Sunday, July 27, 2014

"Eyes to See"

July 27, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Parables. Are you tired of them yet? Don’t worry, I think we’re going to move on to something new soon. We have been steadily working our way through the 13th chapter of Matthew for three weeks now. We watched a farmer indiscriminately sow seed everywhere he walked….some landed on the path and was eaten by the birds, some was scorched in the sun, some was choked by thorns and some landed in good soil and gave amazing yields. We gave thanks for our God's indiscriminate and wasteful love. And we watched a farmer plant his field with good seed only to discover that an enemy came in the night, sowing weeds among the wheat. And we heard that farmer’s calming words, “Let it be. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together and we will sort it out at the end.”

Once again, Jesus speaks to his disciples…and us…in parables. Once again, the subject at hand is the kingdom of heaven. Once again, we start out with a seed being sowed in a field.

Jesus gives us five short parables and they all begin, “The kingdom of heaven…” I want to begin by making a conscious switch to an updated term “the Realm of God.” Jesus lived in a time and place where political and military leaders were almost always men, but we know God to be without gender and we live in a time and place where people of any gender are often leaders.

Matthew alone uses the phrase “kingdom of HEAVEN” instead of “kingdom of GOD” and some surmise he did this because he was writing for a Jewish audience and wanted to avoid using the word God. It is apparent that “kingdom and heaven” and “kingdom of God” are synonymous. Both refer to a vision Jesus carried with him for what the world could become if God’s Spirit were allowed to fully break forth and rule. The Realm of God is at the very core of Jesus’s theology, preaching, and teaching. The Realm of God is not about what happens in the sweet by-and-by….rather it is a radical vision of the here and now where lives and communities are transformed by God’s grace and justice. 

In Jesus’s five short parables today we see that the Realm of God is all kinds of things. Too big and too broad to be contained in one or two stories.

The Realm of God is like a tiny seed that grows into a giant invasive tree and provides a place for the birds to rest.

The Realm of God is like some fungus that a baker mixed in with an enormous amount of flour and it turned the flours into a giant squishy mass of dough, ready to be baked and devoured.

The Realm of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Someone found the treasure and hid it and in a spirit of great celebration sold every single thing she had so she could buy the field and possess the treasure.

The Realm of God is like treasure, yes, but is it also like the one who goes out in search of great treasure. The merchant who went seeking the best pearls money could buy and once she found the best pearl she had ever seen, she sold everything she had so she could have that pearl.

The Realm of God is like a seed that becomes a weed that becomes a tree, like a tiny sprinkling of fungus that makes a giant ball of dough, treasure hidden in a field, the merchant who goes out looking for great treasure AND the Realm of God is like a fishing net. It is cast into the world and comes back with every kind of fish in the sea.

The Realm of God cannot be contained by one image, one parable, one story. It’s elusive, tenuous, here one minute – gone the next. Have you ever seen the Realm of God? How do you know?

I've seen the Realm of God. I was 22 years old, living in Dallas, Texas. I had just graduated from college and we moved to Dallas and were looking for a church. We had shopped around for a few months but just weren’t entirely sure where we would land. Several people had told us to check out Northaven United Methodist and we did.

When we visited Northaven, we learned that there were quite a few people there who were gay and lesbian. Saying this now makes me laugh, but it was the first time I had ever seen a same-sex couple sitting in church together, being affectionate in an open way. I had had several gay and lesbian friends, but never at church.  At that point in my life, I knew I wasn’t a fundamentalist. I no longer took the Bible literally. But I was still struggling to reconcile my love for my gay and lesbian friends with the narrow way the Bible had been taught to me.

Fortunately, my experience of the Realm of God was about to change all of that.

One of our first Sundays at Northaven was a communion Sunday. There, as here, people came to the front of the Sanctuary to take communion. As we sat in our pew, watching the multitude of people shuffle to the front of the Sanctuary that day, I became aware of an odd physical sensation…something was telling me, “Pay attention! Look around! Do you see it?”

It was the Realm of God, brightly shining and on display in that Sanctuary. People of all ages - yes, that I was used to seeing. People of different races – yes, that I was used to seeing. But at Northaven there was also so many kind of love – couples of opposite genders, couples of same gender, couples of indeterminate genders. Families with no children, families with several children. Families with one parent or two. Children coming forward with grandparents or friends of the family. And people coming forward in wheelchairs, in walkers, being led by a guide because they were blind.

