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The Refugee Jesus

A sermon preached at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on 22 November 2015. I rarely post sermons, however this one received enough positive feedback that I make an exception. Note that this is the manuscript that went into the pulpit; the sermon that came out no doubt differed in several ways.FullSizeRender

The Refugee Jesus
John 18:33-37
Rutgers Presbyterian Church
November 22, 1015
Christ the King Sunday 

Fear.We have to talk about fear this day if we wish to talk about refugees.

Fear always creeps into conversations about refugees and immigrants—a fear of the other—of people from whom we differ.

But this day, we gather after

a bombing in Baghdad

a bombing in Beirut

an attack with guns and bombs on Paris

a bombing in Yola, Nigeria

a bombing in Kano, Nigeria

an attack on a hotel in Bamako, Mali

yet more bombings in Baghdad.

And fear has entered the conversation.

Fear of Daesh and other terrorist groups.

Fear of Muslims even though Muslims have been the targets and victims of many of the attacks.

Fear of refugees, particularly refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Political leaders and candidates and pundits have pandered to the fear and fed the fear.

Governors have said their states will not accept refugees from Syria. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to make the vetting process for refugees from Syria and Iraq more difficult, it not impossible. Some leaders have essentially said “No Muslims need apply” or “Christians only.” Both phrases resonate with nativist and racist language from our past.

In at least one instance, the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II has been cited as a model for refusing Syrian refugees rather than the evil act of racism that is was.

And one candidate for President called for a mandatory registry of Muslims in the United States, a call that evokes the horror of the Holocaust.  The New York Times reports he may be pulling back from that position somewhat.[i]

We cannot talk about refugees on this day without talking about fear.

Some pastors may preach that we should be afraid. We should hunker and hide in fear. And we should allow fear to guide us in our behavior and relationships with refugees. I will not do that.

Surrendering to fear in relation to our brothers and sisters who flee for their lives flies in the face of everything I believe as a follower of Jesus. It goes against everything I believe as a citizen of this country and a resident of our great city where in the harbor stands a statue with a poem:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[ii]

And it goes against the policy statements and congregational actions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Presbyterians have supported refugee resettlement since the refugee crisis created by World War II. The 160th General Assembly (1948) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America stated, “The United States should pass legislation to bring in at least four hundred thousand displaced persons during the next four years.” (Minutes, PCUSA, 1948, Part I, p. 204). [iii] Presbyterian congregations have helped resettle thousands of our brothers and sisters through the years.

Some pastors may preach today that we have nothing to fear. After all, fear not is what Jesus told his disciples on several occasions. Sermons will proclaim that that God is completely in control, life is working out according to God’s plan, God will protect us, and we have no reason for fear. I will not do that.

The world is a broken and fearful place. I know that and you know that. I fear for my African American friends, Native American friends, Hispanic, Latino/Latina friends, Asian American friends in their encounters with law enforcement and in their daily lives within a racist system. I fear for the gun violence that too often tears lives and communities apart. I fear for the homeless on our streets, particularly as winter comes. I fear for my transgendered sisters and brothers. I fear for sisters and brothers who struggle with addiction, or lack access to health care, or who have lost jobs. I fear for those who serve in our military and come home to inadequate support and care. I fear what those who resort to terror might do. Acts of terror are, after all, a form of public theater intended to provoke fear. I fear the possibility, however small, that despite our best screening efforts, a person who wishes to commit and act of terror may be admitted to our country as a refugee. Megan McCardle observes, “There’s no perfect way to screen out Syrian terrorists from Syrian refugees. It may be that someone we let in will, eventually, do something horrible. In fact, that’s a risk with any immigrant we let in, or for that matter, any baby we allow to be born.”[iv]

We live in a broken and fearful world.

And so it is right and natural that we fear.

But, we fear as those who follow the Jesus – as those who proclaim Christ as ruler. And that makes all the difference.

We fear. But we refuse to allow fear to rule our actions and decisions.

