Tag: refugees

Immigration Manifesto

This turned into a sermon with more of a solid call to action (see sermon: Overwhelmed! 2018). However, I share these thoughts anyways. Not a sermon. Not a prayer. I don’t know what it is but some have called it the start of my manifesto on our moral crisis.

 


Overwhelmed. Just… overwhelmed.

A country falls when its people are divided against themselves. When we become numb to atrocities. When we tune out, look away, and protect only our own. When we become overwhelmed.

I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Puerto Rico continues to have no power. People continue to die there.

Mining is beginning in state national monuments that has been sold, by our government, to private owners.

Flint continues to have no safe drinking water. Children continue to be contaminated with lead there.

The refugee crises worldwide has reached a new record of 69 million people displaced by war, natural disasters, ethic cleansing, gang violence, global climate change and poverty.


 

While we argued over the border, and protested the trauma of children, our government’s House passed the Farm Bill that creates loop holes for cooperation owners to receive subsitities even if they are not farmers or working on a farm. A bill that requires you to work 20 hours a week to receive food – regardless if you are in an area without employment, or raising children. What happened to Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22 – when Moses gives God’s law: “You shall not strip your vineyards bare…leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”? God tells us to share!

While we reeled, overwhelmed at the audio of little babies calling for their mami and papi, the same House proposed a budget that takes 1.5 trillion dollars from Medicare and Medicaid to pay for the deficit of tax cuts to the rich, to pay for increased military spending (which is already the highest in the world) and to pay for the facilities caging these children.

The mainly defunct EPA in this Farm Bill just flat our permits pesticides that kill endangered species and causes cancer on the farmers who are forced to spray it from their corporation owners who don’t live or work on the farm.

Last Wednesday, we began to take a breath – the separation of children from their parents at our border was finally being addressed by our President… but the law he signed is causing even more issues.

Jailing families is not a solution. It is a political band-aid against outcry, hoping we’ll give up the fight and go back to being placid. It is tossing a bucket of water on a house fire our government started.

It’s going to do MORE harm.

Now, families may be detained indefinitely. Before, children could not spend more than 20 days detained before they were sent to relatives in the USA, or their home countries, or foster families in their own communities. Now, without limits, children will grow up in concentration camps indefinitely. Inside cages. In facilities not designed for children. Without education, without toys, without area to play. Some of these people are being sent to tent cities, some to abandoned Wal-marts, some to military bases, and 1,600 have been send to federal prison – not because of a federal crime, but because prisons had room to cage more humans. (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/08/us-sending-1600-immigration-detainees-to-federal-prisons.html)

Any who take in these “prisoners” receive funding from the government to keep them. For-profit-human-detainment. Indeed, GEO, the company that owns the largest immigration detention centers, are paying money directly to politicians to sway more immigrants arrest. (dallasnews.com)

Some American citizens worry about the language of the executive order. It says -families- are to be held together. What if you are a USA citizen who has a relative who enters the USA seeking asylum? Will you now be rounded up and sent to a camp, too?

And, it does nothing to help the almost 3,700 children separated from their parents already. They continue to be in kennels with armed adults who are not allowed to comfort their cries. They are relying on one another to change their diapers and wipe their tears.


 

Our breath was taken from us again on that same day as Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE — raided Salem, Ohio — a rural town just outside of Massillon.

What happened? ICE showed up at a factory and arrested about 150 people. Some were here legally, but did not have their ID on them. Most are parents.

Pastors there are sharing stories of a husband crying – his wife is now somewhere in Michigan or Ohio, being held indefinitely, without bail, without rights (our latest Executive Order specifically states “illegals” and those suspected of being such have no rights), and his 2 year old and 4 year old are crying ‘where is mommy?’

There are children now orphaned. They sit in the local Catholic church who has opened their doors. Sister Rene Weeks said, “Most of the [parents] are here legally, but they were taken yesterday because they didn’t have their documentation with them at the time.” And so, little children, with no parents or aunts although here legally, sit numbed and terrified in the shelter of the church. ((https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2018/06/20/ice-ohio-arrests-100-during-undocumented-immigrant-raid-meat-packing-plants/716953002/)) The nun added, “One woman who was taken was the sole adult at home… She has five children.” The school system found kids at their day care not picked up – alone – or coming home to an empty house.

As NPR’s Vanessa Romo explained at the time, the operation earlier this month drew some condemnations: “ICE officials had come under fire by immigrant advocacy groups who claimed dozens of children had been left stranded at schools, day cares and with babysitters as their parents were carted off to detention centers elsewhere in the state and in Michigan.” ((npr))

The Sister added, “It’s the terror of: ‘What’s happening to my family? I can’t contact them,’ She works with about 60 families, and she estimates about three-quarters of them were directly affected by the raid.

“A few people managed to send some text messages, but for the most part, people couldn’t talk to anybody,” she said. “They were terrorized.”(npr)

There are children who are refusing to go to day care, school, or leave their parents’ sides for fear they’ll never see them again. A real possibility.

In Ohio, we have an estimated undocumented population of 83,000, but there are only 35 pro bono immigration advocates statewide, according to the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation. Many people are facing these hearings without translators, without legal advice. This is legal, technically, but it is not Biblical. Deuteronomy 1:16 – “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident foreigner.”

In many cases, people couldn’t reach their relatives for days.

You wonder – were they captured?
Deported?
Raped — yes, this is happening. And then silenced or else face their family deported. Sometimes this is happening to their children before them.
Killed? Yes. This is happening. Who cares if you kill “animals”?


 

God says: Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and 26:12-13 – Tithing was begun, in part, for immigrants and foreigners.

Deuteronomy 24:14 – “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or foreigners who reside in your land…”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18 – “You shall not deprive a resident foreigners…of justice.”

Deuteronomy 24:19-22 – Leave sheaf, olives, grapes for the foreigners.

Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the foreigners …of justice.”

The Salem workers who were released when their IDs were found are who brought word home of what had happened. But that doesn’t lessen the trauma. The terror. The systemic government-ordained abuse of children of God.

Have we forgotten we’re Christian? Have we forgotten the Holy Book?

No where does it say terrorize children and abuse the foreigner! Instead, it reads,

Exodus 12:49 and Leviticus 24:22 – “There shall be one law for the native and for the foreigner who resides among you.”

Exodus 22:21 – Moses gives God’s law: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident foreigner; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 – When the foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you like a citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Numbers 9:14 and 15:15-16 – “…you shall have one statute [of law] for both the resident foreigner and the native.”

Not two sets of laws. Not illegal criminals and legal natives. Not oppressing those who migrant, immigrant, or are refugees.

