We Must Be Jesus for Immigrants

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A comedian named Tom Papa has a recurring shtick on “Live From Here,” the radio show that superseded Prairie Home Companion. Each week he gets himself into an absurd situation while he’s Out in America. He’ll say something like, “Have you ever been chased down Fifth Avenue by a drunken clown.” Then he pauses and says, in a Sad Sack voice, “I have.”

To borrow his schtick: Have you ever been on a 20-ton wooden schooner in an 80-knot gale with a broken jib and waves crashing over the sides?

I have.

It’s terrifying. Physically, I have never been more scared in my life than on that day in 1981. In fact, it was so terrifying that it was day I started praying again, after many lapsed years.

Bible commentator William Barclay says that because of the shape of the Sea of Galilee and the topographical formation of the land around it, storms come up with no warning, just swooping down on the lake with speed and violence.

Such was the case here, and even these seasoned fishermen were afraid for their lives. It’s possible they had never encountered one of these sudden storms.

Jesus was in the seat of honor in the stern, where the motion of the boat would have been less noticeable than at the bow. He was apparently so comfortable on his cushion that he fell asleep. The disciples had to wake him up to tell him that they were all in danger of dying, whereupon Jesus “rebuked” the wind and told the sea to be still. Then he rebuked the disciples for being afraid. “Why are you afraid,” he said. “Have you still no faith?” And they marveled, and were no longer afraid.

That’s it, that’s the story. And really, the message can be summed up in just a few words: With Jesus, we need have no fear.

Have you ever gone to church and thought the sermon was going to be really short and then found out it wasn’t?

I have.

Because there’s a lot more to this story, and there’s a lot more to say about fear.

What if – just  what if the storm hadn’t really abated, but with Jesus awake and going through it with the disciples, their fear was taken away such that it was as if the storm just went away?

I’m not saying that Jesus couldn’t make a storm stop if He wanted to. Of course He could. But maybe the real point is that whether there’s a storm or not, if Jesus is with us, we have no need to fear.

Fundamentally, I have believed this with all my heart for a long time. But after the national scandal of children and parents being separated at the border that has been revealed in all its horror in the past two weeks, has weakened that faith, and you might have the same problem I have. With Jesus, we need have no fear. Until we do.

I’m not talking about temporary fear, which the 12-Step tradition has made into an acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. There are simple solutions to this kind of fear. When I say “simple,” I don’t mean easy, but it can be overcome if one wants to overcome it. It’s up to the individual.

I’m talking about existential fear. Not as in Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, but fear for one’s very existence because of the oppression of an agency with limitless power over oneself.

Theologian Howard Thurman addressed it many times, most notably in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. “Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited,” he wrote. He was specifically referring to the legacy of slavery in America and during the Jim Crow era, but his words have meaning for every group of dispossessed people.

Africans were kidnapped, brought to a new country, and put into inhuman conditions of servitude. Babies were ripped from their mother’s arms. Families were separated in the most unchristian ways.

And now it is happening to another group of people on whom the hounds of hell have sent fleeing from violence (one existential threat) into a country where they seek asylum but instead have their babies ripped from their arms and all are put into detention centers far away from one another, not knowing whether they will ever see their loved ones again.

Could we say to them, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you.”? Or, “You’re afraid? What’s wrong with your faith?”

I hope to God not.

Have you ever laid awake sleepless because you know there is something so horrible happening that your body literally cannot rest?

I have.

I’m so afraid for these children and these parents that I have been incandescent with rage this past week, and the real threat isn’t even to me. When these seismic nightmares happen, I think, “They’re crucifying Jesus again. And again. And again.”

And yet, as Pastor Erik Karas reminded me on Facebook this week, Jesus rises again and again and again.

It’s not the faith of the children and the men and women who fled here for safety that is relevant. It’s my faith, your faith, that Jesus didn’t just calm a storm. Jesus spent His ministry, and through his torturous crucifixion, teaching us how to calm a storm, how to take the threat of violence and neuter it, how to claim victory over the death of the body and the death of hope.

