Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 26, 2019
“Don’t Be Generous”
Luke 18: 9-14 – Common English Bible
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
“Thank God I’m not like you.” I don’t remember who said that to me. Or why and when. As much as I’ve forgotten about the details, however, I’ll never forget feeling hurt. Perhaps it’s good he or she didn’t say something more specific, like “Thank God I’m not as stupid as you.” Which is not to say people haven’t said it about me. Just not to my face. Perhaps that’s because people generally understand proper etiquette dictates we say such a thing about a person, not to them. Like, “Thank God I’m not like those other people.”
When we talk like that, it also often implies a desired consequence – for example, a fall from grace. We love to see bullies get their due. And if they do, to feel schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is the German word for pleasure derived by seeing someone's misfortune. Feeling joy when someone is disgraced.
The Pharisee didn’t say “Thank God I’m not like this tax collector” to his face because he was too busy praising himself. Meanwhile the other man was slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up. Just beating his chest and crying out, “God, give me mercy. Forgive me.” The Pharisee busied himself with his credentials – fasting twice a week, giving away a tenth of all his income, convinced that he was righteous and could look down on everyone else.
On the surface, this is a straightforward and bracing story about the dangers of spiritual pride. A quick glance at the story would lead to the conclusion, “don’t be like the Pharisee.” Arrogant, self-righteous. Maybe even a bully. A quick glance might convince us to be more like the tax collector. Repentant, humble. Afterall, humility is a common theme for Jesus. That, and a reversal of fortune. A reversal of expectations. This parable closely resembles Mary’s Magnificat, when Mary sang of the baby in her womb that with the birth of this child, the humble shall be lifted high and those on their thrones will be toppled; the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. That’s almost exactly like the last line of this parable: “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
A hasty examination of this story might make us feel good. “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee.” A deeper look, however, invites us to ask, “How am I like the Pharisee?” That’s where I find the “ouch” of this parable.
We may not think we struggle with the dangers of spiritual pride, but as I wrestled with the meaning of this parable, it occurred to me: What will happen if Donald Trump is impeached or, now increasingly likely, when. What will it feel like? What will it mean for us? Imagine the full-on potential for schadenfreude if he were to be removed from office? What would it feel like – to use the words of the Pharisee – to see the fall of the crooks, evildoers, and adulterers? I suspect, on that day there will be a lot of Pharisees tempted to say, “Thank God I’m not like those other people, those poor gullible fools.”
Ouch, right? How am I like the Pharisee? Well, here’s the Word of the Lord for out-of-touch, urban elites, who look down their noses on baskets full of deplorables. Am I making sense? Jesus told a parable to people who had trusted in themselves that they were the righteous ones. Or as Eugene Peterson translates in The Message, Jesus told this parable to people “who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance.”
I’m not pointing a finger. This is not an indictment on you but rather my plea for mercy from our forgiving God. Like the tax collector pleading, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” For I have, indeed, looked with contempt on those I deem to be on the wrong side of history. If not out loud, I have certainly thought, “Thank God I’m not like those other people.” Now, to fully repent, this will require that I cease this behavior. And when I inevitably fail, beg God for mercy and forgiveness again. Even if it is 70 times 7. “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.”
Yet, while this is true, we can’t let a focus on the personal failings of the insufficiently repentant turn into an opportunity for crooks, evildoers, and adulterers to deflect or distract from the pursuit of truth and justice. The corrupt demanding others to be humble.
A few weeks ago, there was a gathering of church leaders from across a wide theological spectrum, a coalition known as Red Letter Christians. They represent a long list of denominational officials, like the UCC’s Traci Blackmon, along with prominent pastors, bishops, and seminary presidents and professors.
They issued a timely proclamation: “As Christians in the United States of America, we join together to express our conviction that an impeachment inquiry is necessary to reveal the truth, hold President Donald J. Trump and other public officials accountable, and bolster democracy. We welcome the light of truth, honesty, and transparency that this moment demands, whatever may be revealed. An inquiry must shine light on this administration’s dealings behind closed doors. We petition people of faith and integrity to join us in calling forth this light.”
They added, “Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
Their statement says, “Jesus’ words and ministry highlight the connection between truth and the well-being of the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the imprisoned, and the earth. Likewise, we who follow Jesus must make visible that any President [who violates] violation of his [or her] oath of office would harm[s] the most vulnerable among us.” Adding, “this is not a matter of partisanship, but of deepest principle.”
