I remember walking through the Syracuse airport at 10:30 at night, looking for the passengers I was to pick up. And then I saw them in a dim hallway–2 vigilant adults and what looked to be a pile of blankets, suitcases, and, upon closer inspection, children. And so I met Abdullah and Miryam Hajer and their 4 children, ranging in age from 2-12. They had just arrived from Ankara, Turkey, and before that, a Turkish refugee camp and a hellish walk over the mountains from northern Iraq. They had almost had to leave Caji, whom I later came to know as a vibrant 6-year-old girl, who had contracted one of many respiratory and intestinal viruses along the mountain pass. But Abdullah had added Caji to his load of Kalishikov and ammunition and backpack, while his wife Miryam carried their 2-year-old on her back and the family’s 2 massive suitcases in her arms. The two older children had to carry what was left of their possessions.
At that moment in the airport, in that tired huddle of humanity, the Hajers completely captured my heart, and any power that I had to offer them–safety, lodging, food, medical care, the chance at a job, the chance for a new start–I would gladly offer. My humanity depended upon it. “I was a stranger,” Jesus said, “and you welcomed me.” An Epiphany moment indeed.
“When an alien resides with you in your land,” Leviticus says, “you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Jonathan Sacks, for a time the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writes, “The Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.’” UCC author and pastor Tony Robinson says, “I suspect the disproportionality (36 to 1) means that people besides me have had to hear it again and again: let love overcome fear. ‘Extend hospitality to strangers.’” Philoxenia–one of the Bible’s words for hospitality–philoxenia: love of the stranger. It is the opposite of xenophobia–fear of the stranger. [UCC Daily Devotional, 2/5/17] Which word do you suppose has become a commonly heard word in our lexicon–philoxenia or xenophobia? I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember ever hearing philoxenia.
During this season of Lent, we are looking at what it means to “Be the Church,” as the rainbow-colored banner in Webster Hall commends us to be. “Protect the environment” it begins, and we are working on reducing our carbon footprint throughout this season and beyond. Then “Care for the poor,” “Forgive often,” “Reject racism,” “Fight for the powerless,” “Share earthly and spiritual resources,” “Embrace diversity,” “Love God,” “Enjoy this life.”
“Be the Church.” That’s who we claim to be–“Second Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.” Just as Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, being tested on how well he knew who he was, what it meant for him to be the beloved Son of God, as God’s voice had just proclaimed him to be in his baptism, so we are invited to explore who we are, not only together as the Church but also individually as beloved sons and daughters of God. In this season of journeying toward the cross, we’ll look at both the horizontal dimensions–how we relate to others–and the vertical dimension –how we relate to the Divine–in this intersection of life’s many options.
“Fight for the powerless.” [Obviously, we’re not going in the order of the banner.] Who are these “powerless” that we are to be fighting for as people on this Jesus Journey to the cross? If you’ve ever had children, or little ones given into your care, you know that, without our bidding, a fierce protective urge or instinct comes along with parenthood. We don’t have to be told to “fight for the powerless” when the powerless are our children. Tales of mothers lifting cars off their children in an adrenaline/maternal instinct-fueled show of strength are not unheard of; nor are reports of fathers running into burning buildings to rescue their children. We fight for our powerless children because that is who we are as parents or guardians.
And, of course, we know that firefighters and police risk their lives for the powerless. “Serve and protect” is the motto of every police force. That is who they are, at their best. At their purest, the heart and intention of military operations is to “fight for the powerless,” whether by searching and rescuing, delivering aid, acting as a buffer between warring parties, or at last resort, engaging with violent means on behalf of the powerless. This is not the time or place to get into a discussion of military actions engaged in to acquire natural resources or land or political power, but rather to acknowledge that fighting for the powerless is the soldier’s most noble aspiration.
In our country today, many who have experienced powerlessness have begun to realize that there is power is raising their voices, in standing up for their rights, in demonstrating in the streets, in voting into office those whom they perceive will fight for them. And yet, in our country today, and in many countries, throughout time, it is and has been the wealthy and “connected” who still wield the power to control and dominate. It was not on a whim that the devil took Jesus up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All these I will give you,” he said to Jesus, “if you will fall down and worship me.” That’s where the power is. But notice that this was the only temptation where the devil didn’t begin with, “Since you are the Son of God…” Surely the Son of God would want to feed people, or ask God’s angels for protection, but let’s not kid ourselves about ruling the kingdoms with all their splendor.
“Fight for the powerless.” It is the poor, people of color, people without education or health care, many in the LGBTQ community, many women, refugees and undocumented immigrants who experience powerlessness in our nation today. In a new Pew Research survey, reports Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community, “almost half (47%) of Latinos nationwide worry about themselves or someone close to them being deported. Given that the U.S. Latino population is 57 million and growing, that’s nearly 29 million people who today are living in fear. Many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have loved ones who do have legal status, and these families are in greater danger than ever of being separated by our broken and inhumane immigration system.” (SoJo.net) Children don’t want to go to school, not because they don’t like math, but because they are afraid their parents will be taken away while they’re at school. “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,” Jesus said to those turned away at the final judgment.
“Fight for the powerless.” We’ll have the opportunity to explore what it might mean for us to become a refugee-welcoming congregation over the course of these Lenten weeks, and whether or not that results in some formal action or declaration, I hope it will at least make us think more deeply, perhaps uncomfortably, about what it means to “be the church.” “You shall love the stranger as yourself.” Because the stranger is part of you as well. If Jesus’ message, his teaching, his life could be summed up in a sentence, one candidate might be, “There is no other.” We are one body, to use Paul’s image. We are one loaf, one cup, we affirm in this meal we are about to share.
As we think about this image of the body–we are the Body of Christ, the church claims– listen to one last story from Sister Simone Campbell. You may know her from “Nuns on the Bus,” the tour that actually came to Sacred Heart St. Francis Church here in Bennington. Sister Simone tells of being on a delegation to Iraq in 2002.
It was in December before we invaded. And that night, the last night we were in Baghdad–it’s so funny–we had gone to an Italian restaurant, partially because we knew it had a generator, so they would have hot food. But when we came back, there was a wedding party in the light from the plate-glass window of our hotel, and there we watched the folk dancing going on. There was an accordion and a screechy old violin. We got drawn into dancing. And this guy, who stood about this tall, leans over and says to me as he’s trying to show me the folk dance, ‘How long do my niece and her new husband have to live in peace? How long until you start bombing us?’ That night it was so visceral for me that we are one body. This is the poem that was given. It’s called ‘Incarnation,’ and it’s my prayer for us that these bones might come together [referring to the image in Ezekiel of the valley scattered with dry bones]. It goes like this: Let gratitude be the beat of our heart, pounding Baghdad rhythms, circulating memories, meaning of this journey. /Let resolve flow in our veins, fueled by Basra’s [or Mosel’s] destitution, risking reflective action in a fifteen-second world. Let compassion be our hands, reaching to be with each other all others, to touch, hold, heal this fractured world. Let wisdom be our feet, bringing us to the crying need to friends or foe to share this body’s blood. Let love be our eyes, that we might see the beauty, see the dream lurking in the shadows of despair and dread. Let community be our body warmth, radiating Arab [or Latino or African] energy to welcome in the foreign stranger–even the ones who wage this war. Let us remember on drear distant days, we live as one this tragic, gifted life…
[transcript from Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, NY , 10/5/2016, Alternative Radio]
Fight for the powerless. We are one body. There is no other. So may we be the church. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark