Grace and peace be with you, brothers and sister, God’s beloved and redeemed. Amen.
Last week was the first week of the winter session of our seminar on progressive Christianity, “Living the Questions.” There are four of us getting together each week for the seven weeks before Lent on Tuesday nights. We spend a little bit of time just getting caught up on the events of one another’s lives, we brew a pot of coffee, crack open a beer, and talk about theology.
The first week of our winter session the topic was “restoring relationships.” It was a broad topic, exploring the human condition and the biblical responses to human suffering in its many forms. We were watching a video featuring a variety of contemporary Christian scholars, and one of them proposed that the Bible has three main narratives: the exodus from Egypt, the exile in Babylon, and what he called “the priestly narrative” of holiness established through the system of temple sacrifice. Each of these three narratives proposes a human dilemma and a divine solution.
The story of the exodus reveals that human life is often characterized by bondage – to systems of oppression and discrimination, to chemical or behavioral addictions, by unjust economies and unmanageable debt. The story of the exodus provides a model for all forms of bondage, and assures us that God desires to liberate us from the forms of slavery and oppression that diminish our humanity.
The story of the exile reveals that human life is often characterized by alienation – in some cases literal alienation from our homelands, such as the Israelites experienced during the Babylonian captivity; but also the alienation of modern life, characterized as it is by fear of the stranger, segmentation into cliques and enclaves of people who look like us, talk like us, vote like us, dress like us, and think like us. The story of the Babylonian exile provides a model for all forms of alienation, and assures us that God desires to restore us – not simply to our native lands, but to our native state as we first encounter it in Genesis, one human family undivided.
The priestly story, or the priestly narrative, has gotten the most attention for much of Christianity’s history. It is the story that describes the reality of human failure and shortcomings, revealing that our lives are often characterized by guilt and shame – what we call sin. In some cases the sin is personal and debilitating – guilt over the way we have treated a parent, child or friend. Shame over broken commitments or personal failures. In other cases it is societal – participation in cultural patterns that privilege some while disadvantaging others, whether that be along lines of ethnicity, gender, language, religion, sexuality, physical ability or any other quality that is a part of our created nature. The priestly narrative provides a model for all forms of guilt and shame, and assures us that God desires reconciliation between us and God, but more importantly, us and each other.
All three of these types of stories – stories of liberation, restoration and reconciliation – are stories about restoring human beings and human communities to right relationship with each other and with God.
The scriptures for this morning begin with a perfect example of a story of restoration, this one coming from the book of Isaiah, who prophesies to a people in exile
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Isaiah connects the plight of the nation of Israel to the plight of the Israelites when they were captive in Egypt, reminding Israel that God brought them safely through the Red Sea and brought them into a land full of promise for a better life. Isaiah ties together the people’s current need for restoration with God’s powerful liberation, connecting the experience of alienation to the experience of oppression and bondage.
Listening to that phrase, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” it’s hard not to make the jump to baptism immediately, which is one of the reasons the lectionary pairs this text with the gospel reading from Luke on the day when we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. But before making that liturgical, theological connection, I tried to think in more concrete, realistic terms about the terror of a river crossing – and I thought about the Rio Grande, the diving line between the United States and Mexico.
When we think of the southern border of the United States in Texas, we think immediately of undocumented immigrants coming north from Central and South America through Mexico, though in our own nation’s history the flow of immigration has sometimes moved in the opposite direction. Mexico, which abolished slavery before the United States, was a haven for African-Americans fleeing from slavery in Texas and the Rio Grande was their Red Sea, the body of water they crossed to find freedom, risking death if they were caught along the way.
But these days the danger comes from trying to move north. As the United States builds its 800 mile wall along our southern border, thousands of human beings risk death by dehydration, violence or exploitation in their quest to make a better life for themselves and their families.
A joint report released last October by the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, illustrates the very real and present dangers of border crossing. Since the beginning of “Operation Gatekeeper,” the United States’ security operation further west along the border in southern California, an estimated 5,600 migrants have died while attempting unauthorized border crossings. While our government continues to look for ways to tighten the border, churches and humanitarian groups are setting up “water stations, desert medical camps, humanitarian aid patrols and other rescue and recovery operations in an attempt to save lives along the U.S. – Mexican border area.”
In its 1998 message on Immigration, the ELCA reminded its members that our history as a church in the United States is largely the story of an immigrant church, established by our forbearers who came
to this country in the past for the same reasons that people continue to come to this country in the present – for the chance at a better life. It reads,
How do we who are residents learn to welcome newcomers more graciously? As members of a church with immigrants and with roots in immigrant churches in a nation of immigrants, we are familiar with old and new stories about newcomers. We have heard how persons left homes for economic or political reasons, journeyed to an uncertain future, and struggled in a strange land to begin a new life. There are stories of hardship, tragedy, courage, resourcefulness, and blessing. There are stories of hostile receptions and welcoming embraces, of tensions between immigrants and their children over how to live in a new culture, and of conflicts over what language to use in home and church.
