Over the last week, I have come face to face with something that is utterly terrifying. I have come to realize my own ability and, I think, the ability of many of those around me to completely compartmentalize and forget about what has happened in Haiti.
My eyes have begun to skip over the new articles posted online about Haiti, being drawn more towards updates on the Tiger Woods scandal or whether the Vikings have a shot in their game this afternoon. I mean, as of Friday, even CNN.com had abandoned its special front-page section of news articles on the conditions and reports coming out of Port-au-Prince.
I think the reason this was such a terrifying realization for me is because of how I was initially affected by this tragedy. The day after the earthquake hit, I learned that a student from Wartburg Seminary, Ben Larson, had been killed in the earthquake. He was 25 years old, married, and just a semester away from graduating. A couple months back, I had met his cousin, Jonathan Larson, who was in the same building when the earthquake struck. Thankfully, Jonathan was able escape. As emails updates were sent around and as friends posted on their facebook page how they knew Ben, the reality and proximity of this disaster slowly began to sink in for me. Whoa. This isn’t just some story on the news. Buildings collapsed on people. A building collapsed on a seminarian from Iowa, who was 25 years old and married. I know it might sound a little cliché, but….I’m 27. I’m married. I’m a seminarian. That could just have easily been me.
Later that night, a friend stopped by our house, and we talked all about Ben Larson and our connection to his story. And during that discussion, something happened to me. Standing in my living, emotion began to swell within me, and I realized that all I wanted to do was hug this friend of ours, to kiss her on the cheek, and say, “We love you.” More so than 9/11, more so than Hurricane Katrina, my personal reaction to this earthquake was one that felt visceral and instinctual – as if something in my body was taking me over. I wanted to hug and kiss all those whom I loved. I wanted to feel the warmth of those near to me.
What has your reaction been? Has anything in particular struck a chord within you? Hearing about parents frantically looking for their lost children? Perhaps learning about a 20-year-old college student who was crushed in a hotel collapse reminds you of your 20-year-old child, grandchild, nephew, or cousin, whose safety you fear for. Or, having lived through a natural disaster yourself, you recall what that was like for you, which puts you unusually in sync with what many in Haiti might be feeling. Or maybe you have not felt affected by Haiti. For whatever reason, this particular event has not come close enough to you to stir up an emotional reaction.
For me, I think it has all become so overwhelming, that my mind simply shuts it out. I cannot handle how close this tragedy hits and at the same time, how helpless and distant I feel in relation to it. So I compartmentalize it and easily forget.
Knowing that I would be preaching on the Philippians passage for today, all week I sat with this text desperately wondering what connection it could possibly have to this current situation. And then, finally, it dawns on me. Paul is writing to this congregation in Philippi from prison. In prison….where Paul’s ability to lead churches and spread the love of Christ is significantly limited. In prison…where I imagine he might feel helpless and distant. What he does then is write this letter to advocate for two female, ex-slaves, Euodia and Syntyche, to be given leadership roles in the church at Philippi. Paul wants to say that these two women are of equal standing with him because they all share identity through Christ, and, therefore, are fit to lead the church. To make this point, Paul boasts about and immediately discredits his own resume. He arrogantly announces his astounding credentials as a Pharisaic Jew, member of the tribe of Benjamin, knowledgeable in Hebrew, and a perfect follower of the Law. And then…he says that all of it is meaningless. He rejects his righteousness, his status that comes from these things, because his identity comes from Christ. He says, “All of this is rubbish, garbage, because I have been given a mutual relationship with Christ. I am found in Christ and Christ is found in me.”
And then just at the point where our reading stops, Paul goes into the crucial part of his letter. He says, “Let those of you here be of the same mind. Imitate my thinking. Because Christ is in you too. Your identity rests in Christ, not in your resume or achievements.” So while Paul is writing this letter of recommendation for Euodia and Syntyche, because their identity is in Christ, what he is really saying is that all of us hold that same identity. He is writing this letter of recommendation for you! Not just you as Helen, or CJ, or Brian, or Roschelle, but you as the body of Christ. Because if Christ is found in each and every one of you, then you are bound together in Christ. Christ is the connection between all of you, and you become a body. You are the body of Christ, Paul says, in another letter.
And then….if Christ is in all of you and if Christ is in everyone else in the world, then you are bound together through Christ to all the people of the world. And suddenly, Haiti doesn’t seem so distant anymore.
Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, Paul says, together you work out your salvation, “for it is God who is at work in you.” Together we make up the body of Christ and together we build up the body of Christ. When one part of the body hurts, the other part knows it. So if you felt particularly affected by the earthquake in Haiti, it’s probably because deep down, you knew part of your own body was injured that day. And if you weren’t particularly affected by the earthquake in Haiti, I imagine it is because you were attending to another part of the body’s needs.
Which ever it is for you, all this stuff that we call “living,” we do together as the body of Christ, bound with the world for the sake of the world. Like Paul, you may feel like you are in prison and there is little that you can do. But as one tiny, yet crucial, part of the body of Christ, you do what you can. You say a prayer of lament for the Haitian community, you share stories, both tragic and heroic, that you hear, you donate via text message or a special church offering. And then… you put your trust in the Euodia’s and the Syntyche’s of the world, who are closer than you, to do everything that they can. And it is because of this that we don’t have to forget about Haiti nor do we have to bear the full weight of it. Our identity is in Christ and everything else is rubbish. We are bound together. And together we work to build up the body of Christ, for it is God who is at work in us. AMEN