THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19.
Imagine that a life-long member of a mainline protestant church, like my own Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), comes to worship on Sunday morning. The pastor meets him at the door with an ultimatum. “I understand that you continue to be employed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is that true?”
“Yes, what of it,” the individual replies.
“Your employment and affiliation with an agency committing acts of violence against families, children and persons seeking asylum from persecution is contrary to your baptismal promise to renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God and the ways of sin that draw you away from God. Accordingly, I must insist that you resign from your employment with ICE. Should you refuse to do so, we will have no choice but to bar you from the Lord’s Table until such time as you repent of your sin and demonstrate a willingness to renew your baptismal commitments.”
I cannot imagine such a thing happening in any of the churches I have been involved with. Excommunication has long since been cleansed from our ecclesiastical DNA. It was very much alive, however, in the church of the New Testament and throughout the third century. Please note that I am not holding this era of our ecclesiastical history up as a “golden age” when everything was done as it should be. The early church was hardly perfect, but it understood that it was called to an existence radically different from the surrounding culture. It understood that Jesus was offering it a better life than the dominant society could provide. The earliest post New Testament document we have, a baptismal training tract called the Didoche, has as it’s opening chapter, “The Two Ways.” “There are two ways,” says the author of the tract, “one of life and one of death; but there is a great difference between the two ways.” These words echo those of our Psalm and the admonition of Moses in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures admonishing the people of Israel to “choose life.” The Didoche then spells out what a life of discipleship looks like, expounding on the “great” commandments to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself.
The church that produced this teaching document understood that the new life to which Jesus called it inevitably took the shape of the cross in a world dominated by greed, injustice and violence. Moral choices had to be made on a daily basis and those choices were a matter of life or death. They were often costly. Joseph H. Hellerman tells the story of a small congregation in Northern Africa during the third century facing just such a costly life or death decision. (Full article published in Called to Community, edited by Charles F. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House, c. 2016) pp. 26-30. A young actor expressed a desire to be baptized and join the church. Acting in the third century was not the craft of pure entertainment we know today. It was employed exclusively for the celebration of pagan festivals featuring plays depicting overt violence and explicit sexual immorality. Accordingly, the young man was required to renounce his profession and he did so. Subsequently, after his baptism, the young man started his own school to train actors for the very profession he had given up. When confronted by his pastor, he pointed out that he needed still to make a living to support himself and that, because he was no longer involved with the actual plays, he didn’t feel that he was violating his baptismal vow to follow Jesus.
At a loss for how to handle this unique situation, the pastor sought advice from his bishop, Cyprian of Carthage. Cyprian’s response was clear and uncompromising. Participation in pagan religious productions, whether as an actor or as an acting instructor, is inconsistent with the church’s faith and witness. The young acting instructor must again be called upon to abandon his profession. That might sound harsh and it is, though hardly more so than Jesus’ call to abandon even one’s blood relations and sacrifice all that one has for the sake of God’s reign. Still, the young actor was being called upon to abandon his only means of supporting himself. Continuing to follow Jesus would be a costly proposition.
But there is more to this story. Cyprian went on to say that the congregation should provide support and sustenance for the young man for as long as he needed it to make his transition to another trade. Furthermore, Cyprian offered the support of his own church in the event this responsibility proved too great for the little congregation. Thus, Cyprian was not a puritanical judge determined to cleanse the church of sinners. Rather, he was the caring pastor of a church community whose members were dedicated to helping one another turn from sin to the better life Jesus offers. This is a classic example of what Saint Paul calls “bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfill[ing] the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2.
In my own Lutheran tradition, we tend to identify a person’s calling or vocation with his or her profession, trade or job. We call this the “priesthood of all believers.” After all, the work that we do in society for the sake of our neighbors is no less holy than the work of ministry within the church. That sounds good, and it works well enough when your employment meets your needs for sustenance, fits your temperament and contributes to the well-being of society. But more and more I am finding young people employed by companies demanding more time, more energy and more tangible results while offering less security and compensation. Through the cellphone and the internet, the office seems to be worming its way into evenings at home and family vacations demanding availability 24/7. Unskilled heads of families find it necessary to hold down two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet leaving little time for family, church and community. Attorneys find that, so far from advancing the rule of law and justice, their hours are consumed with assisting insurers in denying the claims of sick and injured people. Doctors find their care of patients increasingly frustrated and compromised by the cost cutting measures and complex billing procedures of insurers and HMOs. Many folks I know have deeply ambivalent feelings about their jobs-such as a young woman who works for a manufacturer of automatic fire arms sold to civilians. Work that exploits, overreaches, enslaves and compromises is anything but holy. It is hard to view it as a calling to serve God. I think that many folks caught up in these dehumanizing roles would welcome an opportunity to free themselves from this way of death and embrace Jesus’ life-giving alternative. But that is a lot to expect from an individual.
Perhaps this is where the church comes in. Maybe we need to become once again a community that does more than call upon individuals to choose life and bear the consequences alone. We need to be the kind of community that helps people choose life by supporting them every step of the way-as did Cyprian. We are similar in this respect to a twelve step community of addicts trying to help one another achieve and maintain sobriety. We are all struggling to break away from ways of death that threaten to destroy us and embrace Jesus’ way that leads to life. So, for example, what if our churches found the courage to tell our members employed by ICE that their jobs are inconsistent with their baptismal vows-and offered to assist them in changing careers? Would that not be both a powerful witness to the world and a liberating act of pastoral care and discipline for our people?
To be sure, Christians are not better people, but we are people who believe in a better way of being human. We are sinful people, but people who are nevertheless capable of making good, faithful and life-giving choices-especially when we support, strengthen and encourage one another. We are a people in which the Holy Spirit is at work forming the mind of Christ. When that happens, the Body follows suit.
Here is a poem by Blas Manuel De Luna that incarnates for me the urgency of the moment.
Bent to the Earth
They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,
would have to stop. Ruben spun
the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.
They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths
revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.
Source: Bent to the Earth, (c. 2006 by Blas Manuel De Luna, pub. by Carnegie Mellon University Press) Blas Manuel De Luna (b. 1969) grew up working alongside his parents and siblings in California’s agricultural fields in Madera, California. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from California State University-Fresno and has written prolifically in poetry and fiction. His writings frequently dwell on his and his family’s experience as immigrant laborers. You can find out more about Blas Manuel De Luna and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 I understand that ultimatums like this run the risk of making us into self-righteous, legalistic hypocrites. I understand that the guilt for what is happening at our borders cannot all be placed upon the backs of people working for ICE. I also know that many would argue against excommunication on grounds that it is better for people of conscience to remain within ICE and so work to turn it from its destructive course. Of course, ICE does provide some necessary services for all the misery it is currently inflicting. Some will point out that there are many levels of complexity here that I am glossing over. There is much to be said for that argument. But I fear that those of us in the mainline churches often use nuance as a defense against having to take action. Is it appropriate to continue being “a community of moral deliberation” while the Nazis are marching millions into death camps? No, we have not yet reached that point, but how close do you want to get? How much further do we need to go before we simply can’t afford to keep on deliberating? How many more families need to be split up? How many more children must die on our border? How many more of our neighbors must be deported before we finally decide, enough is enough. When will the need to act decisively overcome our fear of acting imperfectly? I have the same pressing question my children had whenever we took a long road trip: Are we there yet?