We are strangers and foreigners

I have struggled over the last months to find my voice as a pastor and theologian. So much of my fear, anxiety, and anger at our current situation is connected to my identity as an American citizen that it’s been difficult for me to separate out my commitment to following Jesus Christ and my calling as a minister of the Gospel from my concerns as an American. Last week brought an end to that struggle and provided clarity of vision as I live out my calling as a Christian and an Episcopal priest. I am to follow Jesus and to preach the Gospel.

The immigration and refugee ban is profoundly evil, a repudiation of Christian and Hebrew Scriptures and the very words of Jesus Christ. Throughout scripture, there is a consistent and powerful command to offer hospitality to strangers, to welcome the foreigner, and to treat foreigners and strangers as one would treat one’s own family.

One of the great biblical stories is of Abraham’s welcome of three strangers at Mamre. In the course of that encounter, it becomes clear that those strangers are messengers from God (Genesis 18). Two of them go on to Sodom, where Lot’s nephew welcomes them into his home and protects them from other Sodom residents who wanted to rape them (Genesis 19:1-9). The sin of Sodom was the failure to extend hospitality to strangers (Ezekiel 16:49).

In the law of Moses, there is a consistent and strong insistence that the Israelites treat strangers and aliens as if they were their own:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Jesus was himself a refugee. After his birth, his parents fled with him from Bethlehem. Herod had all of the children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem executed in his rage (Matthew 2:13-18).

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and our enemies. He broke bread with foreigners and told stories about reviled foreigners who helped Jews (Luke 10:30-37). Jesus commanded his followers to welcome the stranger, telling us that in helping strangers, we are helping Jesus, that in the face of the stranger we encounter Christ:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

Hospitality toward the stranger and the foreigner is emphasized in different ways throughout the New Testament, most eloquently perhaps by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who wrote: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, in a reference back to the story of Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre)

That same author went a step further, reaching back to the key value expressed in the Mosaic law that linked Israel’s treatment of foreigners to their own experience of being foreigners in Egypt to assert that we followers of Jesus are strangers and foreigners here, that our allegiance is to God, not to the country in which we live:

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an act of the imagination that challenges us to imagine ourselves in contexts outside of our control, experience, and comfort zone. But that is the gospel imperative.

The Christian tradition bears witness to the struggles of Christians to live out the words of Jesus and the values of scripture in vastly different and changing contexts but throughout Christian history one can detect an effort to embody those values. In St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, for example, the great theologian argues that Christians’ primary and true citizenship is to the city of God that includes people from every nation, the living as well as the dead.

Ironically, the very word “refugee” bears witness to both the cruelty and the magnanimity of Christians. It comes from the French word “refugie” which was first used in reference to French Huguenots, French Protestants, who were expelled from France after King Louis XIV revoked their religious rights. The Huguenots found refuge in many Protestant territories across Europe and in North America.

Refugees fleeing religious persecution or war need our assistance. Whatever their nationality, religious commitment, or ethnicity, they are, like us, human beings created in the image of God, whose lives are in danger. They have the right to food, shelter, and the opportunity to flourish. The faces of refugees are the faces of Jesus Christ. In our encounters with them, we meet Him face to face.

But there is another, deeper issue in the debate over refugees. Our fear of refugees is tied up with nationalism. The United States has a constitution that promises freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Yet most American Christians live a religion quite different from that articulated in the letter to the Hebrews or by Augustine in City of God. Most American Christians live a religion that has more to do with devotion to the United States than following Jesus. We view the United States as the greatest country in the history of the world. Our wars are always just; our democracy above reproach. We can do no wrong and those who criticize the US for its policies, its actions, or the continued injustice and oppression that occurs within its borders or in its names are heretics and traitors.

Such a view of the United States is idolatrous. As Christians whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ, we are called to name the sin of idolatry when we see it and repent of it when we commit it. As citizens of another country, “resident aliens” as Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas named us, we Christians know that our values and our lives are shaped by the cross and resurrection, not by political expediency or the idolatry of nationalism.