We recognize that courage is not the absence of fear; it is going ahead despite our fear. Indeed as John McCutcheon puts it, “courage has no meaning without fear.”[v] Jesus had his moment in Gethsemane where he first prayed that the cup before him might be removed before he prayed that God’s will be done.

We realize that we need to understand fearful situations as well as we can. For example, we might learn about the vetting process for refugees. It is long and complicated. And it is available online from the White House. Refugees are the most carefully screened travelers to the United States.[vi] We might learn about our country’s history with refugees and immigrants. We might look at what other countries are doing in response to refugees and acts of terror. We might consider how important it is to integrate refugees into society.

We remember that Jesus was a refugee. The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”[vii] There was no UNHCR at the time. And the borders may not have been as clearly delineated as they are today. But under the terms of that definition, when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Egypt to keep him safe from Herod, they became refugees.[viii]

Jesus teaches us that what the way we individually and collectively treat the least of our sisters and brothers is the way we treat him. That would seem particularly appropriate in relation to our brothers and sisters who are refugees—in the world’s refugees we encounter the Refugee Jesus.

The Refugee Jesus is the one who we celebrate today on this Christ the King Sunday. Lots of causes and commitments and things vie to have first place in our hearts and minds and souls and strength. But today we reaffirm our intention that Jesus is Lord. Jesus and no one else. Jesus and nothing else. We know we we will fall and fail as we try to live out that proclamation, but we also know that by God’s grace we can pick ourselves back up and try again. We are not who we should be – but we are not who we used to be – and we know that God in Christ can help us become who we could be.

On this day, our Gospel reading seems a bit out of place. We are at the end of the church year—Christ the King Sunday. And we read part of the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate that follows his arrest and precedes his execution. It’s the stuff of Holy Week. But here it is for today.

The reason lies in the content of the discussion between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate wants to know who Jesus is. The buzz on the street says that Jesus is a king. The Twitter feeds were filled with #Jesus #King of the Jews. “King” is a political term. And Pilate is a political person. He needs to know what is going on.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks.

Jesus turns the question back on Pilate. He asks Pilate the question he asked his followers—the question he asks all people—the question he asks us. “Who do you say, I am?” He does not put it that directly. But that’s the heart of Jesus’ response. For who we say Jesus is makes all the difference in how we live.

Pilate tries again. He notes that Jesus has been “delivered” to him by others. He wants to know why. “What have you done?”

Jesus ignores this question and returns to the idea of kingship.  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  He is a different style of leader from what is contained in Pilate’s political understanding of being a king. The reign of Jesus is not “of the world” of political calculation, accusation, and contending interests.

Pilate, tries one more time: “So you are a king?”

Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king.” And again, Jesus describes what type of a king – a ruler – a leader – he is. Jesus spoke to Pilate – but his words have echoed to all people since – his words speak to us today.

The political understanding of a king involved struggle and domination. When we listen to Jesus – not just in this passage – but to his voice as consistently revealed in the Gospels – we know that his reign is about the dignity and equality of all – it is about love and caring and sharing.

Jesus’ ministry and mission is “to testify to the truth” – to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and grace – to call women and men to live in new ways –rooted in God’s love and justice – living as Jesus lived, loving as Jesus loves.

The reign of Christ has no geographical boundaries. Christ’s reign is about faith and hope and grace and love. His reign consists of followers who listen to his voice and seek to do his will and share love in his name and trust in his grace.

So we give thanks today for Jesus in whom God came among us.  We give thanks that the story of Jesus did not end in a cold, smelly barn.  It did not end as the Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt, becoming refugees. It did not end even on the cross.  God raised Jesus and the story continues.

We give thanks for Jesus who invites us to live in new, abundant ways.  We give thanks that Jesus calls us to enter into the story—to love one another. To welcome the newcomer. To build relationships across the diversities God creates.

