July 7, 2019
As someone who cares deeply about the welfare of children, hearing about the inhuman and reprehensible conditions child refugee seekers are experiencing at our southern border has shaken me to my core. Children continue to be separated from their parents, and held illegally for more than 72 hours, instead of being released to family members in the United States. Their parents are also being detained, for no other reason than they are seeking the welfare of their families and seeking asylum. In our own Presbytery, congregational leaders have been mobilizing, providing sanctuary to folks seeking safety, including one family from our sister parish who walked from El Salvador, seeking the help of a local congregation. There is a deep sense of fear in our country, made more intense as our President threatens widespread raids by ICE. News reports are emerging of punitive fines being levied against those who have sought sanctuary in houses of worship. And it’s not just undocumented folks who are being targeted. This past week saw the announcement that a new trial will take place of a volunteer from No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths who provided water, food, and clothing to folks near death who have crossed into this country. Our government has made clear that our National Policy is to turn our backs on the words of Jesus and the Torah. We are no longer a nation that welcomes the immigrant, the stranger, or the oppressed seeking freedom. As a nation, we have been told by our judges that it is a bad thing to be a good Samaritan. And while people of conscience are standing up and resisting, it is disheartening to witness this kind of moral decay. As a lifelong Presbyterian, the spiritual tradition I was raised in has always made clear that a healthy separation of religious power and government is important so that people of faith can provide meaningful criticism and guidance of our government. However, the immorality exemplified by our government’s actions is startling. When societal norms and basic human decency are so easily discarded by people who claim to follow the same Savior as us, I find myself wondering how we have strayed so far from loving God by loving our neighbors.
When we come to the Bible, listening for Jesus, the living Word of God, it can be tempting for me to read these texts as if myself, our community, and our nation are the main characters. My default setting is to place us as the folks who are the family of God. In this story, those would be The first Apostles Jesus empowered with the Holy Spirit, to see ourselves in Peter receiving a strange vision of animals descending on a picnic blanket. But for the past few weeks, I have been wondering if our role in these stories from the Book of Acts isn’t more accurately located in the experiences of those who are on the outside, the folks referred to as Gentiles; The Roman soldiers. These are folks who aren’t Jewish, whose experiences aren’t that of the oppressed, but of oppressing people. Gentiles were often feared by the people of God, and for good reason. The brutality and violence of Rome was legendary. To be a citizen of Rome was a powerful protection. One of my guilty pleasures in my early Days of my Ministry was watching reruns of the West Wing on Netflix. Jed Bartlett, frustrated by an attack on Americans muses that If a Roman Citizen was traveling and was threatened, the only protection they often needed was the praise Civis Romanus; “I am a Roman Citizen.” The retribution that would befall anyone who harmed a Roman was so sure, and so severe, this was often enough to stop folks in their tracks who sought to do harm.
The Jewish People and the Early Church knew how powerful that retribution was. Uprising’s against the Roman Occupation of Jerusalem and Ancient Palestine were put down so thoroughly and horrifically that Rabbi’s held long debates about how to interact with so fierce of a force, so violent and cruel. One way of staying safe was to stay separate, and only interact when you had to. The thinking went that it was best not to test the Roman’s patience, because they won’t hesitate to do harm. Peter’s sense that these people are unclean, it has far less to do with what was on their grill at the cookout, how they washed, and much more to do with acts of brutal violence and oppression, of torture and crimes against humanity. The unclean nature of Gentiles had much more to do with the blood on their hands than how they washed their pans while cooking.
While I believe Jesus is among us here in this place and in our daily lives, when I think about the communities where the Holy Spirit is most active in our time, of where Jesus is to be found, where I see the reflections of the early church, I have to tell you, I don’t think it’s the best exegesis to consider ourselves among the Apostles and first followers of the way of Jesus. Our Nation, specifically for those of us who are white, are much more Roman in our culture. This kind of reading of scripture, that places predominant culture on the outside of the People of God, it’s not something that I came up with lying on the beach this past week. It comes from our friends in the movements of Liberation in South America, Among Civil Rights Movement preachers and the Black Freedom Fighters of the Underground Railroad reading Exodus and seeing themselves as Hebrews, and those who thought they could own people through enslavement as Pharaoh and his Army. This is the kind of reading that Black Womanist Theologians take up, facing the racism of white feminists and misogyny of Men of power in their communities.
And surprisingly for us, taking the position of the people on the outside of the Beloved Community can be a reading that is full of good news. Reading ourselves into the margins can bring freedom and God’s Salvation. Peter has good reason to be confused by his vision. These animals are unclean, these Gentiles are unsafe and oppressive. But God doesn’t give up on those whose communities further oppression and violence. The Holy Spirit isn’t content letting the powers and principalities stay in power, but instead fills Women in occupied lands facing oppression with songs of tyrants being ripped down from their thrones and being filled with Good Things. It is into this mix that the Spirit has the power to open the hearts and minds and bodies of those who have profited off the systems of oppression and invites them into a world so much more beautiful, and scary, and beloved. The community of outsiders, of gentiles that sends word to Peter, they have been gathering and praying, have heard of what God is up to, and are ready to hear more about what Jesus will mean for their lives. They are willing to listen to God and extend invitations for transformation through those closest to God’s heart.
Beloved, we are living in times when atrocities are occurring in our names by our leaders, and it can be disorienting trying to discern what to do. But when we decenter ourselves and look to the leaders of communities who are different from us, when we are open to joining in the Holy Spirit’s gathering of unlikely people together, it can be surprising what becomes possible. These past few weeks I have been asking pastors in our area, what can we do? How do we help? And I will continue to send word to those on the front lines of Jesus’ revolution taking place in our midst amongst our undocumented neighbors and congregants. But even more, there is a need to build power to overcome, to repent, to be washed of this sin as a Nation. We have been invited by our friends at Brown Memorial Park Avenue on Friday July 12th, at 9pm to take place in the Lights for Liberty: Vigil to End Human Detention Camps. This event will bring thousands of Americans to detention camps across the country, into the streets and into their own front yards, to protest the inhumane conditions faced by refugees. Folks will convene at Church on the Square for speakers, before heading out to the Canton Square at 9 pm to light candles and share a moment of silence. At this event, there will be stories from those are directly impacted, and I imagine it will be safe to assume that the Holy Spirit will show up in a big way. When we risk showing up to be shaken by the Cage-Breaking Spirit of the words of those in the family of God, something new can happen, and we can find ourselves ushered into the in-breaking Love of God making all things new, redeeming the cruelty of this age.
It’s not our job to save the world. That’s Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s work. But we are called to risk hearing God’s stirrings in our midst and hear from the oppressed of what Jesus and the Holy are up to. Let us risk showing up, and inviting transformation, for the sake of the soul of our nation, and the renewal of our own souls. May we trust that we can be made clean by God’s love, that sees that we are so much more than the cruelest parts of our national identity. May God’s grace abound, in the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all humanity, Amen.