TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Our lesson from I Kings relates a common narrative. A man who is a wanted criminal crosses the border illegally into a neighboring country. There he encounters a single mother living alone with her son. She is vulnerable, helpless and near starvation. It is a powerful narrative that is being employed even now to fire up that hysterical lynch mob euphemistically referred to these days as the Republican “base.” Nothing moves a fearful white audience to fanatical rage more effectively than the specter of foreigners with dark skin coming into our country to take our women and bleed us of our insufficient resources. Strange, isn’t it, how we cannot tolerate even the slightest regulation of fire arms to lessen the likelihood of our own citizens slaughtering our children, but we are ready to send the armed forces to the border in order to protect us from a group of unarmed families, still seven hundred miles away as I write, who only want to cut our lawns, clean our homes and pick our vegetables for a meager seven dollars and change per hour.
Am I politicizing the Bible again? Perhaps, but I’m not the first. Jesus already beat me to the punch on that score. You can read all about it in Luke’s gospel. Luke 4:16-30. In brief, Jesus, who was attending Synagogue worship in his home town of Nazareth, is invited to read from the scriptures and is given a passage from Isaiah in which the prophet proclaims that s/he has been sent
“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 favor.”
At the conclusion of the reading, Jesus sits down, as rabbis typically did when preparing to teach, and announces that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21. At this point many in attendance begin to wonder just what gives Jesus the right to speak so decisively and authoritatively. Isn’t this the kid who grew up in our town? We know his family, where he went to school and who he took to the prom. So why should we pay any attention to him? Jesus then relates our story from I Kings about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath who gave him life saving food and shelter. He points out that the widow, who was a foreigner and not a woman of Israel, was the recipient of the prophet’s ministry.
Jesus’ remarks to this effect whipped his audience into a fit of rage approaching that of a Trump rally. Having no foreigners nearby against whom to vent their anger, they attempt to lynch Jesus, who somehow manages to escape their violent assault. The notion that God, their God, might show love and compassion to someone outside their number and who may actually have something to contribute to them so incensed them that they had to silence Jesus. They did so in the only way they could imagine-through violence. When you feel that your borders are threatened, you send troops.
What Jesus’ audience, both then and now, fail to recall is that their borders are not threatened. Bringing “outsiders” into the healing realm of God’s gentle reign is precisely why Israel was elected in the first place. Furthermore, the biblical narrative does not end in the way xenophobic politicians and their frightened supporters would have us believe. Elijah, the foreigner, does not take advantage of the widow, threaten her or take by force what little she has to live on. The widow does not shut her door and tell Elijah to “get out of her country” because there isn’t enough to go around. Elijah asks the woman for help and she freely gives it-notwithstanding her perception of scarcity. And the Lord provided for all. Nobody starved to death. Nobody had to take anything by force. Nobody had to close the border or send in the troops. That is the Biblical story. That is the gospel. There is enough for all to live well. God feeds the birds of the air, clothes the lilies of the field and fills his own with good things. There is no reason to fear want or to jealously guard the store.
In the end, it all comes down to which story you believe: the story of God’s limitless generosity and abundance to which the Bible witnesses, or the threat of scarcity, stinginess and fear peddled so insistently this election cycle. Let’s be clear about this. Neither I nor anyone I know, conservative or liberal, is saying that we shouldn’t regulate our borders. The insistence by the present administration that we must choose between protecting our nation on the one hand or obeying Jesus’ command to exercise compassion toward our neighbors on the other is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. This is not about “open borders” but open minds, compassionate hearts and trusting spirits.
It was president George W. Bush who said over a decade ago “family values don’t end at the border.” That sentiment was not partisan. It was neither Republican nor Democratic, nor liberal nor conservative. Whether the president knew it or not, it’s just plain Jesus. Your neighbor is anyone in need, whether foreign or domestic, “legal” or “illegal,” English speaking or otherwise. I hardly need to say that it is scarcely possible to imagine a Republican president expressing this sentiment in today’s climate of “America First” and against the tidal wave of nationalist hate that has overtaken that organization. But the former president’s admonition reminds us of a time when we were a better country than we are today. It also gives us hope that we may yet find our way into a better future. As people of God living in these days, it is more important than ever for us to get the biblical story right and tell it to a world that cannot imagine a future without walls, sealed borders and armies guarding an ever-shrinking pie.
In closing, I feel compelled to say that I think it a tribute to this country that, in spite of our legacy of racism; notwithstanding the present strong current of hostility toward “outsiders” lead by the most vile, racist and misogynist president ever to darken the door of the White House; and even in the face of the recent spate of violent rhetoric against immigrants vomited through the airwaves and over the internet, still, so many people the world over continue to view the United States as a destination of hope. Because we are too pre-occupied with our own paranoia and the perceived hardships these newcomers to our country impose upon us, we seldom, if ever, consider the sacrifices made, the hardships endured and the efforts required by them to make this country their home. Here is a poem by poet and immigrant Shirley Geok-Lin Lim reflecting the difficult journey toward becoming American.
Learning to Love America
because it has no pure products
because the Pacific Ocean sweeps along the coastline
because the water of the ocean is cold
and because land is better than ocean
because I say we rather than they
because I live in California
I have eaten fresh artichokes
and jacaranda bloom in April and May
because my senses have caught up with my body
my breath with the air it swallows
my hunger with my mouth
because I walk barefoot in my house
because I have nursed my son at my breast
because he is a strong American boy
because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is
because he answers I don’t know
because to have a son is to have a country
because my son will bury me here
because countries are in our blood and we bleed them
because it is late and too late to change my mind
because it is time.
Source: What the Fortune Teller Didn’t Say, (c. 1998 by Geok-Lin Lim, Shirley, pub. by West End Press) Shirley Geok-lin Lim (b. 1944) is an American writer of poetry, fiction, and criticism. She was born in Malacca Malaysia where she attended Infant Jesus Convent, a school under the British colonial education system. She won a scholarship to the University of Malaya and there earned a bachelors degree in English with first class honors. In 1969, at the age of twenty-four, she entered graduate school at Brandeis University under a Fulbright scholarship. She received a PhD in English and American Literature in 1973. Lim’s first collection of poems, Crossing The Peninsula, was published in 1980. It won her the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the first both for an Asian and for a woman. She received the American Book Award in 1997 for her memoir, Among the White Moon Faces. You can read more about Shirley Geok-lin Lim and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.