God goes so far to tell the ancient Israelites to set aside land and resources SPECIFICALLY for refugees! Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 – The Lord instructs Moses to give cities of refuge to the Levites so that when the Israelites must flee into Canaan they may have cities of refuge given to them.


 

Those foreigners in Salem are from Guatemala. Why are they here and not Guatemala?

Let’s look at that country and consider why.

“In Guatemala, that revolution was stillborn. A democratizing movement in the 1940s tried to institute land reform and rein in the oligarchy and U.S. corporations like United Fruit—until after ten years it was crushed by a CIA-backed counter-revolution. The outrage at the counterrevolution drove a Marxist rebellion, and for the next 30 years the Guatemalan Army rampaged throughout the highlands under the auspices of fighting guerrillas.

But often the guerrillas were only the excuse for old-school wars of conquest. That was what happened in the early 1980s in Rio Negro, where the army attacked a village that had refused to make way for a new hydroelectric project, raping and murdering all but one of the inhabitants. Around the same time, in the Ixil Triangle in the western highlands, the (mostly mestizo) army ran a war of genocide against the indigenous Maya. Most estimates say that around 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared during the war.

These people were murdered, by the Guatemalan state, often with medieval savagery. In the highlands, communities were often forced by the Army to hunt for “subversives,” sometimes to hack their own neighbors to death.

This was a war that happened in living memory; the peace accords were signed in only 1996. After the war, Guatemala put on the trappings of a democratic government. The army returned to the barracks. But there was no accounting, and none of the structural things that had driven the conflict changed. Few soldiers were punished for what they had done in the war, and many were decorated—like the current president, Otto Perez Molina, who in the 1980s participated in the scorched earth campaigns against the Ixil Maya. In his 2012 campaign for president, he was supported by most of the feudal families, who still had a stranglehold of most of the land, wealth, and power in the country.

The only model of power that exists in Guatemala is, in other words, terroristic, extra-legal, and dominated by violence. So is it any surprise that after the war, on the streets—where people grasped for the scraps that were left, where children grew up with no chance at wealth and less at respect—pirate organizations like the MS-13 grew?

What we’re seeing in Guatemala is not quite, in other words, a crime wave. It’s simply the way things have been there for a long time, pushed to the next level. If you are a civilian there, beneath the labels—soldier; gangster; policeman; army; cartel—is but one underlying reality: men with guns who do what they want and take what they want. Your options are to buy your own security and gunmen; to join a gang yourself; or to leave.

And so many leave. They leave for the reasons that most of our ancestors came to America, of course—the ones who left places like Italy and Ireland and Russia and China. They came for a better life, and part of “better life” meant not having to live someplace where everything belonged to the aristocracy, and where their bodies were at constant risk from violent men. Those things, in a society like Guatemala, are intimately intertwined. It is a sign of how blessed we are that, living in a country where “security” and “economy” and “politics” all come in separate boxes, we have a hard time seeing that.” ((https://newrepublic.com/article/118675/child-migrants-guatemala-are-fleeing-more-just-gang-violence))

What would you do?


 

I’m overwhelmed. We’re heading towards a genocide. There are 10 stages to do a genocide. They do not happen overnight. They are planned.

First, differences among people are not respected. Us and Them talk begins. Those who are Them begin to be excluded. Such as, “They are going to pay for a wall” instead of ‘we.’ “They are taking our jobs” instead of ‘our companies are outsourcing our jobs.’

Then we make something visual to show those others are THEM. They can’t show birth certificates. Their skin is the wrong color. They are not US.

The third stage is discrimination. The dominate group denies rights or citizenship to Them. This is done with laws. It’s legal. THEY are the ones who are illegal.

Now we dehumanize Them. They are no longer human, no longer deserve dignity. They are called vermin, by the Nazis to the Jews. Tutsis are ‘cockroaches.’ Hispanics are ‘animals’, ‘wet backs,’ ‘spics.’

Midway through, with the dominate people now believing the propaganda, organization for the genocide begins. Police forces are militized. Weapons distributed. Like military surplus has been given to our local police stations.

Then polarization starts. Hate groups spread messages of fear and hate. It becomes dangerous for someone of the dominate group to support the weaker group. You’ll lose your job. How could you support breaking the law? Are you one of Them? If you’re hiring illegal spics, then you’re going to be punished. Those Mexicans are all rapists and gangsters. There are no safe black men.

Preparation for the “cleansing” begins at the 7th stage. Euphemisms such as “chain link walls” instead of “cages.” “Work will set you free” instead of “death will set you free” and “National security” instead of “ethnic cleansing.” Fear is instilled in the targeted group. The dominate group’s intentions are cloaked, but there.

Now that terror leads to the beginning of the genocide through persecution. Lists of violators are drawn up. They are targeted. Segregated into ghettos. Deported. Starved. Their property seized. They are not citizens, they are not human, they are a threat, and this is legal, so most people don’t help. Deaths begin to go unreported. Incarceration of blacks is insanely high compared to whites – and not because blacks commit more crimes. Food stamps are being denied to our poor. And those with different skin colors are being deported. Our government has said these people are “animals.” And not human.

Extermination begins once the people are rounded up and lists are drawn. Systematically, deliberately, lawfully – the hate groups and the government work together to murder the targeted group. Have we begun this? I don’t know. God – hear my prayer – I hope not!

When it is all over – the hate groups and government deny there was ever a crime. ((genocidewatch.net))

For it was legal.

We’re at the eighth step of a genocide.


 

If legality is all you base your morality on — slaves were legal. Killing the Native Americans was legal. Hell — lobotomies and forced sterilization and chaining people to beds was legal. The Nazi holocaust was legal in Germany. Governments are NOT moral authority. They are governments. Tyrannical, diplomatic, or something else. They are human. They fail.

I read that cry for justice in Job today. He wants God to come and answer why bad things have happened to him. He’s demanding to know how justice and fairness works. Why have his wife and children been taken from him? Why have the people he called friends now sitting and mocking him? Where are you God? Answer me!

And God does. God comes in a whirlwind and doesn’t tell Job that the world is right and fair; that we all get our just desserts; that the good people prosper and the bad are harmed. Instead, God explains how God is present in all of creation. Everywhere.

God isn’t going to stop a genocide, although God weeps as we go, because God has limited God’s self and given us free will. We can choose to eat of the forbidden fruit. We can make laws that say all fruit is good for eating. Or we can deny ourselves the forbidden fruit because we’re listening to God’s laws.

Job can leave his worship of God at any time. God isn’t our safety net. God isn’t going to arbitrate between Job and his friends… or ex-friends.

God is our creator. God is present with us. God loves us. God weeps over us. God gives us free will.

“God would never let us go astray” is not true. “God loves America” is not true.

God loves you. God will follow after you as you go astray and welcome you back when you turn to God.


