Monday, October 21, 2013

SERMON: Sewage and Solidarity in the Company of Strangers (Brian E. Konkol)

The following is a transcript from October 17, 2013, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of the “Daily Sabbath: Re:Vive” fall semester rhythm, the sermon - which was also published on the Chaplains blog - considers Matthew 25:40 in the context of sewage and solidarity.

About 3,300 miles to the southeast of Christ Chapel, there sits a small Caribbean community, and its name is Tucville. And in this tropical seaside village, just a few years ago, on what started as a seemingly typical morning, something remarkably atypical transpired.

It all began when a group of small children gathered for a few hours of fun and games, and after some moments together on the street corner, the curious conglomeration wandered from adult supervision and explored a nearby abandoned sewage facility.

From the onset the children enjoyed their playful investigation and imaginative exploration around the deserted sanitation complex. However, as they walked a narrow path near the edge of a large raw sewage container, one of them – a 5-year old girl named Briana Dover – accidentally slipped, fell, and sank to the bottom. Within moments, young Briana Dover was helplessly submerged in a tank full of urine and feces – an experience that we simply do not – and likely cannot – fully imagine.

As to be expected, Briana’s friends immediately screamed and ran for help, but as neighbors and witnesses rushed to the site of the incident, they all stood in saddening state of shock. And as the initial moments turned into extended minutes, the confusion turned into fear, for although some considered diving in to try and save Briana Dover, not a single person stepped forward.

The container, they must have figured – far too large… The smell, they must have thought  - far too disgusting, and… The actions required, they must have calculated – far too dangerous.

And with each passing minute of bystander indecision, Briana Dover held to the brink of life at the bottom of the sewage reservoir, moving closer to death with each tick and tock of the clock.

In the mean time, a middle-aged Rastafarian man, named Ordock Reid, heard the commotion in the near distance. And in response, Ordock Reid approached the abandoned sewage yard, he was greeted with loud screams and anguished faces, and what can be described as nothing short of moral miraculousness, when he was told about the young girl buried at the bottom of the sewage reservoir, Ordock Reid reacted immediately.

Ordock Reid – not only was he a total stranger, but a Rastafarian who was often marginalized and ridiculed by the mainstream Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious communities of the country. He took off his clothes, tied-up – and eventually cut-off – his sacred dreadlocks on the spot, fastened a rope to his waist, handed the other end of the rope to an onlooker, and he proceeded to submerge himself through the muck and filth of raw human waste in an attempt to rescue Brianna Dover, a total stranger.

And as time passed, a large crowd gathered near to the scene.

And together, the crowd watched and wondered, as over and over again, Ordock Reid rose to the surface for oxygen, covered with filth, and over and over again, he dove back into the tank, risking his own life each and every step of the way.

But time passed on… Minute after minute, and attempt after attempt.

And after 30 minutes of diving through the vast tank of filth in a solo-search for a stranger, Ordock Reid eventually found and pulled out the body of Brianna Dover, who died that day after only 5 precious years of life. Her body had been submerged in the sewage for far too long, and because of it, her oxygen had been cut short, and because of that, so had her life.

Unfortunately, this is a true story.

It is unfortunate in so many ways that even the term “unfortunate” cannot capture its sadness. But fortunately for us, as we hear about such tragic loss of life, we are reminded of an important lesson as we continue to contemplate what it means to live in community. More specifically, as we consider the story of Briana Dover, Ordock Reid, and the countless others involved that day in Tucville, we are shown the the realities – and the responsibilities – of existing as a community in the company of strangers.

The realities – and the responsibilities – of existing as a community in the company of strangers, or as Jesus was recorded as saying in our reading from Matthew 25:40, “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me.”

In the text from Matthew’s Gospel, which we heard just a few moments ago, as well as in countless other verses found throughout the New Testament, in Jesus we are shown that to be a member of a community, one recognizes that a person is only a person through other persons, and not only that, but the humanity of one person anywhere is always intimately and intricately intertwined into the humanity of all other persons everywhere. And so, what this means is that, for us to love our neighbors as we wish to be loved ourselves, we honor this reality by embracing the responsibility of jumping into the sewage of life for the sake of one another, even if “the other” happens to be a stranger. In other words, the strangers among us are neighbors alongside us.

