August 19, 2018

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Sermon

August 19, 2018 - Brad Brookins
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08-19-18

Lk 4. 16-21                                                                         The least…

 

Lk 4. 16-21

 

 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

   because he has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

 

So, I asked for sermon topic suggestions for this month.  Eight of you responded with some 20 questions.   And I noticed a delicious irony emerging as I read what you submitted.

Over the years I have been complained to, and more often complained about, by people who thought my sermons sometimes veered into political territory.  “We don’t do politics in church”, was the refrain I heard.  “We get that all week.  That’s not why we come to church”.  Now I happen to agree with that sentiment.  We shouldn’t do “politics” in church.

So here’s the irony.  Of the 20 or so topics suggested by this congregation that doesn’t do politics on Sunday mornings, nearly 15 of them are clearly political, or carry political overtones.  You are asking me to give you what you have told me I’m not supposed to give you. 

I love my job!

But, what’s a poor preacher to do?

Well, you just watch.

Two people, with different perspectives, raised the issue of immigration on our southern border.  Now, generally, people on both sides of a debate have something interesting to say, so this difference of opinion is actually helpful.  It enriches our conversation and I’m glad for it.

We’ll call these Side 1 and Side 2.

Our Side 1 writer is looking for a balance between the Christian call to love your neighbor, and a realistic assessment of what might happen to our way life if too many immigrants cross our border; especially if they come illegally.  He says churches have blindfolds on—they’re so intent on opening the border they can’t see the danger that presents.  Christians need to take the blinders off, I hear him saying.  Open your eyes and get real! before someone gets hurt.

Side 2 believes the immigration issue is being used these days for personal political gain, or to distract us from other nefarious deeds being done in Washington, D.C.  He reminds us that we are a nation of immigrants, cites a number of benefits immigrants bring to our culture and economy, and then he writes: “To turn our backs on these people, people who find it necessary to leave their homeland and risk their lives to get here, is just not who we are or should be”.  Open your hearts, he is saying, or you may become someone you don’t want to be.

Now if this were a political speech, which it is not, I would tell you which of these positions is right and urge you to reject the other.  I’m not going to do that.  That would be too easy.  Our work is actually more difficult—and more rewarding.  The politics of immigration is not our concern this morning.  But—the theology of immigration very much is. 

Theology, you know, is how Christian people navigate our complicated world.  The “theology of ”— all kinds of issues should be important to us. The theology of poverty, for instance, or racism or income inequality or the destruction of the planet, just for starters.  And, of course, the theology of immigration.

Most people care about these problems anyway, you know.  But because we are followers Jesus, we look at them through a particular lens—through his eyes, so to speak.  “What Would Jesus Do?” is an old cliche, but still a useful guide for our thinking on difficult, contentious issues.

Two things must be quickly said about that, however.

1.           Jesus doesn’t tell us what to do about people crossing our southern border.  We can see how he treated similar people in similar circumstances; but that is a source of insight, not an answer.  We have to work out our own answer.

2.           The insight we do gain from Jesus seldom points us to an easy way forward.  Jesus’ way is seldom politically wise or politically comfortable.  Often it is costly.  But we don’t ask for easy.  We ask for what is right.

So what do we learn from looking at Jesus?

Start here: In Matthew’s gospel, when the infant Jesus is threatened by Herod, Joseph grabs his young wife and newborn son and runs for the border.  They run from a government bent on murder and cross into Egypt seeking asylum.  In Jesus’ own story, you see, there is a deep memory of being a refugee; a migrant family fleeing danger and hoping for welcome in a new country.  That memory doesn’t fade away.

In Luke’s gospel, chapter 4, the now grown up Jesus preaches his first sermon and that early memory is evident.  Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he delivers a manifesto—the principles that will guide everything else he will do:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because God has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And from day 1 we see Jesus crossing all kinds of social and political boundaries; reaching out to Jewish tax collectors and Roman soldiers and even a Samaritan woman.  He didn’t care much for borders.