 

In the boat, the disciples are overwhelmed. Taking on water. It is all around. They wake up Jesus, who is sleeping like the dead, and say “Don’t you care we’re all going to die?!” And Jesus rebukes the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And there is an great calm over the sea. Just as great of a fear sits in the disciples’ hearts over Jesus’ actions. And he asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Have you no faith God is with you? Are you scared of God or scared of your government? Obeying God who said to cross the stormy waters – and goes with you — or obeying governments who say to turn blind eyes to your faith, your neighbor, and do not care for your souls?

Malachi 3:5 – The angels will bear witness against those who thrust aside the foreigners.

Luke 4:16-21 – “…Bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…sight to the blind…let the oppressed go free.”

Romans 12:13 – “Mark of the true Christian: “…Extend hospitality to strangers…”

Hebrews 13:1-2 – “…show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels…”

I John 4:7-21 – “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…” We love because God first loved us.”


 

Wake up! Wake up! Do not let this become the Latino Genocide. The Guatemala Gulag. The Mexican Massacre. Do not let neo-Nazis, Alt-Right, hate groups, white-Supremacists steal your religion, steal your country, and steal your morality.

Dietrich Bonhoffer was illegal. He was part of the Confessing Church. The Christ Confessing Church refused to follow Nazi Germany. Refused to ignore the plight of the least of these. Refused to give over his morality to the government to dictate and enforce, and instead, lived his morality. Even unto his incarceration in a death camp, and his murder.

I am a Christ Confessor. I will violate any and all human laws to follow the laws of Christ.

May God give us each the power to say this, and lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil, and assure us God is with us in all places… but as Christians, we are to aim to make earth look like God’s reign as it is in heaven. We pray these things every Sunday. Some of us every day say the Lord’s prayer.

Even the wind and the sea obey him — ought we too?

Jeremiah 7:5-7 – “If you do not oppress the foreigner…then I will dwell with you …”

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Peace on Earth

Isaiah 40: 1-11 bln5.jpg
Mark 1:1-8

A country is invaded by people who have skin a different color than us. They speak a different language. They worship in a different religion. And they declare our land now belongs to a minority living among us. We revolt – we protest – we fight. And they keep sending in more troops. More immigrants. They tell us that the land now belongs to them, and to whomever they choose. We say we have been here for countless generations. They say our holy city is also is holy to them, and take it as a new capital of a land they are carving out of us. They tell us we’re not welcome in our holy city anymore.

This is Palestine. The British took it over, and declared the Muslim land now belonged to Jews—people whose ancestors are Jewish, and whose religion may or may not be Judaism. As the rest of the world fought World War I and II, Arabs—who may or may not be Muslim– fought to keep the land they had grown up on, farmed, and lived on for hundreds if not thousands of years. After the wars were over, massive amounts of Jew-descendants from all over the world poured into the area. The world pressured for the land to be divided up into two states: an Arab-descendants state called Palestine and a Jewish-descendants state called Israel. The sacred city of Jerusalem would be an international city – owned by no one faith or people – because it is holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

The Palestinians said no! No – look – this is our land! We didn’t kill the Jews. We didn’t kick them out. You all did that. We didn’t ask the British to take us over. We’re a mix of people already – Jewish and Christian and Muslim and more – the world just can’t decide this arbitrary line and say all Jews belong on one side and everyone else on the other. They began to try to round up their illegal immigrants and kick them out. These were largely European Jews.

But the world replied, we can, and we are dividing your land. We were inflamed with the idea of Zionism. The idea that if Jews returned in number to the holy land, then Christ would return too. In our zeal, we did to the Palestinians — genocide, shuttering into ghettos, starving and murder and theft — just as we had done to the Jews in Europe. And, just as Jews (and gays and Roma and more) were murdered in Europe in the name of Christ… so we murdered Muslims (and Arabic Christians) in the name of Christ.

In 1948, Israel declared itself a Jewish state. The following day, four different Arabic countries marched into the area being assigned as the new State of Israel and the first of many, many wars broke out between the State of Israel and Arabic countries.

Eventually, a truce was called. It is referenced as the Green Line because green ink was used on a map to mark the edges of the truce line. This truce line went right through the middle of the holy city. The country of Jordan annexed the West Bank, including its half of Jerusalem. Egypt took the Gaza Strip. Israel took way more land and cities than what the UN had given them, and Palestine was now a tiny dot surrounded on all sides.

Palestinians call this the Nakba. Jews have the Holocaust. Palestinians have Nakba — the Catastrophe. 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes and made refugees due to this war. They were not permitted to return home and began their generations of living in concentration camps… known as refugee camps. But this was just the first war.

For twenty years there is skirmishes between Palestinian citizens and Israeli soldiers. This reaches a head in 1967 as the State of Israel and Arab countries fight over who gets to control the Jordan River. Egypt massed its army near the border with Israel, expelled UN peacekeepers, stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since 1957, and blocked Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Israel launched a pre-preemptive strike against Egypt. Jordan, Syria and Iraq responded and attacked Israel. Israel defeated Jordan and captured the West Bank, defeated Egypt and captured the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, and defeated Syria and captured the Golan Heights, and took over all of Jerusalem. Eventually, Sinai was given back to Egypt. The rest of the land is ‘occupied.’

The United Nations said this was wrong, and illegal, and to give the land back – but the State of Israel never has. Instead, more and more houses are built as ‘settlements’ that establish the land as belonging to Israel. More and more Palestinian homes are razed, and the people sent into camps.

Just as our ancestors claimed land here, in the Americas, with pioneers — settlers — and drove off the Natives… so too the same is happening in Palestine.

The Palestinians are, naturally, furious. And as years turn into decades and turn into generations, their fury becomes desperate hate. Decades, getting close to a hundred years now, of terrorist attacks happen from Palestinians against those in the land they once held.

You see, in the camps there is not enough shelter, or food, or work. You must go out to get these. To go out, you must be a second class citizen and at risk of being shot, stoned, or having the same done to your family because you are not Israeli. Each time your people up rise and demand access to water, electricity, food, medicine — greater torture happens. Families go missing. It is joked about that you’re not a man until you’ve done time in prison and been tortured by an Israeli. But if you protest – bulldozers come in and level you and your family and neighbor’s homes.

Some Palestinians throw stones at Israelis. In return, many Palestinians are shot with weapons.

Yes, some Palestinians knife Israelis. Many, many more Palestinians are killed daily by Israelis… but it is never reported in the news.

Until now. This week. When the violence has intensified.

I wrote this sermon for this Sunday on Monday. I usually let this sermon sit as I think about it, and then I revise it again during the week.

