They’d Had a Tough Week

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons,
Designated Conference Minister

It had been a tough week for Jesus and his posse.  As Robert Brown observes in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, the realm of God wasn’t “exactly appearing overnight.”[1]

In a sobering moment, King Herod Antipas arrested Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, and beheaded him.

After fleeing north to escape Herod, Jesus asked his closest friends, “Who do people say I am.” And then more pointedly, “Who do you say I am? ” Peter nails the answer with, “You are the anointed one, Son of the Living God.” Jesus used the moment to clarify for the group what Peter’s answer meant. 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.[2] And then, if that wasn’t scary enough, Jesus adds, “If any [of you] want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [after] me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? [3]

“Jesus’ followers had never seen crosses dangling over the stomachs of princes of the church, writes Brown, “but had seen plenty of crosses used as instruments of torture and very, very slow death.”[4]

How does one hashtag that? Yes, it had indeed been a rough week for Jesus and his followers.

One might think that being on a mountain with Jesus, and seeing him shining in all his glory accompanied by the Lawgiver, Moses, and the Proclaimer of Justice, Elijah, both dead for millennia but now somehow alive, would have captured the attention of John, James and Peter.  But they were exhausted. They’d had about as much ‘rough week’ as anyone could bear. So they laid down into as much sleep as they could find. There was a time for staying awake with Jesus but this was not it. This was a moment for surrendering to tired, and their feelings of enough.

After the mountain-top-experience in which Jesus took on the physical identity that is the real Son of God’s due, Jesus and his three climbing companions descend into the reality of a man whose soul is pierced through with the pain of caring for his epileptic son, the seizures of whom have thrown him into the fire to be burned, and rolled him into the water leaving him nearly drowned. His last hope had been Jesus’ followers waiting at the foot of the mountain for Jesus to come down again, but they hadn’t been able to cure the boy of his illness.

What is a few moments of Jesus shining with God’s glory when your cousin and best friend had been set up to be murdered, when your child faces the possibility of death everyday from his illness?

Being God’s anointed, the Son of the Living God, doesn’t mean much to anyone but the anointed one if all you do with it is enjoy it on the mountain.

Being on the mountain with God’s anointed and witnessing the glory of God doesn’t mean very much to anyone but you if all you want to do with the experience is relish the perks of having had the vision.

This story’s meaning is all about God’s glory – the anointed One through whom that glory broke into the world, and the ones who witnessed God’s glory in the anointed One – coming back down the mountain and into the lives of families like the family of the epileptic boy, or the martyred John the Baptist. God’s glory only means something if we do something with it.

Those few moments of glory give meaning and reliability to the words that accompany them – words from God. Did you catch God’s words about the experience? “This One is my beloved; listen to him.”  Did you hear what Jesus said? “Rise up and fear not!”

Four other SWC pastors and I were at the ICE  building in downtown Phoenix [5]
when Guadalupe Rayos reported for her check-in appointment and was detained on Feb. 8. She was deported the next day. She was the test case for our new immigration rules for undocumented non-violent offenders. That was a tough week for the Rayos family; I saw it on their faces. It was a tough week for every family who has an undocumented loved one with a traffic ticket.

Earlier that morning the SWC announced that it joined other faith communities in filing an amicus brief in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of two Iraqi refugees denied entry into the US.  Ahmed Darweesh is a husband and the father of three children. He worked for the US military and his life was in danger in Iraq due to that relationship. The wife and son of Hader Alshawi, the other plaintiff in the case, were threatened because of their perceived ties to the US. Both men had been granted legal entry into the US only to arrive and be detained and threatened with deportation. That was a tough week for Darweesh and Alshawi and for every refugee awaiting entry into this country.

Next week the SWC becomes a friend of the US Supreme Court because we have befriended Gavin Grimm, a Texas High School student denied access to school facilities because he is a transgender youth. This week was a particularly tough week for Gavin and every trans high school student because rules protecting them and granting them access to facilities appropriate to their expressed gender were rescinded by the President.

Pastors all over our conference, and throughout our beloved United Church of Christ, have shared stories with me that everything they say seems to be heard as political speech. Maybe the examples of people having tough weeks sounded political or even partisan to you.

