Follow Jesus; Break the Law


Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Prayer of the Day: O God, you resist those who are proud and give grace to those who are humble. Give us the humility of your Son, that we may embody the generosity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Hebrews 13:2-3.

This month my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), declared itself a “sanctuary church,” meaning that “walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.” I was pleased to learn of this development-until I read the “talking points” issued by the ELCA explaining what this all means. Talking point number two is particularly telling: “Being a sanctuary denomination does not call for any person, congregation or synod to engage in any illegal actions.”

With all due respect, that’s hog slobber-unless “walking alongside” means accompanying refugees and immigrants only until ICE shows up at their doors to deport them or until its officers show up at the door of our church’s day schools and ask to question our teachers about the immigration status of our kids or until the government starts enforcing strictly laws that forbid aid of any kind to undocumented persons. If that’s the case, perhaps the Churchwide Assembly should have amended the letter to Hebrews so that it reads “remember to show hospitality to strangers as long as you can do it without breaking the law.” It is a bitter irony that these talking points follow fast on the heels of our gospel last Sunday in which Jesus teaches us that you sometimes have to break the law in order to keep it. Luke 13:10-17.

Walking alongside the oppressed is synonymous with following Jesus. As we all should know, Jesus warned his disciples that following him meant taking up the cross-an instrument of torture and death reserved for execution of criminals. Jesus told his disciples, “where I am, there will my servant be also.” John 12:26. Jesus lived and died on the wrong side of the law. We can follow him there or merely stand on the right side of the law and admire him. Here’s a true story that illustrates the difference.

Koinonia Farm was an intentional Christian community established in the State of Georgia back in 1942. It continues as a vital witness to the gospel to this day. Its founder, Clarence Jordan, intended for Koinonia to be a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.”  For him, this meant a community of believers sharing life and following the example of the first Christian communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles. In order to bear witness to the church as a family in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Koinonia was constituted from its inception as a place where African Americans lived side by side with their white sisters and brothers. Not surprisingly, Koinonia Farm was a frequent target of Klan hostility and government initiated opposition in the deeply segregated south. In his book, Unleashing the Scripture, Duke University professor of religion and ethics Stanley Haueraus relates a story about Koinonia Farm and its founder, Clarence Jordan.

Shortly after Koinonia was founded, Georgia’s state attorney general made several attempts to outlaw the community, confiscate its property and evict the residents. Clarence Jordan sought the help of his brother Robert Jordan, a prominent lawyer with political aspirations. Clarence asked Robert to take on the defense of Koinonia Farm. According to a passage from a book written by James McClendon, the following exchange took place:

“Clarence, I can’t [represent you]. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

We might lose everything too, Bob,” [Clarence replied.]

“It’s different for you.”

“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be—the cross?”

“That’s right, [Clarence]. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then, [Bob], I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer and not a disciple.”

“Well now, [Robert replied] if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”

“The question is” Clarence said, ‘Do you have a church?’”

Koinonia continued on in defiance of the law as a model for genuine discipleship. It is a model my own church would do well to emulate. I am tired of that worn out refrain, “But we are a nation of laws.” I would like to know exactly who this “we” is. Whatever the United States of America might be, the Body of Christ is a community founded on its organic relationship to its Lord. It stands with what the rest of the world considers “the least” regardless which side of the law they happen to be on. Sometimes you have to choose whether you will stand with the United States of America or with Jesus. Shame on a church that has so poorly trained its members that they cannot imagine there being a difference between the two.

I am aware of the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans and his admonition there to obey the authorities because government is ordered by God for the purpose of maintaining peace. I am also aware of the Book of Revelation illustrating how government becomes demonic when it usurps the position of God and purports to direct people to act contrary to the great commandment to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself. I am aware of Paul’s call for us to to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. That very thing recently happened when neighbors of a man and his son targeted for deportation formed a human chain around these two to help them get back into their home as federal immigration agents tried to take them into custody. Said one of the participants in the chain, “I know they’re gonna come back, and when they come back, we’re coming back.”  Breaking the law is a holy obligation where the law breaks the backs of people it is intended to protect. Breaking the law is obligatory when it breaks up families, breaks the desperate hope of those fleeing for their lives to safety and threatens to break the sacred practice of hospitality to strangers. I hope that my church finds the courage to be a follower of Jesus instead of just an admirer. I hope it finds the courage to present itself as a living sacrifice for its most vulnerable neighbors.

Here is a poem by Reb Irwin Keller expressing the loyalty to God that I wish for my church. 

Oath of Disloyalty

I am a disloyal Jew.

I am not loyal to a political party.
Nor will I be loyal to dictators and mad kings.
I am not loyal to walls or cages.
I am not loyal to taunts or tweets.
I am not loyal to hatred, to Jew-baiting, to the gloating connivings of white supremacy.

I am a disloyal Jew.
I am not loyal to any foreign power.
Nor to abuse of power at home.
I am not loyal to a legacy of conquest, erasure and exploitation
I am not loyal to stories that tell me whom I should hate.

I am a loyal Jew.
I am loyal to the inconveniences of kindness.
I am loyal to the dream of justice.
I am loyal to this suffering Earth
And to all life.
I am not loyal to any founding fathers.
But I am loyal to the children who will come
And to the quality of world we leave them.
I am not loyal to what America has become.
But to what America could be.
I am loyal to Emma Lazarus. To huddled masses.
To freedom and welcome,
Holiness, hope and love.

Source: Jewish Journal, August 24, 2019

Reb Irwin Keller lives in Sonoma County California and is a student member of Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. He is Ner Shalom’s Spiritual Leader and a founder of “Of One Soul,” an initiative of the Interfaith Council of Sonoma County, working to defend the rights and dignity of the Muslim community and others who are under threat. He is also founder of the Taproot Gathering, a week-long experience of Jewish text study and embodiment practice for activists, organizers and artists. Reb Irwin is currently continuing his studies through the Aleph Ordination Program. Learn more about Reb Irwin Keller and sample more of his poetry at his website.

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