I know that if you’re sitting here, this story I’m telling you sounds like no big deal. After all, you, too, see this vision of the Realm of God every time you walk into our Sanctuary. Families of every type. People with varying abilities. But, for me, on this particular morning in Dallas it was the first time I recognized it as such….the first time I realized just how powerful and pervasive that feeling of GOOD was to be in a place where the full Realm of God was visible and coming together to eat at the table. My eyes filled with tears of joy and I vowed I would never again regularly take communion in a community where people could not openly come to the table with the people they loved. On that day, any lingering questions I had about God’s welcome to GLBTQ people were just blasted away. I had seen the Realm of God and there was no turning back.

What about you? When have you seen the Realm of God? This actually isn’t a rhetorical question.

I think that Jesus’s witness through these five parables invites us to actively reflect on the Realm of God. We are invited to imagine along with him. If Jesus finds five ways to describe it, certainly there are more. From the pages of Matthew, Jesus beckons to us, “Come on. Be alert. Use all your senses…open up your eyes and ears and heart. Do you feel that tingling on the back of your neck? That’s God’s way of telling you to pay attention. The Realm of God is all around us. If we will open ourselves to it, we will see it. And once we do, we cannot keep silent. It’s insidious…seeping into the broken places in our hearts and filling them with possibility, hope, newness, life. The Realm of God is not something far away or only sometimes or after the End Times or after we die. The Realm of God is here and now. Do you see it?”

Do we see it? What does it look like? I invite you to take a few moments and silently reflect on the times you have seen the Realm of God with your own eyes. And if you aren’t aware of a time, think about what you imagine it might feel like to notice God’s Realm. What would it look like? How would you know it when you see it?

(SILENCE)

Jesus tells us at the end of this passage that those who are trained for the Realm of God will be like householders who bring out treasures new and old from their storage. Those who have their eyes and ears trained for the Realm will see it. They will know it when they see it. And having seen it, they will be ready to offer gracious acts of hospitality to all they encounter.

They will reach into their stores and bring forth the fresh milk that just came from the cow that morning but also the tomatoes that were canned last summer...and they will offer both at the table to the stranger in need.

They will reach into their storage closets and pull out just the right new dress with the tags still on and the old heirloom scarf handed down from grandma….and they will lend them to a friend. 

They will reach into themselves and bring forth all the newness and freshness happening in their lives, right along with the old, old parts of themselves that they can never seem to shake…and they will offer them joyfully to those they love.

Those who are trained to see the Realm will be givers. They will give themselves and their possessions and their time away indiscriminately. It will be radical, stupid, wasteful, irrational giving. Remember that weird sower with his seeds? Yeah, like that.

Because once you get a taste of the Realm of God, there’s no going back. Once you see it, you just want to keep seeing it again and again. And before you know it, you are looking through Realm-colored glasses and you start to notice the ways you can bend and shape the world to look more and more like the Realm of God, day-by-day.

God holds the Realm before us. We live within it here and now. God give us the wisdom to slow down enough to notice your Realm in our midst. Give us the courage to name it when we see it and to keep telling stories of your Realm day-by-day. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Weeds Happen"

July 20, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

********
Just like last week, we have a parable from Jesus about a farmer sowing seed. Last week we talked about how the sower was pretty weird and didn’t seem to know too much about farming. He sowed seed all over the place….and a lot of it never amounted to much. We gave thanks for a God who sows seeds recklessly, wastefully, extravagantly. A God who is prone to reaching out again and again in love to share his abundance. A God who is not much concerned with the return on investment as she sows seeds far and wide.

And, like last week, we have a similar structure to today’s passage from Matthew. Jesus teaches his disciples and other onlookers with the parable, the lectionary committee chooses to skip a few verses, and then the disciples ask for an explanation of the parable and Matthew’s Jesus kindly provides a step-by-step breakdown of the parable, easily digestible by his hearers.