“Empathy seems like an act of defiant resistance,” wrote John Pavlovitz in a recent blog , “and in many ways, it now is. Maybe homeless refugees and sick children and the working poor and black lives and fewer guns and universal healthcare are indeed now ‘Democratic talking points,’ he continues. “And if they are, then you should take a long look in the mirror, let your knees hit the floor, and ask Jesus just why that is. Maybe some repentance is in order.”[6]

Before anyone accuses any preacher of being political because she or he proclaims those talking points, remember that those very same talking points are in every sacred text known by humanity.

“When Did Compassion Become Partisan Politics?” asks Pavlovitz.[7] Yes, when did compassion become partisan politics?!

You see, beloved, the people whose stories I shared with you a moment ago are at the foot of our mountaintop experience here this morning, and they’re waiting to see what we will do with the glory of God we’ve experienced. As dark and terrifying as things might get, in the deepest, worn out, tired, lost, scared and confused moments of our lives, God’s voice still breaks into human experience inviting us to listen, to rise up, and to fear not.

NT Wright, in his book Simply Jesus, invites us to

“suppose, just suppose, that the ancient prophetic dream had glimpsed a deeper truth. Suppose there were a god like Israel’s God. Suppose this God did after all make the world. And suppose [God] were to claim, at long last, … sovereign rights over that world, not to destroy it … or merely to “intervene” in it from time to time…, but to fill it with … glory, to allow [us] to enter a new mode in which [we] would reflect [divine] love, [divine] generosity, [the Creator’s] desire to make it over anew.

“[That] might mean a living God really had established … sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and was intending to [put] an end to the fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul, of humans organizing the world as though they were responsible to nobody but themselves.

“Perhaps the real challenge of Jesus’s transformations within the material world is what they would imply both [spiritually] and politically.”

In the transformation/transfiguration story of Jesus on the mountain, “Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet…where God’s new creation intersects with ours.” What if the gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” What if they are about how God is becoming more and more “ruler on earth as in heaven.”  Isn’t that, after all, how Jesus taught his followers to pray? “Your kingdom come, will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [8]

Sometimes whole churches get caught up in their own moments of glory – past days on the mountain top – as if those glory days were an end in and of themselves. Like Peter sometimes congregations want to enshrine them, build booths of veneration to them, and never let them go.

But in today’s texts Jesus and his followers are new players in the old, old story of God’s encounters with God’s people.[9] And so are we! Moments of glory like this one today are only valuable if in them we are transformed in ways that bring God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s compassion into the time and space of suffering and marginalized ones, in ways that heal and bring hope.  The story of Jesus’ transfiguration/ transformation invites us to spend our lives stepping into both God’s glory and human suffering in ways that connect one with the other in healing hope-filled ways.

All this is more than supposition, beloved. We are not following cleverly devised myths, wrote Peter. We are in relationship with the powerful and majestic person of Jesus – the Child of the Divine One – who is trustworthy and gives us the strength to do what God has always invited God’s people to do: make God known in the world. That’s how this season of Epiphany comes to a close. And on Wednesday Lent begins, a season reminding us that there are tough weeks ahead of us, weeks filled with crosses and costs. “It’s time to listen, rise up. There isn’t any reason to be afraid.” Amen.

[1] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. P. 118ff

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:24–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes

[5] Immigration and Customs Enforcement

[6] http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/19/when-did-compassion-become-partisan-politics/

[7] Ibid.

[8] NT Wright. Simply Jesus.

[9] Audrey West http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

Love Beyond Borders

by Tyler Connoley

Last week, I shared a Bible story that warns us what happens when we allow fear to drive our response to immigrants and strangers. Today, I’d like to share another story, this time of the ways our lives are enriched by welcoming refugees.

The book of Ruth begins with a famine in the town of Bethlehem in Judah. A woman named Naomi and her husband and two sons become economic refugees, fleeing to Moab to make a better life for themselves. Two Moabite women marry Naomi’s sons. Unfortunately, the sons die along with Naomi’s husband, so Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth find themselves once again fleeing — now economic refugees in Judah.

This is where the story gets interesting. Naomi is too old to work, and Ruth can’t find work because of her nationality. (Moabites in Judah were sort of like Mexicans in Texas.) However, there was a work-to-welfare program Ruth could take advantage of. Foreigners in Judah were allowed to go through the fields after the harvest, and collect any leftovers. There was a man named Boaz who was kind and honorable, and intentionally left some of the harvest for the poor and hungry. He also didn’t allow his workers to harass the people gleaning in the fields, not even beautiful Moabite women who all Judeans thought were sexually promiscuous.

