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Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 17-19
It may not always be clear, but I take pretty seriously my call to be a preacher of the gospel. Which is to say that I am forever looking for the good news; which is to say that I believe there always is good news, even though it may be hard to find, even when, at first glance, there seems to be nothing but trouble and hard times.
I consider it my job to see God working in the most god-awful situations, to recognize possibility in the worst possible diagnosis, to discover new life in the midst of disappointment and failure, to imagine healing and growth after heartache and loss, and, yes, to offer the hope of resurrection even at death’s door.
Truly, this is one of the best parts of my job—and also one of the easiest. So unimaginably long and deep is God’s love for us, so very wide is God’s mercy that most of the time all I need to do is get out of the way and let God’s story tell itself. After all, there is no better story. On top of that, we live by the faith that, by God’s grace, this story—our personal stories and The One Great Story—just keeps getting better, even when it doesn’t always look that way.
Two steps back, perhaps, but three steps forward, we say. And let us not forget that the universe is ever bending toward justice and peace—even if the arc is more of a zig-zag than a straight line.
In terms of the gospel, there is good news and even better news. And so Thanksgiving Sunday usually means a feel-good sermon celebrating all the wonderful things God is doing in and through this community of faith—from the wacky joy of the Cranberry Fair to your life-giving love and care for one another, your unfailing generosity, your steadfast desire to follow the ways of Jesus, and your powerful witness to equality, justice, and peace. Add to all those constant things today’s special celebration of the restored life of a man who came to us more than 30 years ago as a four-year-old Cambodian refugee.
We have so much good news to share! We have so much to be thankful for—including the boatload of religious refugees that landed on these shores almost 400 years ago.
Despite all that, this will not be a feel-good sermon; indeed, we may need one another’s help to find the good news in it. Because preaching “peace, peace, when there is no peace” may be even worse than failing to preach the good news. Because our tradition tells us again and again, because history shows us again and again, and because Jesus shows us with his life that we cannot, we must not, be silent in the face of evil.
And that is why I got up in the middle of the night: To write not a good-news sermon but a wake-up call. A warning about the divisive, de-humanizing and, yes, dangerous times we are in.
Now let me be clear: When I say these are dangerous times, I am referring not only, and not primarily, to the barbaric terrorist attacks of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and other militant groups. I am not, in this context, referring to the very real global and local impacts of climate change. And I will not get started on what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called the “descending spiral of violence” that “be[gets] the very thing it seeks to destroy” and “multiplies evil rather than diminishes it.” The evidence is overwhelming and also routinely denied.
“Evil” is not a word I use lightly. But what concerns me most today is would-be politicians and elected officials apparently trying to out-do each other, in the name of so-called national security, in being the most heartless and cruel, in objectifying the “other,” and dividing the world by race, religion, citizenship, and national status.
Dear ones, I do not want to be alarmist, and I prefer not to spend my time and energy responding to the hate-filled temper tantrums of ignorant and narcissistic presidential candidates. But when refugees are compared to “rabid dogs,” when candidates seriously, and without irony, promote plans to close mosques and require Muslims to register with the government, when the candidates spouting these heartless, cruel and dangerous statements are leading in the national polls, and when the same polls indicate that a majority of Americans want to keep all Syrian refugees out of our country, I think the time for silence and indirect criticism has passed.
What in God’s name is going on here?
Was it just over two months ago that the world’s collective heart broke over the sight of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach? Did we not donate money to refugee-relief efforts and applaud the Europeans who welcomed the growing flood of refugees into their nations and homes? Why did we move so quickly from comfortable compassion to selfish and short-sighted racism and isolationism? How did we get to this place where presidential candidates, governors and members of Congress seem to be waging a perverse contest to see who among them can be the most unwelcoming, tyrannical, and authoritarian?
Have we forgotten who and whose we are? Have we forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants? When news accounts refer to the 60 million people who have been forced from their homes by war, violence, drought, or other natural or human-made disasters, do we have any concept of that number? Do we realize that it is more than the entire populations of California and Florida combined?And when we say that half that number is children, do we imagine the total populations of Texas and Arkansas (combined) as children wandering around in search of home? Do we really think that we can bomb, spy, oppress, and isolate our way to a better world? Are we truly willing to sacrifice our freedoms and the dignity of others for the illusion of security?
In our reasonable fear and understandable anxiety, have we forgotten that love—love of God, self and all our neighbors all around the world—is the only way?
For myself, I have come to believe that it is not enough to write and call our elected officials to demand open borders, humane immigration policies, and the freedom of religion and movement—though we must surely do those things. Speaking for myself, I have concluded that the time has come to speak out—loudly and clearly—against dangerous racism and evil xenophobia, to protest against those who would normalize the same kinds of thinking and policies that gave rise to the Holocaust.
I fear for us when we have forgotten where we’ve come from and who we are.
And so I take heart from the Hebrew order of worship that we heard a few moments ago, a ritual of giving and giving thanks that begins with the awareness that we started with less than nothing and that God has given us everything. I take heart from the ancient testimony that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” recalling with some irony that Aram was a region of ancient Syria. I remember that baby Jesus was a refugee, that his parents fled political violence and took him to Egypt until King Herod’s policy of infanticide had ended. I recognize the longing for home, the need for safety, and the desire to put away our fears. I even find good news in all of that.
But I also hear the cries of my neighbors. I see flimsy rubber rafts landing on rocky shores, children shivering, and parents weeping when they feel their feet on solid ground. I watch thousands upon thousands walk for thousands of miles with nothing in a search for refuge and a future with hope.
Friends, I don’t know about you, but if and when our government comes for our Muslim neighbors, when it comes for the refugees and the persecuted, it will have to come for me as well.
For a wandering Aramean was my ancestor. A fleeing baby is my savior. I am a Muslim. I am a Syrian. I am a refugee. I am a stranger.
So, I say to our government and would-be elected officials:
When you consider how to treat the least of these, remember me. I will stumble and I will fall short, but I will not stand by. I will fail my neighbors time and again, but I will not be silent. I will think of myself more than I should, but I will not forget the struggles of others.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy on us all.