Proper 14A/Ordinary 19A/Pentecost +9
August 10, 2014
Sermon presented at All Saints Church, Sunderland, MD on August 10, 2014
On the base of the Statue of Liberty is the following inscription, a poem by Emma Lazarus:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
For countless people, that inscription has held literal truth, including my Italian grandmother who came over at age 13 for an arranged marriage to a man she had never met. She came in the steerage of the ship, with all the other “wretched refuse” who could not afford a cabin, enduring the terrors of storms at sea with very little safety. Her immigration was legal, at the time. However, there were many years during which her journey would have been classified as illegal. In 1932, President Roosevelt and the State Department shut down nearly all immigration during the Great Depression. At other times, other specific groups have been excluded from citizenship, including the Chinese in the 1882, South Asians in 1923; and the coerced repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the 1930s. It is truly remarkable how, with a mere stroke of a pen, law-abiding immigrants like my grandmother can be turned into an “illegal aliens”.
In the Gospel, today, the main action is a drama of faith that takes place on the “tempest tost” Sea of Galilee, en route to the town Gennesaret on the other side – which translated from Hebrew means “Garden of Riches”. In the passage before this week’s Gospel story, Jesus had just fed 5,000 people (“besides women and children” – Matt 14:21) in “a deserted place” on the shore. Jesus had, in effect, just made a radical proclamation that not only should all the “huddled masses” be fed, but He demonstrated that it was entirely possible to do so. Last week, Father Ken pointed out how this radical proclamation shows us that it is not only possible to feed and house the child refugees crowding our borders, it a demonstration of the Gospel. After after this “miracle,” Jesus ordered the disciples into a boat to go on ahead to the other shore – to Gennesaret, the Garden of Riches – so that the same radical proclamation could be taken there.
Syracuse, NY, is not what you might imagine to be a garden of riches – it is your basic middle-class college town in upstate New York, and the fifth most populous city in the state. However, to a child refugee fleeing crushing poverty and gang violence in Central America, this college town is nothing short of the Promised Land – even if it is 2,000 miles from the Texas/Mexico border.
On July 9 of this year, Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner received a letter from the US Department of Health and Human Services that a property in their town was being assessed to determine its suitability to serve as a temporary host facility for a group of child refugees from the now overcrowded immigrant processing centers in Texas. The property in question was an abandoned convent with 226,000 square feet of usable space that was going to waste. Mayor Miner responded with a letter to President Obama on July 17 that her town wished to host these children. New York had a long tradition of welcoming immigrants. “We stand ready,” she wrote, “… to accomplish the goal of providing a safe and welcoming site.” (Hesse, Monica. “Two Thousand Miles from the Border, Syracuse Finds itself in Immigration Debate.” Washington Post, July 28, 2014)
After publicly sending her letter to President Obama, however, Mayor Miner faced a tempest of her own. City hall was deluged with phones calls, letters and newscasts. So the mayor decided to have a town hall meeting to open up the dialogue and clear the air. She pointed out that each of the children typically stayed an average of 35 days before being placed with family or friends of family. She also pointed out that there has not been any public safety incidents at any other facilities like this around the country (Hesse, ibid.)
“THAT’S A LIE!” a man interrupted her.
People nodded in agreement with him, including a woman with a sign showing the faces of several MS-13 gang members from El Salvador, implying that these are the kind of people who would be coming into their community (Hesse, ibid.).
Like Mayor Miner, Peter in our Gospel story, also stepped out on faith in the middle of a storm … and got a rude awakening. Peter starts out well enough – when he sees the specter-like Jesus coming toward the disciples in their boat, walking on the sea, he bravely tells Jesus “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says “Come” and Peter comes out of the safety of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus.
Peter, by the way, was not always called Peter. He was originally Simon – Jesus called him Peter after “Petros,” the rock, for his steady, rock-like faith (although the Lord may have been ironic at the time). However, when Peter steps out onto the “boisterous” waves, he begins to sink like a rock, whereupon Jesus stretches out His hand and catches him, chiding “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” (Matt 14:30-31).
I would maintain, however, that the amount of Peter’s faith wasn’t the problem. The Greek term that is so often translated as “little faith” is oligopistis. Now, I am not the house expert on Greek (that is Father Ken’s bailiwick); however, I did do a little research on this term. The prefix “oligo-” not only means “a little,” but it also means “a few”. For example, an oligarchy is the “rule of the few”. Consequently, I will propose that perhaps Matthew’s Jesus was chiding Peter for insufficient faith, but for having a solitary, isolated faith. He did not doubt Jesus – he doubted his fellow Disciples. He may have stepped out onto the waves full of faith, but he stepped out by himself. And down he went.
