An Unforgettable Palm Sunday


OLD MUTARE, Zimbabwe -- It was a most unusual and unforgettable Palm Sunday at Africa University.

No Hosanna, Loud Hosanna. No Tell Me the Stories of Jesus. In fact, no palms.  Seems strange in a land with tropical trees, there would be no palms when American churches clamor to find them so children can carry them in during a worship service procession. Adults smile, mothers and father snap pictures of darling children and we all get the warm fuzzies.

And from a historical standpoint, nothing was said nor celebrated that on this Sunday -- 115 years ago -- British imperialist Cecil Rhodes had granted the nearly 1,600 acres of land to Methodist Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell for a school to educate the children of white British workers who were building a railroad to transport then Rhodesia's natural resources to South Africa for transport to Great Britain.

All of that was missing Palm Sunday at Africa University.

But with the Africa University Choir, a men's choir, MUMC, from the Harare West District of the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference and Jubilate, an ensemble from the Pacific Northwest Conference, the parade of praise would have rivaled the procession in Jerusalem so long ago.

Add to that, Bishop Jonathan Keaton, pressed into service with 18 hours notice, said he was going to "preach 20 minutes and sit down," And yet was able to tell four stories that masterfully tied the whole week's celebration together and challenged the educational institution for the future. It was a poignant reminder of the power of the simple narrative.

Using the text of Psalm 100:1-5, Keaton noted, "We've done a lot of praise this week, but the Psalmist, in these verses, directs it to God which is the source of all praise."

Keaton's first story came in the day following arrival in Zimbabwe. "This is the first time I got sick overseas," Keaton said. "As I thought about what I was going to do, I knew I needed to see a doctor. So I called someone I knew that was here that also is a physician and told him I needed a doctor. Within 15 to 20 minutes, he is at my door and 15 minutes later, I am sitting in an examination room of a Zimbabwean doctor. No waiting. I am not sure how he did it, but God is good.  Within 30 minutes later, I was back in my motel room."

"And then as I was working on my sermon, I became convicted when I heard God say, 'Are you going to tell them how good I was to you?" Keaton said.

The second story Keaton told was the story of our tour group's visit to Old Mutare Mission earlier in the week.

"We got off the bus and the group was moved to take an impromptu offering," he told the crowd. "And then, as we gave the offering to the Mission's chaplain, the Spirit jumped out in the prayer offered in thanksgiving. We then went out and greeted the children bringing all sorts of gifts.  And then we got back on the bus and one of the men told me that he was going to sponsor one of the children. In the short time there, he made a decision to sponsor a child in 15 minutes."  We later learned that the $550 offering came at a most needed time -- that the orphanage's cupboards were bare and the normal monthly allotment of 10 bars of soap per household had been cut to three.

Keaton said the experience was bittersweet for the elementary school children had eagerly waited to receive the group, but due to the tight schedule, "we didn't have time to stop" and disappointed the children.

The third story that Keaton said was the story Roger Ireson told of Professor John Kurewa of a student that began walking to Africa University after receiving his letter of acceptance. "Combining what I saw at Old Mutare Mission with the Professor Kurewa's story, I want to ask you: Is there any connection between Africa University and the orphanage?  You can walk to it. Do we have any mission interns for Old Mutare Mission? If not, we ought to be, and perhaps that is part of the vision for the future."

Keaton then added, "When God give us questions, then we have to praise God."

Keaton's questions did spark a response from AU Vice Chancellor Fanuel Tagwira.

"You said you would preach for 20 minutes, but it was packed," Tagwira said. "You inspire us. There are several ways in which we support Old Mutare Mission but we can do more."

The final story was the story of German composer Georg Frederick Handel, in which his greatest work was The Messiah. The work, completed in 1740, after the composer suffered a stroke and was recovering. As he completed the composition, he added the initials S.D.G. -- Soli Deo Gloria, which translates "To God Alone The Glory."

"Handel was saying, 'I cannot take credit for my greatest work; the credit is due to God and God alone,'" Keaton said.

Soli Deo Gloria -- To God Alone The Glory.  Sure sounds like Palm Sunday to me.