Rev. Bonnie K. Carenen
Church World Service, Project Advisor
I Cor. 12:12-26 and Luke 4:14-21
I preached this sermon at Jakarta Community Church on 24 January 2010, two weeks after the 7.0 Earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince Haiti. I am working with Church World Service Indonesia as a program advisor on disaster and development issues.
There was one thing which kept bothering me all week, and made it hard for me to sleep at night. I just kept thinking: “What Haiti really needs right now are engineers, not a yippy do-gooding minister.” Maybe you too, have had doubts like this about what you are doing with your life and why. If you are good and doing good enough… with your family, with your relationships, with your work, in the things that matter most to you. For me, I keep wondering why my theology program didn’t teach me about Jesus’ skills as a carpenter, because those sure could come in handy for the people of Haiti. Not like the Greek and Latin I learned.
For me, feeling the practical limits of my good intentions in this way was particularly discouraging. I studied eight years, earned a professional degree, got ordained, and came (literally) to the other side of the world to think about and practice how the Church can deal with disasters. So to think, “Haiti needs engineers and not a Bible thumping minister” has been a tough break.
Because, you see, I think about disasters a lot. It is my job in Indonesia and the focus of my ministry to think about what disasters—all kinds of disasters—mean for survivors, witnesses, communities, and congregations. I think about what disasters say about God, and the world that God created and called good. I think about what the ancient wisdom of the Bible, and good news of the gospel, has to say about devastating news stories of destruction and death.
I think the hardest part about a disaster is not merely the tragic fact of death, but that a disaster has the capacity to break someone’s spirit. Disasters threaten to extinguish hope. And I am in the business of hope. Excuse me calling this a business, but let me tell you that the Church is in the business of hope. Therefore disasters (ought to) make the Church sit up and pay attention. You see, this is what I do!
Granted, Haiti needs hope! But anyone who sees pictures of Port-au-Prince would agree that Haiti really needs engineers. Well, let me be precise on a couple points: first, Haiti has hope. If there was ever a place which knew the inside-out of tragedy and disaster, it is Haiti; and yet Haiti’s people are proud, singing, vital, vibrant, hopeful people. Haiti could teach you and me, if we were wise enough to sit down and really listen, a thing or two about hope!
Second, there are many things Haiti needs in addition to engineers; international debt relief not least among them. I am not in a position to prescribe a solution to the long list of disasters which have cluttered her history. What I mean to say is that my heart is moved for Haiti. Like that tentmaker Apostle Paul who advises the Corinthians, where one suffers we all suffer. I want my life to stand in testimony to God’s desire, Christ’s example, the Church’s responsibility, and my capacity, to be for Haiti during this newest fiasco. Each of our lives stands for something and this is what I want for mine.
What consumes me during these sleepless nights is that I would give all the work of my hands and the sweat of my brow and dedicate the whole of my ministry to the good of Haiti and other places who experience disasters.
But, I am painfully aware that it isn’t going to be enough. Maybe, it won’t even be right. I want to build bridges of peace, but I don’t actually know how to build anything at all. I would give my personal worth, all my money, if it could really help, but not only do I not have enough money to give to tell Haiti how much I love her, and how much God loves her, but I think that might just be throwing money at a problem and not do much to fix it. Besides that, I really don’t believe getting or having money is a sign of God’s blessing.
Have you ever felt stuck like this? As a parent who would give anything to lessen the shock and grief of your daughter’s first broken heart, but unable to. As a friend who sees that your closest friend is drinking too much too often, but not sure what to do or what to say? As a spouse, watching helplessly as your partner is carried away on business trips and work obligations, aware that this is just the way it is going to be right now. As a classmate who gets news that someone from school was in a serious car wreck, and doctors are not yet sure if he will be okay. “You will just have to wait and see.” You’d do anything to do more, but no matter what, you won’t be able to do enough. You wonder if you can do anything at all.