I am immensely grateful that I serve as the pastor of a church where I can read that proclamation out loud. Thank you. And a church that expresses outrage over the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims, and all who are suffering in this country and around the world. Thank you. And thank God we’re not like those other churches who won’t, don’t, or can’t. Oops. See how easy it happens? God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Again.
What does any of this have to do with the fact that today is stewardship Sunday and our theme is Making an Impact? I would not have chosen this as a stewardship text, but I’m now glad for the insight and caution it provides. Insight about humility and caution about arrogance, even though I still want to talk about the significant impact our church does have on the world and our communities. And as evidence, to read a letter to us from Genevieve Swift, the co-founder of the group Rename St*pleton for All:
“Park Hill UCC has been a great resource and respite for social justice activists. You provide free meeting space for groups like NE Denver Neighbors for Racial Justice and Rename St*pleton for All, and have allowed community members, such as me, to hold ACLU and other events in the sanctuary regardless of church membership. You always go above and beyond to accommodate our needs; and always with warmth. The main entrance to the church has a sign that says, “We serve EVERYONE ONLY.” To me, you live this and support all who are working toward a world that is an open, inclusive, just, and compassionate (she used those words!) through your fair trade gift market, monthly racial justice book club, shelter to homeless women… and by proudly displaying Black Lives Matter pins and yard signs. Rev. Bahr’s passionate sermons, straight from his heart, especially about the need to Rename St*pleton for All, provoke us all to think and love deeply, while calling us to action. The church provides us with the resources to follow through. Our community is better because of the mission and generous spirit of the Park Hill UCC, your pastor, and members.”
When I first read her letter, I felt such pride to be part of this church. The parable, however, reminds me that this letter should inspire humility, not arrogance. And more importantly, for it not to praise generosity, but for it to inspire it.
Again, our stewardship theme this year is about making an impact. I gave this theme to our talented graphic arts designer Brian Cullen and Deborah Colontonio. As they reflected on the word impact, they visualized the splash made by a stone when it hits water. It’s a brilliant, inviting image. Almost an icon drawing us in. It’s not an invitation to throw stones, but rather to illustrate the kind of impact we want to make. Brian provided several bags of stones on which to write words like love and compassion. At our staff meeting on Tuesday we had fun with markers. We added more words like kindness and joy and hope and healing. Then we dug a little deeper and added words about making an impact through silence and power and harmony. And amused ourselves about making an impact through delight and perhaps my favorite of all the words we chose – dazzle. God can use us to make an earth-shattering impact on the world through dazzle! Later in the service I’ll invite you to find the stone that speaks to you among the many here on the communion table. Or choose one at random and see what it says.
But back to the parable. It’s easy to come down hard on the Pharisee for his “other people” comment. Wasn’t he, in fact, simply doing the things asked of him? Praying at the temple, fasting, tithing. He was decent, upstanding, faithful. The problem, however, is that although he was praying to God, he really made it all about himself. What he was doing. He used the grammar of gratitude, thank you God, but in reality, it was the grammar of superiority. Comparing himself to those other people and emphasize what he was doing for God instead of what God had done for him.
So I’ve never said this on a stewardship Sunday before, but after wrestling with this text, my conclusion is: Don’t be generous.
Don’t be generous because that makes it about us. Stewardship isn’t about us. When we give or pledge to the ministry of Christ, it shouldn’t be about what we are doing for God. Because that could lead to arrogance or complacency. It invites a comparison with those other people. We might be tempted to analyze our giving as too little or too much. We might end up judging some giving better than others.
Instead, don’t be generous. Choose first to live with love or compassion or power and gentleness. Or dazzle! And then watch the incredible impact God will make through you. You’ll find yourself more generous than if you had chosen to be, not because you were asked but because you can’t help yourself!
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 13, 2019
“Hello! How Are You?”
Luke 17: 11-19 – Common English Bible
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, 13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”
14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” 19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”
Hello! How are you? How many times a day do you greet someone that way? Or, how many times a day does someone ask you “How are you?” And your response? “Fine.” “Good.” Maybe on occasion, “Great!” Or the American status symbol – “Busy. So busy.” Or the cousin of busy, “Tired.” But rarely do we say more than that, nor does anyone follow up with a question about why you are either great or busy. Because an honest answer might make us feel uncomfortable.
