[Sermon delivered at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, San Diego, on 2/5/2017]
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
Our country is deeply divided.
Americans either love or HATE the movie La-La Land.
I have never really liked musicals. As I often say to people, I hate musicals because they take ten minutes in a long, boring song to say, “I love you.” Why don’t they just say “I love you” and move on?
But God has a sense of humor, and so my one and only child loves musicals. From a very young age, she was attracted to singing, dancing, and acting. And so from fourth grade on, she has performed in musicals. I have attended countless rehearsals and listened to the same long, boring songs about love sung over and over.
In addition, when we were both on the East Coast, we had easy access to cheap tickets to Broadway. The invariable argument ensued: I wanted to watch a play. My daughter always wanted to see a musical. We were in the third row at Phantom of the Opera. I fell asleep after ten minutes and never really woke up.
Cats? Who cares about singing cats?
Les Miserables? I was miserable the entire time.
But I learned something important about this huge divide between my daughter and myself: I loved attending musicals in which she performed. I saw Pajama Game three times when she performed in it. I laughed and cried and danced through Rocky Horror Picture Show. I loved it because I love her, and seeing the joy on her face made my sacrifice worth it.
And I learned something else. That I could like musicals. This happened when we finally saw a musical that I liked. Wicked. I loved everything about it.
Through my many encounters of musicals with my daughter over almost 26 years, I changed. My rigidly held position about musicals changed because I allowed her to open my eyes and ears to something I had previously rejected.
If there was ever a time for us to open our eyes and ears as Christians in America, that time is now. This story about musicals is an allegory for a way in which our deeply divided country can move forward. At the very least, it hints at ways that Christians should move forward.
Our country has been through a rapid series of executive orders in the past two weeks.
- The rescinding of the order blocking the Dakota pipeline, hard won by Native Americans and their many supporters.
- The gag order for all scientists in the Environmental Protection Agency, forbidding them from publishing any scientific results for the public to see.
- And the most disturbing order for many: the banning of entry for people from 7 predominantly Muslim nations, with the caveat that people who are a religious minority in that country may enter.
There are legal battles raging throughout the country about this ban on Muslim countries, as the executive order appears to violate federal law. Our laws say that the government cannot prohibit immigration based on nation or religion. Several federal judges have temporarily rescinded the President’s orders.
Many Americans believe that this ban is necessary for the safety and security of Americans. Many others think that it is illegal, hateful, and un-American. They also are troubled by the fear and insecurity it is causing for Americans and others around the world. And then there are people in the middle who are saying, “Can’t we all just calm down? Let’s just give this situation some time.”
How do we process this conflict as Christians?
The Church, at least most of the Church, takes no partisan political stand. We do not promote a party or candidate. Rather, we fight for the world that Jesus Christ died for and left in our care. This means working within our nation and our world for God’s reign of justice and peace. We also must obey our baptismal covenant to resist evil, and that can include taking public stands on moral issues. We get stuck, however, when one person’s evil is another person’s righteousness.
At these times, we consult the Bible, the Church, and each other. The reason that I and other preachers around the country are talking about these events is twofold. First, people are suffering terribly, so for pastoral reasons, we need to address the suffering in our congregations and communities. Second, the Bible has a great deal to say about refugees and immigration.
Let’s start with today’s reading from Isaiah and then look at passages about refugees. In today’s passage, God says to Isaiah, “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
God is saying that Israel has not been righteous; it has forsaken the law of God. God goes on to say that their religious practices such as fasting are hypocritical. They think they are drawing near to God through religion. But they are not. That is because they have used religious practice as a way to avoid following God’s law of love.
God wants them to loose the bonds of injustice and to let the oppressed go free. God wants them to feed the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into their houses, to clothe the naked.
God wants them to stop pointing the finger at others, to stop speaking evil.
If Israel does these things, God will call them the repairer of the breach, and the restorer of streets to live in.
Our challenge is to interpret the Bible in light of our current world. We must ask ourselves whether God would find our own nation’s practice righteous. So let’s look at what the Bible says about refugees and immigration.
The Bible is full of this topic, from beginning to end. Interestingly, the great spiritual heroes of the Bible, the ones closest to God, are sojourners, immigrants, and refugees whom God protects. The great patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible–Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—are all aliens or refugees due to poverty or political strife during their lifetimes, and God tells them they will be aliens. God clearly favors them and the nations who take them in. God tells Abraham, for example, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” God tells Isaac, “Reside in this land as an alien, and I will fulfill an oath that I swore to your father Abraham.”
