This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.
I Corinthians 12:12-26
An excerpt from God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu:
“I have a dream,” God says, “Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.”
In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian—all belong.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a college professor of mine named Bob White. He told me that, during my time in college, I should have some kind of “international experience”. In a world as technologically interconnected as ours is, it’s more important now than ever before that students stretch themselves outside of their geographic comfort zone in order to see the world from a different cultural perspective. I took Bob’s advice and, during my senior year, I went on a church-sponsored mission trip to the Eastern European country of Romania.
The experience changed my life forever, but not in the way that I thought it would. At the time, I thought I was “bringing the light of Christ to the ends of the Earth”, but it turns out that I was the one who needed to be enlightened. Working mostly in mental hospitals and orphanages, I experienced both tragedy and amazement on a level that I never thought possible.
For several decades, Romania suffered under the thumb of a particularly nasty Communist dictator named Nicolae Ceaucescu. He would send his soldiers into the countryside to get women pregnant so that the children could be raised in state-sponsored orphanages as perfect Communist drones. As a result, Romania is a country with an inordinately huge population of orphans. Even after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, this so-called “free” country has continued to be plagued with corruption and mass poverty. The new government had no idea how to deal with so many orphans, so they would transfer them around from facility to facility until their paperwork got lost.
What happened next was truly awful. Children started disappearing from the orphanages. Without the appropriate paperwork, no one knew where they were, how to identify them, or where to find them. Then, two weeks before my team arrived in the country, police uncovered a black market organ trade going on in Italy, with an apparently unlimited supply of fresh organs coming out of Romania. It didn’t take much for us to put two and two together.
We visited one of the mental hospitals from which children were disappearing. They wouldn’t let us in, in spite of our scheduled appointment. So we parked our bus outside the front gate and waited for over an hour. Eventually, the staff relented and let us in, but only to a certain room in the facility, and we were forbidden from taking photos or videos (a rule we disobeyed). The scene inside reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Nazi concentration camps in World War II. The smell alone was almost unbearable.
We sat and sang and played with the “patients” (“inmates” would be a more accurate term) for as long as the administration would allow us. At no time did I see any doctors, nurses, or other attendants in this so-called “hospital”. I left that place feeling more helpless than ever before. There was no humanity in that place, no life, only existence (and even that was marginal and temporary, at best).
On the other hand, I also visited a Baptist church in a town called Galati. We were there to distribute gifts and supplies to kids. It was a chaotic scene at the end of a long day. We were running out of supplies and this little church, probably no bigger than ours, was packed with over a thousand kids. In the middle of all the chaos, a man grabbed me by the arm and said, “You will come to my house for tea!” I didn’t know what to say, so I just told him to talk with my team leader about it.
After all the noise died down, we piled back onto our bus and collapsed. We’d had no rest and nothing to eat all day. My team leader stood up and thanked us for all our hard work and said there was just one more thing we had to do.
“I know you’re all exhausted,” he said, “but there’s this guy who wants us to come to his house. I promise it won’t take long, but let’s just be polite and humor him before we go.”
We all grudgingly said okay and went to his house. What we saw when we got there just blew us away. This man and his family were especially concerned about all those orphans in the government systems. Even those who weren’t being killed for their organs were just dumped out onto the street on their 18th birthday. What this family did is take those freshly ejected orphans and bring them into their own home. They gave these kids a safe and stable place to live while they learned viable job skills. They even brought these kids to church and taught them about Jesus and the Bible.
As if that weren’t enough, they had prepared a welcome for us that we never could have expected. We walked into a room with a table set with a feast of hors devours. To a team of college students who hadn’t had anything to eat all day, it looked like heaven on earth!
What was even more like heaven on earth was what happened next. This family and their adopted orphans talked and sang with us around the table. In spite of the language barrier, we were all enjoying ourselves immensely. We passed a guitar back and forth, singing one song in English, and then one in Romanian. Finally, when it was our turn again, I had an idea:
I said, “Here’s an oldie but a goodie,” and started playing Amazing Grace. The Romanians in the room got extremely excited and shouted, “We know this song!” And then, over this feast of hor devours, this foretaste of heaven, a group of Americans and Romanians, middle-class college students and previously homeless orphans, sang together this most well-known hymn, each in their own language. I think that moment is about as close to heaven as I will ever get in this lifetime.
How amazing! This week, as we read about God’s dream in Desmond Tutu’s book, I remember that incredible night in Galati, Romania. In that moment, I was being fed and nourished, not just by strangers with rye bread and deviled eggs, but by that great and mysterious “interdependent web of existence”, of which I am a part. I felt the Spirit of God in the room that night, knitting us foreigners together and filling the cups of our souls to overflowing.
What I witnessed in this family and their adopted orphans is what Archbishop Tutu calls ubuntu. Ubuntu is a hard word to translate into English. Much like the Greek word agape and the Hebrew word shalom, there is no single English word that adequately captures the reality to which the African word ubuntu is referring. Ubuntu is a particular character quality, much like courage and kindness are character qualities, but ubuntu is, in Archbishop Tutu’s words, “the essence of being human.” Saying that someone has the quality of ubuntu is a very great compliment. A person who possesses ubuntu recognizes that “a person is a person through other persons”. In other words, ubuntu is all about recognizing the fact that we are interdependent beings. To pull a phrase from the Disney movie The Lion King, we are all part of “the circle of life”. None of us exists alone. Archbishop Tutu says, “The self-made man or woman is really an impossibility” and “The solitary man or woman is really a contradiction in terms”.
More than just an African cultural concept, Archbishop Tutu tells us that ubuntu is “God’s dream” for us. What God wants more than anything in the world is for us to be people who have ubuntu. You can hear echoes of this idea when you hear Jesus say, “In all things, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And again when Jesus is asked about the most important commandment in the Bible and he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I can also hear ubuntu in the selection we read this morning from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He compares the community of a church to a human body. What makes us beautiful is our diversity. All the different parts work together to form a whole. This is more than just motivational team-building; it’s the expression of a spiritual truth. We are part of each other. We are one family, even one person, in God’s eyes. Christ is more than just a person we remember on Sundays; Christ is the body of which we are a part. We are the body of Christ on earth. The blood of Christ flows in our veins. We reveal this mystical reality of Christ to the world, not just by ourselves, but together as a group. This means that if I want to be a Christian, then I need you.
We humans seem to have an uncanny ability to divide and demean ourselves. It’s almost as if the truth of ubuntu and our common identity in Christ is so powerful, so radical, and so threatening to the status quo that we’ll come up with just about anything as an excuse to invalidate it. We’ll build walls between each other over skin color, gender, sexual orientation, politics, religion, sports teams, musical tastes. At what point do we wake up and realize how ridiculous it all is? And the most hilarious part is that none of it means a thing, since we can’t ever change the fact that we all come from one source and are headed toward one destiny. The battle lines we draw are little more than squiggles on a piece of paper to God.
God is much less concerned about who is different and much more concerned about how we treat those who are different from us. Can we, through the lens of our particular faith, recognize and celebrate “the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part”? To see each other in this way is to see the image of God. To love each other in this way is to serve Christ. This is ubuntu. This is our destiny. This is God’s will, God’s vision, God’s dream for us. The question that each of us has to answer this week (and every week) is this: how are you going to wake up and make God’s dream come true?