Last week we didn’t read the explanation part and I talked a bit about my decision to leave it out of the discussion. Jesus did not often explain parables and most Biblical scholars doubt that he ever explained them in this way. If you were to read the explanation portion in this week’s passage, you’d learn quite a lot about the author of Matthew’s historical situation. Matthew’s Jesus is often an all-powerful, fire-and-brimstone kind of guy and this passage is no exception. Matthew’s Jesus is quick to explain this parable in eschatological terms. Eschatalogical is just a $10 word for things that are concerned with the end times. It’s a pretty fun word. I like to use it just because it’s fun to say. Want to give it a try? Eschatalogical. Good times, right?

Only not good times in Matthew’s passage. Well, I guess it could be good times depending on if you’re the wheat or the weeds. Because in the author of Matthew’s mind this is another one of the stories that’s like the sheep and the goats. The basic message is make the right choices now or burn in the great fire for all eternity. Outer darkness. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Etc.

For the early followers of Jesus, who were convinced that the end of the world was rapidly approaching, this explanation made sense. Do we know what Jesus’s original intent was when he told the story? No, we don’t. And we never will. But we are free to explore the story from our own time and place. We are free to bring our own concerns and challenges of our day-to-day living to the story and see what new life it breathes into our lives in the 21st century.

When I read a passage, I like to think of myself as a sort of “Good News Hunter.” I go off on an expedition with my favorite Biblical research tools, my pen and paper, my heart, my lived experiences, my mind and I go in search of the Gospel. Sometimes I don’t find it, but usually I do and that’s a big part of why I love the Bible so much. There’s nothing quite as good as going on a Good News Hunt and finding it. 

This week, I tried my best to set aside Matthew’s interpretation of the parable and really just tried to enter it from our time and place. I had always thought of this as a hellfire-and-brimstone passage (how appropriate for the day when the folks from Westboro Baptist decided to play us a visit!) and I had kind of written it off.

Imagine, then, the wonderful surprise of discovering that this passage has all kinds of Good News to offer us. If I were to sum up the Good News I found in this parable it would go something like this, “Weeds happen. Perfection is unattainable. You can’t fix everything…and that’s okay. Looks can be deceiving….sometimes you can’t tell the weeds from the wheat. Life is messy. Don’t make things harder than they need to be. Chill out.”

There’s a lot there. Notice, for starters, that Jesus says “the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” There it is: morsel of Good News #1….Perfection is unattainable. Even in the Kingdom of Heaven, there are weeds among the wheat. Weeds happen. There’s no way to avoid it.

And does the landowner flip out over the weeds because the field is no longer perfect? Nope. The servants do flip out a little. They say, “Hey! Farmer! There are weeds in your wheat field! What should we do about it? Want us to go in and fix it up for you?”

Now, my answer to that question would be “yes, of course!” because I am a fixer by nature and if there is some kind of problem I want to fix it. Quickly.

But the landowner says, “No.” He says, “Wait.” He is concerned that if they uproot the weeds they will also uproot the wheat. He is confident that it will all turn out okay in the end.

This is where I have to admit that I am terrible at weeding. I have rarely done it, in fact, without close supervision because I have some kind of nature disorder where I can barely tell different kinds of plants apart. Seriously. It’s terrible. I cant’ tell what is a weed and what is the good stuff.

Interestingly, it’s not so clear-cut in this parable that these weeds are weeds after all. The Greek that is used is for a specific kind of plant that looks a lot like wheat but yields a different color of grain. So it’s a wheat-imposter. Not useful. Not edible. But looks a lot like wheat.

Does it need to come out? Well, it’s not clear. Most of us would assume that all weeds are bad and should be culled immediately, but experienced gardeners will tell you that some weeds can actually be useful. They can help with soil erosion, shelter your plants, protect them from pests, and even provide useful nutrients. For example, dandelions have incredibly long roots and can bring up worthwhile nutrients from the deeper parts of the soil.[1] And speaking of our friend the dandelion, it’s a funny little weed that won’t quite stay in its box as a weed, right? Dandelions are classified by most people as weeds but any five-year-old will tell you they are a beautiful flower, excellent for making yellow blush and necklaces. Plus, you can find dandelion weeds on the menu at fancy restaurants and for sale in the organic produce section at Whole Foods.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s a weed and what’s the good stuff. Sometimes the weeds masquerade as the crop. Sometimes the good stuff actually needs the weeds. Life is messy. Evil is evil…except when it’s not. Good is good….except when it’s not. Sometimes there are no clear answers….do you do this thing or that? Look no further than the conflict that once-again is reaching a fever pitch between Palestine and Israel to see evidence of this. Good and evil all mixed together. No clear answers for anyone. Sometimes the weeds and the wheat are all mixed up together and you can’t tell them apart. Life is messy.