As we consider responding to our sisters and brothers who are refugees, we quickly realize we cannot do everything to meet their needs. But as Archbishop Oscar Romero taught us, each of us can do something.

Perhaps we can write a letter to elected officials. Or give money. Or work with refugees who have arrived—providing transportation—becoming friends—helping gather needed household supplies. I have a number of friends who have recently had their first babies. They are participating in the Carry the Future project started by a mother from California that provides baby carriers to families that arrive in Greece.[ix] That is not everything. But it is something. And if you have ever carried a baby, you know it is something that can make a difference. Each of us can do something. Each of us can find concrete ways to love as we follow the Refugee Jesus who is Christ the King.

In his statement, “Choose welcome, not fear,” the Rev. Grady Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) noted that, after the crucifixion of Jesus, his disciples hid in fear. They gathered in an upper room and locked the doors. But God had other plans. Jesus appeared to them and said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’.[x] We who proclaim Christ as King were not meant to hide. We were meant to walk out in hope and compassion. Fear feeds terror. The Refugee Jesus calls us, invites us, challenges us, transforms us to witness to the Gospel with generous hospitality—to live as Jesus lived—to love as Jesus loves.[xi]

In the face of terror and in the face of fear, hope and faith and love are the way forward; they are the way to life.

As we follow the refugee Jesus; as we proclaim Christ the King, may we live in hope, faith, and love. Today and all days.

Amen.

 

 

[i] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/21/us/politics/donald-trump-sets-off-a-furor-with-call-to-register-muslims-in-the-us.html?_r=0

[ii] http://www.libertystatepark.com/emma.htm

[iii]http://oga.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/call_to_write_for_syrian_refugees_and_governors%5B1%5D.pdf

[iv] http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-11-20/six-bad-arguments-for-u-s-to-take-in-syrian-refugees

[v] http://www.folkmusic.com/lyrics/here-islands

[vi] https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states

[vii] http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c125.html

[viii] Matthew 2:13-15

[ix] https://www.facebook.com/carrythefuture/

[x] John 20:21

[xi] This paragraph draws heavily on the Rev. Gradye Parsons’ statement posted at http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/11/17/choose-welcome-not-fear/

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In This Place

This is the manuscript I took into the pulpit at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church today. The preached sermon varied from the manuscript in some instances as the preaching event took place.

People often ask if I miss serving as a pastor in a congregation. I reply that I miss the community, the shared life. But I feel called to my work at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. I make mistakes; challenges and frustrations arise, but I believe I am where God has called me.

And then come those Sundays when I have the privilege to take part in the sacrament of baptism. And in the joy and wonder of the moment, I feel a tug to parish ministry.

Because I knew I would have that privilege this morning, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about children. Of course along with the filled expectation of the sacrament, this week has also brought tragedy and sorrow and hope.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

Israeli children who listen for sirens and take refugee in bomb shelters.
Palestinian children killed upon a beach, under the crushing weight of collapsed homes, on the streets of Gaza.
Israeli and Palestinian children bound together in the violent spiral, not of their making, of occupation and resistance.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

Nigerian girls abducted from schools and homes, wrenched from their families, held by a rebel group.
Children of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains who huddle in caves as bombs dropped by the government rain around them.
South Sudanese children whose stomachs knot from hunger and malnutrition that threaten their lives.
Syrian children caught in a chaotic cross fire.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

Children forced to carry guns larger than they are tall in combat.
Children who breathe air-filled with dust and sometimes toxic gases in mines for gold.
Children used, violated, and exploited.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

Children fleeing rape and gang recruitment and violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Guatemala who make their way to the United States to be placed in detention centers where they may experience cramped cells without enough food, beds, toilets or showers.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

Children who lost a parent when a plane went down over the eastern Ukraine.
Children with AIDS or whose parents have AIDS whose lives will be affected by the loss of the researchers and scientists on that plane.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

Children in our country whose lives are constricted and diminished by racism.
Children bullied because of their sexual orientation.
Children who know violence in their homes, their schools, and their communities.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

New babies, long-awaited, welcomed, cherished.
Children who receive encouragement, affection, support, and nurture.
Children who enjoy life, bring delight to friends, and share love with family members.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

And I have wept.
Sweet tears of joy and grace.
Hot, bitter tears of grief and pain and anger.
Purging, cleansing tears that have renewed my commitment.