In his weekly message, Bishop Rob Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta wrote, “Following Jesus is about taking up agency. It’s about Jesus believing in us to do the things he taught us. Following Jesus is not some always-trepidatious, hand-wringing kind of hope. Following Jesus is about being immersed in his teachings and hazarding faithful, audacious actions. Maybe church has taught us to be fans of Jesus instead of partners with Jesus.”

Are we just fans or are we partners? Do we need the miracles of raising from the dead and calming storms to believe, or do we believe that we can BE Jesus to the people Jesus commanded us to care for? The stranger, the alien, the hungry, the imprisoned, the child of God who has been oppressed to a degree that they feel disinherited from that mighty status, our co-heirs  with Jesus to the Kingdom?

Let us walk WITH Jesus into the storm and use our faith to help our brothers and sisters in Christ. Speak out, stand out, write letters, donate money to organizations that are hiring lawyers to represent the lost children in order to reunite them with their parents. Take part in vigils, be informed, watch the news no matter how painful that can be.

There will be time, endless time to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness; now is the moment to walk into the Valley of the Shadow of Death with Jesus and express our faith by bringing hope to the hopeless, by being light in the darkness.

I want to end by telling you just a bit about my recent pilgrimage to Sewanee, Tennessee, where I joined 37 strangers who quickly became soulmates on a contemplative retreat at St. Mary’s Place. The theme of the retreat was using the transforming nature of contemplative practice to produce compassionate action. On the last evening, as I listened to people sum up their hopes for what they would take home with them, I composed a prayer. I borrowed their ideas, words from the New Zealand Prayer Book, a touch of the St. Francis prayer, and wisdom from Howard Thurman. So, let us pray:

Eternal Spirit,
Earthmaker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Loving God, in whom is Heaven,
Lead us into silence where we may find healing and sustenance.
Lead us out of silence so that we may be your instrument in bringing healing and sustenance to the world.
We want to do our part, no matter how small our part may be,
To serve your righteousness and justice, O Lord.
And with your prophet Micah,
May we always act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you
As we become the people you dreamed us to be.

Amen.
 

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Romany People Targeted by Right Wing

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Ukraine: Paramilitaries broadcast live pogrom against Roma on Facebook, the fourth in the last six weeks

Vigilantes Destroy Another Romany Camp In Kyiv

Local businessman shoots and kills 13-year-old Roma girl in Amfissa, Central Greece

This isn’t what I planned to write about this week, but the urgency expressed by a friend who is Roma changed my mind.

These are just three recent headlines about atrocities committed against Romany people. Yet I’ve seen nothing and heard nothing on the news outlets I go to.

Each headline is a link, so you can read the whole story for yourself. Please share widely.

Romany people were among the first sent to concentration camps in Hitler’s Germany. They have suffered abuse because of cruel myths for centuries. We must keep this on our radar.

Let the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

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(Sermon preached on 6/3/18 in Great Barrington, MA)

Did you hear what I heard when Pastor Randy read the gospel? Did you?

Well, here’s what I heard! (I knocked over Lego towers on the altar.)

I heard walls coming down!

So in these two incidents in Mark’s Gospel, what were Jesus and His followers doing wrong that so bothered the Pharisees? It’s difficult even to count the ways in which they were breaking the precious law that the Pharisees hugged to themselves as if the law alone were salvation.

First, we have to understand that, according to the scholars, it was actually corn that they were making their way through and the ears of corn that they were plucking.

Making a path on the Sabbath? Unlawful; it was work.

Plucking the ears of corn on a Sabbath? Unlawful; it was reaping, which was also work.

Shucking the corn? Unlawful.

Plucking the kernels? Unlawful.

Do you notice what Jesus does when He tells the Pharisees about David and his companions? He’s really chiding and mocking them. They were supposed to be the experts on Scripture.