Of course, its hard to live on welfare, and Naomi wanted to make a better life for herself and her daughter-in-law. Knowing Judean culture, Naomi had an idea how Ruth could marry the wealthy Boaz. She told Ruth to go to the place where the men threshed the wheat. After the harvest, the men partied. So, when Boaz was full of food and wine and had gone to sleep, Ruth was to sneak in, uncover his feet, and lie down next to him. (For this story to make any sense at all, you have to know that “feet” is a common euphemism in biblical Hebrew. Feet aren’t feet in this story.) When Boaz awoke, he would make assumptions about what happened after he drank too much, and being a kind and honorable man he would put a ring on it.

So, that’s what Ruth does. That’s what Boaz does. And they live happily ever after.

One of the lessons of this tale is that refugees become our families. When Naomi and her boys move to Moab, they join with Moabite families through marriage. When Ruth and Naomi move to Judah, they become part of Boaz’s family. The point is emphasized in the final verse of Ruth, when we’re told Ruth and Boaz’s son Obed was King David’s grandfather. While it’s tempting to think of immigrants only in terms of what economic benefits they can offer right now (and economic refugees rarely present an economic benefit in this equation), we never know who their grandchildren might be. This is certainly true in the Southwest Conference, where the Governor of New Mexico is the granddaughter of a migrant farm worker.

In our current political environment — when folks talk about “anchor babies” and immigrants on welfare — its also important to notice the ways in which Ruth needed the Judean culture of hospitality to survive. The biblical law that created the welfare system in Judah specifically names widows, orphans, and immigrants as people who need its benefits. This wasn’t a flaw in the system, but a feature. The same is true in our country. Sometimes economic refugees need a helping hand. And even if they’re an economic drain at first, they’re still our future family.

Finally, for Christians, the story of Ruth reminds us of God’s love that knows no borders. That’s because she’s named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew. Whatever you think about the economics of welcoming refugees, or the ways immigrants sometimes have to use our own prejudices to get ahead (for example, Moabite women and “feet”), the importance of welcoming the stranger can’t be overemphasized. Literally, according to Matthew, without Ruth there would be no Jesus — and that’s the ultimate story of love beyond borders.

image credit: Tree of Life sculpture by Roman Boed

Are we Still the “Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride”?

by Ken McIntosh

I remember when I was a child and Thanksgiving was all about the Pilgrims. At school we watched “Mouse on the Mayflower” and grainy film reels with the Mayflower II sailing past Plymouth Rock. We made conical Pilgrim hats out of different colors of construction paper and big yellow paper buckles that went on our shoes. At home, Mom always made a ceremony of setting out a large wax sculpture Pilgrim couple—the centerpiece of our table.

Now it seems that Thanksgiving weekend is all about ‘Black Friday’ morning sales and college football. Pilgrims? The Mayflower? Meh…not so much (the exception this year being a pair of revisionist histories on TV).

On previous Thanksgivings I’ve thought that the eclipse of the Plymouth Plantation myth was probably good and merited. For Native people, it was another step toward the end of their relationship with the land. Already wracked by European disease, the treaty that Chief Massasoit made with the Pilgrims ended in the time of that chief’s son Philip; the ‘King Philip’s War’ resulted in over 5,000 deaths, and three-quarters of the slain were Natives.

A decade ago I had a strange experience while visiting Plymouth Plantation. Part of that historical recreation is a Native village staffed by Wampanoag tribespeople who dress in 17th century attire. A visitor to the village addressed one of the Native interpreters and said “You look like just like real Indians.” The man replied, with admirable lack of irritation in his voice “I am a member of the Wampanoag tribe, the original people of this land, who met with the European settlers.” And the tourist said, “Oh, I get it. You’re acting like a real Indian.” The Native interpreter continued to educate the man in a polite manner, but the whole exchange was painful to watch.

More recently, in Flagstaff, my wife was away for the Thanksgiving Holiday and I had to stay for a church function, so a Navajo friend invited me to his sister’s house for turkey dinner. I was the only white person at a large gathering of my host’s extended family, and thus the butt end of good-natured white-people jokes. The irony of it all was not lost on me.