The future remains uncertain. One thing is clear. As the Christian martyrs of the Roman Empire showed us, we must refuse to worship at the altar of empire. We must show in our words and actions our allegiance to Jesus Christ, embodying in ourselves our love of our enemies, our love and care for those who are rejected and discarded by the nation in which we live, our embrace of the foreigner, the widow and orphan. We must make the love of Christ apparent to everyone we meet, following the example of Jesus Christ, who in his love for the whole world, gave his life. Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to his vision for the coming reign of God will fill us with hope, nourish us for the journey ahead, and transform the world and nation in which we live.

In the name of Christ, the stranger.

 

 

Christianity in the Age of Trump

I attended a panel discussion on Saturday at the American Academy of Religion in which scholars and activists discussed the election’s impact on the academic study of religion and the role of scholars of religion in this new time. Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, pointed out that for all the talk of white working class voters or the split between urban and rural America,  the best predictor of what states went for Trump was White Christianity. It wasn’t just White Evangelicals who supported Trump (81%); White mainline Christians split between Trump and Clinton (each got 44%) and a majority of White Catholics supported Trump as well.

As Jim Wallis, another panelist, put it, “White identity has replaced Christian identity.”

This is a scathing indictment of American Christianity, not only its current incarnations but its entire history. We have much for which to repent; we have much to lament. We also have a great deal of difficult work to do.

Wallis, of Sojourners, offered 10 commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era.

I hope this will be a starting point for our conversions and action in the coming weeks and months.

Sabbatical as Liturgical Tourism

In my last sermon before departing on sabbatical, I mentioned to the congregation that the six Sundays I would be away from Grace would constitute the longest break from presiding at the Eucharist since my ordination in 2006. Indeed, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of Sundays since my ordination on which I had attended church services in which I was not participating in some leadership capacity. 

But it’s not just been Sunday mornings. During my sabbatical, I have been something of a liturgical tourist. I’ve worshiped in a number of different cities and settings, experienced different worship styles and worshiping communities within the same congregation. This week, I have been immersed in the prayer and worship of the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

I have enjoyed the variety of worship styles and the diverse worshiping communities. There was the familiar—the Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, the Daily Office, hymns from the Hymnal 1982. There was the new and different—services based on the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, from the Community of Iona, new and powerful hymn texts. There were also memories from my past—the first time I’ve sung “How Great Thou Art” in many, many years. And there was the surprising—baptisms in which the presider sat babies down in the font to baptize them and then raised them above his head in exuberant celebration.

In a way, all of it was strange. To sit in a pew, to open a service bulletin wondering what I might find, to look around the congregation and see only unfamiliar faces; to pay attention to the new space in which I found myself; to ask, “what were the architects and people thinking, why did they choose this style and how has this style, this space, shaped the congregation? How has the changing historical context, the changing neighborhood, the changing congregation, adapted and transformed this space for their spiritual needs?”

For “Street Church” with its lack of defined space, other questions. With no boundaries defining the space, and little demarcation between Eucharist and lunch, how does that openness invite participation, welcome the marginal, the unknown, the stranger?

It’s been a great gift to worship in so many contexts with so many people. To let go, to not worry about what was going to happen next or whether everyone who was scheduled would be there, whether the details were in place; to sit, and stand, sing, and pray, to receive bread and wine as a stranger, surrounded by strangers, and yet, in spite of it, to be welcomed at the table and with these strangers, as we eat Christ’s body and blood, we are, we become the Body of Christ.

As the weeks have passed and as the number and variety of my worship experiences has increased, I’ve deepened my appreciation for the flexibility and power of Episcopal worship. To worship in all those different contexts with thousands of people coming from very different places and living very different lives, is to experience one of the great strengths of the Episcopal Church. Our worship brings us into the presence of God and brings us into relationship with Jesus Christ. In worship, we experience the love of Christ and become the Body of Christ. The miracle is that this happens whenever, wherever we worship. The wonder is that all of those people who worship among and with us, can experience all of that, come to experience all of that. It can happen with beautiful music sung by professional choirs; it can happen when a few people sing “Amazing Grace” haltingly and off-key in a Washington Park. It can happen in glorious vestments and beautiful churches. But we can also experience God’s presence, the love of Christ, and become the Body of Christ in a warm smile or a hand tenderly placed on the shoulder of a sobbing woman at the altar rail.

