24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – I Am Because You Are
The recent discovery of the skeletons in the South African Rising Star cave system has created a lot of excitement for scientists. The species naledi has been classified in the genus homo to which we humans belong. Some researchers already are saying it could change the way we think about our human ancestors. Could it also change the way we think about one another?
In today’s gospel Jesus asks his disciples “who do you say I am?” Peter answers “you are the Christ” which means the anointed one. In Hebrew it means “messiah” or the liberator of a group. Jesus is quoted as using the phrase “I am” a lot in the bible. I am bread, light, shepherd, gateway, vine, truth, life.
Curious about the words “I am” and what they might mean for us today I learned another South African piece of information. The words “I am” also mean “you are.” I am because you are! This concept, known as ubuntu, emerged in the 19th century and developed as a world view for South Africans when apartheid was legislated in the early 1950s. It literally stands for human-ness or humanity toward others.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said ubuntu means “I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” Nelson Mandela wrote “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” Ubuntu then is a philosophy of interdependence.
Jesus sensed he would soon face a trial and be executed for crimes against the Roman state. He challenged his listeners to continue his mission, to take up the same cross. That cross for us is not so much a reminder of what happened to Jesus but a symbol of local and global injustices. It stands in our midst in this church prompting us to respond, to pick it up, if you will, and carry it together.
The current tide of refugees migrating to Israel and Europe is a huge global problem. It challenges the notion of “I am, You Are.” Countries are erecting physical, cultural and political walls to keep people out. President Obama announced that our country will accept 10,000 refugees from Syria next year. This is a gracious but small gesture for a country that has yet to fix its own broken immigration laws.
Sometimes these situations are so overwhelming we do not know what to do? Yet we know from our experiences that humans do rise to the occasion to help people in need. This past July 2015 a New York Times article reported that when many lives are at stake we will and should feel more empathetic and do more to help.
The same studies however point out that we play favorites, that our empathy is dampened when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. Empathy, the writers report, can be a source of moral failure that will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.
The second reading is attributed to James the brother of Jesus. It is a ethical exhortation based on oral traditions and was probably addressed to those who oppressed poor people with acts of greed and power. It reminds you and me that faith flourishes when coupled with good works.
Later this month we will celebrate the memory of our patron Vincent de Paul. Historically we have created opportunities in this parish that connect faith and good works. Traditionally we all try to do something.
The astonishing discovery of the skeletons in South Africa, in what seems to be a burial vault, suggests that primitive beings were capable of ritual behavior and maybe symbolic thought. One scientist, Prof. Lee Berger exclaimed, “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human.”
The finding in that Johannesburg cave reminds us that we have much in common with our primitive ancestors and all human beings. Maybe our dependence on one another is what Jesus meant when he said “I am.” As Christians we identify with that revelation. I am because you are.