This week, the Spirit had moved me. I wrote about Palestine on Monday. And during the week, our President moved the USA embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Now, daily, violence in Jerusalem and among Palestinians and Israelis intensifies. Each time I went to revise my sermon, I found the situation had changed.

Moving the embassy signifies that we Americans are siding with the Israelis and against a two-state solution that respects both Palestinians and Israelis… because it ‘awards’ the holy city to Israel – who is occupying half the city and does not own it – and says we’re no longer interested in negotiating a peace where the city is shared.

This is why the Palestinians are rioting. This is the latest theft of many from them.

And here we are. How can there be peace in the Middle East?

ANERAlogo_reg-01-01

 

Ancient Israelites lived in Jerusalem. And Palestinian ancestors lived in Jerusalem. The city is holy to billions of people. And for nearly a hundred years this current conflict has been going on – and before then, we had the Crusades where we caused the conflict in the area. And before then, there was Rome. And Babylon. And hundreds and hundreds of years of humans fighting over the city.

And by now – no one is innocent in this conflict. Every religion and every people have murdered innocents on the other side, and done wrongs. Tit-for-tat has led to a snowball effect where no Palestinian trusts Israelis, and no Israelis trust Palestinians, and we Westerners distrust all Middle Easterners and Middle Easterners distrust Westerners.

What’s going on this very moment – with rockets and suicide attacks – with soldiers shooting families and families throwing stones – with systemic genocide and terrorist attacks – this is the result of hundreds and thousands of wrongs done to each other.

Peace in the Middle East, peace in Jerusalem, seems hopelessly out of reach.

But people still dream.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike – we know we are supposed to be living into the reign of God. And there are people working towards this.

What can we, here, do for world peace?

Love your neighbor. Learn about Judaism and Islam. Know how we have far more in common compared to what we have in difference. Know that God, Adonai, and Allah are all words, titles, for the deity we share whose name is not spoken.

What can we do for world peace? Love your neighbor. Welcome the stranger. Walk humbly. Give and do peace.

During this Christmas, you can give peace through ANERA.

The American Near East Refugee Aid non-profit is trying to help in this dire situation. They’re trying to spread PEACE and understanding. In Jordan, and in Gaza, and in Palestine, ANERA asks the locals what they need, and helps them help themselves. Frequently, war and strife is all people have known. It is hard to have hope. Hard to dream of peace.

Behind all the people on the news are moms still struggling to feed kids. Dads still struggling to find work. Kids still struggling to find joy. Grandparents praying for the security of their families. Friends still sharing embraces. People still falling into love.

Behind all the war are humans being human.

And ANERA works with Israelis and Palestinians both to promote peace in people’s daily lives.

“In Gaza, for instance, over 60 percent of young people are unemployed—the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world. Syrian refugees in Lebanon have grown up amid war and displacement, and for many that has meant dropping out of school to support their families… youth in the Middle East have borne the brunt of conflict and economic stagnation.”

To promote peace, ANERA works with these youth. They offer “basic literacy to job skills and even sports and handicrafts [courses]. These educational and recreational pursuits also help strengthen bonds to their host communities, soothe psychological trauma, and shape them into active members of society.

Young Palestinian and Syrian refugees attend an accounting courses in Al Sharq. The class is one of the many job skills training courses ANERA is offering to refugee youth throughout Lebanon. With marketable skills like accounting and computer science, these youths will have greater chances at finding jobs.

Sports not only give youth a recreational outlet, but provide psychosocial support and build community bonds. “In Syria it’s kind of impossible for a girl to play football,” says 20-year-old Rawan. “This is the first time I have ever played in my life. At first I didn’t tell my mom.” Not only do sports promote physical health, they also form friendships and ties among youth. Personal relationships are the key to peace.

Meanwhile, Adnan, 18, has lived in El Buss camp near Tyre since his family fled Syria. Adnan’s family are of Palestinian origin and had lived in Syria for generations as refugees. Now they join the thousands of “twice-refugees”—Palestinian-Syrians living in Lebanon. ANERA helps families like Adnan’s who find they are suffering generations of psychological trauma. ANERA brings in counselors, doctors, dentists, and raise up mentors out of the community.

Syrian and Palestinian refugee girls attend hairdressing classes in Sidon. Hair and makeup courses are some of a wide variety of vocational skills youth are learning across Lebanon.

In Bar Elias, chess class draws steady concentration from boys and girls. ANERA’s programs include education as well as athletic and other recreational pursuits, which aim to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged youth.

Refugee girls take part in a handicrafts courses in Baalbek, Lebanon. Many, like 14-year-old Hanine from Homs, Syria, go on to sell their work to earn extra cash, while others find plenty of personal household use for their crafts.

As a Palestinian refugee, Omar has limited job opportunities in Lebanon. Now he’s teaching young people how to do dabke, a traditional Palestinian dance style, in Ein El Hilweh camp. “[Our] uncle would complain that he couldn’t sleep because Omar was dancing all night,” laughs his sister Israa.

Yara, 14, takes literacy and math classes in Bar Elias, Bekaa. Many refugee youth like Yara have missed out on school for over six years, since the Syrian war began. Some cannot read or write at all, and had never used computers.

These teens and young adults are the next generation of men and women in the Middle East. They are who are deciding now, or will be deciding soon, whether to continue the cycles of violence against others or to live into peace.

This Christmas, you can give peace by donating in the name of a loved one to ANERA. You can invest in the lives of these children. You can pray for peace and act for peace locally, and internationally.

We’re not going to solve the wars in the Middle East without God’s intervention. And God’s intervention comes through the Spirit, through us, wherever we love our neighbors and welcome the stranger.

Amen.

Rest on Grace

John 3:1-17jesus_nicodemus_2
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul’s writings are thick, complex, and wrote in a style of rhetoric, argument, that we don’t use much anymore. So let’s break him down into little bits today. First, let’s replace Abraham in our scripture with George Washington. Think: What then are we to say was gained by George Washington, our ancestor according to the flesh? Or rather, why do some people brag George Washington is their great-great-grandpappy? Does that make them more American than those not related to George Washington? In other words, it’s great to have grandpappies who did great stuff… but God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… just like your American Citizen status doesn’t rely on being related to George Washington.

Next, Paul argues Abraham didn’t work for God, and God didn’t pay Abraham his due. This wasn’t an employee and store owner relationship. Instead, God -granted- -reckoned- -gifted- Abraham righteousness in return for Abraham’s trust. Paul even calls Abraham ungodly. God gifts grace to people who haven’t even turned their lives around towards living faithful lives. Faithful lives doesn’t win you God’s grace. God gives it freely. So, God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… and God doesn’t require living a sinless life to receive God’s love.

