BE a neighbor

*Consider the ugly-beautiful story of Sarah and Hagar.

First, the UGLY.

-Sarah, wife of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, has multiple hardships, most of them the result simply of the patriarchal system of her time and place:

  • She’s had to leave her home–twice–and wander for many years as a nomad.
  • One time during her and her husband’s wanderings, Abraham sold her into a king’s harem in order to protect his own skin (he actually did this twice, but the second time happened after the Sarah-Hagar story).
  • Sarah is barren, a mark of deep shame in the Ancient Near East. She is unable to bear her husband the son God has promised to him.

-Sarah, despite her shame and very limited power as a woman, DOES have the authority of being the “owner” of a slave maid named Hagar, and she uses this power to sexually exploit Hagar. She “gives” the slave woman to Abraham with the hope that Hagar will get pregnant and be a surrogate mother.

-Hagar does get pregnant and suddenly realizes she has an advantage over her barren mistress. Hagar, not Sarah, is bearing the master’s child. So Hagar uses her newfound power and lords it over Sarah.

-Sarah, who IS still the mistress, complains to Abraham, and he tells her she can do whatever she wants with Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar to the point that pregnant Hagar runs away.

Now for the BEAUTIFUL!

-God protects both women in this story.

  • He rescued Sarah from the king’s harem (and God will do it again when Abraham “sells” her off a second time), and God eventually names Sarah as a co-partner in the promise of a son–meaning Abraham is no longer free to discard her.
  • God comes to Hagar in the wilderness after she runs away, gives her her own promise of many, many descendants, and tells her she’s carrying a son (a BIG power play card in her relationship with Abraham and Sarah). With this power play card, God sends her back to the safest place possible for a vulnerable, pregnant, unmarried woman. Hagar feels so known by God that she calls God “the God who sees her.”

-God, who is so often named as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reveals himself to be most assuredly the God of Sarah and Hagar as well. He is well aware of the struggles of their lives. He sees them. He knows their point of view.

One of my favorite lines in To Kill a Mockingbird is a statement lawyer Atticus Finch makes to his young daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

In the incarnation, God went beyond knowing people’s skins and souls as their Creator. He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.

But it’s important to consider the exact skin God put on. It wasn’t skin that would be protected by money or privilege. No. The Son of God put on the vulnerable flesh of the baby of two poor people who had to flee violence in their hometown and live as immigrants in a far-off country. And when he was grown and clearly had the power to control the weather and drive out demons and raise the dead back to life, he hung out not with cultured, authoritative people but with fishermen and tax collectors and women–some of them the lowest of the low. 

The skin God chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloth happened to be at hand.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the poor.

The skin God chose was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the powerless.

The skin God chose was carried off into a foreign country.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the refugee and immigrant.

The skin God chose was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the illegitimate.

The skin God chose grew rough and calloused.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the working poor.

The skin God chose often lay itself down on the ground to sleep at night and at times grew tight over ribs.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the homeless.

The skin God chose was bruised and torn by guards.

Because Christ put on the flesh of prisoners.

The skin God chose was naked in the sight of all.

Because Christ put on the flesh of all those forced to expose themselves to others. 

In the story of the Good Samaritan (which we heard today in our Gospel reading), the teacher of the law had spent plenty of time studying the Scripture. He knew what the Law said was the way to live eternally with God. But Jesus didn’t tell him to go around quoting the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” or to spend more time praying. Jesus re-framed the definition of neighbor. He re-framed the teacher’s question. The teacher asked, “Who is MY neighbor; who am I required to love?” Jesus ignored that–because the answer is simple: it’s everyone. Instead, Jesus gave a charge, “Go and do as the Samaritan did. Go and love as a neighbor to all people.” 

I know that the status of immigrants coming into this country has become a political issue, but it is not primarily a political issue for the church. It is a neighbor issue. And I know that we can disagree on different political stances in the church in the United States, but I think we ignore this issue at our peril as followers of Jesus. I think we do damage to the neighbor heart God is planting and expanding within us. I am pretty sure Joseph and Mary didn’t have their papers in order when they entered Egypt, and Jesus doesn’t mention the strangers in Matthew 25 having to present the proper documents in order to be welcomed. I’m not advocating a particular stance; I don’t know enough to. What I do know is that there is no way I can preach on this passage without bringing up the current status of undocumented immigrants and refugees in this country. 

