I Am Because You Are

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 5, 2017, the fifth Sunday after Epiphany.

Texts: Psalm 100; Acts 2:42-47

 

“It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s ‘us’ and there’s ‘them’…”  These words open a video[i] that came across my social media early last week.  As the voiceover continues to describe all the ways we separate ourselves from others, you see groups of categorized people enter and take their place in boxes marked on the floor with white tape.  Once all the boxes are filled, a facilitator says he is going to ask everyone questions and to please respond honestly.  Everyone looks distrustful and nervous.  The first question is, “Who here was the class clown?”  The sense of relief is palpable.  People begin to sheepishly move out of their boxes and come to stand together at the front.  After everyone is back in their box, other questions follow, with new configurations of people coming together as a group in front.  There is a group of stepparents, those who believe in life after death, people who love to dance, those who feel lonely, those who have been bullied, those who have bullied others, the “lucky” ones who’ve had sex in the past week, people who are brokenhearted, those who are madly in love, people who’ve seen UFOs, and those who have saved lives.  Preparing for today, I went back to the video (it’s on YouTube) and, of course, there were simply awful and ugly words, nasty debates and hate speech all over the comment feed.  If we had the technology to show the video, I imagine I might receive pushback from some that it is manipulative or uninclusive or something.  I may be a sap, and maybe the video is propaganda, but I agree with its closing sentiment that “maybe there’s more that brings us together than we think.”  And, after all, if we’re going to have propaganda, why not have it for the purpose of manipulating us into more neighborly behavior and recognition of our shared humanity with folks who are different from us? 

 

No doubt the work to be done is much more difficult and needs to go much deeper than simple tolerance or “playing nice.”  But we’ve moved so far from even that in many quarters.  Mutual respect, acknowledging the human dignity of others, and common decency are increasingly on the endangered list.  And that is true in every corner of political and civic life; it doesn’t only apply among radical leftists or alt-right groups.  The cancer of fear-driven hate and distrust is pervasive. Many of you have told me how hard it is for you…

 

But I’ve been encouraged over the past couple of weeks to see and hear signs of love-fueled resistance breaking through like sunbeams through dark clouds.  Folks are speaking out about shared values that cut across ideological differences.  Folks are calling us to make our protests like block parties—a celebration of the things that extend love and create community.  There is an almost hopeful appreciation that this moment is waking folks up to the need for consistent and thoughtful activism and community spirit.  I hear rumblings of people of faith and conscience, aware of the absurdity and destruction of our radical polarization, working across party lines to listen, collaborate, and respond. 

 

Recognition of our shared humanity—what brings us together—is a powerful force for the work of peace and justice.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu is not naïve about the realities of systemic violence, racism, and radical polarization; much of his life was spent fighting against apartheid in South Africa.  What he teaches and models—even with all that he has seen and experienced—is the African concept of ubuntu. The Archbishop defines ubuntu saying, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours…A person is a person through other persons.”[ii]  Another way of saying it is that there are no “self-made people.”  I am who I am because you are who you are.  In other words, we need each other.  Wholeness for the world—peace, justice, joy, safety, shalom—will not happen if we continue to deny the reality, the needs, the humanity and dignity of others.  Healing will not be possible if we, from our own cozy box, continue to throw stones at people we’ve stuffed into a different one. There is great opportunity in this moment if we will resist giving in to the energies of chaos and division that have been roiling for years and have recently boiled over.  There is opportunity for a great awakening, for a moment of profound movement toward reconciliation if we resist the temptation to spew hate and division into an already wounded world.

 

As people of faith—and of Christian faith in particular—we should be well-practiced in this work, this work of communal life with people who are different from us.  It is painfully obvious that many Christians seem perfectly willing to throw in with the haters.  But be that as it may, Christians are called to be a people of peace, reconciliation, and justice who cross human boundaries for the sake of sharing God’s love and extending the circle of relationship.  Christianity is a profoundly relational and communal faith tradition.  The vision of the early church described in Acts 2 is clear; the community was “together and had all things in common.” They sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to any who had need.  They “spent much time together in the temple.”  And one translation of the text says that “they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” This was the model Jesus set as he created a traveling community who ate together from house to house, observed Sabbath, and engaged in shared ministry.  In our study materials for A Disciple’s Path, Jim Harnish makes it plain: “There is no such thing as solitary Christianity.  Being a follower of Jesus means being in community with other followers of Jesus.”[iii]   

We can self-select a small group of like-minded individuals as our closest companions on the way.  But when we connect with a congregation for worship, service, and study, I assure you that there will be folks who are not only different from you in a wow-they-expand-my-thinking way, but also folks who push your buttons and challenge your patience.  I contend that this reality is part of the discipline, part of the spiritual practice of “presence.”  When we formally enter into covenant with a United Methodist congregation, we say that we will participate through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  The “presence” part of that promise is showing up in community and in worship.  It is showing up even when we know that we will be challenged or that our patience will be tested by someone.  It is in community that we get to practice those things we are called to live in our lives Monday through Saturday.  And if we’re doing it well, our presence in church—especially in small groups—will provide a context of encouragement, accountability, and grace that may not always be available elsewhere. 

 

“Presence” is showing up in worship and community even when we don’t feel like it—because we have promised to do so, because we seek to form a holy habit, because even when we’re not feeling it, God might just do something amazing in our lives.  One of the iconic stories in our United Methodist tradition is the story of John Wesley’s “heart-warming experience on May 24, 1738.  He records in his Journal that he went ‘very unwillingly’ to a small-group Bible study that was meeting in Aldersgate Street in London. He went unwillingly, but he went.  He was present.  That night, the spirit of God touched his heart.  He wrote, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed.’  That heart-warming experience was a critically important stop along his personal journey of discipleship, which helped ignite the spiritual awakening that swept across England and became the Methodist movement around the world.  But what would have happened—or more to the point, what would not have happened—if Wesley had not been ‘unwillingly’ present that night?”[iv]

 

God can do amazing things even when we’re not cooperating, even when we are nominally present.  But it is also true that when we begin to make the spiritual practice of “presence” a priority we open ourselves to untold gifts of growth, insight, and joy.  Just as with any practice, the more you put into it, the more you will receive.  If I go to the gym five times a year, my body will not be changed that much and my heart won’t be any stronger.  If I go every week and don’t really do the workout, I might be changed a bit but still won’t receive the full benefits available.  The same is true for the practice of presence in Christian community and worship.  

 

Today, we celebrate what is the most communal of all our practices, the sacrament of Holy Communion. All eat the same food, all are welcome, all are fed with the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ.  At this table, we proclaim and affirm ubuntu, that we are deeply interconnected and interdependent.  By the Holy Spirit we are made one with Christ and with each other.  Traditional words at the breaking of the bread are, “Because there is one loaf,
we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.  And the cup over which we give thanks is a sharing in the blood of Christ.”  At this Table we pray that by God’s grace we will be able to live in the world the vision to which we are called, a vision of unity in diversity, of equity, inclusion, humility, and interdependence.  At this Table, we say to God and to one another, “I am because you are.”  And we give thanks.

 

i “All That We Share”, TV2, Denmark, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jD8tjhVO1Tc&app=desktop

[ii] James A. Harnish, A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Your Relationship Christ and the Church, Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 38.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., p. 39