And into this messy, messed-up field, the landowner offers words of assurance. He says, “Let it be. Stop running around trying to label everything as good and bad and put it into these little boxes to make yourself feel better. In the end it won’t matter too much. It’ll be easier if you just wait a bit.”

I am reminded of that wonderful short story by Flannery O’Connor, Revelation. O’Connor tells the story of a day in the life of Mrs. Turpin, a “respectable” Christian woman. We get to hear her inner dialogue and all the judgmental, hateful things she thinks about the people she encounters. Mrs. Turpin is convinced she is one of the stalks of wheat in the world and she has no warmth or love for those who she deems to be weeds. And at the end of the story, she is given a vision of all of these people that she has judged lacking marching up into heaven…ahead of her and her kind. And as she watches this vision, she sees that not only have the weedy-ones become wheat-like but that in the refiner’s fire even the folks she thought of as the “good ones” have had their virtues burned away. The refiner’s fire does not discriminate….everyone has their bad and good parts burned away. And everyone is marching up to heaven.

So the landowner says, in essence, “Chill out. If you just wait, you’ll be able to tell the wheat from the weeds. The wheat will be grown and ready to harvest and it will be much easier to separate the two at that point. Just wait. Live in the in-between. Don’t freak out right now. Stop making things harder than they need to be.”

Please don’t come away from today hearing me say, “Don’t worry, be happy. God will fix everything.” I wish that were the case but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Life is hard. Weeds happen. Living in the in-between time is sometimes excruciating. Not being able to tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat is infuriating and exhausting. We don’t just sit back and wait for life to consume us.

We actively work on tending the fields, caring for both the weeds and the wheat. We trust that, though life may be hard, if we open ourselves to new possibilities and cultivate patience we may find ways that are a tiny bit easier. We do our best to calm down, realizing that it’s not actually a great use of our time and energy to spend our days categorizing people into wheat or weeds. After all, we are, every one of us, a bit of both.

It’s work to stay calm in the face of evil. It’s work to trust that even when the evil and good are all mixed up, things can still turn out okay in time. It’s incredibly difficult to live in the in-between, to live in the ambiguity, to stand still instead of frantically attacking the weeds. But sometimes it’s worth it.

Jesus holds up to us in today’s parable the Good News that sometimes the best thing to do is not much at all. Sometimes the best thing to do is wait and watch. Sometimes the best thing to do is just calm down, breathe deep, and remember that weeds happen. And that it’s not the end of the world. Thanks be to God for that.




Monday, July 14, 2014

"Sowing Abundance"

Sermon Text: Matthew 13: 1-9
July 13, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

(Told storyteller style while walking around the Sanctuary)
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’”

*******
Upon hearing this story, the disciples nodded gravely, internalized the wisdom given, and promised to share the Good News far and wide.

Just kidding. What they really did was go up to Jesus and say, “Seriously, Jesus. Why do you keep preaching in riddles? No one understands what you’re talking about. It’s unreasonable. It doesn’t make any sense. And, honestly, dude? It’s really tiring to listen to these sermons. It’s too much work. Didn’t you pay any attention in speech class? You know…tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them. Maybe try that next time and you’ll have better luck.”

Ah, but that radical Jesus. He rarely listened to criticism, dontchaknow. I feel like he would have been incredibly difficult to supervise. Probably never would have listened to anything you said during a performance evaluation. He goes on speaking in riddles – parables.

Of all the parables Jesus gave us, something like 40, he only explained 2 of them. And lots of Biblical scholars doubt that he even did that. The flow of this Matthew 13 passage is threefold….first, the parable, which is just 9 verses long; next, the conversation between Jesus and his followers where they complain about the Jesus’s teaching methods; and, finally, Jesus’s explanation of the parable, which we didn’t read today but you can easily find in your pew Bible if you’re curious.

