When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it. The memories of Saturday's Habitat Dedication will stay with me for a while. I think I have attended eight of them over the past ten years. They are always powerful moments, seeing a diverse community come together to work side by side with future homeowners to put a roof over a family’s head. Saturday, I also took home some bodily souvenirs – specifically, three blisters. Between raking and working the sander and the sawsall, I was reminded that I don’t often do this kind of work for sustained periods of time. And even though the rough spots are extremely small, the discomfort takes up a disproportionate amount of my emotional energy today.
When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.
When we read the Psalm this morning, a Psalm attributed to King David, we find the author in a much better mood than the one we read last week. It seems like things are going well for the moment, something he attributes to God, giving glory to the Lord of his salvation. I’m glad for David – I really am. I hope that all of us can read this Psalm at times when we feel at our best and give God the glory. I would also hope that this kind of praise could guide us when we know that others are suffering and in pain. If so, it can encourage us to work beside them so that they, too, could claim the words of this Psalm as their own hymn of joy.
Because when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.
It’s a principle, I believe, we know well at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. When one of our members is in distress, we respond, dropping from the roof like care ninjas. We do so not only when those whom we know are affected, but when those whom we have never met are aggrieved. That’s why we build Habitat houses and deliver coffee to Mercy Community Church. That’s why we bring food and fellowship to Journey Men’s Shelter and give groceries away at the Suthers’ Center. And it is why our hearts break when we learn that bullets fly in a Charleston church.
When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.
Like many of you, my thoughts this morning are tied up in the awful news reports from South Carolina just four days ago. 21 year old Dylann Roof went into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. After an hour, he stood up, made racist statements, and opened fire, killing nine worshipers before fleeing the scene.
As has become unfortunate custom in our society, pundits immediately took to the air waves, offering their own take long before any facts were in. There have been calls for gun control, against gun control, removal of the Confederate flag from places of honor in South Carolina, statements on the gunman’s drug use and mental state, framing this as a terror attack, as an attack motivated not by racial hatred but religious enmity…
And while I do think that there is merit to some of these observations, here is what I think we need to hear this morning: when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.
I am convinced that Dylann Roof’s attack was, indeed, an attack on faith. I don’t say so because I agree with the talking heads who want to shape their own narrative of religious persecution of Christians in America. Frankly, the suggestion is insulting to real examples of religious persecution taking place, where people really are dying because of what they believe.
No. What I believe is that, when intense racial hatred motivates someone to kill Christians in church, then I do think that something of faith is at stake. If these ideas drive you to murder worshipers, then they have no place in faith. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ and, at the same time, claim that racial superiority is real. My refrain this morning comes from Paul: “When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.” There is no asterisk next to the statement, listing exceptions based on race, or nationality, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or denomination. Just as I cannot put my thumb aside until the blister heals, neither can I separate the body of Christ into different parts because solidarity would be inconvenient.
Two weeks ago, several members of our church shared lunch and fellowship with several members of First Congregational Church, a historic African-American congregation in downtown Atlanta. We had initially been brought together by mutual distress from shootings in Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Baltimore and…and…and…The #blacklivesmatter movement that has arisen has been crucial, reminding Americans that we have not eliminated racism. The harder question is, what do we do about it?
This morning, several members of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have answered that question by choosing to worship at First Congregational. Like Emanuel AME in Charleston, First Congregational is an old, historically black church in the downtown of a major Southern city.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s a symbolic gesture – but it is something. Here at Oglethorpe, we can, and will, pray for the victims and the perpetrator in Charleston. We can, and will, pray for the church on Earth to look a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven. And yet, when we can still talk about black churches and majority white churches, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.
So what do we do?
There is, I think, in our culture, a desire for the quick fix. There must be something we can do immediately to make everything OK. Prayer vigils and marches and demonstrations have been taking place all over the country, a sign of our hunger for a timely response. And that is all good. And yet, the truth is that solutions to deep-seeded problems take patient diligence for the long haul. So, let’s get started.
Think about your friendships. How many of your friends are unlike you? I don’t mean the cousin that votes Republican while you vote Democrat. I mean really unlike you? Different in politics, race, religion, sexuality, age, economics, and so on? Have you, in your own life, sought to cultivate such relationships? Because in the end, that’s really the only way that we can build the kingdom of God, is if we do it together.
God’s desires are not fulfilled when we exist in our own little silos or ghettoes, segmented off in our echo chambers of self-congratulation. God’s desires come into being when the things we thought we knew about the way the world works are challenged and strengthened because we are with those unlike us who are no less or more created in the image of God.
Can you think of someone with whom you can cultivate a sustained relationship of difference? I’m not talking about one-stop cultural tourism; although, if that’s all you’ve got, it’s at least a place to begin. And if you don’t even have that, then spend some time thinking about why not.
Is there a neighbor you’ve failed to meet or welcome? Or a colleague at work you haven’t invited to lunch? What about your activities? Are they all within the circle of sameness? What would it look like to break out, to reach out, to get out of that cycle? Where are the possibilities for making that happen?
If any of this rubs you wrong or overwhelms you at the mere thought, then good. Faith is rarely about doing what comes easy to us. Instead, this kind of culture shock can be the most faithful thing we do. It can be disorienting, but that’s because it points us toward reorientation, shifting us toward God’s vision.
I remember the first time I attended a Greek Orthodox liturgy. I was utterly lost. I had experienced a variety of Protestant and Catholic services, and knew generally what to expect. But none of them had prepared me for the culture shock of Orthodoxy. Fortunately, I had several friends who were patiently willing to explain it to me. And there was one piece in particular that moves me to my core.
As the priest prepares the chalice for communion, he takes a large loaf of bread. A stamp has been pushed into the soft dough, filling the baked bread with symbolism. The priest takes pieces of this loaf, cutting them one by one, placing them into the chalice. First come pieces representing our ancestors in faith. Then come pieces for the prophets, the angels, the saints of the church. And then come the prayers of the people: their joys and concerns, each offered up as a piece of bread, dropped into the chalice of wine, and mixed together.
It is out of this chalice that the people receive the bread and wine. It is as though their prayers, their joys and triumphs, their concerns and defeats, become one with those of the whole history of salvation, culminating in Christ himself. And right there, stamped into the same bread, is this statement of faith: Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory. Just as Christ carries our burdens, giving us the victory over adversity we so desire, so we, too, share in one another’s burdens. After all, when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.
Friends, this life of faith is not the easy path. The good news, though, is that we do not travel it alone. It is all about doing it together, with Jesus at the center of all that we do.
The table stands at the center of our worship, because it belongs to Jesus. And when we are around this table, as God’s people, looking into one another’s eyes, we begin to see glimpses of what God desires.
We haven’t said much about it today, but the word around which we gather is “communion”. It simply means together…as one. And that is what this feast is. It is a feast much larger than this table could ever hold. It is a feast that bridges all of those gaps that divide our world and our society. And in doing so, the hope, the outlandish but realistic hope, is that our glance around this table would open our eyes to all of God’s glorious children.