20 February 2011
7th Sunday after Epiphany
We’ve been reading in the reflection paragraph for the last eight weeks, “In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks we can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”
I wonder how crazy we’re willing—or able—to be to follow Jesus. I wonder how much the culture we’re immersed in distorts our understanding of Jesus message. Do you—or I—really believe, as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians that the wisdom of the world is absurd? Do we secretly believe that the Sermon on the Mount is really wishful thinking, not a reflection of what can be?
In preparing for this sermon I encountered an article from Sojourners Magazine by Jim Roos in which he describes the “foolishness” of the message conveyed by Jesus’ life and teaching:
What kind of sense does it make to worship a God who, instead of rescuing us out of trouble, rescues us by entering into the trouble with us? A God who, instead of helping us to avoid pain, heals us from our pain by entering the depths of our pain with us? A God who, instead of fixing things for us, addresses them by becoming weak with us in our weakness?
But this is the foolishness of the cross. All of us know pain and grief and disappointment in our lives. Our human wisdom wants a God who will heal us and make us feel better. The foolishness of the cross is a God who enters into our pain and bears our pain with us. To the part of us that is human and perishing, this is incomprehensible and we want something more. But to the part of us that is being saved, it is the very power of God.
And even more foolishly, this very same God expects us to do the same with each other: to enter into each other’s pain, to bear each other’s burdens and those of the world around us. To the world, that is an utterly foolish way to live…
It’s utterly foolish to believe that we’re all—I mean ALL—in this life together. It’s utterly foolish to believe that when those who are out to get me suffer, I suffer, too. It’s much easier to believe that when my enemies suffer, they’re being taught a lesson, and I should rejoice.
However, that’s not what Jesus taught. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor—but hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. That will prove you are children of God.”
We’ve just seen a truly remarkable example of what can happen when humans love—or at least show respect toward—their enemies. I imagine that most of us have watched events in Egypt over the past four weeks with a growing sense of awe and gratefulness: gratefulness for the refusal of the demonstrators to resort to violence, and awe at how conventional wisdom was turned upside down—when so-called “powerless” people overturned a powerful and internationally supported dictatorship.
There are thousands of stories coming out of the events taking place in Cairo, but two really struck me. The first was that leaders encouraged their followers at the beginning of the demonstrations to approach individual policemen and make personal, civilized contact. “Love your enemies.”
The second was a comment from one of the organizers about the power of community. She said that when the first protesters took to the streets, they had already formed a community, using both virtual and person-to-person means. She said that working together and learning to know and trust each other before stepping into the maelstrom made possible what couldn’t have happened otherwise. They were in it together.
Of course, we know that the mostly peaceful ouster of governments in Egypt and Tunisia is not the end of the story. Other efforts to bring about change in the Middle East are turning violent, and there are huge challenges in Egypt to achieving a truly democratic, open government. We can resign ourselves to the belief that nothing will really get better, or we can align ourselves with the foolish hope that human beings are capable of learning how deeply connected each of us is to one another and to the well-being of all creation.
I’m not sure of the exact quote, but Jim Wallis has written something like this: “Hope is acting contrary to the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” What a powerful spiritual practice this invites: to distill from the grim events and projections around us the nuggets of good news that show up and to align our spirits and actions with those.
Carole and I had an opportunity to see some of the fruits of this practice when we visited South Africa this past November. There’s more visible hope in South Africa than in many places in the world, but there are also daunting challenges. As Carole puts it, the spirit of hope flowing out of the transition from apartheid to democracy is palpable, but hope may wither if strides are not made in the foreseeable future to reduce the vast gulf between rich and poor and the desperate poverty of so much of the population.
Visits to Winterveldt, the rural township that is home to the Bokamoso Youth Center that Seekers helps support, and to urban townships adjacent to Johannesburg and Cape Town gave us a taste of the magnitude of need in the country. Our two days in Winterveldt brought the reality of poverty and the obstacles to prosperity close to home. Of course, we didn’t personally experience the lack of resources, including food, that the majority in the township live with, but we could see the evidence and hear the stories.
The recent history of Winterveldt reflects anything but the notion that “we are all in this together.” Originally farmland owned by white farmers, then land leased to black farmers, and then an area converted into a dumping ground for thousands of black South Africans being forcibly removed from Pretoria, the township today is a hodge podge of people from different tribes, with limited access to education beyond high school, to jobs, transportation or markets. Corrugated metal or concrete block shacks are the predominant form of housing. Electricity and water are becoming more widely available, but many areas of the sprawling township remain unelectrified and without easy access to clean water. Unemployment is over 50%, and I’ve heard estimates as high as 70% for young people.