Part of the reason we didn’t read it today is that I have my doubts that Jesus ever said it. It’s just not his style to explain parables in an easy, one-two-three pattern. After all, the thing that makes a parable an excellent tool for teaching is that it can’t be easily explained. If you think you’ve got it figure out, chances are you don’t. Parables just don’t work that way. Instead, they invite us into their world. We are lured into the story and encourage to imagine ourselves as various characters….perhaps this time when we hear the story we find ourselves identifying with the seeds, but next time we notice we could also be the soil, and last week when we heard the story we were the sower. We get invited in, again and again, to make new meaning in these old, old stories.

So….I am distrusting of people who try to tell me, “Here is exactly what this parable means.” That takes all the fun away. This week when I was studying the text, I had some fun rewriting the parable in modern terms. After all, most of us aren’t farmers anymore. Jesus’s parables often used agricultural imagery because that was the world he lived in. I think it’s a really helpful exercise to translate the parables into our own context. I spent some time imagining other characters and backdrops for a modern-day parable of the sower.

“Listen! A bank executive pulled into her reserved parking space, checked her e-mail on her phone, and briskly walked into the office to begin another day’s work….”

“Listen! A ten-year-old boy carefully took his piggy bank down off the shelf and counted out all the coins he could find from saving up his weekly allowance. He got on his bike and headed downtown to spend the money….”

“Listen! A graduate student cashed in her financial aid check at the beginning of the semester, opened up an Excel spreadsheet, and carefully began budgeting how she’d make the money last until Christmas...”

There are a million ways you could re-tell this story. If you go home and work on some of your own, I’d love to hear them.

Traditionally, many interpretations of this passage have taken the author of Matthew’s lead and focused intently on the different kinds of soil in the parable. People have spent centuries wondering, “What exactly does it look like to be rocky soil? How do I know if I am just a hard path and the birds might come along and take the seeds?” And, of course, “How do I become the GOOD soil? How do I make sure I am the most hospitable place possible for God’s Word so I can make it multiply and grow?”

These aren’t bad questions. But when I read the passage this week, I found myself being pulled in a different direction. Instead of noticing the soil or the seeds, what I noticed was the sower.

What a weirdo. I mean, has anyone ever taught this guy anything about farming? I know very little about growing food to eat – just ask David, who is responsible for all of the gardening in our family. But what I do know is that you typically only have a limited amount of seed saved up from the previous year and if you want to get the highest yield possible – enough to feed your family, your livestock, maybe even enough to sell a bit at market – then you’d better use that seed carefully. You check the soil. You make sure it’s good soil, ready to use. And then you plant your seeds at the right time and tend them carefully so they can flourish.

Here’s what you don’t do. You don’t take the seed and just throw it all over the place willy nilly. You don’t drop a bunch of it on the path where you’re walking. You don’t throw it down in rocky soil. You don’t scatter it where there are thorns.

That’s just wasteful. Ignorant. Misguided. It makes no sense at all.

And yet – this sower. This unskilled sower who seems to know so little, did manage to get some seeds into the good soil through this scattershot method of planting. And the seeds that got into the good soil did great. Unbelievably amazing, actually. They yielded huge amounts – 30, 60, even 100 times what was originally planted.

So maybe this sower knows a few things after all. His method is unconventional, that’s for sure, but he’s getting good results.

Reminds me a little of Jesus, the teacher. Unconventional method. Good results.

Although his followers complained that he was hard to understand, people kept flocking to him. So many people came to hear him that he had to make the sea itself into an amphitheatre. Crowded all the way off the shoreline by thousands who came to hear him speak, he hopped into a boat so he could talk to the mobs of people who followed him everywhere. They may not have fully understood everything he was saying, but they sure did love to hear him talk.

Jesus told stories that made no sense. The world turned upside down. And he did things that made no sense. Water into wine. The blind were given sight. The lame jumped up and walked. The dead rose and breathed again. And so the people kept coming. Kept following. Kept watching and listening.

Because just like the sower who scattered that seed with abandon, Jesus poured himself out time and time again for anyone who had ears to hear and eyes to see. “Listen!” he said. He sowed the seeds of righteousness and justice every which way. He paid little attention to whether or not the seeds were landing on rocky ground or fertile soil. He just kept telling stories, traveling, listening, giving, healing, feeding, turning the world upside-down.

