Each one of you is a child of God because of your faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, if you belong to Christ, you’re the offspring of Sarah and Abraham, which means you inherit all that was promised.
When I was in high school I did Model United Nations - have you done it? You take on the identity of a country and practice negotiations and trade agreements and pretend to be in the UN – you learn about the world and economics and politics, and it’s a great way to develop some leadership skills. For a weekend students from various Indiana high schools are gathered on a college campus to try to pass treaties and so forth. Sometimes in Model UN the organizers give students a challenge by announcing some breaking news, a hurricane or a pipeline burst or something, so the students have to scramble, and get creative, and work together.
In the middle of this weekend, the organizers – college students – announced that an earthquake had rocked India. Now this could have just been a tactic, a ploy, to get us to work harder. But it just so happened that my dad was in India, he was working with the Church of the Brethren in India, which has been in serious conflict for decades, and he was there on one of many trips he made. So when the organizers announced this earthquake I went to them to find out if this was fact or fiction.
If it had been today I would’ve pulled out my phone and looked it up online. But this was the late 90s and no one had cell phones, let alone smartphones, yet. So I asked and found out that the earthquake was real, and found out it was in the area where my dad was traveling. And then I found a phone and called my mom. She hadn’t heard from him. She was calling Elgin to find out what they knew. Well, many of you have met my dad, you know he’s fine, but we didn’t hear from him until the next day – they’d been in a car when the earthquake struck and so no buildings fell on them, they were safe.
Buildings fell on many people, that’s how most people die in earthquakes, nearly 20,000 died in that earthquake in northern India in 1998. And while I was waiting to hear if my dad was okay I was checking the news and reading the death toll estimates and I was praying he wasn’t dead and suddenly I realized that if I got my prayer, my wish, my hope, and my dad was alive, then someone else was dead. Because as many as 20,000 people were dead and if my dad was alive, someone else was dead.
So I felt guilty. But mostly I was afraid and wanted my dad to be okay.
Because I have a human heart. I can’t love like God does. God can love each of those 20,000 people, all the injured, all the unscathed, and God loves me even as I love unequally and incompletely.
As much as I’d like to reach some enlightenment and love the whole planet all at once, I can’t. I love the people closest to me the most, the people I spend the most time with, the people I’ve shared the most of myself with. I will always love them the most, I will always care more about my family and friends than I care about strangers.
The front page of the Daily News is filled with local stories about local people. Our hearts, our minds, are the same. We can't keep track of every person killed in all the latest terrorist attacks – 28 people died in airstrikes in Syria yesterday, and Syrian refugees are still dying on land and sea trying to find safety. A man killed over 80 people in France with a truck last week, but wasn't it only a couple weeks ago that a terrorist attacked in northern France? And the attempted coup in Turkey resulted in over 200 people dead, but wasn't it just last month that dozens died in a Turkish airport bombing?
I don't mean to be flippant – I'm sure many of you really do watch the news carefully and keep people around the world in your prayers. But the people we don't know will not be on the front page of our hearts or minds.
And we're well-intentioned people! We know that our lives are connected with people around the world, like the beautiful spiderweb on our bulletin this morning. In Martin Luther King's words, "It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a French [person]. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese [person]. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality." MLK 1967 A Christmas Sermon for Peace
Beyond our global economy, which King so eloquently describes, we are interconnected in so many ways. What we do in Huntingdon affects climate change, for example, the carbon we send into our atmosphere is like tugging on this spider web, and the vibrations ripple around the world, impacting storms in Bangladesh. What if someone had intervened during the many years Omar Mateen used steroids – would he still have killed 49 people in Orlando's Pulse nightclub? Just a small tug in the global spiderweb, we are part of healing and hurting that we will never understand.
But there are so many reasons not to speak up, or reach out, or stand for others. Maybe you spent hours on the phone some day last week, talking to one health insurance rep, then you were on hold, then you got transferred to another department, then you had to call your doctor's office for some bit of data and you're still not sure how to get the health care you need.
Maybe you couldn't stop replaying a painful conversation from work, or within your family, maybe your brain was busy rehashing and wishing that relationship could be different.
When we don't speak up or reach out or stand for others, it's not necessarily because we don't care. And still, we have a lot of excuses to not care.