As many of you know from the dramatic performances of the Bokamoso Drama Group, drugs, crime and domestic violence abound in Winterveldt. In their recent visit to the US, members of the group reported that the predominant mood among young people in the township is one of despondency. There is little belief in themselves or the likelihood of better lives in the future.
In the middle of this depressed physical and human landscape sits the Bokamoso Youth Center. It’s pretty basic in appearance—a compound of one-story, concrete buildings surrounded by walls and a gate that can be closed because security is an issue. The rooms inside are sparsely furnished; the offices, by our standards, are barely minimally equipped.
It would be easy to conclude that not much important goes on there—until you see the young people who gather each day to participate in one of several programs designed to teach life skills needed to face the challenges of poverty, crime, and joblessness and to instill a sense of hope and belief in themselves.
What is truly amazing to witness—both onsite in Winterveldt and in the performances and stories the young people tell us here—is what a difference it makes when they see that they’re not facing life’s challenges alone but are in it with others. They are seeing what can happen when “we enter into each other’s pain and bear each other’s burdens and those of the world around us.”
Carole and I took the deluxe Winterveldt tour offered by three graduates of the Bokamoso program who want to establish a tour guide service. Through their eyes we could see a different side to the township from what we would have seen on our own. Let me read how they describe one of the tours they are developing:
On our cultural tour, we would like to expose people to Winterveldt’s many cultures. Winterveldt has residents from many different countries and South African tribes. Countries represented in our community include Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana. Our tribes include Tswana, Venda, Pedi, Zulu, Ndebele, Xhosa, and Tsonga, among others.
[The young tour guides then note:] Remarkably, our residents live peacefully side-by-side, respecting each other’s right to exercise their beliefs and practice their traditions.
What could reflect more clearly an awareness of “being in it together”?
South Africa is a case study in the evil that flows from the human inclination to categorize and separate, to create systems by which we convince ourselves that the world is divided into “us and them.” During apartheid’s official existence, from 1948 to 1994, increasingly oppressive and detailed laws and regulations attempted to preserve the supremacy of the minority in power against the feared uprising of an oppressed majority. Many factors led to the demise of that system, but the vision of one man, who saw that the well-being of each depended on the well-being of all, was absolutely critical. Nelson Mandela preached the gospel—little “g”—of loving—or at least respecting—one’s enemies and understanding that we’re all in it together.
We don’t have to go to South Africa to encounter the consequences of human failure to see that we are connected in a web of interdependence. And we don’t have to look to South Africa or Egypt or anywhere else to find opportunities to grow in our capacity “to enter into each other’s pain and to bear each other’s burdens and those of the world around us.” We have ample opportunities near at hand, and here are a few:
Those in the School of Christian Living class with David Hilfiker are looking at the environmental and human costs of our profligate use of the world’s resources. The picture is unremittingly grim for humans and the earth, but the author of the book we are using is not without hope, hope that he admits will be seen by many as impractical and politically naïve. All of us will have plenty of ongoing opportunities to enter into the foolish hope of large scale changes in the way we Americans live, beginning with changes in our own lives.
Jake, through his one-on-one connections, and Sandra, through stories from her work at Community Vision, help Seekers see the consequences of regarding people who are homeless as “other,” and they offer us ways to recognize and act on our connections.
The planning group for Sacred Conversations on Race and Diversity offers opportunities for us to become more aware of the vast damage done by categorizing human beings based on race, religion, culture, gender and other classifications and, through personal connections, to form relationships that stand against division.
A few Seekers have joined with others in the wider Church of the Saviour community to seek ways to respond to the shocking and largely hidden injustices our legal system. Over the past four decades, our criminal—so-called “justice”—system has been designed to systematically and with increasing effectiveness target African Americans, especially African American males, for incarceration, and then relegate them to the lower rungs of a caste system once they are released from prison. This has, without exaggeration, been called “the new Jim Crow.” Stay tuned to learn more about ways to participate in or support a movement to change this system.
These are but a few of the opportunities each of us has to manifest that we are children of God, a God whose saving grace is to enter into our struggles with us. We, too, can be crazy as coots, enter into the foolishness of God, and embrace life, knowing ever more deeply, we’re in it together.