One of the things we’ve been learning in our relational campaign gatherings after worship is how difficult it has become to speak honestly with people. We’re afraid of looking like we are prying into each other’s lives. Or we’re afraid we might be judged. Having permission to tell the truth, however, is delightfully liberating. In the simple 14-minute conversations we have been practicing, 7 minutes for each person to speak uninterrupted, it has proven how wonderful it feels to have someone actually listen to us.
What would happen if you answered, “I’m struggling.” “It’s been a hard day.” “Lots of pain today.” Most of the time we’re not prepared to either say or hear that.
There was a story on Vice News a few weeks ago about a company in the Philippines that places teachers in schools around the country – from small towns in Montana, like Miles City, to big cities like Chicago. Apparently, it’s quite common and a growing trend to recruit teachers from other countries because the pay is so low in so many of our schools. Once again, outsourcing low paying jobs. In their orientation sessions, recruiters explain American culture. One of the things these teachers will have to get used to is people asking them “How are you.” The recruiter leaned forward, “They don’t really care.” I laughed at that. And then I didn’t.
I’ve heard store clerks respond to the question “How are you” by saying, “I’m blessed,” and wondered whether store management approved. But it’s refreshing to hear. If you were to really think about it, what could you say besides, “I’m good.” “Fine.”
David Lose once had a colleague who always answered, “I’m grateful.” At first, it almost always caught him off guard and then he got used to it and then he looked forward to it. He said it always felt like an invitation for more. “Oh really! Why are you grateful?”
I’ve actually known a few people who respond, “I’m grateful.” They’re often people with serious illnesses, perhaps in remission for cancer. Individuals who are truly grateful to live another day. In fact, some of the most grateful people in the world are those who live without the guarantee of another day. Most of us take it for granted. We expect it. If we even think about it at all.
At lunch at Noodles and Company on Thursday, our conclusion to why the other nine did not return to say thank you was that they felt entitled to healing. People with so much privilege, they didn’t question why. That’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Whereas the Samaritan, the outsider, did not take it for granted.
There’s lots of reasons why nine ex-lepers might not have returned to give thanks. Entitlement or privilege might be one answer. One might have been frightened that this wasn’t a divine gift but the devil’s black magic. One might have been confused. Who am I now without this disease? One might have had to sit down and first figure out a logical reason why her skin was restored. One might have just been following instructions. Jesus said go show yourself to the priest, so that’s exactly what he did.
By the way, do you know why Jesus told them to show themselves to a priest? It wasn’t for absolution for sin or wrongdoing or a liturgical act. Priests were sort of like the appointed public health officials of their day. They were tasked with certifying that someone no longer had leprosy and could therefore return to their communities.
So, some may have been frightened or confused, but one of the lepers might not have returned because he was sick and tired of everyone expecting him to be grateful for their acts of reluctant mercy. Angry about piddly coins thrown toward them. Lepers had to keep their distance. They had to alert people to their presence by crying out, leper, leper. They couldn’t go to the marketplace or any other public space.
Something happens to a person who must beg for food and mercy. There is something that happens to a person who is shunned. Told she must have done something to deserve her illness or poverty. Or he must be lazy or have done something sinful or wicked. Surely there is a reason. Bad things don’t just happen to good people.
What happens when someone throws a few coins at you and says, “You better be grateful I’m giving you anything!” People with unquestioned privilege are annoyed when they don’t get the gratitude they think they deserve for their charity. Or tax break. Jesus makes the point twice that only the Samaritan, the outsider, the enemy, the alien, came back to say thank you.
Debi Thomas remembers the first time as a girl she went on a family trip to India, her parents’ homeland. As they stood at the village train station, her brother pointed to two shadowy figures huddled in a corner. After two weeks in India, she said she had grown accustomed to seeing beggars, exhausted women with babies too thin on their hips, men who were blind or lame, children with their hands out. But these two were different. Their faces distorted. Their fingers half missing. Scary looking feet. Her father explained they had leprosy.
But what really struck Debi was how alone they looked. She said, “It was otherworldly, profound and impenetrable in a way I could barely comprehend. It was as if some invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity, rendering them absolutely untouchable. Their disease frightened me. But worse was seeing their isolation. Their not-belonging.” Not in public. Not at home.