Friday night I was at a Lights for Liberty prayer vigil in Humboldt Park, praying for migrants in detention, for separated families, and for people in this country who are facing deportation. It was hosted by a church in Humboldt Park, and we gathered in a fenced-in parking lot next to the church. As I listened to local pastors and a state representative pray and speak, I noticed a sign attached to the fence next to me. It had this picture on it, the picture of Yazmin Juárez with her daughter, Mariee. The two left Guatemala and sought asylum in the U.S. and were held at a detention center in Texas. While there, Mariee became sick. After Yazmin and Mariee were released, Yazmin and her mother took Mariee to a pediatrician, and Mariee was immediately admitted to a nearby hospital and diagnosed with a lung infection. She died in the hospital. Yazmin blames improper medical care, “terrible and inadequate” living conditions, and a culture of neglect at the migrant holding facilities for her daughter’s health.

Yazmin testified before House lawmakers and said, “I am here today because the world needs to know what is going on in ICE detention centers.” 

 As I stood next to the picture and read the brief bio of Yazmin and Mariee, I immediately thought of Hagar–Hagar fleeing with her child in her womb. I knew that God saw Yazmin and Mariee, and I, a follower of God, didn’t have the choice, standing next to their picture on the fence, to not see them as well. God sees each and every person held in a detention center; he collects the tears of every parent and child separated from each other; he hears the whispered prayers of those fearing deportation. 

 Last night our family got food from our favorite taco joint. It’s straight up Laramie Avenue from us, in south Belmont Cragin. Right next to the register was a little stack of cards with a sign. The sign, in Spanish, read, “Know your rights. Take a card.”  The cards have instructions for what to do if ICE comes to the door. 

The student population at the school where my husband teaches is about 60% Latino. At times in the last couple years, the school has had to bring in grief counselors because the stress about deportation among students has spiked so high. People in our communities are afraid. No matter what their U.S. citizenship status is, Jesus calls them our neighbors. Jesus calls US their neighbors. 

 I’m not saying that the story of Hagar and Sarah or the parable of the Good Samaritan or Matthew 25 holds all the answers as to the stance each of us should take on immigration in this country. I know it’s very complex. But these passages reveal the heart and actions of our God, and they give us a charge as to what we are to DO. “Go be a neighbor!” Jesus tells us. And we’d better not be neighbors only to the Abrahams of the world or even to the Sarahs of the world. We are neighbors to the Hagars of the world, to the beat-up stranger on the side of the road, to the despised Samaritan, to the fleeing Josephs and Marys with infants in arms.

God’s tenderness for Hagar is breathtaking, especially when we remember that societies, by and large, have never valued people like Hagar. We still don’t. Hagar is merely one of those peripheral, powerless people who never become anyone “worth” knowing. Yet God sees her, knows her name, and speaks tenderly, personally, and directly to her.

“Which of the three,” Jesus asked, “was a neighbor to the man unseen by people but seen by God?” 

“The one who showed him mercy,” the teacher answered.

And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” 

*The post is part of a sermon I preached in our church’s Genesis: Stories of Redemption series. The poem in the middle of this post is a revision of a blog I wrote and posted a couple years ago. 

 

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The Church’s First Cry

pentecost drawing

The children at church did this graphic picture of the Pentecost story as a way of remembering it

Pentecost is regarded as the church’s birthday. Stephen Gauthier, a canon theologian in the Anglican Church of North America, beautifully tweaks this idea. He says the church was birthed in water and blood from the side of Christ on the cross; the church took its first inhale of Spirit-wind as Christ breathed on it Easter night; and then its first cry was at Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit exhaled that initial breath in a declaration of God’s mighty deeds to the nations.

As I’ve read and re-read the story of Pentecost this past week so I could share it as a Bible Telling with our congregation, I’ve been awed by God’s heart for all peoples expressed in this first cry of the Church. The main characters of the story are the God-fearing Jews who come from “every nation under heaven” but who are gathered to seek God in the nexus of Jerusalem. The long list of their native homes encompasses different cultures as well as languages, but the two—language and culture—are closely connected, so that the Church’s first cry reached not only the minds but the hearts of these representatives of the nations. “I am coming to you,” God was saying, “in your cultures, in your home countries. I will do all it takes, beginning with using the language of your culture, letting you know I am the God of all peoples.” In the very first cry of his Church, God was reaching out to the nations. “For the promise is for you,” Peter told them, “for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

And their hearts responded, so that the Good News of Jesus, who himself translated God into humanity for us, underwent secondary translation, into multiple languages, with every cry of the diversifying, world-spanning Church.

The Bible Gateway verse of the day for today, Pentecost Sunday, is this: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).

I am struck with this call to harmony, this call for the church universal—and local—to join together to glorify God with ONE voice. This emphasis on harmony also seemed to impact Eugene Peterson, for it figures large in his interpretation: “May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along well with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!”

We’re clearly not there yet! Harmony is not often a word used to describe the Church. Too often our loudest cries are ones of dissent and accusation, complaint and superiority. Our praise in comparison often sounds like mumbling, a mere whisper.

