January 29, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
The past month has been a whirlwind – it usually is for me with our parish annual meeting and diocesan convention – but this past month was different…horrifyingly different. For the past year, I have been working with Episcopal Migration Ministries as the diocesan liaison – meeting virtually with people from across the Episcopal Church on ways to enable and equip our congregations to do the justice work needed in the area of refugee advocacy.
I came to this work out of a desire to respond to the increasing anti-refugee rhetoric that was erupting last year, and most especially after seeing the photo none will ever forget – the body of 3yr old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach. I was shaken to the core by that image, and preached about the horrors of those who must flee their homelands in the wake of violence and persecution, only to die in the process. And so I began trying to find a way to help, to be engaged, to follow the call of Christ to welcome the stranger and care for those in need.
So, over the past year, as the rhetoric heated up, my colleagues and I, along with organizations all over the country and the world, began to mobilize. Yet, even while I was co-facilitating workshops at diocesan convention these past two days on refugee advocacy, heartened by the overwhelming response to them, the latest horrific news out of Washington in the past 48 hours reached us – that this President has signed an executive order “that families fleeing the slaughter in Syria be indefinitely blocked from entering the United States, and temporarily suspending immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries.” “…s the day progressed, administration officials confirmed that the sweeping order also targeted U.S. legal residents from the named countries – green-card holders – who were abroad when it was signed. Also subject to being barred entry into the United States are dual nationals, or people born in one of the seven countries who hold passports even from U.S. allies, such as the United Kingdom.” If you aren’t horrified and outraged by this, than you are not paying attention!
This is an act of heartless cowardice, and it struck deep in our hearts – cutting us all to the core. Part of the pain, most of it, is the pure inhumanity of it. Part of it is knowing the decision is being justified by lies…lies and sinful actions our nation, sadly, has committed before.
It is chilling that the horrific actions of this President on Friday, January 27, happened on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “The coincidence is particularly painful for anyone familiar with a dark chapter in US refugee history. The US turned down multiple opportunities to help Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the run-up to the Holocaust. In one case, it refused to allow a ship carrying 900 German Jews to dock on American shores. The ship, the USS St. Louis, eventually turned back and returned to Europe, where over 250 of its passengers were ultimately killed.”
Yesterday, as a result of this President’s hard heart, people are being detained at airports in the US (including JFK), prevented from boarding planes around the world, to return home to the US, removed from airplanes, or stopped from the last leg of their long journey from persecution to freedom and safety. If that were not enough, all of this is a reaction based upon lies and purposeful misdirection – and it must stop! My God – what has happened to us?
Thankfully a group of attorneys managed to get a one week stay in this action, allowing people out of detainment, and access to attorneys. Yet I fear that the action taken Friday are not the last steps to be taken by a government intent to oppress and marginalize people based on where they were born, and what they believe. It is contrary to our nation’s ideals, and most definitely contrary to all that we stand for as followers of Christ. And, it breaks my heart.
And yet, I am not without hope, because my hope rests in Christ, and over the past two days at diocesan convention, I have witnessed hundreds of people all over our diocese working together to live out our baptismal covenant, to be the people we are called to be as Christians. To be the people God desires us to be.
I am also not without hope because our faith teaches us that in the darkest of times, we can, if we are open to hearing God’s call, change the world. We can…we will…we must! And it begins with the scriptures we hear today.
The gospel today from Matthew was the very familiar beginning of the sermon on the mount – the beatitudes – or as I like to refer to them – the MeAttitudes or BE-Attitudes – because Jesus is telling his followers what discipleship means. So often we look at this passage as a sort of comforting set of verses – that when we are poor in spirit, or mourning, or meek, we are blessed. And since I would guess that all of us have been at one time or another one of these things: poor (in spirit or otherwise), in mourning, hungry and thirsty for righteousness (oh how I hunger and thirst for that now)… but while these are comforting words for those who are these things, that isn’t what Jesus is really getting at here.
First, the translation of the Greek into Blessed does a disservice. It really should be Happy. Now, it would seem odd for Jesus to suggest that a person in mourning is happy, right? Of course. But what he is talking about is how to be as a disciple. In other words, to walk the path of Jesus is to have empathy for others. Notice that the verses are split – the first four about those who are in need – the next four (and the final closing verse) about acting in the world.
Jesus is telling his followers, telling us, that if we have empathy for our neighbors, we will feel their pain as our own, and we will work for peace, be pure in heart, and merciful to others. Knowing the pain of those around us, we will not be able to turn our backs on them. And our own persecution will become bearable – and we will face opposition because justice work – working for the rights of others – always brings out the worst in some folks.
It seems odd that anyone would fight the idea that everyone should be treated fairly, justly, and with compassion, but then I saw a quote the other day that I thought really summed up what I think must go on in the minds of some folks. It said “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.” It’s not pie. Or…really it is a lot like pi. Pi without the e that is – that wonderful number that goes on into infinity. Human rights are just that – something all people are entitled to just for being born a child of God – no matter where, or when, or what gender. And those rights to live free, to love free, to think and be without fear – they don’t come from some sort of stockpile, limited in quantity – but are part of our human existence – and like air, should be as available.