You know, when Jesus proclaimed healing for ten lepers, not only were their bodies made clean. They were restored to their families and their community. Their full humanity. And intimacy. Once again, they were free to embrace and be embraced. Imagine. What would it be like to never touch another human being? But now they could return to eat with their families and worship in community and reclaim everything this terrible disease stole from them. They rushed off to the priest so they could race home to get and give a hug. I’m sure I would have forgotten to go back to say thank you too. Maybe a little later. But not right away.
The things Jesus did, more often than not, weren’t just about healing an individual but restoring community. To give people a place to belong again. But more than that, to expand it. He taught that in the Kingdom of God, such a place of belonging included not just Jews but Samaritans, their enemy, the other, the outsider, as well.
The lives of every one of those ten ex-lepers would have been transformed from all the limits of “what they had been” to all the possibilities of “what they could become.” But reunion or re-entry might not be as easy as it sounds. What kinds of challenges might those ex-lepers have faced now?
Bryan Stevenson told the story of Walter McMillian in his book Just Mercy. In 1987, Mr. McMillian, a black man, was charged with the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against him. Three witnesses with implausible and conflicting stories testified against him. His public defender offered no objection. Mr. McMillian had 12 alibis. He was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. But 12 black alibis were ignored by the jury that had already systematically excluded all black citizens. His trial lasted only a day and a half. And then, in minutes, the jury sentenced Walter to life without parole. But the judge, Robert E. Key, overrode the jury. He sentenced Mr. McMillian to death instead. Years of appeals trying to present evidence that the State’s witnesses admitted to lying on the stand and that the prosecution had illegally suppressed exculpatory evidence led to nothing. Finally, DNA testing proved he did not commit the crime. In the meantime, he spent six years on death row. Another outrageous detail is this story is that he was placed on death row before the trial.
But freedom from prison did not bring him freedom from judgment. Despite having no evidence tying him to the crime, white residents still believed he did it. The trauma of death row contributed to a downward spiral of paranoia, divorce, and dementia. As grateful as he might have been for the attorneys who freed him, they may have saved him from death, but he never actually regained life.
Like the ex-lepers, when granted his freedom from isolation, Walter may also have been frightened. Is this real? Or confused. Who am I now? Or angry at the idea he should be grateful. Why be grateful for being freed from death row when he shouldn’t have been there in the first place? Just like the lepers. What had they done? They didn’t do anything to deserve it either. Why be grateful now? For people with cancer, why be grateful for another day? You shouldn’t have cancer in the first place. Or any other diagnosis or disease. And yet, what better choice do we have? To waste the days we have or to cherish each one? To live with bitterness or to live with gratitude?
“How are you?” I’d like you to give some thought to possible answers to the question.
We’ve got options like: pretty good, OK, fine;
We’ve got: great, amazing, wonderful;
Lance likes to answer: “Living the American dream!”
How are you? We’ve got options like: busy, tired, exhausted;
Or we’ve got: blessed, grateful, thankful.
What else could we say?
In addition to how we answer, we should also consider how we ask it. As I was working on this on Thursday, I asked Tammy, “How are you?” She responded with a surprised look on her face, “Like, really, how am I?” And so, she told me. And later near the end of day she actually said, “Thank you for asking how I am.” Yikes! Is it really that rare that I ask in a way that invites an honest answer? Yes, really, how are you?!
The heart of the parable of ten ex-lepers is about gratitude. So, inspired by the Samaritan ex-leper, if we adopted the response “I’m grateful,” it might take some time to get used to it. But like a muscle that can be strengthened with time and exercise, it would get easier as we practiced it. But we’d also need to be ready to answer why. “Why are you grateful?” That would be a doubly good thing. And healthy. Scientifically, people who live with gratitude have longer and healthier lives.
So, Hello! How are you?
Really?! Tell me more.
 Learn more about his life https://eji.org/videos/walter-mcmillian-60-minutes
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 6, 2019
“We Need a Little Criminal Activity Here and There”
Jeremiah 7: 1-7 – Common English Bible
Jeremiah received the Lord’s word: 2 Stand near the gate of the Lord’s temple and proclaim there this message: Listen to the Lord’s word, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. 4 Don’t trust in lies: “This is the Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple!” 5 No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; 6 if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, 7 only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.
A week ago, Amy Forte and I went to Tucson for a border education and immersion experience, along with Jenny and 7 others from Denver area UCC churches. I expected it to be emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausting and ding, ding, ding, it was. Except that it wasn’t really. Those words, and much worse, must be reserved for those whose home country is so dangerous and desperate they would mortgage their house to pay the cost of a coyote to guide them across the most inhospitable stretch of the border possible. As many times as necessary.