Both Jesus and the sower lived and breathed and worked and taught from a position of ENOUGH. Chances are good that they, like us, lived in a world where they were constantly told “conserve, save, be cautious, make plans, be careful, keep track, don’t waste, watch the bottom line, increase your efficiency.” But instead of internalizing these messages, Jesus and the sower resisted. They lived in a world of ENOUGH.

They weren’t worried about running out of resources. They weren’t operating from a scarcity mindset. Instead, they were living in a world of abundance. Enough seed. Enough resources. Enough loaves. Enough fishes. Enough manna. Enough water. Enough wine. Enough.

We, too, live in a world that constantly encourages us to listen to the gods of scarcity. From birth, we are constantly inundated with messages from these gods. We are told, day in and day out, that there is not enough to go around. We are told that we cannot possibly have enough or be enough to be worth much of anything in this world.

And into this myth of scarcity, Jesus whispers words of abundance.

Quiet now. There’s a big crowd and he’s all the way out there on the sea in that boat. Can you hear him?


“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Yoked With Christ"

July 6, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Imagine with me that you are the parent of two children. Alfonso is your oldest. He is 16 years old and loves to play soccer. He likes to read books. He loves to help cook in the kitchen. When he sleeps at night, you look in on him as he sleeps – you can almost see a tiny trace of that baby from years ago. No one else would see it, of course, but you can. Because you are his mother and mothers do not forget. 

Maritza is just 11 years old. She loves to run down the street with her friends, going into their secret place by the creek to throw rocks, dream dreams, tell stories. You can still remember those sleepless nights when she was an infant. You would rouse yourself from bed and gently lift her in your arms. You would walk the floor for hours. You were tired and sometimes frustrated. But, it’s funny – remembering it now you mostly remember the pleasant weight of her tiny body in your arms and how good it felt to be curled up together. No one but you has these memories because you are her father and fathers do not forget.

Of course, Maritza hasn’t been doing as much running these days. It’s not safe for her to be on the streets. Your neighborhood, your town, your nation are swept up in violence. Gangs control every part of your community. You can’t stand on this corner unless you are loyal to the M-18s. You can’t ride this bus line unless you are with the MS-13s. For the past few weeks you haven’t even been able to send your children to school, which means you also haven’t been able to go to work. Every week you hear of another child who has disappeared or finally given in and joined a gang. The gangs start recruiting children as young as five or six. By the time the children are 18 they are almost certain to have joined a gang or they are dead. There really aren’t other options.

It’s like living in a war zone. Worse, in fact. You heard someone say on the news the other day that the homicide rate in your country, Honduras, is almost twice what it was a few years ago in Iraq during the height of the war there. And yet the police do nothing. Other nations do nothing.

But you have a plan. Your cousin has connections with someone who can take your children away. To a better place. North. You have an inheritance from your parents. It’s a lot of money. You were hoping to use it in your old age, but if your children die your old age will mean nothing. It’s a lot of money – more than a year’s salary, in fact. But it will be worth every penny if your children make it to the United States, where you know they will have a chance at safety. You have no idea what they will do there. Will they be able to find work? Will you eventually find a way to join them? Will some kind person take care of them? There is no way of knowing. But you know that to stay here means almost certain kidnapping, rape, death. And so it is the only way. Alfonso will have to be brave. Maritza has to grow up too fast – way too fast. But this is the way it is. You have no other options.

And so you make your plan. And you pray to God for their safe passage. You beg Jesus to travel with them. And you kiss your beautiful children goodbye. And you wonder if you will see them again.[1]

******************
I wish that this story were completely made up. I wish that there were not thousands of versions of this story playing out in Central America today. But, sadly, some version of this story has happened thousands and thousands of times over the past few years. The numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in our country seeking assistance has skyrocketed in the past few years. Since October, over 50,000 children have arrived in our country.  Mostly they are teenagers, but some come with their younger siblings, toddlers, even. Some come in an attempt to reunite with their parents who are already in the United States. Others have been sent by their parents who have paid enormous fees to complete strangers promising to give them safe passage. Often these child-smugglers horribly abuse the children as they are transported.

