FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Luke 4:25-27.
It is not clear exactly when the crowd at Jesus’ synagogue went sour on Jesus. But somehow, they went from amazement “at the gracious words that came from his mouth” to wanting to stone him to death. Some commentators suggest retranslating “amazement” as “indignation” and “gracious” as “arrogant.” Personally, I think that is a stretch. But be that as it may, it is obvious that the synagogue audience was further inflamed by Jesus’ observation that God’s favor is frequently poured out upon those considered well outside the scope of God’s covenant promises. That goes against our natural human tendency to identify God with “us,” with “our people” and with “our country.”
I learned first hand just how deep this tribalizing, racializing, nationalizing of God runs when I placed the above passage from Leviticus on our church sign. I did that in early 2017, just after the Trump anti-Muslim ban went into effect wreaking havoc to the great satisfaction to his supporters. Within hours after the message went up, I got an anonymous phone call from an irate individual who accused me of betraying Christianity and undermining the president. A couple of my members took me aside to point out that this message was probably offending a lot of people in our community. It did not matter much that the message on my sign came directly from the Bible anymore than it mattered to Jesus’ audience that his examples came directly from the scriptures. Religious hate takes from the Bible only what it thinks it can use and disregards the rest. I should probably be thankful that no one tried to stone me.
God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast and the outsider fairly echoes throughout the scriptures. From God’s promise in Genesis to make Abraham’s and Sarah’s descendants a blessing for all nations to John of Patmos’ vision of Gods new creation peopled by persons of every nation, tribe and tongue, the point is made that God shows no favoritism, knows no national boundary and respects no distinction of race, class or gender. Inclusiveness is a biblical fundamental, albeit ever so unpopular among so many who claim the Bible as their ultimate authority. A prophet who declares that the promises of God’s salvation have come is welcome among his own-until he begins to suggest that salvation might extend beyond his own. That is when the stones begin to fly.
Israel struggled throughout the biblical narrative with the temptation to view itself as a people blessed with privilege rather than privileged to bless the nations of the world. So, too, the church has had to fight the temptation to view itself as having for its own possession the privilege of God’s salvation rather than privileged with the task of proclaiming God’s salvation to the world. Nowhere is that struggle more visibly illustrated than in American Christianity. The lurid and bizarre examples of Christian nationalism and evangelical Trumpism that must of us mainline progressives find so troublesome has its roots in a deep seated conflation in our collective consciences of Christian religion and American mythology. In short, we are all more American than we are Christian. What else can explain the covenant between politics advocating punitive measures against refugees fleeing to our land for their lives and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan? It can only be that the claim of nation, race, blood and soil runs deeper than the baptismal claim transcending all of these distinctions. As the popular saying goes, “blood is thicker than water.”
According to the faith in Jesus we profess, the opposite is true. Water is thicker than blood. Our baptismal covenant calls us to a higher loyalty than the claims of family, tribe, culture race and nation. As Saint Peter reminds us, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Acts 10:34-35. The neighbors Jesus calls us to love and to serve live on both sides of every humanly drawn border and that call takes precedence over every nation’s interests in preserving, protecting and maintaining such borders. That is the truth of the gospel grounded in scripture. For all those who find it offensive to their politics, we can only suggest that they get themselves another politics-or another savior.
Here is a poem by Tsitsi Ella Jaji reflecting upon the struggles of the alien in our midst. Is there any question as to how Jesus would have his church respond to these folk trapped in the bureaucratic machinery of our broken immigration system and subject to so much public hostility?
Document for U.S. Citizens Who Have Never Applied for a Visa and Have Had It Up to Here with Those Loud Aliens Who Go On and On about Some Letter
It is not like going to the bank.
There are no hard candies in a basket made in China,
and no Kleenexes on the counter.
There is no refund if someone forgets to wish you a good day.
There are no chairs for the aged,
no toys for two-year-olds with earaches,
no supervisor to speak to in case of the
There are no meal vouchers if it takes all day,
no list of local hotels with a negotiated rate.
No one wants to know if you are a doctor.
Plastic is not magic. Seals are not signs.
Your cousin-brother’s wedding is not relevant.
Hell, there is no such thing as a cousin-brother.
And it is always your fault: not enough planning,
the wrong color passport, the misplaced stress
in a word.
Source: Beating the Graves, Tsitsi Ella Jaji (c. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.) Tsitsi Ella Jaji is an associate professor of English at Duke University. Her expertise is in African and African American literary and cultural studies. Tsitsi’s interests include music, poetry, and black feminism. She previously taught at University of Pennsylvania. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities/Schomburg Center, Mellon Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and National Humanities Center. Her poems have appeared in Harvard Review, The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, Black Renaissance Noire, Almost Island, Prairie Schooner, Bitter Oleander, and others. You can learn more about Tsitsi Ella Jaji and her many literary contributions at the Duke University website.
4 thoughts on “Water is Thicker than Blood”
Peter, thank you…..This is wonderful, and so very necessary in our times!
Amen, Peter. Peter I look forward to the thoughtful reflections that are shared on this site. I just finished a book, “White Trash” written by Nancy Isenberg. It has been a provocative read that opened my eyes to the way my family history and our nations populist leaning have been shaped this cultural moment. Thanks again for your wisdom, scholarship, and perspectivr
Thanks, Scott for your kind words. Hope all is well with you and your family. How is retirement treating you? We should talk sometime. I’d love to catch up with you. Peter