If we’re going to use our American analogy, it would be that your citizenship to America doesn’t depend on being related to George Washington… and, it doesn’t depend on you speaking English, dressing in jeans and a tshirt, and being Christian. You can be American and speak Spanish, or wear a hijab, or pray at a Synagoge.

Why is this important to Paul? Because he’s writing to ancient Jews who had always been taught that their literal ancestor – Abraham – is what made them Jewish, and made them God’s people. These new converts to The Way of Jesus (seen as form of Judaism at the time) are NOT biologically related to Abraham. How can they, too, be God’s children?

Sorta like… many say that to be an American citizen, you have to have been born here. Raised here. OR act, look, speak and pray like you were raised here. But what about people born abroad to American parents, but due to the military, are raised in a foreign country and speak a foreign language and hold dual citizenship? Are they Americans? People who immigrate here – are they Americans? What about the Amish – are they Americans? We’ve got a lot of people who don’t wear tshirts, jeans, and speak Midwestern English. So what is the criteria for being an American?

Paul’s churches are asking – what is the criteria for being Christian?

He argues if being a child of God means being a literal descendant of Abraham… we have no reason to follow God. None. Born Jewish? Bam! You hit the jackpot. Automatic inclusion. Born Greek? Chinese? Sorry. You’re not loved, and even if you convert, you still are excluded. This way of thinking doesn’t promote faith. It doesn’t even promote living a good life style. It just promotes keeping a strict genealogy record so you can prove you’re related to Abraham, and so got your golden genetic ticket to God.

Instead, Paul argues that Abraham existed before there was really a Jewish people or Jewish faith. There wasn’t even a Torah, a Bible, at the time. So… being Jewish or following the Torah doesn’t include or exclude people from God’s children. Abraham was loved before the Torah and before Judaism. Instead, God’s children, Abraham’s heirs, are all of those who follow his faith. All of those people who trust God. And all those people – regardless of their biological ancestor, or their depth of knowledge of religion, or how little or how often they sin — none of this makes or breaks your relationship with God. Instead – you’re a child of God – just as you are, who you are – because God loves you.

What do you call this? It’s called grace. Unmerited favor. God loves you because God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to gain more love or to lose that love. To be Christian is to accept that love as reality with faith. With the belief in things unseen, not wholly proven, but chosen to be accepted. Paul writes, “God gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Biologically, you’re likely not related to Abraham… but you are his descendant through things that don’t exist. Living faith flows from him to you. You are Abraham’s heir. You are God’s child, too.

In our American analogy, you’re likely not related to George Washington, but you are his political heir. The spirit of democracy, freedom to speak, freedom to worship in your own way, freedom to influence your government is known to you. You’re an American child too, regardless of where you were born or what language you speak or how you worship.

Spiritual heirs are what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about.

Nicodemus is walking a faith like our own, and like many of those whom Paul wrote to. In John’s gospel, light and dark, day and night, mean a lot more than just how much illumination there is. It also means whether or not someone is understanding Jesus, or if they’re misunderstanding Jesus. So Nicodemus comes literally at night and figuratively in misunderstanding. He thinks he knows who Jesus is: a great rabbi from God. Jesus tells him, “Bingo… and more. But to see more, one has to be born again or born from above.” The word used here in scripture means both — both again and from above.

Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands and takes the literal translation — born again. He gets caught up in the literal – and starts picturing himself trying to get into a womb to be born again. SO not possible.

For our American analogy, it would be like saying Americans are those who are born American. But what about all the immigrants? Even if they get their greencards and are full citizens, are they still not Americans? They can’t be literally born again here. People don’t have two births.

Jesus explains – spiritual birth. The Spirit of God moves here and there, people here and there are reborn with it.

In our analogy, some people are spiritually born as Americans and come here with that spirit, that love, of liberty from wherever they were biologically born.

You just can’t predict who is going to faithfully vote and faithfully attend church based on their birth certificates. There are people born in America who never vote and there are people born with Christian parents who never attend church. Just as there are people born in Middle Eastern countries who move here and never miss voting, and there are people who have atheist parents who never miss time to pray.

Biological birth is not the same as spiritual birth.

Nicodemus, like many of us, still can’t get his head around it. He wants a clear checklist of what it means to follow Jesus. Sorta like we want a clear checklist of what it means to be American. But Jesus won’t give it to him. Grace isn’t earned. Grace — God’s love — is just given. Faith isn’t something to testify and be good for all time. Faith is lived. It is a verb.

Nicodemus asks for more help. He’s a scholar, he knows his religion, he’s affluent and educated and clearly devoted to understanding and practiving his faith. Jesus replies look – you disbelieve me about these earthly things. You know I’m doing miracles, but you still question. I told you God’s love is for more than Abraham’s biological children, but you didn’t believe. How am I to explain heavenly things to you? God loves you. God is saving the world through God’s son. God is giving new life — full life — life to the depressed, the lonley, the outcast, the foresaken, the poor, the ignored, the hopeless. God is welcoming in the “huddled masses” and “wretches refuse” and “temptest tossed.” God isn’t condemning them, isn’t condemning the world, but opening the door of welcome wide to all.

Have you ever pictured yourself back in ancient Israel? Like, say you woke up one day and you’re back there — 2030 years ago — and you actually meet Jesus in the flesh. I’ve always thought I’d instantly recognize him. I’d not be like Nicodemus and be sneaking in the dark. I wouldn’t be the religious leaders and spit on Jesus. I would know my Lord and drop everything to follow him.

Professor Karoline Lewis posed these questions that made me pause: “Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than [Nicodemus?] this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?”

Nicodemus has more than two thousand years of Judism education under his belt. He’s literally speaking with Jesus in the flesh before him. He’s risking his reputation, his job, maybe even his life to speak with Jesus. Do we have more faith than that? And yet – here he is, misunderstanding because he is carrying so many expectations of who Jesus is and what God is doing.

… I might be carrying those too and stuck to my misconceptions more than God’s reality.

Jesus’ words are that whoever does good to the most wretched has done good to him. Whoever has spat on others has spat on him. Where did I see you Lord?

I don’t need to time travel back to ancient Israel to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is attempting to get his kids to school around Immigration Customs Enforcement agents. Jesus is sitting in a 103 tent watching her son slowly starve to death and praying the money comes through to get him help and out of this refugee camp. Jesus is the last survivor of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean.

In reality, I am Nicodemus. I get stuck in the literal. I get stuck thinking I’d recognize Jesus in the flesh 2000 years ago when I don’t even recognize him in the flesh today.

I try to follow Jesus. I try to understand, but I often look at the world with literal eyes and ignore the spiritual. Nicodemus shows up twice more in our gospel. He defends Jesus before his peers… and he helps bury Jesus. Nicodemus walks a faith life that goes into periods of darkness and light. Periods when he is attuned to the way God views the world, and Nicodemus does much good. And periods when he is confounded by God, and Nicodemus flounders, messes up.

