Monday, June 18, 2018

Be Not Afraid and God Loves the Stranger

Proper 6B 2018 RCL
                                                        Rev. Dr. Adam T. Trambley                               
June 17, 2018, St. John’s Sharon

Over the past few days, much of our national discourse has revolved around recent border policy changes that have resulted in children being separated from their parents, including in cases when their parents are seeking asylum.  These policies have been condemned by a broad range of Christians across the political spectrum, from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to Franklin Graham.  You can find out more about the details of this policy in any number of places, and I’m sure some of you know more about it than I do this morning.  Given the discussion, however, I want to look at two things today.  The first are some underlying principles that we need to keep in mind when making policies around admittedly complicated issues like immigration.  The second is to look at the impact of own community’s history and attitudes around this issue.

In looking at underlying principles concerning immigration, the two areas I want to explore are “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger.”

“Do not be afraid” is probably the most helpful guideline for any of our activities, whether personal, social, or national.  Angels in scripture say it more than anything else, and maybe we need to hear it.  Christians need not ever be afraid.  We know that “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He makes me lie down in green pastures; beside restful waters he leads me,” and that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Jesus rose from the dead, we need not fear even death.  “O death, where is thy sting?”

We also know that “perfect love casts out fear.”  We are called to love our neighbor, and even to love our enemy, but sometimes we can have a hard time figuring out the most loving action.  Love is often hard to operationalize amid the conflicting needs of our family, our friends, and others.  Yet a good sign that we are not acting out of love is when we are afraid of something. The loving action may be a difficult one to determine, but we are never thinking about how to love others when we are afraid.

One of our biggest fears can be the fear of scarcity.  We are often afraid that there will not be enough.  Enough food, enough jobs, enough space, enough whatever.  Yet God is a God of abundance.  God gave the Israelites manna in the desert and fed the 5,000 on the hillside.  Our lunch servers have their own stories of God’s abundance, as does this parish as a whole, because when we need things, God keeps showing up again and again.  Whenever we make decisions, whether in our family life or our national life, based on the idea that we only have so much and we need to protect it, we shortchange our loving Father, the giver of all good gifts, who is perfectly capable of taking care of all his children. Policies promulgated by instilling fear should always be suspect. Much of our current political life on all sides is increasing based on fear because fear whips people up into a much more controllable frenzy than the hard work of deepening love does.  

A second underlying principle comes from Deuteronomy 10:18. “God loves the stranger.” Other translations use the word “foreigner”.  God’s care and protection for the alien, for the stranger, for the foreigner is described throughout both the Old and the New Testament.  First and foremost, the foreigners are usually in some need, given that they lack the family connections, the land, the jobs, and maybe even the language of the larger society.  God says time and again that they must be given what they need. In Matthew 25, in the parable of the last judgment, Jesus even says that whatever you do for the stranger, you do for him, and you will be judged on that activity. People will ask, “when were you a stranger and we welcomed you?”  Those who welcome the stranger, welcome Jesus and are given their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.  Those who don’t welcome the stranger, well, it doesn’t turn out well for them.

Beyond just caring for their basic needs, the Bible says two other things about strangers, which may influence our behaviors, if Jesus direct instructions are insufficient.  First, foreigners are the people we are supposed to evangelize.  Jesus says we are to be witnesses of the gospel in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The Jewish Christians were called to go to the gentiles, and we are still called to go to our gentiles.  I’m going to tell you that it is much easier to evangelize people who come to you, whom you care for, whom you love, and who are nearby, then it is to evangelize people who live half-way around the world that you have never met.  If we are doing our job, we need to be in contact with foreigners of all sorts. Churches in this country where foreigners have been welcomed are finding themselves making connections in their members’ countries of origin and starting churches and evangelizing there. Another trend within our own denomination is that Latina women are one of the most likely demographics to become Episcopalian.  These trends may not directly influence border policy, but if we can learn to think about people as potential church members, we have a better chance of overcoming whatever fear-based stereotypes that we might otherwise think about them. Removing our fear of them will allow us to make a better policies concerning them.

The Bible also makes it clear that we need foreigners.  Even in a society beset by enemies like the ancient Jewish people, foreigners play an essential role in their history, which is also our history.  Ruth, the Moabite, becomes the grandmother of King David.  The Egyptians take in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph when they become refugees.  Perhaps most striking, however, is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We often read it as a parable of why we should be nice to foreigners, but when we read it most literally, we see a foreigner in the Jewish homeland taking care of a Jewish person.  When we are at our most desperate, Jesus seems to be saying, we may require help from a foreigner or a stranger.  Our own country is filled with examples of when we have relied on foreigners at a national level, from the Marquis de Lafayette to Albert Einstein.  On a more local and personal level, many of the only medical specialists that are willing to work in smaller communities like Western Pennsylvania are foreign-born.  In many ways these doctors are the contemporary embodiment of the Good Samaritan that Jesus spoke about. 

So we want to remember “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger” in all of our dealings.  Before I close, I want to look at some of the consequences locally of those principles not being put into place. 

Obviously, we are a community of immigrants.  Very few of us living in this region are Native American.  Most of the area is a variety of Western, Central, and Eastern European immigrants that arrived long enough in the past that English is not only our first language, but also the language we talk to our parents and grandparents in.  (Joe’s Hungarian being perhaps the only exception).  We have a decided lack of Hispanic immigrants, however, especially when compared with other areas of the country.  While some of this is accidental – we aren’t a short boat ride from Cuba or bordering the Rio Grande – some is also intentional.  Western Pennsylvania’s union shops kept Hispanic immigrants from getting jobs in this area and settling here.  They took care of their own, which is commendable and part of why this community has the strengths it does.  Yet, the people in these communities were also afraid – sometimes for their jobs and sometimes of what they thought immigrants would do to their communities --, and they did not offer a welcome to the stranger.

