God’s Dream

This is how the principle of ubuntu is taught to kids in Africa

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

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 ubuntuUbuntu 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?

Abiding in the Vine

Symbolic enactment of Ubuntu by African school children. Photo taken at Nazareth House Apostolate in Sierra Leone

John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:7-21

This past week, I was glad to wrap up another semester in my teaching job at Utica College.  I have to say that one of my favorite things about this academic year has been my daily walk from the parking lot to my office.

When I first arrive on campus in the morning, I like to sit in my car for a few minutes.  With two young kids, it’s hard to find a quiet moment to myself at home.  During these few minutes in my car, I like to close my eyes and pay attention to the natural rhythm of my breathing.  This is an exercise that I learned from a doctor named Jon Kabat-Zinn.  You would be amazed at the effect that it has on my day.  I feel so much more relaxed, focused, and “tuned in” to the present moment.

When I get out of my car, I am so much more aware of my immediate surroundings.  I feel the wind blowing my hair back as the soles of my feet hit the ground rolling and propel me forward, I smell the dirt emerging from beneath the snow, I hear the sound of birds chirping and cars going by, and I see blue sky meeting red brick and green grass that stretches as far back as the eye can see.

I’ve become particularly good friends with the two deciduous trees who flank the front entrance to White Hall, where my office is located.  I don’t know my botany well enough to name their species, but I’ve enjoyed watching them change with the seasons.  The brilliance of autumn gave way to the stark bareness of winter.  The buds of spring have now given way to new green leaves that seemed to burst forth overnight.  I suppose they have been right there for at least as long as I have been teaching at the college, but I never really noticed them before this year.  I guess you could say that, because of this new meditation practice, I’m literally “coming to my senses” in ways that I hadn’t before now.

I’m tempted to label this effect as a “spiritual experience,” except that it lacks so many of the characteristics that are often associated with mysticism.  There are no visions of angels or voices from heaven.  There is no intuitive sense of a supernatural presence within or around me.  I am simply aware of the present moment and caught up in what I like to call the “is-ness” of everything.  If I am experiencing God at all through this meditation exercise, it is as the “Ground of all Being” and the great “I Am Who I Am” that Moses encountered in the burning bush at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  If God is present at all, it is in the overall wholeness of “the big picture” and the natural lines of connection that weave us into “the interdependent web of existence.”

I said, “if God is present,” but of course I do believe that God is eternally present in all places and at all times, whether we perceive God’s presence or not.  Our moment-to-moment existence, as creatures, is forever dependent upon that which is greater than us.  For example, we do not “take birth,” our mothers give birth to us.  To illustrate further: imagine the finely-tuned delicate balance of creation that allows for life to exist on this planet.  If Earth were just a little bit closer to the sun, the oceans would boil and we would burn up.  If she were just a little bit farther away, we would freeze.  If Earth’s rotation on her axis were just a little more tilted, the seasonal conditions would be so extreme that the Arctic Circle would reach all the way to the tropics and vice-versa.  If the moon floated only a few miles closer to the Earth tidal forces would decimate our coastlines.  I could keep going, but I think you get the point.  We do not create or sustain ourselves.  Life cannot be taken for granted.  Existence is a gift that is given freely to all.

All of this has been in the back of my mind this week as I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words from John’s gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  He goes on to talk about “abiding” in the vine and “bearing fruit.”  This is a powerful image.  It speaks beautifully of the grace of being, which connects us to each other and to the greater whole.  Christians from the first century to the 21st century have come to believe that the great Source of Life and the Ground of all Being was revealed to the world through Jesus, not just in his words and accomplishments, but in his very person.  Other religions have noble sages and prophets who delivered the will of God or the meaning of life to people, but it was always the message and not the messenger that was most important.  Christianity is unique in our belief that the messenger is the message.  Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Each of us is begotten and sustained by our connection to this vine, the Source of Life.  This truth is so easily forgotten by people who live in the modern age.  We are trained to be rugged individualists.  In spite of our rational disdain for all things superstitious, we retain our belief in the ridiculous myth of the “self-made man (or woman).”  I think you can ask anyone in a hospital maternity ward and they’ll tell you that there’s no such thing.  We are all branches off the same vine.  Our lives intertwine and intersect with one another.  Our separate identity as branches presents us with the illusion of independence, but we can only keep that idea up so long as we persist in living what the Greek philosopher Socrates called “the unexamined life.”  The minute we start asking questions about who and what we are, it becomes self-evident that we are all connected to and dependent on each other and the whole.  Scientists have identified this inherent connection in their study of ecosystems.  Individual species are mutually supportive of each other in symbiotic networks that form the engine, if you will, of evolution.  Plants feed animals, who feed other animals, who die and return to the earth, where their bodies become fertilizer for plants.  The food chain, it seems, is not so much a line as a circle.  One of my favorite illustrations of this point comes from the process of breathing itself.  We animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide as waste.  Plants, as many of you already know, inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.  What a wonderful coincidence!  What beautiful symmetry!  We are sustaining one another through the very air that we breathe.