As these children arrive, our government has scrambled. We are required by our own laws and international treaties to attempt to reunite the children with their parents, take care of their basic needs, hear their stories. Because they are from countries not immediately adjacent to ours, we are not allowed to immediately deport them as we would with children from Mexico or Canada. But Obama has recently asked Congress for the ability to move the children out of our country, back to their home countries, more quickly. Back to the violence. Back to the gangs. Our system is overwhelmed and children are being housed in makeshift cells on military bases in Texas, California, and Oklahoma. Churches in those areas have attempted to step in and help, offering volunteers, toys, blankets, food. But FEMA has refused offers of help.[2]


If these children were to arrive on a boat, as many thousands did before them, they might have come into this country at Ellis Island. Had they come that direction they would have been greeted by that poem The New Colossus written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus. You know these words:
"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!"

Instead, they were greeted by mobs of angry adults shouting things like “Go back home!” “Deport! Deport!” and “USA!”[3] Because, you know, shouting “USA!” should be synonymous with things like “Go back home!”

And in some places like Lawrenceville, VA they weren’t even allowed to show up. The government is attempting to open a camp there on a recently-closed college campus, but local residents want nothing to do with these children. The Sherriff Brian Roberts says he is concerned with public safety, “500 kids unaccounted for — illegal alien children in my little sleepy town — I just don't think it's the right fit for this community.”[4] The words we use matter. A child cannot be illegal. A child is a person – a beloved child of God. I can’t help but wonder if these children would be greeted the same way if they were white.

*************

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”

Doesn’t sound like we’re quite living up to those words, are we? What are we to do when we are faced with the reality that we so often fail to live up to our ideals as a nation?

Well, I don’t know about you, but on those days where I find myself shocked and appalled at the callousness of our elected and appointed officials, a frustrated and outraged citizen at a total loss as to how I can help make this nation a safer and kinder place for all….on days like that, I find myself incredibly grateful that I have another book to read, another song to sing, another story to tell, another name to claim.

I give thanks that I am a follower of Christ and that you are journeying alongside me. I look to our shared stories for hope and guidance. I look to the witness of our sacred texts for strength as I contemplate what I might be called to do in the face of fear and hatred.

In today’s Gospel we have a somewhat-cranky Jesus reprimanding his followers for acting like quarreling children. You’ve seen this play out before – some of the kids want to play one game and the others want to play another. They can’t agree on the game or the rules, so they end up playing nothing at all – just shouting back and forth at each other, “Let’s do it MY way!” “No, MY way!” I’m sure none of us adults have ever been involved in a situation like this as adults, right? Just the kids act this way.

Right.

So it turns out the adults in Jesus’s time were a lot like adults today – they argued, they fought, they couldn’t agree over who to follow or the best way to get things done. And after chastising them Jesus breaks into a prayer of thanksgiving. Jesus gives thanks to God for the close relationship they share. Jesus thanks God that even those who are knuckleheads sometimes get it. And after he finishes praying, Jesus gives these words of comfort to those listening, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-burdened and I will give you rest.”

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

More than just offering shelter and refuge, Jesus offers partnership. He invites those listening to team up with him, to put on his yoke and work together, side-by-side. He promises that the yoke will help ease the burden of the shared labor. He promises to teach by example and to show the way. He promises not to leave even though the work will be difficult.

And it is in these words of comfort that I find hope this morning. I know that Christ is sitting with those children as they huddle under those mylar blankets in makeshift shelters that look like prisons. I know that Christ stands outside the buses with the angry mobs, weeping and shouting back at them from time to time. I know that Christ is with the parents who are waiting for contact from their children. I know that Christ is with the lawmakers as they face this humanitarian crisis. And I know Christ is here with us, whispering hope, new life, and radical actions of hospitality.

Christ is in all of these places. And Christ beckons to all of these people. The work may not be easy, but Christ offers to share God’s yoke. Christ wants to partner with us, to walk alongside us and share the work of living up to that great call of welcoming the stranger. Christ invites us to put on the yoke of compassion and love, to share each other’s burdens and make this life more livable. And Christ does not leave any of us to labor alone.




[3] http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/02/us/california-immigrant-transfers/
[4] http://www.npr.org/2014/06/19/323346848/plan-to-house-immigrant-teens-prompts-a-backlash-in-virginia-town