Rev. Eric Folkerth, Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church, formerly worked with mission teams from Highland Park United Methodist Church as they traveled to the community of Petit Goave in Haiti. A member of a team from Highland Park, Jean Arnwine, died as a result of the injuries she received during the recent earthquake. Rev. Folkerth delivered this sermon just over one week after the death of Jean Arnwine and two other members of the United Methodist community.
There was a part of me that really hated to be gone last week. In the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, I felt the pull to be here, to just BE here in community. To experience the power of community prayer, community singing, community gathered together. The POWER of the gathered Body of Christ. The power of the church, the connectedness of the church. The Church, when it is most being what it is supposed to be. A Body Together.
That feeling reminded me of today's reading:
"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one spirit. As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."
Can you not think of the passage in Corinthians from Paul and not understand the existential truth of this phrase?"If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."
And so we come to the Body of Christ. The church. That most imperfect of all bodies. It is an organization that you can structure like the best of corporations, but it is always going to function like the worst of families. Doesn't matter what kind of church it is.
This gets me back around to Haiti and that pain I was feeling last Sunday and that is still with me, even today. The sheer volume of the human suffering in Haiti completely boggles the mind: 2000 dead. Perhaps up to 2 million persons now homeless. Without question, one of the largest humanitarian crises in modern history. The scale of the disaster seems incomprehensible.
Having traveled to Haiti five times in the late 90s and during 2000, this crisis hits me hard because, you see, I can envision the scene. In fact, for almost a full week after the earthquake, I honestly had to turn off the television when scenes of Haiti came on. Not because I didn't want to see what happened, but because I was already seeing it. I had seen Haiti on good days in which the entire country felt like it could fall apart in an hour or two. We now know, all too horrifically, that this is true.
I did not need Anderson Cooper’s pictures of collapsed houses. I knew those houses would be collapsed because I’ve seen them. I did not need the accounts of how the Hotel Montana had collapsed, trapping many Westerners. I have stayed there, and I knew instinctively what the carnage of that would look like, and that many would not survive.
Even more close to home, the team I used to help lead was in Haiti at the time: the eye clinic team from Highland Park United Methodist Church here in Dallas, and five of the folks I have traveled to Haiti with previously were potentially trapped inside the country.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Add to the almost incomprehensive human loss of 200,000 Haitians, the sacrifices of at least three United Methodist mission personnel who died of their injuries suffered in the earthquake:
• Sam Dixon, the head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief
• Clint Rabb, the head of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission
• Jean Arnwine, a member of the current Highland Park United Methodist Church mission team who died of injuries suffered when the very clinic I worked I for perhaps a month of my life collapsed on top of her and five others
This tends to take it down to the very personal, and to the level of the personally horrific. And these are deaths that we learned about almost in slow motion.
These losses are our losses, too. Lest we forget, our own church has its own international missions to El Salvador and Guatemala. And lest we forget, El Salvador is also one of the poorer countries in the world, and is also a country that has recently experienced a devastating hurricane. Many of us in this room have been to Guatemala and El Salvador. Many more of us have been to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi where we were aided by staff of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, through both their established infrastructure and their expertise. Many more of us have given money to support these missional efforts of our church.
And so, which we might not have ever been to Haiti, we know and understand the challenges of being in mission in this kind of place, and this tragedy affects us viscerally as well. We are led, as Christ’s body, to ask, What are we to do? How are we to live? What is our mission as Christ’s body?
There is something of an answer in the Gospel Lesson from Luke today, a passage in the Gospel lesson that is something of a “mission statement” for Jesus the Christ. In this Gospel of Luke, it’s the very first time Jesus speaks publicly about his ministry, his purpose, and his mission in the world. In his hometown of Nazareth, and they hand him a copy of the scroll of the book of Isaiah. He opens it and read these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He gives them back the scroll and tells them that this very day these words of prophecy are finally being fulfilled.
Now Biblical scholars will tell you that these words Luke has Jesus say are almost word-for-word the same as the Septuagant version of the Book of Isaiah Chapter 61, down to the passage about “recovery of sight to the blind.” So what is Jesus’ mission—and by extension our mission—in the world: bring Good News to the Poor, proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, free the oppressed, proclaim the Year of the Lord.
An observant preacher friend noticed something about this passage this week. She went back and read Isaiah, Chapter 61, and she noticed that Jesus/Luke cut of the words he says at a very interesting point. The last line Jesus reads in Luke is “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But my preacher friend noted that actually Isaiah says something else, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance for our God!” Jesus, we might assume, then, does not find the concept of a “day of vengeance” to be a helpful part of his mission statement. I wonder if anybody reminded Pat Robertson of this? He clearly has no idea what he is talking about. He clearly is not a person who knows Haiti, and I’m not sure anymore he really fully understands the grace and compassion of God.
Pat Robertson took what was a Haitian folk myth—something that arose from the people like the Boston Red Sox’s “Curse of the Bambino”—and treated it as if it was historical fact or theological truth. But it’s neither. I’m not angry with him. I’m just absolutely certain he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And I really feel more pity and sorry for him than anger. I hope you will join me in continuing to pray for him.
The God I know, love, and serve does not rain vengeance down upon the poor and the suffering.
The God I know is especially present with them.
The God I know and love has a mission statement to BE with the oppressed. The suffering. The poor. The outcast.