July 14, 2019

Pentecost 5C

Who is My Neighbor?

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Luke 12:32-40

The day before his assassination, Dr. King gave his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee. In that address, he referenced the parable of the Good Samaritan. He reflected on why the Priest and the Levite did not stop for the traveler who had been brutalized by thieves.
He invited his audience to imagine that the Priest and the Levite were simply afraid. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was indeed dangerous. Dr. King continued, “And so the first question that the Priest asked himself and the first question that the Levite asked himself, was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question. He asked, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”

With these good questions, Dr. King helped and continues to help us consider what Christian discipleship is all about. The latter question should be the guiding principle of our approach toward those present day travelers, yes, those immigrants who remain on a perilous journey because they are undocumented, and those asylum seekers who more recently began their own dangerous journey.

Both are being terrified and brutalized, at this sad juncture in our history, by a racist and fascist administration, its congressional sycophants and a cheering chorus that includes those spiritually deformed Christians who identify themselves as Evangelicals. James Dobson claims that asylum seekers are “illiterate” and sometimes “violent.” Pastor Robert Jeffress says, “Heaven itself is gonna have a wall.” Franklin Graham looks the other way, claiming that helping refugees is somehow “not a Bible issue.”All of these find their ground in and take their cues from, whether consciously or unconsciously, the insidious doctrine of white supremacy.
While it had been announced that raids would begin in ten major cities today, I received a call from Nejla on Friday, that people were, that morning, being picked up in Saugerties by the Gestapo, that in our time goes by the name of ICE. In separate arrests, a man and a woman were taken away. The woman was taken from her 4 and 6 year old children.

And so Dr. King’s important question becomes a terribly urgent question. What will happen, if we do not stop what we are doing, intervene and offer help? What will happen if we don’t interrupt our own journey and inconvenience ourselves in whatever way is necessary to attend to these victims and to unspeakable horror of what is going on?

In addition to an unnumbered company of undocumented neighbors, living among us these days are two to three hundred indigenous tribal people from Guatemala. They have all, both the undocumented and the recent arrivals, come here fleeing either killing poverty, or violence, or death at the hands of murderous gangs who threaten and exploit them and who would even kidnap their children to be used as sex slaves.

They are fleeing policing forces and governments that are either unable or unwilling to insure their safety or to make the necessary provisions for a sustainable life – and, in the case of Guatemala’s indigenous people, a government that drags its feet in implementing those changes that might insure the basic human rights and dignity of its tribal majority.
And before we leap to a place of self-righteous indignation, let us not do so without acknowledging our own historical and continuing abuse of this nation’s own indigenous tribal peoples and the universal plight of the world’s aboriginal and native peoples.

No, the evil we face is not without precedent in our world and in this nation. But this is certainly a new moment and a critical and challenging hour for us. It is our time to do what is right and to care without counting the personal cost.

This nation of ours, which seeks to define itself as great, has never officially acknowledged and asked forgiveness for its past acts of cruelty and inhumanity and therefore can only continue to repeat the sins of its past. Real change requires repentance. Without repentance for the sin of white supremacy, today and tomorrow can only be defined by the sins of our forbearers.

We have never as a nation repented of our sins against native Americans, our sins against Black Americans, and our internment of Japanese citizens during the Second world to name but a few. We are no strangers to building social, legal and actual concentration camps.

Yes, without repentance, yesterday’s sin will certainly infect tomorrow. It is unlikely that the nation will allow itself to enter that sacred place of repentance where change can happen. But that does not mean that we disciples of Jesus cannot take ourselves to that place, acknowledge our complicity in that sin, and move into a different and holier place. The demon that is white supremacy lives or lingers within each of us. We must be willing to face it, own it and have God exorcize it from our minds and hearts and wills.

The few hundred, of the thousands who are crossing the southern border, who have come to be our neighbors here in Ulster County, have been released, with tracking bracelets locked around their ankles, from those punishing detention facilities that this refugee-hostile administration chooses to maintain and refuses to close. Yesterday, even as Mike Pence reeled at the stench coming from a cage in which human beings were held as animals, he had the audacity to praise his government’s efforts. You can’t make this stuff up. If Pence were in that cage do you think he might see things differently?

Dr. King’s take on the parable of the Good Samaritan and the questions he raises demonstrate how to be loving and compassionate to our neighbors. The Samaritan was concerned more about the welfare of a fellow human being than whether the beaten man was different or other than himself. The Samaritan did not look down on this beaten Jewish stranger even though Samaritans and Jews grew up learning to fear and hate each other.
In recent years we have been made more and more aware of flight and plight of millions of refugees. This nation is understandably one of the receiving countries for migrants. The refugees are different from us. They are in desperate need for others to help them.
It is in our DNA, just like the Priest and Levites, to fear what would happen to us by their coming here: that we might not have enough resources to go around, that we might be changed ourselves by others who are so very different, and even the prospect that their might be criminals or even terrorists among us.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus tells us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

According to what God teaches us and what Dr. King echoed, shouldn’t we stop worrying about what would happen to us if we offered our help to these refugees, these strangers? Instead, should we not be more concerned about what would happen to them if we were to neglect them?

The prophet Amos prophesied the truth of God, though people did not like to hear it. The false prophet tried to silence him so as to please the king in power. As Amos claims, he was not a professional prophet, but an ordinary person being called by God. He was like the plumb line for God, guiding people on the way. He knew he would face danger, but did what was right anyway.

We are ordinary people, too, but also called by God through our baptism to tell God’s truth, to have compassion for people in need, and to be good neighbors. However, when we Christians are reminded to love our neighbors who look different, speak different languages, and behave differently, we may not like to hear it either. The fear of scarcity, of uncertainty, can block us from hearing our call and seeing others’ needs.

On Pentecost, we heard again the story of the miracles of ears and tongues. People understood each other, even when they spoke different languages. We need not fear any longer. We need not fear God, or the other, and not even death any longer, because Spirit has healed Babel and the Risen Christ has healed Good Friday. This is the promise of Easter, and of Pentecost. And we share that promise as we emerge dripping wet from the waters of baptism, marked with the sign of the cross as Christ’s own forever.

The promise of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. Through the Holy Spirit, we can understand each other with one common language: love. With the rhythm of this awesome and common language of love, we can understand those in need and we can see those in misery. With this common language, we can offer compassion and assistance.
In his 2019 World Refugee Day Message, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded us that, “When we welcome the stranger, we welcome the Lord God himself. We welcome Jesus.”

In conclusion, I think that Dr. King’s second question warrants a postscript. Yes, if we don’t act, what will happen to our neighbor? But also, if we don’t act what will become of us and the integrity of our humanity?

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna July 14, 2019