I think about how today, nearly everyone believes that the Holocaust was a tragedy, was wrong. And yet at the time, as thousands and then millions of people were killed, most people didn't get in the way of that violence. Some people did! But most people didn't want to get involved, didn't want to get in trouble, didn't want to be in danger.
Elie Wiesel was one of the only people in his family to survive the Holocaust, though as a teenager in Auschwitz he came close to death himself. Elie Wiesel, who died two weeks ago, gave humanity a glimpse into the most tragic and the most hopeful aspects of humanity.
When his Jewish family was harassed by police and their own neighbors in Hungary, they just wanted to avoid violence. When Germany pressured Hungarian authorities to force Jewish citizens to wear the yellow star, Elie Wiesel's father said "The yellow star? So what? It's not lethal."
Jews have been forced to wear stars since at least the Middle Ages, by various authorities in various parts of the world. Nazi Germany didn't come up with the idea. We think of them, usually, as representing the Star of David, which Jewish people have used as a religious symbol for thousands of years. One theory about the meaning of this star goes back to God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 chapter 1:
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”... The Lord took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram would become Abraham and Sarai would become Sarah and their descendants would be as bountiful as the stars in the sky. We get the same words from God in Genesis 22:17 "I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven."
And that poetic promise of stars became a program of terror as Nazi soldiers and political officials and angry citizens tried to wipe out all the stars, all the Jews.
I bet you've wondered what you would have done. I have. I hope I would have been a neighbor like Miep Gies, who helped Anne Frank and her family hide in the Netherlands. I hope I wouldn't have given in to fear, or my own stresses or my sense of helplessness amidst so much suffering.
So many well-intentioned, kind people didn't speak up or reach out or stand for others during the Holocaust. One was Martin Neimoller, a German Lutheran pastor. Since he feared the rise of Communism in Germany, Neimoller was first a fan of Hitler. But when Hitler insisted that the state rule over religion, Neimoller got suspicious. You may recognize Neimoller's name. He was the one who said,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
And Neimoller, along with many other pastors who opposed Hitler, did end up in a concentration camp, and survived.
Neimoller reminds us of another reason we might not speak up or reach out or stand for others – we might feel guilty, or ashamed, that we didn't act sooner. What if he decided to stay defined by his mistaken support for Hitler, and never spoke up at all?
In this spiderweb world we live in, we hurt or help people without intending to. And sometimes we know exactly what we're doing. I think of that rhyme "oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." Or despair, or ignore.
The fear and loss that consumes France today, the terror that Syrians face in their country or in any place they're seeking refuge, the hopelessness that greets incarcerated people each morning – all of these stories, all of this pain won't ever be on the front page of our hearts or minds for more than a minute here and a minute there. Then our own worries, our own disappointments, our own longings will rise up again.
And our scripture from Galatians reminds us that we are family to one another.
In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, if you belong to Christ, you’re the offspring of Sarah and Abraham, which means you inherit all that was promised.
We are the stars of the sky that God promised Abraham and Sarah. We are part of the spiderweb in our suffering and in our celebration.
All are one in Christ Jesus – what does that mean to you? Does it mean we're only family to other Christians? I don't read it that way.
Think about those yellow stars during World War II. Jews were forced to wear them, but some Christians and atheists wore them too, in solidarity. Maybe some of them wore yellow stars because they read Paul's letter to the Galatians.
What I read is that our human love has limits. That we need a guide, like Jesus, to remind us that God's love is way bigger than our love can be.
Martin Luther King says, "We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize [the] basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality." We might not feel like we're family to despairing Muslim youth in Minneapolis who consider joining ISIS to give their lives meaning. We might not feel like we're family to the angry underemployed coal miners in West Virginia who support Donald Trump. We might not feel like we're family to tattooed teenagers smoking cigarettes as they push baby strollers around Huntingdon. Whoever it is you struggle to love, picture them now.
In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.
Our love has limits. But we gather as a community to follow Jesus' example of radical love. Beyond our understanding, we are connected in the web of life, we have each been born out of this Divine Creation, alongside the despairing Muslim youth and angry coal miners and teenage moms.
We love the people we're closest to the most. We give most of our brain space to our own cares and hopes. And we gather here in community to stretch our hearts. Let us join in a hymn that proclaims a large love.
This is my song
(Benediction) Sisters and brothers, go into this spiderweb world with care and gratitude for each opportunity you find this week to love. Love, like Jesus, the last, the lost, the least. Love large. Amen.