And yet, like air, we have polluted the notion about who is entitled to what, and Jesus, in this radical sermon of his, is saying that following him is a life changer. That if we LIVE with empathy to those in need, we will have no choice but to respond by doing the work we are called to do – and when we do that – we are happy. It is a paradox in this modern world when taking care of yourself is considered the ultimate path to fulfillment, but Jesus was a paradoxical kind of savior. He is saying that to be happy, we must be selfless and turn toward others. In doing that, we are freed from the bondage of a self-centered life. Our freedom is our happiness – our blessedness.
But while Jesus is laying the foundation of discipleship in the form of how to be in this world, the passage from Micah is telling us how to act in the world.
It’s funny, because the one verse from this passage is so familiar, that when one seminary professor was saying to another that he was about to go teach a course on book of Micah, the other professor said “Ahhh, that’s a great verse!” We do tend to jump right to verse 8 in this chapter, and it is the heart of it – and a lot like the passage from Isaiah 58 that I talked about last week, but we should consider the whole reading today – especially in light of what has happened in our country these past 48 hours.
The full reading is really a courtroom scene in which we, the people, are on trial before God, and it goes like this:
First we are told to “rise, plead your case before the mountains (or gods of judgement), because the “Lord has a controversy (an indictment) against you” Of course we are stupid, didn’t lawyer up, and you know what they say about those who serve as their own lawyer – they have a fool for a client. And so there we are, when God opens with a great first argument…and a really snarky one at that – God can be snarky at times, and God can do whatever God wants, right. So, snarky God says “What have I done for you”… Oh I KNOW what I did… “Let’s see now…freed you from your captivity, delivered you from persecution to a land of freedom…”
Sensing this trial is not going well, we ask “With what shall I come before” God?” In other words, we are down on our knees confessing –see, that is why attorneys get paid the big bucks. So we ask “What do you want God?” “How to I make amends?”
Then God reels of a loads of crazy things people were doing that they actually thought God wanted, like…you know…sacrificing their children – delightful stuff like that. Honestly, we deserved to be put on trial – we are sometimes that stupid.
And then we get to God’s “punishment” which is the verse beloved by all. God says that all that is required of us is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“Whew!” right? I mean…coulda been another flood or something like that right? But like the beatitudes, this isn’t a sweet little thing to needlepoint for a wall hanging, or tattoo on your, wherever, and leave it at that – it is a clear message about what we are called to do. Notice what God is saying though, because it is very powerful.
What does it mean to do justice?
It means we not only work for justice for others, we live a just life. We treat people fairly, and work to ensure that they are treated that way by others. What does it mean to love kindness? Well, what does it mean when we love – it is something we embody. Think about the way you felt when you fell in love, or first saw your newborn child. That was a love you felt in the depths of your soul. We are to love kindness in such a way too – to embody it to feel it in our core. Imagine that – what would that be like, and how might that change the world? And then there is one more thing… we are to walk humbly with our God…which is really, if translated directly from the Hebrew, more like walk intentionally with our God. What would that mean to us, to the world, if every step we took we took with God (we do, of course, but what if we were mindful about it – conscious about God being right there)?
This charge by God to do justice, love kindness, and walk intentionally with God isn’t an easy out, but a call to a radical change in our lives – for ourselves, for the world, and for God. and if there was ever a time to be the person God needs us to be, to live the life Jesus laid out for us, IT IS NOW!
God in Micah, and Jesus in the sermon on the mount, are putting in very simple terms, terms that we don’t need a lawyer to parse for us. It isn’t about getting on our knees, though I think doing that from time to time, and bowing in reverence, are good ways to remember that we are not the be all, end all, of the universe. It is not about the church building, high or low liturgy, or any other thing. It is about having empathy with our brothers and sisters everywhere, treating them with kindness, and always seeking justice for them no matter who they are, or where they are from. It is about being Jesus in the world.
That is what consumed us at diocesan convention – how to be Jesus in the world…and that is why I was so proud to see our entire diocese standing in solidarity with refugees all around the world, and making a prophetic call to action to serve our brothers and sisters in need.
And you have a part to play to – and you must! Because people’s lives are at stake, and as Christians, as a people of God, we cannot sit on the sidelines. This is NOT a time to just sit in the pews, because being a person of faith, a follower of Jesus, is never about sitting in the pews, but standing up and being counted – doing justice, loving kindness, and walking with God.
WE MUST DO JUSTICE!
Speaking against earthly leaders who seek to marginalize and promote fear.
Standing with those who are oppressed and in danger.
WE MUST LOVE KINDNESS
Seeing and welcoming the stranger in our midst.
Opening our hearts to the meek, the poor in Spirit, the persecuted.
and WE MUST WALK INTENTIONALLY WITH GOD
Praying for guidance and strength.
Coming here in community to be nourished by the sacraments of our faith.
If we do that, we really will be blessed with happiness, because we will be living a life with meaning – filled with love, empathy, kindness…filled with Christ, filled with God.
If we do that, than the world is never without hope.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
January 29, 2017
The Fourth Sunday After The Epiphany
1st Reading – Micah 6:1-8
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Gospel – Matthew 5:1-12