As stated by Parker Palmer, in his book, “The Company of Strangers”:

Despite the fact that we are strangers to one another – and we will stay strangers for the most part – we occupy a common space, share common resources, have common opportunities, and must somehow learn to live together.

In light of these words from Palmer, and through the lenses of our reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we are shown that to be a member of a community is to recognize that we are members of one another. And while such realities provide comfort for those buried at the bottom of the barrell, these exact words are also deeply confronting for those standing by, waiting and wondering what to do. Because, quite frankly, while most of us here – including myself – live in relative prosperity, there are many in this world who live each day, both literally and metaphorically, in the foul reservoirs of economic, social, spiritual, and ecological sewage.

At this very moment… According to the United Nations Development Program:
Over 80% of our world lives on less than $10 per day…

Today… October 17, 2013…
* Over 22,000 children will die as a direct result of poverty…

At this very moment…
* Over 1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.

 * And, for the 1.9 billion children from the developing world, there are: 40 million without adequate shelter, 400 million with no access to safe water, and 270 million with no access to health services.

So what does this mean?

Personally, it means, that around the world, in places both far and near, we have people up to their eyes in the systemic sewage that they themselves do not create yet somehow find themselves within. And like a 5-year old child trying to tip-toe between large abandoned containers of crap, our world is filled with systems and situations in which the poor and marginalized cannot take a step without falling into the deadly traps of exploitation and poverty. Which means, every single day we are surrounded with billions of people in all corners of the global who are drenched with defecation that the powerful and privileged often pour onto them.

So what does this mean?

Perhaps, the most important question is: So whom among us cares?

As people with massive resources and an amazing capacity for good. Do we care? Do we care? Or, do we just stand on the sideline? Do we resist? Do we rationalize? Do we delay?

Or, like Ordock Reid in Tucville years ago, do we simply strip down and jump in?

Do we take the risks required of living in community?
* Do we take seriously what it means to be members of each other?
* Do we dare to embody the Gospel by giving our lives for the sake of life in others?

To answer all these questions in the affirmative is, of course, easier said than done. However, my dear friends, if the Gospels are about anything, they are about the way in which God enters into the muck and filth of our lives in the form of Jesus, and in response to this amazing act of grace, we are liberated in order to enter into the muck and filth of the lives of others.

In other words, as people of God, the reality of community leads us into the responsibility of solidarity.
As spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King and quoted by Glen Lloyd during our Daily Sabbath discussion on Tuesday of last week:

Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.

And as was mentioned by Paula O’Loughlin during our Tuesday Daily Sabbath discussion this week, to do what is right requires courage, and what I would add to her thoughts is the belief that such courage is grounded in faith and is expressed through solidarity. A solidarity which recognizes that, just as Jesus identified with the broken, the incarcerated, and the strangers… We too are called to accompany others regardless of whether or not we know them and regardless of whether or not we can afford the perceived costs of loving them. For at the end of the day, in Jesus we have nothing to fear, and by God’s grace nothing to lose, which means we are set free for personal acts of public solidarity.

And so, my friends, we are a community that dwells in the constant company of strangers. And as Jesus showed, and as we continue to be reminded of, because the strangers among us are truly neighbors alongside us, to be a community in the company of strangers requires the faithful courage of living in solidarity And this solidarity, or what the New Testament calls koinonia, a life of fellowship, sharing, participation, and contribution, this solidarity is the emancipatory movement of God into which we all are called: An emancipatory movement of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment.

A movement that binds, breaks, and incarcerates…
A movement that redeems, rescues, and sets free…
A movement that restores community through radical hospitality…
And brings into being a new and life-giving all-inclusive reality.

An emancipatory movement in which Jesus jumped into the mess of our lives and set us free, and in doing so, called us to step up and step out, onto the path, and into the mess of each other’s lives for the sake of life in its fullness.

And so, to conclude this morning, over the past weeks we have spoken a great deal about what it means to live in community. And as we continue to consider what this means, both locally and globally, may we embrace the opportunities that are placed before us, and may we meet the moments brought to us, for the time is upon us to do what is right, and to be that which we are becoming.

May we step up and step out, in solidarity, for the sake of the least of these, and in doing so, for the sake of ourselves. This day, Every day.

Amen.