But this will change, for one day, from every tribe and people and language, a great multitude will cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

This Pentecost, draw the Spirit deep into your lungs, devote yourself to Jesus as Lord, declare God’s mighty deeds through word and action and love, and seek to sing in harmony with his Choir.

Ash Wednesday 2018, noon service

At the end of the service,

When the ashes are crossed on my forehead

With the words, “Remember that you are dust,

And to dust you shall return,”

The liturgy plunges bone-deep

And a strange weariness overcomes me.

I sit in this for a moment,

But then remember:

There is much still to do in this day.

Decisions to be made,

Lessons to be taught,

School pickups,

Dinner to fix,

And another service, for goodness sake!

Action, energy are needed.

Caffeine is probably needed!

Yet in this moment, a memory arises,

From another Ash Wednesday several years before.

Following the imposition, the mother in the row ahead of me

Picked up her small ones from childcare

And returned for the end of the service.

All was well, till her son noticed the cross on her forehead,

The cross on my forehead,

The cross on the foreheads of every adult surrounding him.

He turned to his mother, and I heard,

“Where’s my cross? Why don’t I have a cross?”

and nothing could comfort him till my husband,

one of those who’d imposed the ashes that night,

marked the child’s forehead, too, with his still-darkened thumb.

To want the mark of humanity,

To long for the symbol that announces to the world,

we are but “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,”*

Incapable,

Inadequate,

In dire need of mercy—

This desire seems nearly the complete opposite of

That which caused the first human hands to pluck forbidden fruit,

To doubt Goodness himself,

To seek equality with the Creator,

Independence from the Breath that gave Life,

Supposed self-sufficiency.

Oh, yes, give me ashes,

Give me symbol,

Grant me humility,

The posture, before God and man,

Of complete and utter need.

For then your mercy, too, can plumb bone-deep,

Heart-deep,

Soul-deep.

Breath can bring dust to life again,

So that all I am, all I do,

May be known and seen

As Your greatest grace.

 

*a line from the hymn “O Worship the King,” which we sang in early morning prayer at Austin Corinthian Baptist Church this very morning!

 

The Good Shepherd

darkest valleyNext week I will teach preschoolers the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, incorporating Psalm 23. I will use objects and songs and movements to help these little ones remember that Jesus leads them and cares for them and finds them if they get lost.

I am meditating on Psalm 23 and John 10 as I prepare for this teaching, and the pictures that keep rising in my mind are not of green pastures and still waters but of the wolf and the dark valley. I find myself singing phrases from two songs based on Psalm 23: Audrey Assad’s “I Shall Not Want” and Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me O God.”

These two songs are expanding my understanding of the dark valley and the wolf.

Not long ago my youngest child and I were talking about the wolf, the evil one. My child wanted to know how the evil one feels about people, specifically about him. And we talked about a depth of hatred that is beyond what we can understand, a desire for our destruction that is so great it will not be satisfied except by the complete separation of humans from all that is good and right—from God.

We talked about the varying tactics of the evil one, how at times he appears as an angel of light—as comfort and safety and self-interest and belonging—how at others he beckons with the dark seduction of power and fame and revenge. How the effects of the evil one’s deception might be more obvious in the broken families, high drug use, and violence of at-risk neighborhoods but the complacency, independence, and aloofness of well-off neighborhoods is just as much his work.

Both distract us from our greatest, deepest need. Both blind us to the goodness of God.

This past week I told the story of the Fall in church and then taught the children to tell it. “Did God say…?” the evil one asks, casting doubt on God’s truthfulness, on God’s goodness. God has lied to you, he suggests. There is a way for you to be like God, and God, being greedy, does not want that. He wants you stupid and grateful and content in not knowing what you lack. He has tricked you.

We have believed this lie ever since. It has its many variations—for the evil one is forever subtly and craftily undermining the goodness and trustworthiness of God toward us.

In the prayer of St. Francis, these lines appear: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console/to be understood as to understand/to be loved as to love.” I see these same ideas in Assad’s “I Shall Not Want.”

From the love of my own comfort/From the fear of having nothing/From a life of worldly passions/Deliver me O God

From the need to be understood/And from a need to be accepted/From the fear of being lonely/Deliver me O God/Deliver me O God

From the fear of serving others/Oh, and from the fear of death or trial/And from the fear of humility/Deliver me O God/Yes, deliver me O God

The needs identified—for comfort, provision, passion, understanding, acceptance, belonging—are good. They are among our deepest desires. It is these needs the evil one taps into, magnifying and twisting them. We cannot, do not trust God to fulfill these needs. He is either not big enough to or not good enough to want to. He is not the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. So we must take matters into our own hands; we must prize our own needs above those of others; we must lose our good sense of smallness—as one among many created in the likeness and image of God, as one of many, many beloved sheep. We leave the fold and strike out on our own.