That is why Paul’s argument and Jesus’ argument is so important to us during Lent: being a child of God, being loved by God, is God’s gift to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t lose it. We choose to respond to it.

We do wrongs individually, and collectively. We hurt others intentionally and unintentially. We miss seeing Jesus in others. We choose not to see Jesus in others. But God still loves us… even as we hurt God. Even as we take God’s child and shame him, torture him, murder him… God still loves us. Today, we still take God’s children of all backgrounds and shame them, torture them, murder them often by just ignoring them. But God still loves us.

And from that love, offers forgiveness. Offers us to begin again. Offers us a new life where we live more Christ-like and extend not condemnation, but salvation, to others. Out of God’s love for the whole world — not just Americans, not just Christians, not just Abrahamic faiths, but the WHOLE WORLD, Out of God’s love for the WHOLE WORLD, Jesus is given. Forgiveness is offered. We are given a new chance at peace, embracing each other, and living in harmony.

Amen.

Walking Together

Offertory prayer on Ruth and Naomi

Merciful God, you have told us to go the extra mile and to pledge to one another ‘Where you go, I will go.’ We pray today for all who seek safety and ask you to use these offerings to provide places of refuge. Bless us with the strength to walk with our neighbors and strangers in their journeys questing after you. Amen.

Entering Holy Space

Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Not a stone will be left on top of another.

Our buildings provide no security. Our buildings will not save. We saw this with the September 11th terrorist attacks. Buildings, which we thought immovable, crumbled to the ground. Planes we thought ever secure turned into weapons. Places we thought lasting… ended.

And our lives, our reality, was never the same.

Buildings do not save us.

So we cling to our institutions.

Institutions, structural ways of doing things — the government and the police, the firemen and women, nurses and doctors — rules and laws! – the rules that say who is a combatant and who is a civilian… our communities, our churches…

But institutions do not save us.

Civilians watched the marathon in Boston. Civilians were ripped to shreds. Civilians attend our movie theatres and civilians are shot, in the dark, unarmed.

The institution of our military is no more of a guarantee of security. This year we have seen soldiers shooting soldiers at base. We have seen civilians trying to encourage the enemy to murder our soldiers by posting the soldier’s own home addresses online… go and murder their wives, their sons, their husbands, their daughters.

Race crimes, religious hate crimes, sneak into our churches and shoot pastors – shoot them while they minister and preach. Shoot parishioners as they come and go. Set bombs in churches and murder little girls as they go to Sunday School just because they happen to have black skin.

No. Institutions do not save us.

Do we have any security at all?

Are we in the End Times?

I mean, are we?

Two nights ago, I watched the development in Paris with a group of friends. We tweeted and IM’d international friends. And for a moment, a miscommunication told us that suicide bombers were also attacking in Germany. I don’t know who said it, but I heard, “My God, we are next!”

Fear fell over the room and settled in my stomach. This wasn’t something happening ‘over there’ somewhere far away, this wasn’t any threat to me… this might be happening somewhere in America… what if it happened at midnight here, too?

A fear I hadn’t felt in… fourteen years… made my dinner sour.

I had forgotten that feeling.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I had. I am ashamed because I know that fear of ‘am I next?’ ‘where is safe?’ ‘where are my loved ones?’ ‘are they safe?’ is known daily in the countries many of these terrorists come from. For the refugees fleeing these counties in the Middle East, and Africa, are fleeing terrorists.

Just like you and me, they want their children to be fine. They want to be able to go to work, go out to eat, go see a movie and not worry someone is going to murder them randomly, just because they are standing there. Murder them regardless of their ethnicity, their religion, their citizenship, their institutions, or who they are… who they are leaving behind… what good or evil they have done… just purely random acts of utterly evil violence.

… And we’re causing some of this fear ourselves.

Dear God, forgive us! Forgive Americans. Our drones are not as accurate as we’d like to think, and our targets are not as well chosen. We Americans are terrorists too — in the effort to protect ourselves, we have murdered Middle Eastern people who are ‘too tall’ and so might choose to join the military, or who were related to someone we thought might harm us, or who had the misfortune of standing beside a school that secretly was a hide out of extremist fighters.

Fear, counter fear, secret attack and revenge secret attack, and caught between the warring nations are moms and dads, babies, grandma and grandpa… who all want the same thing: a peaceful, happy life.

I ask again, is this the end times? Is the apocalypse nigh?

As if the failure of our security systems, our buildings and governments, checkpoints and vigilance, wasn’t enough… as if the terrorists were not enough… the Cold War is returning, bit by bit… you may have seen how Russia is now showing their nuclear arms and warning America. You may have seen how America is testing missiles off the West Coast.

We have wars, rumors of war, nations rising and falling… Jesus also warned us of natural disasters.

Global climate change is so very real – the climate, all over the world, is changing. Our west, they are in a drought that seems to have no end. Around here, we’ve had such cold winters and hot summers — all over, when it rains, it rains harder and floods…

The sea has rose eight inches in the last one hundred years, which may not seem like much… until you look at a place like Vienna, or Florida, and realize these very flat places are slowly sinking into the ocean… and we have 8 less inches of drinkable ground water all over because the ocean is sneaking in. This week, with the glacier in Iceland sliding, we have no idea how many more inches we’ll gain this and next year– not in hundred of years — but in months…

And for the 30th year in a row, world Co2 levels, the chemical that works like a wool blanket over the earth, has grown. With each day, each minute, this thick blanket gets thicker… how thick can it get before we cannot breathe?

In places in the Middle East and India, it is already too thick… and temperatures there rose this summer to the level that the roads literally melted.

What can grow, what can survive, in 140 degree heat?

Are the end times here?

Jesus’ disciples wanted to know the same thing. The author of Hebrews was writing to the early Christians, who wanted to know the same thing. Look, look at how horrible things are — surely they cannot get worse! Surely these are portents, these are signs from God, these are telling us to prepare and get ready.

The audience of these old texts saw horrible things happening. Think: their country had been invaded, and their leadership replaced with pawns from the occupier. Their holiest place, the Holy of Holies, had been desecrated twice now… and by the time of Hebrews, it was desecrated a third and final time… the temple, the only place to go and worship God, to be in the presence of God who lived behind the veil which the most holy high priest approached only once a year — on the day of Atonement for the nation’s sins — that most sacred spot was destroyed. The priests murdered. The area used to make offerings to other gods. A statue of Caesar was scheduled to be erected there for the people to worship.

Because of their faith, or their rumored faith, or the supposed faith of their third cousin – people were being dragged out and murdered.