The Politics of Resentment 

Kathy Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, Professor of Political Science at UW Madison (and member of Grace Church) was interviewed in The Washington Post today.

She concludes with this about the importance of listening to and spending time with people unlike ourselves.

         

Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?
I’d be scared to death after this presidential campaign! But thankfully I wasn’t aware of these views. So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.
And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth, and sixth And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.
That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.
As Pollyannaish as that sounds, I really do believe it.

Strangers, Foreigners, Immigrants, Refugees: A sermon for Proper 14, year C

We have watched the Middle Eastern refugee crisis unfold before our eyes, on TV and in the internet as some 13.5 million residents of Syria have been displaced by the 5-year civil war, half of them fleeing the war-torn nation for asylum elsewhere. In 2015, Europe, that is to say the EU, saw more than 1.3 refugees, a number more than double the previous high set in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These numbers are staggering and the scope of the human tragedy are incomprehensible to most of us. More familiar to us is the backlash—the calls to halt all immigration Most of the world watches this enormous tragedy unfold with cold hearts and a sense of helplessness in the face of its magnitude.

We are a nation of immigrants, at least that’s the myth we tell ourselves, but the truth of the matter is, that for most of us, those who come from families who have been here for generations and came originally from the British Isles, or Northern or Western Europe, we have settled very comfortably into the places we live. Even if we aren’t originally from Madison, it’s likely you’ve thought, as I did yesterday morning while riding bike along Lake Monona and enjoying a beautiful, seasonable summer day, that Madison is a wonderful place to live, and that I would rather be here than most any other place I’ve lived.

In spite of that, in spite of the beautiful day and the beautiful scenery, as we biked Corrie and I noticed something else. While the overwhelming majority of those biking along Lake Monona were white, African-Americans were there as well, individuals and families, fishing along the shore. No doubt some of them were there simply to have fun. It’s very likely that others, perhaps most, were hoping to make a meal or more of what they caught. Amidst the beauty of a leisurely Saturday, we were reminded again of the deep racial divide in our city, the parallel worlds, the parallel communities in which we live.

The conflict over immigration here and in Europe is connected with another conflict, that over our nation and culture itself. We see evidence of that conflict in the anger and fear that are expressed by so many, by the rancorous arguments over our criminal justice system and policing and our current election season.

That conflict extends to our faith as Christians offer their support for one candidate or another, using theological arguments to support their case and bolstering their political position with scripture citations. We may recoil at the statements of pastors whose political views we don’t share. Some of us might be inclined to try to divorce our faith from the world of politics entirely. In this climate, in this conflict, finding a way through the noise, the anger, and the fear, can be an enormous challenge.

The reading from Hebrews may offer us some help in making our way through the coming months. Although called a letter, Hebrews is more likely a sermon. It’s a beautifully written, profound exploration of the meaning of Jesus Christ. Its lofty language, use of symbolism, and reinterpretation of Hebrew Scripture in light of Jesus Christ has fascinated and shaped Christian worship and theology. And in this chapter, chapter 11, the author offers an extensive meditation on the nature of faith, and bolsters his argument with examples from biblical history. Our reading includes only one of the examples, the archetypes of faith, Abraham and Sarah.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. On the face of it, this seems to suggest the old conflict between faith and reason. It seems that we’re being instructed to believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary. In fact, our translation doesn’t really capture what the author is trying to say. First, the word translated as assurance here is elsewhere translated as being. The best translation might be “faith is the reality of things hoped for.”

Likewise, the word translated as conviction in “conviction of things not seen” ought better read “proof.” What the author seems to be saying is not that faith ought to be contrasted with empirical evidence, but rather that it is part of a process that faith moves toward understanding, realizing that which is now beyond demonstration. “Faith seeking understanding” to use a phrase made famous by St. Anselm.