It is similar for Haiti. Haiti needs engineers. And doctors, diplomats, teachers, mechanics, plumbers, poets, comedians, technicians, prosthetic limb specialists and more. Maybe you too have thought about how to help, but felt helpless. A college friend of mine who is working with the Episcopal Relief and Development agency put it bluntly: “I can’t say enough how much people should not come to Haiti to help anytime soon unless they are Creole-speaking very, very experienced trauma surgeons bringing all their own supplies.”
Well I am none of these things. So I have been thinking about the next three or four degrees I will have to get before I can be any good for God’s good people in Haiti. She goes on to explain: “It’s a [mess] of disaster tourists right now under the guise of “community journalism” and tiny NGOs bringing a little bit of water from the States. RAISE MONEY AND STAY HOME.”
Disasters like in Haiti, or in Padang (Indonesia) after the earthquake there, or a long litany of other natural and moral disasters, create a fundamental challenge to us as believers, and to the Church as the body of Christ. They create a scenario which is the bane of our personalized, self-focused, hero-oriented, bravo-macho, me-me-me sensibilities. The hard truth? You can’t fix this. Disasters throw us back on an irrefutable reality that is the intriguing, compelling truth of religion, and I do mean religion and not just spirituality or faith: We are in it together.
Paul describes the Church and its members as a body, an organized functioning unit. This union: solidarity, compassion, the shared resources and shared destiny, makes us more vulnerable, as you already know if you have ever wanted in vain to reach through the phone to hug someone. But it also makes us stronger, wiser, and more alive. This corporation of the Church, this body of Christ, makes every one of us something like engineers and consultants of “wellbeing.”
Jesus was a carpenter, but he was also a preacher, a prophet, a pray-er, a philosopher, a community organizer. He worked with a team of dim-witted apostles who often got it wrong, but knew (most of the time) how to show up when it mattered. When things were at their worst Jesus passed along God’s Word that was Good News to those who heard. He knew where to turn (to/in the Bible) and what to say to address the needs of the people he served with, worked among and loved.
Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit when he entered the synagogue in his hometown. According to Luke (4:14-21), he read from the prophet Isaiah: “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 spoke with courageous conviction: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). To be members of the body of Christ, as Paul puts it, is to embody and enact that capacity and vulnerability of Jesus to minister to a hurting world. We don’t fix the problems, but we in the Church are able to understand and respond differently, and uniquely, and this is good.
I love Paul’s description of the body of Christ. “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. … But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”
According to Paul’s logic, the body of Christ has HIV/AIDS if any of its members has it. According to Paul’s logic, Christ himself is among the weeping wounded in dilapidated Haitian hospitals. According to Paul’s logic, Christ is one of the orphans who sing for us at Christmas in this congregation. Christ is not only with all people who suffer, but we all, as members of the body of Christ who partake in Eucharist and recite the Lord’s prayer or know the Creeds, are called also to be in the midst of the suffering as well. The body of Christ needs you whether you are a baker, a plumber, a knitter, a consultant, an oil magnate, an urban planner, a poet, a dreamer, or even a sickly cripple. “Where one suffers we all suffer, where one rejoices we all rejoice.”
Some helpful words that came to me during this restless week were from graduate school friends who reminded me there is a task for each of us—even ministers—in responding to disaster. “Who was out on the street the first night? Ministers, not engineers,” wrote Ian. LauraJean said “the yippy do-gooding theologians will have the task of reminding everyone about the need for engineers and long-term rebuilding once it’s out of the news cycle.” Don’t I know that to be the truth! And most helpful of all, from Kyle: “If all the whole body were an eye, where would hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
My same friend in Haiti right now commented on what “the rest of us” can do for Haiti. She says, “I know the church thing makes some people nervous, but the churches, especially the Catholics and [Episcopalians] in Haiti, are the ones with the extensive organized networks in the rural communities. This recovery really needs to be run by Haitians (not in this phase, but when the emergency stuff passes). We have leadership and structure already in place to allow for local control.”
This is the elegance of the Church as the body of Christ. Even while Jesus is wounded and weeping with the other survivors of this earthquake, through Christ we are restorers, proclaimers, releasers, healers, helpers. We are consultants of well-being, engineers of hope.
As Jesus says, behold, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Let it be so. Thanks be to God!