And I have prayed.
For the circumstances that wound children.
For the children. By name when possible.

Prayer opens me to God.

Prayer also opens me to the children and circumstances for which I pray. It binds me to the children be they in Damascus or Detroit. It calls me to commit to act on behalf of the children for whom I pray.

Prayer makes and nurtures the relationships, key to pursuing justice. And prayer for justice and wholeness in one setting draws me out of myself to experience anew the connections between all forms of injustice. It reminds me of the interdependence of people and life. It transforms me as it leads me to pray—and then act—more broadly than I would have otherwise done.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

And I have advocated with government officials and others who are in positions to act to reshape realities for children.
And I have made contributions to groups caring for children in the United States and abroad.
And I have invited and challenged my family and friends to learn and pray and act.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

And I have come to this place, this sanctuary, this congregation.

I come to stand in community. For community is essential to confront the realities of the world. Only together can we stand against the forces that violate children; alone we cannot stand.

I come to sing songs, break bread, share the cup.

I come to celebrate with a family as they present their children for baptism. Affirming their faith in Jesus Christ in a world broken, fearful, and frightening. Proclaiming hope. Sharing love.

I come to remember the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In ways that may surprise us, frighten us, awe us, God is at work. Here. Now. In this community.

When I experience the presence of God, I join Jacob in his affirmation of wonder and faith: “Surely God is in this place — and I did not know it!”

And knowing that God is in this place, reminds me, fills me with hope that God in Jesus Christ is in all places. Even in places where heartache and horror seem strong; even in places where violations occur; even in places where people and relationships are most badly broken and fear and wrong seems strongest, God is at work.

In this place, I am reminded that God is at work in all places. And that sustains and challenges me to look for how God is at work and, as the Holy Spirit gives me grace, to join in that work.

Children have been in my heart and on my mind this week.

Faith in God in Christ have put them there.

And in this place, God invites us all to join in caring for the children. The children of this congregation. The children of this community. All the children, all God’s children of the world. May we hear and respond.

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Pray for a girl; pray for the world

IMG_3074 (800x533)This week, I received a reminder of one way prayer functions.

In response to the kidnapping of a number of school girls in Nigeria on April 14, I joined many people in praying for a specific girl. It makes the horror more manageable and provides a sense of humanity.

A list of names, reportedly those of some of the girls, circulated around the internet. I helped with that circulation.

Some question the use of the girls names. Is the list correct? Was it shared with the permission of the families? Jinna Moore adds questions from a representative of the governor of Borno state: Could the release of the names in some way further endanger the girls? Could it make it easier for those who abducted the girls to identify their parents and extort ransom? Could it place the stigma of rape, whether rape happened or not, over the girl?

I  ponder those questions. And I continue to pray for a specific girl. I use only a first name when I make references and I will not share the list any further.

When I pray for one girl, the web of prayer begins to tremble. And I find myself praying for much more:

for all the girls and their families

for all the people of Nigeria

for all the girls and boys trafficked around the world, in probably every part of the world

for girls and boys, men and women trafficked for sex or for their labor or for their organs

for men, and women, who buy and sell children for sex

for men, and women, who buy and sell children and adults for their labor or their organs

for those who exploit and abuse their brothers and sisters in any way

for those who work to end trafficking, exploitation, and abuse

for those who resort to violence

for those who respond to violence with violence

for those who seek to over come violence with nonviolence.

The list goes on and on and on.

Touch a spider web, set the web a tremble.

Pray for a girl. Pray for the world.

See you along the Trail

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