Those words – emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion – must be reserved for Alisha who told us about her life as a volunteer for No More Deaths. No More Deaths is a ministry of First Unitarian Church in Tucson that places water, food, socks, and blankets along trails in the desert used by migrants. These volunteers are criminals for providing such humanitarian aid. Our group walked a few miles on those trails, carrying gallon jugs of water and cans of food with a pop-top, listening to helicopters fly menacingly overhead. My image of walking in the desert is like a dry sandy flat plain. But the Sonoran Desert is mountainous, sending people through winding, narrow canyon washes, past bushes with stickers and thorns an inch long, mostly at night to avoid detection.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for people like Lizzy from the Florence Project and other advocates and attorneys who provide free legal services.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Josh, a US citizen and member of the Tohono O’doham tribe; a tribe whose land is a vast stretch of the border – actually, families were divided by the border when it was imposed on them. Josh told us about being stopped at interior roadside checkpoints, not the border, for lengthy and sometimes physically abusive inquiries of his citizenship. This happens to him 50% of the time he travels to and from work or to pick up his children from school. Children who have to watch as men with guns rough up their father.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Manuel who spoke to us on the Mexican side of the border. First, however, we walked along the US side, a tall, see-through steel fence covered with 5 thick roles of razor wire. Surveillance towers high above. I can report that the rolling terrain would not allow for an alligator and snake-filled moat. But unfortunately, Manuel did show the spot on the Mexican side where Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old boy, was indeed shot and killed in 2012; shot 10 times by a border patrol agent for throwing a rock at the wall – an impossible distance for a rock of any size to fly. The agent was not held responsible.
Manuel’s daughter Maria welcomed us into her home in Nogales, fed us a delicious meal, and told us about working 10 hours a day in a NAFTA inspired maquiladora making medical equipment for $9 a day. The cost of living in Nogales is so high that if we lived on an equivalent of her salary, a carton of eggs here would cost us $14. A liter of milk, $29. And a box of 36 diapers, $136. Yet, when migrants are pushed across the border, Manuel is among the first to offer help to a hungry fellow human being.
We listened to Karolina tell her frightening story. She is a transgender woman placed for months in a detention center with men, despite her pleas. I can only describe her life as a series of unspeakable horrors, yet she used them to help others. She started an organization called Mariposas sin Fronterres, Butterflies without Borders, to provide housing to other LGBTQ detainees when they are released.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Eden and Oscar and Guadalupe who shuffled into the courtroom in shackles. We watched more than 70 men and women stand before an Operation Streamline judge for 30 seconds each, in groups of 10, most charged with a misdemeanor – a 1325. But Ramon and Angel and Juan Carlos and a dozen more were charged with a “1326.” A felony for crossing a second time. When we hear about catching a group of felons trying to cross the border, it sounds ominous. They are felons for simply trying twice.
In Iliff professor Miguel de la Torre’s book Trails of Hope and Terror, one young migrant told him, “Please tell the Americans that I am sorry for entering the country like this. Please forgive us, but we are simply desperate.”
We often hear the question, what kind of person would put their family through this. I wonder, what kind of person thinks placing water in the desert to prevent more deaths should be a criminal act? I went to Tucson with the question, “How many should we allow to cross,” realizing, we must first address, “how do we treat those who do?”
Volunteers from End Operation Streamline sit in the courtroom every day to watch the daily docket and note whenever there is an irregularity, or someone asks for asylum. Then they alert a legal defense group like the Florence Project. Someone like Crystal, whose horrific description of her life of abuse should qualify her for asylum. The judge in this court offered genuine sympathy but has no jurisdiction over that. Domestic abuse used to be a factor in asylum cases. It’s just as likely now that she will be put on a bus and never given the opportunity to present her case.
This devastating experience for Crystal and dozens more shuffling through the court every day is so “normal” that we could watch one attorney play Candy Crush on his phone between groups of ten. And a court interpreter read a novel on the side while the other interpreter worked. I can’t blame them for trying to “normalize” their work; after all it must be emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausting for them too. But it was disturbing to watch the effects first hand. The criminalization of desperation. The militarization of the border. Agents are sometimes caught in the middle too. For example, they used to be able to call people from No More Deaths to help them with an injured migrant. They are not allowed anymore.