As Christians, we have come to understand and interpret our connection to the whole through the person of Jesus.  To us, he is far more than our favorite philosopher and an ancient wise man.  What we celebrate during this Easter season is our experience of Jesus as an eternally living reality.  Christ is alive in our hearts and the world around us.  He may not be visibly present, but he lives nonetheless.  We’ll say more about that when we celebrate Ascension Sunday in a few weeks.  Christ is alive.  He is the vine of which we are all branches.  This is the Christian’s fundamental understanding of the universe.  You might even call it our most basic principle.

In response to this truth that we believe, Jesus instructs his followers in John’s gospel to “abide in” him so that they might “bear fruit.”  What is that all about?  If we’re all branches on the same vine, wouldn’t we just naturally “abide in” (i.e. “stay connected to”) the vine?  On one level: yes.  We can’t cut ourselves off from the source of existence any more than one of us could willingly disconnect ourselves from an arm or leg.  But the vine analogy breaks down when we consider that human beings have a quality that plants do not have, to wit, consciousness.  We are able to think and make decisions in ways that other life forms cannot.  Through the choices we make and the lives we live, we are able to either honor our connection to the whole or not.  We can nurture the common life that is in us all or not.  We can water the seeds of faith, hope, and love in our souls or not.  That much is up to us.  To the extent that we choose well, our lives will tend to flourish.  To the extent that we choose poorly, we will wither and die.  Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading make it clear that we are meant to flourish.

How can we do this?  How do we, as branches, abide in the life of the vine?  I think there are many ways that this is possible.  Personally, I have found my aforementioned meditation practice to be most helpful in this regard.  It reminds me of the significance and sacredness of the moment in which I find myself.  There is no day but today.  There is no place other than here.  Here and now is where I live.  Simply recognizing and respecting this reality goes a long way in nurturing my connection to the vine.

If you want to try it sometime, I recommend that you set aside a quiet place and time (I find that early in the morning, after my first cup of tea, works best, so that I don’t fall asleep).  Sit upright in a comfortable position with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor.  Close your eyes and try to become conscious of the fact that you are breathing.  Don’t try to breathe more deeply or slowly than usual, just notice this unconscious act that is happening in us all the time, whether we realize it or not.  Stay in this place for a while.  As thoughts pop into your head (and they will), don’t fight them or get angry at them, just simply acknowledge them and then gently direct your attention back to your breathing.  Do this as often as you need to.  It doesn’t matter if thoughts pop up one time or a hundred times.  Simply recognize the thought and redirect your attention.  You’re not trying to accomplish anything in the moment.  There are no “altered states of consciousness” that you are trying to reach.  You’re just trying to be fully aware of the present moment.  If you want to, try this exercise for five minutes a day.  When you feel ready, try increasing it by another five minutes at a time.  Some people stay at five minutes, some go for fifteen or twenty, and some sit like this for as long as an hour at a stretch.  It’s your practice.  Do what works best for you.

Another way that we can “abide in the vine” is through the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion).  Just as we’re about to do in a few minutes, we gather as a community around one table, breaking bread and drinking wine.  This ritual reminds us that we are part of one another through Christ.  We are what we eat: the body of Christ.  The wine reminds us that the blood of Christ flows in our veins.  They say that “blood is thicker than water.”  This blood is thickest of all.  As we eat and drink in this sacramental ritual, the branches abide in the vine.

Finally, and most importantly, the best way to “abide in the vine” is to nurture our relationships with each other.  This is the true mark of our religion and the true measure of our spiritual health.  Jesus continually told his followers that the “fruit” of this vine is love.  The community that first published John’s gospel also published his epistles, which we also heard from this morning.  They offered additional advice to flesh out what Jesus meant by “abiding in the vine.”

They remind us that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  If you want to know how spiritual a person is, don’t look at his/her church attendance or theological beliefs.  Look at the way s/he treats other people.  I once heard someone say, “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.”  The size of your waiter’s tip says more about the quality of your Christian faith than the Bible you leave on the table.  In fact, your life might be the only Bible that another person ever reads.  What does that Bible say about what you believe?

I was talking to someone just yesterday about politics.  I know that’s a dangerous topic for preachers to broach in church (especially in an election year), so I’ll choose my words carefully.  I’m not going to tell you how you should vote.  Frankly, I don’t care what your ideological stripes are: conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, whatever.  That doesn’t matter nearly so much as the way we treat each other.  I care very much about that.  We live in a time of intense polarization in this society where those labels (conservative/liberal) are thrown around and used as insults.  We slander each other with names like “fascist” and “socialist.”  We categorize and demonize those who think differently from us.  We paint them as stupid or evil.  This, rather than the particular views we fear, represents the real threat to our democracy.  We’re so busy attacking each other that we’re unable to make any real difference in advancing the common good.  It’s high time that we learn to “abide in the vine” and nurture the life of the whole plant, so that we might bear the fruits of peace and justice.

There is an African word, Ubuntu, that refers to a particular character quality.  A person who has Ubuntu is conscious of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people and all life.  We might say that a person with Ubuntu really knows how to “abide in the vine.”  We need more Ubuntu in our common life today.