Try to hear Jesus’s voice: “Did you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?”

In other words, you’re the experts yet you ignore that story? What’s wrong with you?

We’re not given the Pharisees’ response, but I’m sure they were very angry at being outed as hypocrites by this man Jesus.

In the next instance, he comes upon a man in the synagogue whose hand was withered. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew he’d find that man there and also that the Pharisees would be watching him. This time, we know the Pharisees’ reaction; they were silent. They could not in public answer Jesus’s question about whether it was lawful to save life or to kill it on the Sabbath.

Why?

walls coming downBecause “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

We’re told Jesus was angered by their hardness of heart. What is hardness of heart, but a wall a person puts up in order not to have care about other people?

Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, I hear walls coming down all the time. The biggest wall that came down was the wall between God and God’s people manifested through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

In everything Jesus did, He broke down a wall. Whether he was feeding the five thousand and teaching a lesson about sharing; talking to a Samaritan woman at a well; healing a Samaritan man who had leprosy (and was the only one of several men Jesus healed who came back to thank him!), or healing a woman’s tumor that was causing internal bleeding because she had the courage and faith to think that if she just touched his robe, she could be healed!

And what about the woman taken in adultery? Two walls were taken down that day! First was the wall of the draconian codes that said a woman should be stoned to death if found to have committed adultery. But notice, not the man! So the other wall taken down was the one placed by men between them and women, to treat women as if they were not also human. And Jesus said, Okay, if you’ve never committed a sin, go ahead, stone her, kill her.

So if Jesus spent His ministry breaking down walls that were preventing peopIe from receiving the grace of God, what does that tell us our job on this earth is? Is it not also to break down walls? Is it not that the Kingdom of God has no walls in it?

Because, He’s telling us, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” his narrator begins:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;”

He’s talking about nature, of course, which is really the Divine Order of things. The narrator’s companion, intent on picking the stones up and putting them back in place on the wall, will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At this, the narrator says, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”

That darkness is the darkness of a hardness of heart wrought by a tradition that the man could not go against, just like the Pharisees. If you’re a gardener, you know that fences throw dead shade, as opposed to shade that trees provide with sunlight filtering  through them. There are flowering plants that just won’t grow in the dead shade, but will grow in tree shade.

This rejection of walls and darkness can be found in other religious denominations and traditions. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky, day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

evelyn underhill

English mystic Evelyn Underhill knew it too.

“I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust, and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.”

Why?

Because something there is that doesn’t love wall, that wants it down.

Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about walls in Jesus and the Disinherited, referring to the oppressed and marginalized African –Americans who have been pushed by white society to a point where their backs are against a wall. It was true when Thurman was writing that book in the 1950s and it’s still true today.

I recently had an opportunity to be part of two wall-breaking  events in Georgia and Tennessee. The first was a “Dismantling Racism” training in Griffin, GA. I watched shutters be lifted from people’s eyes as we talked about our white privilege.

I’ve been going to such trainings since the 1990s, and I have come to the realization that I don’t even know how much privilege I have until a news story comes out about police being called because of African-Americans who wanted to use a restroom or were golfing or were taking a nap in their dorm or were just enjoying a barbecue. I’ll be learning about my privilege the rest of my life.

The second event was a retreat at a most beautiful cliff-side spot called St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, Tennessee. About thirty-eight of us were gathered to learn how to use contemplative practices to foster energy and intent for compassionate action in the world. Using contemplative prayer to break down the walls of what Father Thomas Keating calls the false self that has all the ego mechanisms that keep us from truly experiencing the presence of God is a means by which we can go out into the world to help break down walls that keep other people bound.

Next fall, I will move to Georgia to join others in our common pursuit to break down walls and dismantle racism. My even considering such a move from my rural, settled life in Massachusetts indicates that God has helped me break down walls within myself.

Why?

Because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

That something is God.