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A comedian named Tom Papa has a recurring shtick on “Live From Here,” the radio show that superseded Prairie Home Companion.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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Howard Thurman’s Vision

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howardthurmanTheologian Howard Thurman might not have wished his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, would be as important today as it was when he wrote it in 1949.

Sadly, the African-American mystic would have hoped that his vision of Jesus’s love overpowering fear and hatred of the marginalized and most vulnerable people in our society would have been taken to heart by all who call themselves Christians.

Thurman grew up in Florida in the early 1900s, in a segregated Daytona. His grandmother had been enslaved and told him stories of slave preachers. Much of his young life was centered around the church and people who came to speak there. He remembered Mary Mcleod Bethune singing and talking about her dreams for education for Negro youth.

He was an exceptionally smart youth; since there were only three high schools for black youth in all of Florida, he boarded with relatives in order to go to the Florida Baptist Academy. Because he graduated as valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. He eventually went to Rochester Theological Seminary in New York (many other seminaries did not accept Negroes).

Thurman was considered a mystic because of his ability to put himself into a place where he felt himself to be in the presence of God. In Disciplines of the Spirit, he calls that place the Inner Sea. Over a long career with many distinguishing chapters, including being dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, founding the interdenominational Fellowship Church in San Francisco, being honored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and being an influence on Martin Luther King Jr., there was yet one painful issue that he came back to again and again.

In 1935, Thurman chaired a delegation sent on a pilgrimage of American students to India, Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After a talk at the Law College of the University of Colombo, he had tea with the principle. The principle said this to him:

“. . . During all the period since then [Emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. . . I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.”

While referring to this painful episode in his memoir, With Head and Heart, as “the paradox of being a black Christian minister who was representing and, by implication, defending a religion associated in the minds of many of these nonwhite peoples with racism and colonialism,” Jesus and the Disinherited was his book-length answer.

In this time when Christianity has been hijacked by political agendas that again marginalize people of color, the poor and the powerless – and all the intersections of those categories – Jesus and the Disinherited should be a wake-up call to members of the Jesus Movement and those who would be part of the Beloved Community.

Jesus, a radical outcast, preached a radical love, and especially radical love for those, in Thurman’s words, with their backs against the wall. Why, then, “is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” he asks.

And in just 102 pages, he gives a prescription for doing so.