The ELCA message on Immigration goes on to remind us that we also have a proud history of hospitality for immigrants and refugees.
Following World War II, when one out of every six Lutherans in the world was a refugee or displaced person, Lutherans, with the participation of 6,000 congregations, resettled 57,000 refugees in the United States. In the decade after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Lutheran congregations sponsored over 50,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. During the 1980s various congregations provided sanctuary for persons whose lives were endangered by wars in Central America. In exercising hospitality to the stranger, many testified that they received more than they gave – as if they had welcomed angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).
Talking about immigration on a day when we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord may seem like a real stretch, but I don’t think it is. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer and we say, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we are acknowledging that the world we live in, the world as it is, is not the world as God would have it to be. For Christians, our immigration policy, our Ellis Island, is the baptismal font where all are welcome. Our economic policy, our food assistance program, is the communion rail, where there is always enough. That is the kingdom of God, which does not police its borders, but promises, “I will say to the north, ‘give them up,’ and to the south, ‘do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth.”
In the passage we heard read from Isaiah, God speaks to the people with the same voice of loving intimacy that God uses with Jesus in the gospel passage from Luke. To the people of Israel God says, “do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine… because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” As Jesus prays following his baptism by the banks of the River Jordan, he hears God’s loving voice addressing him personally, “you are my son, you are beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
In the book of Acts, those who had followed Jesus’ ministry during his life are challenged to continue God’s liberating, restorative, reconciling work following his death and resurrection in the community. In the passage we hear this morning, the apostles in Jerusalem are told that the Samaritans, their neighbors to the south, had heard the good news. Immediately they send Peter and John south of the border to pray for them, that they might receive the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit. Having sat at Jesus’ feet, having listened to his powerful preaching, and having seen his miraculous feedings and healings, they had learned that the love of God, and God’s power to heal and liberate, were not tied to any one people, but were being poured out on the world for the sake of all people.
And this is why, if you turn in your bulletins to the inside of the front page, you’ll see that when we begin our worship with Thanksgiving for Baptism, we note that we do this not as a way of claiming any special status before God, as if we were the only people God is concerned with, but as a reminder to ourselves that God has claimed us, along with all the people of the world, as members of God’s beloved family.
For the last few weeks I have made an announcement about a postcard campaign being conducted by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, of which our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is a member. If you haven’t already taken a few postcards to mail to your Senators and Representatives, I’m going to remind you again to do so. If nothing else, you can use the postcard as a reminder to spend a little time on the internet researching the issue for yourself so that you can be an informed advocate. I’m also posting this sermon online, as I do each week, with links to all of the agencies, organizations and reports I’ve mentioned so you can read more about the need for humanitarian immigration reform.
But there’s also a chance coming up for you to get involved locally. This coming Saturday, January 16th, there will be a prayer vigil for immigration reform at the Logan Square Monument beginning at 5pm. It is being sponsored by our sister congregations, First Lutheran and Purna Jiwan on Fullerton, our neighbors at Nuestra Señora Episcopal Church down the street, Kimball Avenue Community Church, New Covenant Community Church, St. Sylvester’s Roman Catholic Church, and the immigration committee of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Folks who go will have the chance to learn more about the contents of the proposed immigration reform bill currently in Congress, hear emotional testimony from neighbors of ours right here in Logan Square, and share songs and prayers with neighbors of all faiths who are working to bring about humane immigration reform this year. Don’t worry… I will, of course, send you all the invite on facebook.
The Baptism of the Lord is often celebrated as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry without making any concrete mention of what that ministry was about. But on this day, we remember that, in Jesus, God was once again telling God’s eternal stories of liberation, restoration, and reconciliation. And we need all three. We need to be liberated from the concrete suffering of economic and labor oppression which relegates the majority of the world’s people to live in lands of little to no opportunity so that a few can enjoy the benefits of their labor. We need to be restored to one another, re-membered as one body, remembering that when God created the world it was a world without borders. That we are the ones who have created those false dividing lines. That rivers were made to give life, not to deny entry. And we need to be reconciled – to God, yes, but more importantly to each other. We need to confess the guilt and shame of our complacency surrounding these issues, and we need to acknowledge the passive way we participate in the suffering of others, without even thinking about it – not so that we can wallow in our mistakes, but so that we can finally let go of them, and joyfully take hold of each other. That is the vocation to which our baptism calls each of us, and it is a joyful one.
Praise God for the gift of our baptism!