A Roman citizenship was the difference between instant death without a trial – as in the case of most of Jesus’ disciples – and death with at least a hearing… as in the case of Paul.

When the readers of Hebrews secretly gathered, illegally gathered, to speak about Jesus… they took their lives and the lives of their loved ones in hand.

And they retold the words of Jesus, “Do not be alarmed.” And they recited the words of Psalm 46, “Be still, and know I am God.” And they read pastoral letters, like the letter to the Hebrew Congregation which reads, (to paraphrase The Message) “Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. God always keeps God’s word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping each other out, let’s keep worshiping together and not give up, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”

Instead of asking, “Is this the end?” and losing hope… the early Christians looked how to preach the gospel, and be the good news, and give their lives for God. They knew the covenant, the mutual promise, between them and God was wrote on their hearts.

And that covenant is God’s love for us, and our love for God.

As things got worse and worse, instead of hoarding up ammo and turning away strangers — lest they be spies, the enemy, or another bothersome mouth to feed — these Christians kept meeting together. Kept at their faith.

When Jesus’ disciples ask when the Temple would fall, Jesus didn’t answer. He didn’t give them a sign. Instead, he told them — you’ll frequently think this is it — the end is near. But it won’t be.

There will be wars.

There will be natural disasters.

There will be false prophets.

But this won’t be the end.

In fact, Jesus never tells them WHEN the end will be. He tells us his return will be like a thief in the night — something we never see coming. If we knew the thief was coming, we would have been home with some friends to scare him off. But we don’t know, and we cannot know. Jesus tells us that God alone knows. Not even angels. Not even those who have passed on before us. Only God knows.

For centuries, millennia, this has proved true. So many people believed the Black Death was the End Times. WWI was called the War to End All Wars — as in, after this, Christ’s peace would rule the world. With the A-Bomb, and the Doomsday Clock, we saw our end looking us in the face. We see this now — see how fragile our existence is. See how very mortal we are. See how nothing we build, nothing we create, nothing on this earth can fully protect and save us.

And Jesus’ advice for these centuries, these millennia, is to let God worry about when the end is. Our job is to encourage one another. To love one another. To forgive each other. To do loving deeds.

Be still… and know… I am God.

Be still… and trust… I am God.

Be loving… and do not be afraid… I am God.

Did you know the Bible says “do not be afraid” in some form or another more than any other phrase? Some count 365 times, others count 103. Followed by Jesus telling us 125 times in four books — just the Gospels — to love others.

Whether or not it is the End Times is not for us to know. We can’t know. If history is a teacher, this year is no more likely the end than 1346 when the Black Death swept Europe. It is no more likely the end than 2220 will be… but we can’t and we don’t know.

Our God tells us not to be alarmed, not to be scared, not to be thinking of all the possible ‘what ifs’ and to hide, to avoid others, to be scared of the stranger, to be scared of what tomorrow will bring…

No… our God says love me, and love each other.

Love carries us through… for God is love.

Let us end in the prayer of David in Psalm 56:

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?

My brothers and sisters, what can a mere mortal do to us? We live IN holy space, we live in Jesus Christ.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 11-15-2015

Is There Worthless Religion?

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Do you dare to turn on the news lately? Do you dare to listen or read the stories coming out of Southern Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa?

There is a migrant crisis, so it is being called. These common words obscure the horror of what is actually going on. The civil war in Syria, now four years strong, has displaced millions and millions of people. Ten million, as an estimate in March, are fleeing ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State is associated with the horrors of Boko Haram, and chemical warfare, suicide bombers in the middle of mosques, churches, and temples, and public beheadings.

These ‘migrants’ are refugees. Every day people, Jews and Christians, Muslims and athiests, who are fleeing the take-over of the Islamic State. For those pushing the Islamic State are not normal Muslims – but a group teaching that the end of the world is nigh, and they must found a state under ancient Muslim laws since God is watching and soon to send the final prophets. Since the end is near, and this is God we are dealing with, life is valueless. Compromise is not wanted or needed. All must obey the super conservative particular form of Isalm they teach, or one must die.

This is a modern day crusade. Just like when Christians went out and did the same, in both cases anyone who speaks of tolerance, of caring for the weak, of making peace are branded as heretics and murdered. Just like when we had crusades, religious wording, religious after-death promises, and talk of the end of the world and return of God’s full reign on Earth fuel people into a frenzy where new levels of violence seem okay now.

It is so easy to conflate one militant religious group with a whole religion. But just as most Christians back in the dark ages didn’t go on Crusades, and most Christians today say the Crusaders killed a lot of innocent people… so too, most Muslims do not support the Islamic State. Most of our refugees are Muslims themselves, seeking freedom from war, from fanatical military extremists, seeking freedom from the Islamic State.

… More people are displaced and seeking safe harbor from this conflict than were displaced and fleeing Nazi Germany in WWII.

… let that sink in.

There are more people who need safety now than in WWII.

Are we going to be like our grandparents, our grandparents, or ourselves in WWII and ignore those who plea for help? America ignored the plight of those Nazi Germany was destroying and taking over until Pearl Harbor. We even turned away ships of fleeing Jews. And where was there help at all for the gypsy, the homosexual, or any other category sudden chosen to eradicate? Today there are people begging for help, any help, to get themselves, their children, away from another militaristic, fanatical group.

James, the little brother of Jesus, writes to other Christians about pure religion and worthless religion. He isn’t talking about comparing Muslims and Christians, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims… James is talking about comparing each person with themselves. In our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, in our actions… are we followers of a pure religion or a religion that is impure?

How to we measure if we are on the right path?

James says we must be quick to listen. Quick to hear the stories of other people. Ready with open ears to hear their perspective. So often when someone begins to say something we don’t like, we formulate, we think of, how to argue against them while they are still talking. This clogs up our ears so we can’t hear what they actually are saying. Instead, says James, just listen. Don’t think of a counter argument. Just listen deeply. For instance, today, when I mentioned refugees and migrants, and ISIS, you may have begun to close your ears. You already have thoughts and opinions on these issues. No need to hear more. James says listen anyways, for you may hear something new.

Then, after listening, think. It’s okay to take time to think, or formulate what you want to say. We don’t have to fill every silence with noise. Sometimes, in the pauses, in the silence, there is a moment for God’s soft voice to speak. In the pause, we can think about what we know of the topic at hand — what we already know about ISIS from the news — and compare it with what the person we’re listening to has just said. Do they match? Is there new information? In the pause, we can consider what we feel. What emotions does this topic bring up in me? What emotions does it bring up in the speaker? Are these emotions because of the topic, the speaker, or something else?