We learned a lot about the factors that contributed to this humanitarian crisis and much of it was anticipated as a result of NAFTA. Because the government knew that local economies would be devastated, they created a strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence that pushed desperate migrants further into dangerous territory. A policy designed to make migration “more treacherous, more criminalized, more cartel-driven, and more politically fraught.”
de la Torre told of Ignacio who said he knew the danger. He said that’s why migrants sometimes pin their names and pictures to their clothes in the event their bodies would have to be identified. He described it being so hot, it felt like his brain was boiling. If they didn’t die from the heat, or from an untended injury or infected blisters, they could die in the desert from drowning during the monsoon season. The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion is not mine to make.
As much as I wanted to blame the current administration, to assign it the status of villain, our country through both parties has a long history of cruel abuses against immigrants, much of it driven by racism, through such explicit measures as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Or the law in the 1920s that required immigrants to know English. The law exempted Mexicans, however, because we needed their labor. Until we didn’t need them anymore and new laws were passed to target them.
Ranchers are tired of finding bodies on their land. Some resent them. Others like Joseph, who still referred to migrants as illegals, said he’s a patriot, veteran, and a proud American, but the Bible is clear. Therefore, he’s always welcomed whoever knocked on his door looking for food and water. His house is very close to the border. When the lights are on, it stands like a lighthouse. But, he said, the law now says I cannot bring them into my house because I could be charged with harboring illegals.
That was a dilemma faced by Rev. Daniel Groody. He passed a man on the side of the road waving empty water jugs in his hand, obviously in need of help. The good Reverend did not stop. If Border Patrol pulled him over, he reasoned, he could be charged with aiding and abetting illegal entry into the US and face 1 to 10 years in prison. As he kept driving, the story of the Good Samaritan came to mind. And then he remembered Jesus told his followers that when you don’t help someone who is hungry, thirsty, in prison, sick and in need, you are not helping Jesus himself. Rev. Groody didn’t turn the car back around, however, until he remembered an elderly priest who told him that he saw Christ in the immigrants – the crucified peoples of today.
He asked, in the form of Matthew 25, what is our response to Jesus who is
There are many texts in scripture that speak about how one should treat immigrants and strangers. The prophet Jeremiah said, “If you truly reform your ways and your actions; it you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in the place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.”
I can’t read this text without thinking of the blood of innocent migrants shed on the deserts of our borderlands. Or the gods of free trade and stockholder shares that have ruined local communities and turned children into orphans and women into widows.
When Jeremiah stands at the gate mocking, “This is God’s temple, this is God’s temple, this is God’s temple,” he is talking about a false security. We’re OK. God is with us no matter what if we’re in God’s temple.
But Jeremiah said, true worship is not about being in the right place. It is loving God through acts of kindness and generosity to others. True worship is a changed life and love for one’s neighbor, particularly, as Jeremiah makes clear, the immigrant. For those who claim that the temple is the dwelling place of God, Jeremiah sets the record straight. God will not dwell in the hearts of believers if the hearts of believers do not change.
Jeremiah can be a very harsh critic. But that is also the way he speaks of hope. If we change our ways, God will dwell among us. Nothing is hopeless. It is not a sentence of death. It is an invitation to life. Simply live a life of justice and compassion.
Like Alisha, Lizzy, Josh, Karolina, Manuel, Maria, Joseph, and Rev. Groody. They may not describe the presence of God in their lives as that which keeps them from succumbing to emotional, spiritual, or physical exhaustion, but it can be the way we keep ourselves going when it all seems too much and we want to give up caring.
The opportunity to actually see Christ with our own eyes in Eden and Guadalupe, in Ramon and Juan Carlos, in Crystal and Ignacio is a blessing we may not fully appreciate. To see Christ with our own eyes. But that is not an excuse to keep them on the cross or crucifying others so that we may benefit from their sacrifice. To glorify their sacrifices, oh they’re so brave, is a perversion of the gospel of good news for the poor, liberation for the captive, and freedom for the prisoner.
And yet, even so, it is hopeful. The antidote to a life of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion is to experience the indwelling of God. And how? A little criminal activity here and there, such as providing water in the desert, so that there are no more deaths. That, and a changed life that stops taking advantage of the immigrant. Then God will dwell within. Only then. And that’s good news.
If you enjoy these sermons, please support the work of Park Hill Congregational UCC
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world