So, considering the sad history of my ancestors’ conquest of this country, celebrating Pilgrim pride didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea. At the same time, it was hard to escape the influence of the Pilgrims once I became the pastor of a Congregational church. Of the 102 settlers who came from Holland on the Mayflower, 35 were members of the Puritan Separatist Church. They fled England where the State Church forbade their manner of worship for refuge in Holland where there was broad religious toleration. Fearing that they would lose their cultural ways, they then chose the risk-filled voyage to New England, a region chosen because they mistakenly believed it to be uninhabited.

Perhaps the most abiding aspect of Pilgrim heritage in the UCC today is part of Pastor John Robinson’s farewell message of 1620, in which he said “if God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of his, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth by my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” He clarified by lamenting that Lutherans proscribed their beliefs to the writings of Luther and Calvinists to the writings of Calvin. Today, the UCC is characterized by the phrase “God is still speaking.”

This year, however, I’ve decide that I do want to re-appropriate the Pilgrim story. It has abiding value—or at least value for 2015 and the foreseeable future. I say this for two reasons. First, the story of the Pilgrims and First Nations people of that land cooperating for their mutual benefit is a true one—albeit short-lived. The Wampanoags showed Europeans how to grow crops and survive; Europeans in turn brought crops and technology that was helpful for the Natives.

That peace was short-lived. I think of it like the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches of WWI. We know that was followed by the hells of Verdun and poison gas attacks, but at least for a brief time it happened and we can still be inspired by that glimmer of peace. Likewise, we have the example of the daring risk that this Native community took by welcoming strange and dubious-seeming people, and trying to seek a future of mutual benefit. At a time when America seems to be growing more xenophobic, this beginning attempt at mutual trust may still serve as a positive example. Their betrayal by our race can also be an abiding cautionary lesson.

But there’s another ‘Pilgrim lesson’ that I had drummed in during grade school, and I think that is the most important lesson of the Mayflower journey for America today. Countless schoolchildren were taught during the 1960s, ‘The Pilgrims came to these shores seeking religious freedom, and that is why we continue to value everyone’s religious freedom.’ That story can be historically critiqued—it may be that the Mayflower Separatists only valued Christian religious freedom, and we know that the Puritan groups who came in succeeding waves were intolerant of religious dissenters in their own ranks. Yet the elementary school lesson was as clear as it was succinct: our ancestors came here because they wanted to worship freely, and we should pass that privilege on to others.

So when, a few years later, I saw a group of men installing our neighbors’ swimming pool, and they all stopped their work at the same time and bowed down on mats and prayed, I was not shy to approach them afterward and ask “Why did you do that?” And when they told me they were Muslims and they prayed toward Mecca five times a day, I said “Neat!” Up to that point my experience of religious diversity was Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians…and one Jew. But I was happy to see a new kind of religion in my town…part of an unfolding story of religious freedom that defined us as Americans.

I have to wonder; all these people wanting to refuse new neighbors because they came from another culture and they might follow a different religion: were they not told the story of the Pilgrims? If they were told the same American legend that I received, they somehow missed the whole point.

“Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!”
…for everyone who wants to live in safety, and to worship as they please. Let it ring!

Photo is with permission of my publisher Anamchara Books

Living in Sodom

by Tyler Connoley

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how similar my country is to Sodom. However, not for the reasons you might think.

We remember Sodom as the town that hated strangers so much they almost raped and killed two angels who came to visit. They also threatened Lot, Abraham’s nephew and a recent immigrant. In the Biblical narrative, the Sodomites are the ultimate xenophobes, intent on secure borders, threatening monstrous acts against those they should have been welcoming.

(Note: If you think the story of Sodom has to do with gay sex, please go and read Genesis 19. You can also read the book I coauthored with Jeff Miner about homosexuality and the Bible.

What we forget is why the Sodomites might have been so afraid of strangers. For that story, you have to go back to Genesis 14. In that story, we’re told the kings of Sodom were convinced to join a coalition of the willing, including neighbor Gomorrah and three other cities, in an attack on the cities of the north. However, the battle was actually a wild goose chase (or maybe a trap?). When the kings were away, the northern armies swept into Sodom and Gomorrah, ransacked the cities, raped women and children and men, and carried everyone off as slaves. Since this is our sacred Scripture, we mostly remember this as the time our hero Abraham saved the day by rescuing his nephew Lot — along with all the other Sodomites who were captured — and all ended well.