Today, talking about ISIS likely made some angry. Some uncomfortable. Others bored. Others scared. Others felt helpless, or overwhelmed, or confused. I think we each felt many different emotions. James advises we let anger be our slowest emotion. The one we hold back so we can consider all the others first.

“Your anger does not make God right.” James writes. In other words, you are not the one to judge. God knows right from wrong, God does as God will, without you putting your two cents into it. God doesn’t depend on us getting our noses out of joint for God to know about a situation.

So we can take a moment to think. To ponder. To try to understand. And we can take a risk in trying to understand someone who we think is not ‘right’ with God… because we don’t get to judge that. God does. We can set our fear and anger, judgments, aside, and be present now to the person before us.

… We don’t have to decide how God feels about Muslims.

No… says James… don’t worry about the judgment of others. Instead, focus on judging yourself. Go to a mirror and look at yourself. Study who you are.

How do I feel about Muslims?

How do I feel about people fleeing war?

Why do I feel angry?

Why do I feel scared?

Humbly look at yourself, says James. Humbly accept the Word of God and how it points out both how deeply we are loved, and how much sin we still carry. Look in the mirror. Look and don’t flinch. Look and don’t admire. Look and honestly see.

Each of us have good points and bad points.

It is not weakness to admit our bad parts.

It is not vanity to admit our good parts.

It is honesty.

When we know ourselves, it is much easier to know others. Especially those who are from different cultures, different countries, and/or different religions. When we know ourselves, we feel secure to interact with those who’s very existence, who’s very viewpoints and world-views, challenge our’s. When we feel secure in who we are — secure in the good things and bad things about ourselves — we are not threatened by those who are different.

So the sight of a woman wearing a head cloth, a hijab, chador, or other head covering doesn’t make us uneasy. Instead, we can respect for her having enough faith to keep to her religion even when it makes her stand out. We ought to respect that! We, too, teach that a faithful person is heavily pressured to blend with culture which often is at odds with being faithful to God. We are secure in who we are, and so not threatened by someone who is different than who we are.

Indeed, we may have more in common with that faithful woman than someone who isn’t wearing a sign of their faith. We both likely read holy scripture, attend worship services, and are concerned about being a good person. I can’t say that about most of the other people I see during the day.

So James, says, keep open ears. Be ready to listen.

Take reflective time. Thinking time.

Be slow to judge. Slow to respond in anger.

So that you are secure in who you are. We know who we are.

And with these, we are ready to take God’s word and get into action. If we did all this work and didn’t do anything, our faith would be worthless says James.

Worthless!

Now, I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to find something that is worthless. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Everything can be re-purposed. I have a friend who’s mother is the queen of re-purposing. For example, she took outdated refrigerator magnets, cut them into squares, put them into old square makeup cases, and now has a purse-sized sewing kit. The magnets hold the needles in place. Each one has a different color of thread for emergency clothes repairs. She’s incredibly good at re-purposing.

Yet James goes as far as to say that our religion is WORTHLESS if we work and work at it, do all these steps of self-reflection, of listening to others, of knowing the word of God… and do nothing.

Worthless… because although we know much, we have lied to our hearts. Worthless because although we looked at ourselves, we forgot who we are the moment we stopped looking. Worthless because all that work led to no action.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God,” writes James, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Religion that is worth something is religion that cares for people in need. Orphans and widows had no political power, no way to make a honest living, and were outcasts. Refugees have no political power, no way to make a honest living, and are outcasts. People who are weak, who are desperate, who are suffering are people who we, as Christians, as the followers of Christ, are supposed to care for. Supposed to look out for. Supposed to say, “We may be really different, but that’s okay. You need help. Let me help you.”

James ends this passage by saying we are to help without being stained by the world.

You don’t need to become Muslim to help Muslims.

You don’t need to think Islam is great to help Muslims.

You don’t even need to Islam is ‘okay’ to be neighborly, to be Christian, to be friendly and compassionate and loving.

A religion has worth when its message and its deeds match up. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” What we do tells people what our faith says. Our faith says what we do. When all of this matches up, aligns, we are testifying to the great goodness of God. We aren’t sending mixed signals. Aren’t preaching peace and then shooting death glares at strangers. Aren’t preaching welcoming in the outcast and then telling the outcast to go home and leave us be.

Jesus’ words in Mark are on the very same topic.

In this scene, some of those who follow Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Now, all conservative Jews to this day wash their hands before they eat. So the highly educated and the conservatives went to Jesus and said, ‘Hey, you, Mr. I’m So Holy- if you’re so holy, how come your followers aren’t washing their hands, like the faith elders told us to do in the past?’

Jesus answered, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” You teach human rules as if they were rules from God.

The commandment of God, as we know later, is to love God. The second is like it – to love one’s neighbor.

Neither of these is about washing hands. Washing hands, a very good thing to do, is still a human teaching. Sometimes, out of love, one can’t wash their hands.

Sometimes, out of love, we have to ignore the good teachings around us to do the best teaching – the commandment of God – to love. So… sometimes this means associating, being around, being nice to people different than us. It means being loving to refugees and immigrants, whether they are here legally or not. It means being loving to Muslims and Christians, whether they think like us or not. It means being loving, being neighborly, being kind to all.

Jesus tells the crowd about him — what you touch and are around outside of yourself does not contaminate, does not defile, your inside. Your core, your soul, your heart — that can defile its outside.

To tie this with James, then, Jesus is saying that if your soul is healthy and happy, other people can sense it. They see it in your deeds. You bless people just by being present. But if your inner core is unhealthy, unhappy, evil… then you defile people just by being present. You spread the deeds of theft, murder, breaking trust, being greedy, lying, being sleazy, speaking badly about others, acting stupidly, acting too prideful, and using your sexuality in a way that hurts yourself or others.

So one who has paused to know themselves, to be at peace with themselves, does not have to fear or be angry with those who are different. In their hearts in the commandment of God — to love. Their religion is pure because they know love, and act loving.

But those who don’t pause to know themselves, or don’t learn from that self-reflection, have a lot to fear from and be angry about with people who have different faiths and ways of doing things. They say their religion is love, but they don’t know love, and so they don’t act loving.

I ask today – does your religion have worth? Does it make you stop, think, ponder, reflect, and then take action? Does your religion challenge you to be better?

If Christianity has become easy, then we are deceiving ourselves. Acting loving is hard. Being Christian is hard. Every person has to work at following the examples of Jesus. Our reassurance is that we do not do this work alone. We’re all in it together. The Spirit is there, guiding us. Jesus is here, leading us. God is here, beckoning us.

“Every generous act of giving is from above,” to paraphrase James, Every generous act we receive is a gift from God. Every time we are generous and kind to others, people receive glimpses of God.

May we, in the words commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Ohio, 8-30-2015