This week we mark the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Towers, and the Pentagon, and the crash of another plane in Pennsylvania whose attack target remains unknown.
Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001 when you heard the news? I do. I was swimming laps at the Queen Anne Pool. It was a Tuesday morning. The pool usually had either no radio playing or else music. On that day, the radio played the news. I wasn’t really paying attention to it because I was mostly underwater. When I came up for air during my swim, I heard something about an airplane crash. And something about New York City, but I thought that was a separate story. In the locker room people were talking about it, but information was sketchy and too shocking to believe. I walked back to my mother’s house, where I had spent the night. She had already left for work, but she left me a note in the entry hall—“check the news”—and left the TV on in the kitchen. I stood in the kitchen, hair still wet, swim bag slung over my shoulder, hand over my mouth in horror, and watched the news for a long time.
In that brief moment after such an unthinkable evil, people all over the world stood with us in our grief. “Aujourd’hui nous sommes tous americains,” read the signs in France. “Today we are all Americans.” Such signs went up all over the world. Even in Iraq, which was eventually somehow targeted and blamed for the Afghani terrorists. “Today we are all Americans.” Unity. Grief. Goodwill. Remember those? For that short time, we were united against terrorism and evil. So much has changed in nineteen years. 2001 seems like ancient history.
This spring, for a number of weeks, New York City was again in the news, this time as the epicenter of the coronavirus. This spring also seems like ancient history now, but for a while we were hearing daily news briefs from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. During that time period, I had some college reunion gatherings on Zoom. Two of my classmates, who live in New York, talked about walking in the front door of their apartments, stripping off their clothes, putting them in a plastic bag, and then taking a shower before feeling germ-free enough to interact with family or just hang out in their own homes.
In 2001 people everywhere said, “Today we are all Americans.” The whole world was united against terrorism and tragedy. This year the common global foe is a virus, a pandemic that has already sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands. It shows no signs of slowing down.
Paul says, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We are all connected. We belong to each other. When we truly understand this, we bring our gifts to work for the benefit of the whole. Masks, for example. We wear them. We make them for others. We get that wearing a mask is a way of loving our neighbor by keeping our germs to ourselves, just in case some of those germs are COVID-19. It’s a little inconvenient but not much to ask to keep our neighbors alive and well. Those who don’t wear masks, who insist that their liberty includes thinking only of themselves, don’t get that they are connected to the whole. Their choices impact those around them, perhaps fatally.
As Paul says in our reading today, we bring all of our varied gifts to the challenge of being loving community in such a time. And in sharing who we are and what we do, we function as the body of Christ.
Where is the body of Christ needed in this pandemic?
We need the body of Christ to keep us healthy. Our healthcare workers are treating people of all ages, political affiliations, income levels, and races. Whether people fell ill with the virus because they were out partying, going to bars, and not wearing masks; or whether they wore masks and took all the precautions and got sick anyway, our healthcare workers bring their gifts and skills to help people get better.
We need the body of Christ to celebrate God in worship. Some of you share your gifts of music, or reading the liturgy, or photographs that restore our spirit, or technical abilities that make the service flow. We need them all.
We need the body of Christ to care for each other in other ways. Some of you have sewn masks, or taken people to and from doctor’s appointments, or made a phone call just to check in. We have always had those in our midst who excel at the ministry of tuna hot dish: bringing food when people are going through a rough time. Some of you continue to volunteer for Community Lunch to make sure that people can eat. Especially in this time of massive layoffs, this ministry is huge.
We are not alone. And none of us gets through such a time by trying to be all things to all people. That’s a recipe for burnout and failure. So we look at our God-given gifts and talents and figure out how we can share, what we can bring to the community. We get through together.
Our country is experiencing a lot of division in these years. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest has become a chasm. Strife around racism is on the front page every day. The split between Republicans and Democrats is so great that people have trouble carrying on a decent conversation because their worldviews are so opposed. Animus toward immigrants is so great that we now have a huge wall going up on the U.S.-Mexico border. The “us-them” mentality has our society firmly in its grip.
Which makes what Paul is saying so important. We are all in this together. And if we want to get through it, we have to work together. We have to practice ubuntu.
According to Wikipedia, ubuntu is a Ngoni Bantu word from southern Africa that means “humanity toward others,” “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity,” or simply, “I am because you are.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_philosophy]
Bishop Desmond Tutu speaks about ubuntu this way:
Ubuntu [...] speaks of the very essence of being human. [We] say [...] “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.”
[...] A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Bishop Tutu was a leader on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which worked to heal the divisions after apartheid. It sounds as if the apostle Paul was writing about ubuntu in his letter to the Romans. We belong to the body of Christ. We bring our individual gifts to serve the greater good, the greater body.
The firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Towers knew that they served the greater body. So did the people who brought food to the fire stations. And the chaplains who just sat with people while they cried. And those who sang Mozart’s Requiem in every time zone around the planet to mark the first anniversary of that grief that split us open and changed everything. Everyone had a part. Everyone brought a gift.
Today our healthcare workers serve the larger body. So do our grocery clerks, gas station attendants, package deliverers, and teachers.
And so do we. God is in our midst. We are part of something larger than any one of us. The God we serve calls us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as Paul says. In other words, God calls us to serve God and neighbor, to be about something bigger than ourselves. That’s where we find the body of Christ.
In a few moments we will celebrate communion. “Com” meaning “with”; “union” meaning “together.” Communion. We don’t celebrate the body of Christ alone; we celebrate it when we gather in community. This is one of the strengths and resources we can tap into during tough times: we know we are part of something bigger. We are connected. God holds us, and we hold each other.
So keep crossing those boundaries that are supposed to divide us into Us and Them. Keep loving in the midst of strife. Keep wearing masks as a way of keeping your neighbors safe. Keep bringing your gifts to be a blessing together more than they can be on their own. What you do for the greater good matters and makes a difference. You matter. We, Prospect United Church of Christ, matter. And we will know ourselves to be greatly blessed in the body of Christ. Amen.