The happy ending, hides the trauma that preceded it. All of the people of Sodom found themselves carried off and brutalized. Who knows how many died? Who knows what they suffered? Who knows how they continued to carry the trauma of that event for years after?

Genesis 14 is the story of Sodom’s 9/11.

Now, we understand why the people of Sodom would act the way they did in Genesis 19, when two strangers came to their city and ended up staying at the house of that newcomer Lot. When we read the story, we see two angels and our hero Abraham’s nephew. The people of Sodom saw a possible spy ring or a potential terrorist cell. Knowing that, we can see how they thought they were justified in the way they treated these threatening strangers.

This is why I compare the United States to Sodom. Living in this country, I’m well-acquainted with an atmosphere of fear and trauma that leads people to condone terrible acts. The story of Sodom is a warning to us when we slam our doors to refugees, or condone extra-judicial drone strikes, or cheer on war, or yawn at the thought of Guantanamo Bay, or accept any manner of evil because we’re afraid of another 9/11 and think our government needs to keep us safe.

The Sodomites were not monsters. They were people like you and me. I’m sure they had lovely houses, and above-average children, but that’s not what we remember them for. We remember that they let their fear and trauma get the best of them, and they did monstrous things as a result. Let’s learn from their lesson, and not be Sodomites.

 

Syrian Refugees and the Teaching of Jesus

by Ryan Gear

At last count, 30 governors, 29 Republicans and one Democrat, have issued statements that they will not allow Syrian refugees to settle in their states. Never mind that governors probably don’t have the power to enforce state borders, their statements have come under fire from many, including evangelicals who usually support conservative political leaders.

Why?

Because this latest example of xenophobia conflicts with the details of Jesus’ life a little too closely.

First, Jesus and his parents were Middle Eastern refugees. The nativity scene, after all, is about a Middle Eastern family looking for a place to stay. Matthew tells us that after his birth, Mary and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to Egypt. Turning away refugee families right before we put up Christmas decorations is too ironic even for those who often miss the irony of their political views and professed faith.

Second, Jesus gives an ominous description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 that directly speaks to the issue of welcoming the foreigner. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus declares, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Conversely, “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

While one could argue over the definition of “brothers and sisters,” Jesus is known for universalizing the love of neighbor. It is perhaps one of Jesus’ unique contributions to moral teaching in human history. In his depiction of the Last Judgment, Jesus is the King, and He clearly states that how we treat who He calls “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” is how we treat Him.

Who are “the least of these?”

In verse 28, we learn that one category of “the least of these” is the “stranger.” How does Jesus define “stranger?” Matthew was originally written in Greek, and the Greek word that we translate as stranger is xenos. Xenos can be translated into English as “foreigner, immigrant, or stranger.”

In other words, when we don’t welcome the foreigner, Jesus takes it personally.

Let us acknowledge that even though it’s an unpopular thought in 21st century America, Jesus says that those who reject “the least of these” will face eternal punishment. Needless to say, that statement should give pause to all of those who claim to follow Jesus Christ, yet quickly reject the stranger.

We are wise, of course, to ask questions about public safety and the possibility of terrorists embedding themselves within refugee groups. I understand the apprehension that some feel who are sincerely concerned about the safety of U.S. citizens, and I do not dismiss their concerns as trivial. There is another view, however, for us to consider.

In addition to Jesus’ warning about the afterlife, conceivably there are earthly consequences to not welcoming the stranger. Perhaps not welcoming refugees would create more terrorists who would seek to harm the United States. Turning away families in their time of need could prove to be a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS. If a mother and father seeking a safe land for their children are denied hospitality, they will not feel goodwill towards the country that rejected them. Furthermore, if their children were to die because of hardship, why would be surprised if grieving parents were to act in revenge?

Finally, one could easily make an argument that rejecting the refugees allows the terrorists to win. Their most powerful weapon is, well, terror. If we fear an attack so intensely that we are willing to deny hospitality to refugee children, who could argue that the terrorists haven’t won? Not only have they taken human lives, they will have succeeded in taking away our humanity.

Many Christians, including conservative evangelicals, realize that Jesus speaks clearly on this matter. No matter how many governors claim there is no room in the inn, the teaching of Jesus is simply too relevant to the current situation for Christians to ignore.