rainbow covenant. Rainbows already existed in the world. But, now God offers the rainbow as an eternal testimony of God's constancy and mercy. No other celestial body is similarly endowed in biblical literature. It is transformed into a symbol of reconciliation between God and humankind. It is - for all time - a symbol of hope and trust.
In Mark's gospel, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, acknowledged as God's beloved by the Spirit descending on his and God's voice approving of him, driven into the wilderness, tempted by Satan, and cared for by angels and wild beasts. In this fast paced journey from water to wilderness, we see God power pointing to his Son as the one who is graced with all the right stuff for Messianic leadership.
In the sermon title, I asked if there are billions of believers in Asia. The answer is yes - and hundreds of millions of them are Christian. But, there are billions of believers in God. We need to stay open to the power of God's Spirit moving in this world. Through the texts of scripture and the contexts of cultures in which they are read, we see the power of God to work through ordinary people - like Noah, John, and A-Pyah Thee - to do extraordinary things in this world. I hope the story of Karen Christians inspires you to discover the truth of the Gospel for your life and spread Christ's good news and love to others. You don't need to know everything about the Bible to do this. You simply need to identify with Jesus - feel his pain, see his eyes of wonder, trust his word, feel his love, and open yourself to transformation. You will be changed. To begin this transformation, come to Christ's table of grace. Come for all things are ready. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church