There’s nothing like a good famine to put things in perspective.
On Tuesday, Andrew Natsios, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Aid, said matter-of-factly of the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, "If nothing changes we will have one million casualties. If things improve we can get it down to about 300,000 deaths.” 1.2 million black Africans have been driven from their homes by years of fighting, and are living on the run, constantly menaced by hunger, disease, and the marauding Arab militias that roam the country unchecked, and sometimes encouraged, by the Sudanese government.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Christians in the richest country in the world, where the food wasted in one day could probably save those million people, have other things on their minds.
At the most recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church (equivalent to our General Convention), homosexuality was determined to be the top issue facing the church, taking priority over war and violence, poverty, racism, and that denomination’s double-digit decline in membership.
Catholic priests and bishops around the country are not only refusing Communion to politicians whose positions are not in step with that of the Vatican, but discouraging those who vote for them from receiving it as well.
Ronald Reagan was praised by his son for not wearing his religion on his sleeve, in a none-to-subtle jab at how fashionable it has become among politicians to do just that. The “WWJD” crowd wears Jesus like a logo, many with little understanding of who He was or what He stood – and died -- for.
And within our own Episcopal family, people are leaving churches they and their families have attended for generations, because they choose to narrowly interpret some seven verses of Scripture while ignoring dozens of others, and refuse to break bread with anyone who doesn’t share their interpretation.
What makes this all the more frustrating for me is knowing that I’m just as guilty of getting caught up in the partisan bickering as anybody else. Last week, I heard that 36 members of a parish in New Hampshire left because they don’t accept the authority of Bishop Gene Robinson, leaving just three people to keep the parish going. The following Sunday, when I heard there were nearly a hundred people in the church, the small wave of glee I experienced was not exactly charitable.
It’s a small wonder that a common mantra of the un-churched is “Sure I love Jesus, it’s His followers I can’t stand!” None of this dirty laundry escapes the drama-hungry press, and outsiders must scratch their heads and wonder which liturgical season it is when we take a break from finger-pointing and actually pray.
Today’s lessons neatly summarize what it is God expects from us. In Deuteronomy, “You shall … love the stranger, for you were strangers.” And in the Gospel reading, we are told “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven; for He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”
In other words, none among us is equipped to decide who is deserving of God’s love, or who deserves to be in God’s house. God is capable of figuring that out without our help, and the time we use to judge one another takes us away from the task with which we were entrusted. Christ made it clear that God’s love is universal, and demonstrated that by always surrounding himself by the marginalized, unpopular, “hard-to-love” types who cause us to get self-righteous or crack jokes or divert our path. Christ asked us to be His hands, He expects us to get those hands dirty, and give those people who take us outside our comfort zone the same dignity that He would. If we concentrated on that, we’d be far too busy to notice one another’s imperfections.
In the reading from Hebrews, Paul talks about Abraham and Sarah and their kin, who had little more than their faith to sustain them when they lived in tents in a foreign country, waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Fast-forward to 2004, and Abrahams and Sarah’s are all around us, as many as the stars of heaven, in refugee camps and homeless shelters, in detention centers and on street corners, barely daring to dream of a heavenly city of their own design. It’s easier for us to insulate ourselves in our own cares, blame others for the world’s problems and pretend they’re not our responsibility, but if we each tried just that little bit harder to get past the rhetoric and focus on WWJ really D, then – brick by brick -- that city would be reality, instead of something millions of people die dreaming about.