Monday, May 25, 2009

Ubuntu

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 7th Sunday of Easter: John 17:6-19

I was at a meeting this week where someone described herself as “spiritual but not into organized religion.” A lot of people characterize themselves like that these days. It’s probably the fastest growing “religious affiliation” in the country—none.

So what does it mean to “believe” in organized religion? And why do we do it?

The first thing I want to say is the first thing I always want to say to someone who introduces herself in that way. “I’m an Episcopalian, a member of one of the most disorganized religions on the planet.”

The second thing I want to say is something like, “I sympathize.” I get mistrust of organized religion. I get frustration with an institution that has at times been—and remains—massively hypocritical, dysfunctional and even destructive. There are plenty of perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of a body that has seemed too many times to be more concerned with maintaining its own power than following Jesus. I have my own love/hate relationship with the church.

Jesus prays for his followers this morning that “they may be one, as we are one.” It is too often not our unity that the world around us sees, but our division. This has certainly been true for us Episcopalians and Anglicans over the last generation. It is not much of a positive witness to the world for us to be constantly at one another’s throats. I have been a member of the Episcopal Church for 28 years and have not known a church at peace with itself in that time.

So why am I still a member of it? Why have I devoted my life to it? Why do I still commend membership in it with all my heart?

It is because of our calling to be a people at one with one another. It is because of the communion I experience in it, relationships, connectedness, that constantly give me a glimpse of relationship with God, in fact that are manifestations of that relationship itself. I believe in the church as a laboratory for human relationship, a body through whom God continues to choose to work in spite of its flaws. Put succinctly and personally, I am called to be a part of you and I cannot separate this call from my call to be one with God.

I find this call—this way of life—to be wonderfully summarized in the African concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Bantu word that is rich in meaning. The Zulu people of South Africa say umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu which means, “A person is a person through other persons.” That is Ubuntu.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says this about Ubuntu:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

This is not the philosophy on which most of us in the West are raised, particularly in this country. Our ideal tends to be the “rugged individual.” We are the name we make for ourselves. We are defined by our accomplishments, what we do.

In the philosophy of Ubuntu—and I think this was very much Jesus’ own philosophy—we are defined by our relationships. We are who we are in relationship with. This is primarily God. So we are God’s beloved, and we are God’s beloved not because of something we have done to deserve it. We are God’s beloved because that is the relationship God has chosen to have with us.

We are called for all our other relationships to work in this same way, to reflect the relationship we have with God. So this Easter season we have been hearing John say in his letters things like, “You cannot say you love God and hate a brother or a sister.” My acceptance of other people is based on my acceptance by God.

Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, has chosen “Ubuntu” to be the theme of this summer’s General Convention. It is a challenging theme given that our governing body has been known mostly by its fractiousness over the past thirty years or so.

She is trying to remind us that more than anything else we need each other and must be committed to one another’s well being. That is very difficult when you’re in the middle of a fight where real principles held dear are involved. It is a challenge for me personally both to fight for my full inclusion in the church and to allow for generous space for those who disagree with me. What does winning look like? It cannot look like someone else’s exclusion as the basis for my inclusion. Somehow we’ve got to move forward with everybody’s dignity and integrity intact. That is very, very difficult.

But not impossible if for no other reason than, as the Gospel reading this morning reminds us, Jesus is praying for us, and his primary prayer is that we might remain one.

Last year at Pentecost, the great feast of the Spirit that we will celebrate next week, I wrote a kind of prayer poem for the Hip Hop Mass. There are copies of it on the back table. It goes like this

The Spirit of God on the streets of God
Ubuntu

We are all together in this life
Everyone deserves to live
Ubuntu

The Spirit of God makes us one
All people are one human family
Ubuntu

We are persons through other persons
Who we are is who we are with
Ubuntu

Each got the back of each
Caring, generosity is our creed
Ubuntu

The Spirit of God on the Streets of God
Ubuntu


The ideal of Ubuntu—what Jesus meant by unity—is why I believe in organized religion. Let it be our guiding light rather than our divisions. Let us proclaim in word and deed, we are one.

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