By quoting Isaiah there at the beginning, Jesus puts himself squarely in the tradition of Moses and the prophets.  They were his teachers.  This is what he learned from them:

Leviticus 19:33-34 “When an immigrant sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

God commands equity.

Generosity.

Kindness.

For citizens—and for strangers crossing the border by night.

There are hundreds of other passages in the Bible that say the same thing.  These words shaped the way Jesus thought.  Eventually they came out in this parable of Judgment Day, found near the end of Matthew’s gospel:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when (did we do this) ” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

That’s what Jesus learned from his Bible.  That’s how he lived.  And this is where we get some guidance for living our own lives in our own time.  What we don’t get, let me repeat, is a political solution to our own immigration dilemma.  This isn’t 1st century Palestine.  We have guidance; but we have to figure out the details for ourselves.  The Bible doesn't tell us what we should do. 

However, it’s pretty clear to me that the prophets and Jesus are telling us some things we should not do.  For instance:

A woman with an infant in her arms and two small children in tow shows up at an immigration checkpoint in Texas and asks for asylum.  Her husband beats her, she says, and her neighborhood is overrun by gangs who will corrupt—or kill, her sons.  Her government is powerless to help. 

What we should not do is ship her back to Guatemala without her kids.  We should not confine her kids in cages until they can be sent somewhere across the country, creating the possibility they will never see their mother again.  That may be a politically useful move—it may be red meat to some politician’s base.  But it is not a Jesus move.

Equity.

Generosity.

Kindness.

That’s what the prophets expected of God’s people.  Those are the principles Jesus lived by.  These are the guidelines given to us today. 

“…just as you did it for one of the least of these who are members of my family…”

Jesus’ way of living is politically difficult, no doubt; and politically costly.  But that’s ok because we aren’t doing politics.  We don’t do politics in church.  You said so yourselves.

We do theology in church.  We listen to Jesus in church and then we follow him out those doors and into our everyday lives doing the best we can to live in this complicated world as Jesus would.  We take the old blindfolds off.  We look intently to see and to serve “the least of these…”

This isn’t easy.  If it seems unrealistic, well, maybe it is.  If it seems risky, I can tell you it almost certainly is.

But here’s the thing; in this the prophets and Jesus are crystal clear:  God loves, with an intense and abiding love, widows, orphans and immigrants.  God loves the oppressed; the threatened poor.  God loves the stranger forced to flee her home.

And here’s the other thing: God needs us to love widows, orphans and immigrants.  God needs the Body of Christ to welcome that woman fleeing to safety with her children.  This is what it means (S) to “Be the Church”.

Loving the orphan and immigrant, you see, is not a political act.  It is a profoundly theological act.  And speaking out, loud and publicly, when immigrant parents are abused and their children are kept in cages—when our government is turning immigrant into orphan children—this is not political speech.  It is theological speech.  It is speaking the truth of our God, revealed in our Scripture, to the powers that be in our day. 

It is “Being the Church”.

“… I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”

 

I’m no politician.  I don’t know much about the “problem” of immigration.

I do know something about immigrants—the poor, vulnerable people who are being driven from their homes.  I know they are my mother and father, my sister and brother, my children.  I know they are my family.  I know that as a follower of Jesus I must treat my family with equity, generosity and kindness.  And I know that God loves the vulnerable immigrant as much, or more, than God loves me.

 

So—1 topic; 2 questions; 2 differing perspectives.  Side 1 is asking, “What will we become if we let these people in?”  Side 2 is asking, “What will we become if we don’t?”

At heart these are both deep theological questions.  If you ask me how to answer them, I’ll tell you to start with good theology and see where that takes you.  If you ask me where to find good theology, I’ll tell you to watch Jesus and do what you think he would do. 

It really is as easy, and as difficult, as that.

But I would also remind you of what Jesus said to his disciples that night when they were stranded on the lake in the middle of a raging storm.  Water was immigrating into their boat in crashing waves.  They thought they were sinking. 

“Don’t be afraid!” Jesus said.  “I’m here.  We’re going to be alright”. 

Amen

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