The author gives us then the example of Abraham and Sarah. Here again, the greek isn’t quite clear on whether Abraham or Sarah is meant to be the primary example. By faith Abraham and Sarah obeyed when they were called to set out for a place that God promised them; not knowing where they was going; by faith they stayed in the land promised to them, as in a foreign land, living in tents. By faith they received power of procreation even though he was too old and Sarah was barren.” Then we are left with that majestic vision: All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, … But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”

To think of ourselves as strangers and foreigners requires an imaginative leap. The author of Hebrews and those in his audience were comfortable with that idea. As followers of Jesus Christ they proclaimed allegiance to someone who had been executed by the Roman Empire, by their rulers. They belonged to a community whose existence was precarious and by belonging, they renounced their ties to family and became members of a new community. For them to understand themselves as strangers and foreigners was not a difficult leap.

For us, for most of us it is. When we hear those words, “strangers and foreigners” what comes to mind? Do we immediately grow fearful? What do we think when we see a Muslim woman in hijab? Can we imagine ourselves in a refugee camp somewhere, or making that perilous journey from a war-torn homeland in search of peace and city somewhere thousands of miles away? Can we put ourselves in the place of our fellow humans fleeing for safety?

We are comfortable here in this city, in this nation. Our nation and culture have been shaped by Christian values and Christian symbolism. We saw all of that on display at the two conventions last month. We are at home here, and those unlike us are the strangers and foreigners.

To uproot us, to move us out of our comfort zone and our complacency. To recognize that what we should be striving for is not what lies behind us, whether in our own past, or in our nation, culture, or church’s past, but that our goal lies beyond us, beyond our imagination, and like Abraham and Sarah, we can only catch glimpses of it. That is what the author of Hebrews is telling us. That is also what Jesus is telling his disciples in today’s gospel.

Remember, they are on the journey to Jerusalem. And Jesus’ words are advice to his followers for that journey, but his words are also advice to us.

Jesus tells his disciples “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. In the midst of present struggle and uncertainty, in the midst of whatever fears we might harbor for ourselves, our loved ones, the world, Jesus offers comfort and hope. He also confronts us with all the ways we seek to protect ourselves from pain, suffering, uncertainty. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

What are your priorities? What are your deepest passions, your loftiest goals? What are your hopes? Are you like Abraham and Sarah strangers and foreigners? Are you citizens of that other country? Are you like the disciples, striving for the reign of God? Where is your treasure, where is your heart?

To live by the priorities of the Kingdom of God means to allow the words of Jesus to become our beacon and guide, to let them set our priorities. To live that way is to live like Abraham and Sarah, responding to God’s call, and taking hold of God’s promises. No, we might not see the kingdom of God reign on earth, but like Abraham and Sarah, we might see glimpses of that other country, as we embrace the stranger and foreigner, the widow and orphan, as we work to break down the barriers that divide us, to create a more just community, a more just world.

Prayers in this time of violence, grief, and fear

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 260)

A Prayer for the Whole Human Family.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 815)

A Prayer for Social Justice.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 823)

Prayer for Victims of Terrorism

Loving God, Welcome into your arms the victims of violence and terrorism. Comfort their families and all who grieve for them. Help us in our fear and uncertainty, And bless us with the knowledge that we are secure in your love. Strengthen all those who work for peace, And may the peace the world cannot give reign in our hearts. Amen.

A Prayer for First Responders

Blessed are you, Lord, God of mercy, who through your Son gave us a marvelous example of charity and the great commandment of love for one another. Send down your blessings on these your servants, who so generously devote themselves to helping others. Grant them courage when they are afraid, wisdom when they must make quick decisions, strength when they are weary, and compassion in all their work. When the alarm sounds and they are called to aid both friend and stranger, let them faithfully serve you in their neighbor. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.– adapted from the Book of Blessings, #587, by Diana Macalintal

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of Massachusetts, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

For Peace

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.