We cannot, will not trust the perfect love of God to provide our needs and wants, and, ironically, only that perfect love drives out the fear that keeps us from trusting.

And this brings me to Marty Haugen’s song “Shepherd Me O God,” with its chorus that puzzled me the first time I heard it: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants/beyond my fears, from death into life.

Beyond the shallow wants that distract me from my deepest needs.

Beyond the fears that blind me to true goodness and faithfulness.

It is in the “beyond” that we are fully satisfied.

And it is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who takes us there.

The chorus of Assad’s song looks to this “beyond.”

And I shall not want, no, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want

Our Good, Good Shepherd did not abandon us to the wolf but laid down his life for us, so we could be his own, could be his known sheep who know him, who live in his goodness and in the fullness of life.

And in this life, there is no want.

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

For his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I fear no evil;

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff—

They comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

In the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

Forever.

the power of the resurrection

396467780000-Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 10.59.09 AMGrant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever.

We stood on the shore of Lake Geneva, gathered for the baptism service of two young members of our church family—a brother and sister. Our pastor spoke of their entering the water as Christ entered death. He reminded them that in submitting to baptism, they were announcing their identity; they were renouncing darkness and entering a new life of trusting in and following Christ. They would not do this through their own strength but through the power of Christ, through the power of his resurrection.

Power implies authority. Power implies the ability to make another person do whatever the person in power wants. Even when power is used benignly, it generally carries an unspoken threat. Power separates those with it from those without it. It diminishes those who are being controlled.

Power is too often seen as Might. Force. Control. Dominance.

I thought all this as I watched our pastor bless the water of the lake—the rather large lake! I thought of the story of Jesus calming the wind and the waves. He had authority and power over the storm, power that was so evident the disciples were terrified by it. “Who is this,” they asked each other, “that even the wind and waves obey him?”

The brother and sister, pastor, and youth pastor walked out into the lake. We followed into the shallows. They went further, till the water reached their waists. Together the pastors dipped first one of them and then the other backwards into the water. I saw their bodies resist the descent. I saw their mental effort to overcome this natural resistance, to release themselves into their pastors’ arms.

Years ago I watched the movie Schindler’s List. The overarching story of the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust has certainly stuck with me, but I can only picture a couple scenes from the film. In one of them Oskar Schindler is on a balcony with the German leader of a prison camp, a man who exults in his complete power to arbitrarily torture and kill the Jews in his camp. Schindler has a different view of power. “Power,” he says, “is when we have every justification to kill—and we don’t.”

Power, he continues, is when we instead extend mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus had power. He calmed raging waves and howling winds with the sound of his voice. He certainly could have controlled the mere men who stripped and beat his body and drove nails through his feet and wrists. Yet he submitted to them, to their assumptions of power.

Did Jesus’ body, like the bodies of our young church members, naturally resist their force? Did his knowledge that he had power—that he could have called down legions of angels, that he could have controlled the very iron of the nails—battle against his intention to submit?

I don’t know what went on inside Jesus’ soul, but I know what he did. I know the nails stayed in his wrists. I know his body remained on the cross. I know he allowed people to taunt him.

I know Jesus willingly died.

In retrospect we see the power of the resurrection fully and beautifully displayed in the crucifixion.

I can’t remember every detail of the scene with Schindler and the prison camp leader. I do remember the camp leader sitting in a chair looking out over hundreds of emaciated, broken Jews. I remember his pleasure in harming them.

In my memory his fists are clenched.

Jesus’ hands, though, were open.

Open in pain, fingers stretched wide with the suffering and brokenness of the world.

Open in pardon for those harming him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Open in compassion for his mother: “Woman, here is your son … Here is your mother.”

Open in acceptance of those rightfully accused: “Today you will join me in paradise.”

The hair and clothes of the two siblings dripped with water. We waded back to shore and gathered in a circle.

Our pastor prayed, “…you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” He held his hands out toward us. “The peace of the Lord be always with you.”

“And also with you,” we answered. I noticed many of us mirrored the pastor’s gesture, stretching our open hands, palms up, toward the center of the circle.

This, I thought, is the power of the resurrection: the power to live against our natural tendency to resist, to close our hands in fists. Only with resurrection power can we live open-handed toward God, palms bare, willing to reveal the emptiness of our hands. willing to hold our hands out to God, open to receive everything from Him, open to receive grace.

We joined hands then, and in the gentle pressure of my neighbors’ hands in mine, I realized this, too, is done in resurrection power. The power of the resurrection enables us to live with hands outstretched to others, ready to link fingers with the reaching hands of the suffering, the broken, the oppressed, and the widow, and willing, even, to grab hold of the clenched fists of the oppressors, the accusers, the guilty and the condemned.

Grant, O Lord, that all (we) who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection…

Amen