What saves Peter is not getting a boost of faith, but reaching out and grasping onto someone outside of himself. Saving faith is not about the loud, strident affirmation of the doctrine that “Jesus is Lord.” It is about reaching out to the other members of the Body of Christ – the church – and grasping hands in love and fellowship with them [makes gesture of two hands grasping each other].
So how can Peter’s experience with saving faith help our poor friend Mayor Miner in Syracuse? And who cares about Syracuse’s child refugee problems anyway?
As it happens, the state of Maryland is one of the top five state destinations for child refugees, with 2,205 children already placed here and many more to come. So there may well be several Maryland mayors who, in the near future, will be stepping out onto the same treacherous waters as Mayor Miner.
These mayors received a sneak previous of what might be in store for them on July 1, in Murrieta, CA, when protesters carrying guns and signs blocked three buses of Central American children and their guardians from entering the Border Patrol station there for processing. The signs said things like “RETURN TO SENDER,” “Wake up America!” and “Repatriate Illegal Aliens!” After a very tense stand-off, the buses were eventually turned around and sent to a Border Patrol station south of San Diego.
Thankfully, the mayors of Mayland will not be stepping out onto these dangerous waves alone. Across the country, a remarkably broad faith-based response to the plight of these child refugees is emerging, with letters being issued in support of providing them amnesty from a remarkably broad coalition of faith groups, including one from our own Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, which Ken read last Sunday. The Catholic Church has been in the forfront of the effort, volunteering to house children in its own facilities and calling on lawyers to volunteer to defend children in danger of being deported. The Southern Baptist Association issued a statement after its members visited detention centers in San Antonio and McAllen, Texas, saying “The anger directed toward vulnerable children is deplorable and disgusting … These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, rather than fear” (New York Times, July 23, 2014). The most stirring letter I have read came from Rev. Carlos L. Malave, executive director of Christian Churches Together, who said “Pastors and members of our congregations must guard their souls from the apathy and callousness that pervade our political and economic systems. We are called to be Christ to all, but in a very intentional and biased way, we must be Christ to destitute, hungry and oppressed people. Our actions, care and concern for poor people reveal the presence or absence of the living Christ in us” (“They Are Our Children,” Bread for the World Blog Post).
So all this is to say that this is not a political issue or a liberal vs. conservative issue. After all, the Southern Baptists are not exactly known as Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers. This is a Blblical issue and, as Bishop Sutton said in his letter, “We will take our marching orders from the Bible”. The only question that remains is: What are we at All Saints to do? There is room for a wide range of welcoming responses, in areas that All Saints is very good at. Perhaps the knitting ministry could focus on knitting blankets for the children. Perhaps the Episcopal Church Women could set up a food and toiletries drive. Every little action, no matter how small, helps.
But I would encourage us to think even bigger. The Gospel reading for today shows us that, when we boldly proclaim the Gospel everywhere – not just in abandoned places, but in our own Garden of Riches – we can expect major waves. Proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples involves more than just acts of charity, as important as these are. It means getting up, grasping hands with people in other faith communities, and making a choice to publicly and visibly welcome “the least of these” into our community. It means going to community meetings where local properties are being considered as homes for these children, and pointing out what the Gospel mandates. It means – as Christians – letting our fingers do the walking, and telling our Congresspeople to fund shelters and grant refuge – not bickering and gridlock – because these local debates will be moot if there is no funding at the national level. Finally, it means getting up and going to those places where signs are being held saying “RETURN TO SENDER,” and holding our own signs saying “In Nome di Cristos: Bienvenidos a Todos”.
The Epistle for this week says “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15). It does not say “How beautiful are the mouths of those who have meaningful discussions about the Good News!” Not that these discussions aren’t important. They are a necessary first step toward action. Action involves more than just talking and praying. It means talking and praying on our feet – visibly and in public. Yes, there will be waves. But I would argue that, if we are not facing the waves, is what we are proclaiming on a daily basis in our lives the radical and offensively welcoming Gospel of Jesus Christ?
On this Wednesday, at 7:00PM, the Open Door Gathering will be meeting at Wanda’s and my house to talk about concrete ways that we can proclaim the Gospel of welcome to these children in Maryland. We look forward to planning outrageous acts of goodness, and we would love to see you there.