Consider Hagar, the slave of Abraham, and her son Ishmael. Abraham’s wife Sarah does not want Hagar and Ishmael around once her son Isaac is born. And so Hagar is sent into the desert. She runs out of water and fears that her son will die. But then an angel of the Lord comes to her and reassures her that God will save her and the boy. God saves the exiled one.
Joseph’s entire family, the twelve tribes of Israel, must leave Israel due to famine. When Joseph tells the Pharoah this, Pharoah invites them to Egypt and promises them the best land.
And that’s just the first book of the Bible. It would take me all morning to summarize the themes of refugees and immigration in Exodus, so let me just state the obvious. The lawgiver Moses, the main hero of the Hebrew Bible, is a political refugee fleeing execution. The entire Hebrew population becomes political refugees when they escape from slavery in Egypt.
When God hands down the law to Moses and Aaron, they receive instructions about strangers and aliens. Here’s Exodus 22:20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Here it is in the book of Leviticus: “You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger” (Lev. 19:10).
And again in Leviticus: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34).
Here is another sentiment about strangers in the book of Numbers: “You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord.”
Here is just one quotation from Deuteronomy: “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme… who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but holds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger…. You too must befriend the stranger” (Deut. 10:16-19—Tanakh translation).
I could give you countless more examples from the books of Chronicles, Kings, Joshua and Nehemiah, not to mention the books of Daniel and Ruth.
But let’s move to the New Testament. Jesus Christ and his parents were political refugees. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, an angel warns Joseph to flee with Mary and the baby to Egypt to save their lives from the wrath of King Herod.
And then there is the great apostle Paul. Paul flees Jerusalem to save his life and eventually dies in jail as a religious minority and political prisoner of the Roman Empire.
We have the model of the adult Jesus, who reached out to the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion (his political enemy!), and a Samaritan woman. At the end of his life, Jesus is persecuted as a religious outsider and executed as a political prisoner.
From this preponderance of Biblical evidence, as well as the application of reason and compassion, it appears that there’s a consistent message throughout the Bible for loving and caring for refugees and immigrants. They are consistently God’s chosen ones.
Some might say, “The Bible was written in a different time, and we need different measures when there are new challenges from terrorists.” Some people believe this Muslim ban is desirable, or at least should be tolerated. They believe the protesters are overreacting and should stand down.
Others have been struggling morally and mightily with this executive order. Their reactions range from deep concern about the unrest in our country and abroad to a fear of fascistic signs in our executive branch. And everyone, no matter what their political position, is concerned for the safety of our Muslim brothers and sisters in the United States. They and our Jewish neighbors are frequently targeted for hate crimes and intimidation.
We members of Good Sam are not all of the same mind about our government’s actions. But as Christians, we are called to be the body of Christ and to have the mind of Christ by turning to the Bible, the teachings of our Church, and each other’s wisdom.
I find convincing Biblical evidence that God loves refugees and urges us to do so, too. The United Nations reports that there are 65 million refugees in the world, so we had better get started.
As for the teaching of the church, many leaders of Christianity have denounced the executive order on moral grounds. These leaders include Pope Francis, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, our Episcopal Bishop of San Diego, James Mathes, and the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, also has criticized the executive order. On the other hand, some Christian leaders, especially evangelical ones, support the executive order.
So that leaves us to repair the breach and restore the streets with God’s help.
Here is what I suggest:
- Cast out fear. Fear is not of God, and as First John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” One of the primary messages of Christianity is that we have nothing to fear, least of all death. Christ triumphed over death through the cross and Resurrection. So practice releasing that fear.
- Get quiet and pray. I said in my annual meeting address that Good Sam has the amazing ability to meditate together, and I am happy to start a Centering Prayer group to help us breathe peace into this world. This week, I will practice Centering Prayer in the chapel from 8:30 to 9:30 am on Wednesday morning before the Healing Eucharist. I invite you to join me.
- Make it personal. The way I modified my rigid position on musicals was to walk through the world of musicals with a daughter whom I loved so much that I was willing to see and hear things in new ways. It took me twenty years to get there. Are you afraid of Muslims? Go meet some Muslims at a local mosque. Ask them how the ban is affecting them. Are you hopping mad at conservatives? Ask them how they are doing, and listen sympathetically to their hopes for their country. Find some common ground. Are you annoyed at the liberals marching in the streets? Think they are hysterical? Take one to lunch and listen kindly to their distress. It is real. The only way to repair this breach is to do the deep work of loving each other one by one.
- And finally, labor in love. Valarie Kaur, a Sikh interfaith leader in Southern California who has documented religious hate crimes, asked at a recent speech, “What if this darkness is not a darkness of the tomb, but a darkness of the womb? What if our nation is being born? What if this is our nation’s great transition? And what does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe and then Push. We will labor in love.”