This lack of recent immigration has had a couple of pretty profound effects.  First, in an increasingly globalized economy and society, our children only speak one language.  Just walking around this area, we don’t see that as an issue, but spending any time in a big city or a multinational company demonstrates what a weakness it is.  Even the Episcopal Church, the US branch of the Church of England, wants all its seminarians to be bilingual by the time they graduate.  We also look at the empty buildings, the blight, and the housing and other infrastructure designed for much larger populations than we have now.  First and second generation immigrants could be living in our otherwise crumbling houses and working in the low skilled jobs that our area is having an increasingly difficult time filling.  If we had more workers, we could actually see more economic growth in this area.  When we look at surrounding rust belt communities like Erie and Detroit, we can understand the benefits that their more recent immigrant communities have provided.  I’m not trying to point fingers or assign historical blame, nor am I proposing an economic or immigration plan for the Shenango Valley.  I just want to note that there have been consequences, even very close to home, when we have made decisions on factors beyond “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger.”  

The United States of America remains the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world.  We espouse high ideals, even if we are not always able to live up to them.  As a nation, we have nothing to fear, except, to quote one of our great Presidents, “fear itself,” because when we are afraid, we make bad decisions. When we aren’t afraid we can make lives better for people all over the world, and welcome people to our shores who become the next generation of great Americans.  I know immigration is a complicated issue, and our borders serve an important purpose. If we start with “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger” we are much more likely to find the right answers that are also good ones – good for the strangers at our boarders and good for us, as well.           

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Sharon Baccalaureate 2018

Sharon Baccalaureate Service
                                                        Rev. Dr. Adam T. Trambley                               
June 6, 2018, St. John’s Sharon

Don’t Give It Up, Give It Over

Good evening graduating seniors and families, Mr. Calla, Mr. Fitzgerald, teachers, staff, and my fellow pastors.  I intend tonight to preach to you on the theme, “Don’t Give It Up, Give It Over.”

Graduates, if you want, I’d invite you take out your cell phones.  I know that your parents and teachers have probably threatened you to within an inch of your life not to pull them out during this service, but I’ll give you permission, and part of the gift of being the preacher is that for the next half-hour or so, I win.

Why do I want you to take out your phones?  Because these little social media devices are great examples of what it means to move from giving it up to giving it over.  You’ve had a lot of situations, I’m sure, where people have told you to give up your cell phones, and in many cases that was probably good advice. We don’t need to be watching the Office reruns at dinner with our family.  But there is another option between giving up a cell phone and using it to take you away from whatever important thing is going on around you.  Instead of giving it up, you can give it over.  Give the cell phone over to further what you are supposed to be doing, to some greater purpose  In the case of baccalaureate tonight, you can give over your phone to deepen the reach of the prayer and the blessing and the celebration that is happening here.  Check-in that you are at Christ Lutheran Church for your baccalaureate.  Tweet something from the sermon or part of a prayer that touches you.  Share photos of the church or of what is going on and tag your friends.  Keep your streaks going by letting people know you are here in church tonight.

Giving it up, whether the “it” is cell phones or something else, is what children need to do because they can’t be trusted to do the right thing.  Giving it over is what adults do to use the gifts they have been given to make a difference, and by the way, cell phones are a gift from God.  A gift that can be misused, of course, but these babies are gifts from above, from the Father of lights from whom comes every good and perfect gift.  You are all about to graduate.  You’re adults now, and in many ways have been for a while.  You no longer have to give up things so you don’t mess up.  You can give over things to make a difference in the world.

I want to say three things to you tonight.  If you had persuasive speaking in your English class, you’ll recognize this technique. Start with an attention-grabbing intro, make three points that support your argument, then finish with a conclusion that ties everything up with a neat bow.  You’ve just heard the intro, now we’ll move to the three points, and we’ll see how the conclusion goes in a little bit.

My first point is this: God loves you.  If you take nothing else away from tonight, or from this week, or from the past 18 years, remember this: God loves you.  He loves you unconditionally. He loves you more than you can imagine in your wildest dreams. And he loves you just the way you are.  God created you out of love you solely because he loved you so much he wanted you to exist in his universe.  There is nothing you can do to make God love you any more, and nothing you can do, not even sin, to make God love you any less.

I believe that God loves us so much that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to come into the world, that Jesus lived his life showing us how to love.  Then, when he died and went down into hell, Jesus overcame the devil, broke open the gates of hell and death, and made it so that nothing, not even death or sin or sickness or any evil done to us or anything in the entire universe could ever separate us from the love of God again.  Then Jesus went back to his Father in heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to come upon us so that we would know that we are adopted sons and daughters of God.  God loves us, Jesus made sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love, and the Holy Spirit makes sure that we can know and experience that love.  That’s what I believe, and it’s powerful. 

Now, God may want some things changed in our lives because he doesn’t want to see us or others in the pain we are often are in.  He loves us all too much to want us to wallow in our own craziness.  But no matter where you are, no matter what you do, no matter who you become, God loves you and God is with you in the midst of all the ups and downs of life.

Second, God has a purpose for you.  We all know that when we are loved, we need to share it.  Maybe some of you have fallen in love during your high school years, and maybe you’ve been blessed enough that the person you love has loved you back.  When you feel that love, people know it.  You glow a little bit.  You’re happy, and giggly, and sometimes sort of clumsy. It is a beautiful thing.  You change your status on social media and have lots of selfies and let the world know about the love of your life.  When we feel God’s love for us, we get all that and more.  

God loves us so much that put us in a community of people who could love us and that we could love in return.  We are surrounded by family, and friends, and co-workers, and a church community, and the Sharon community, and any number of teams, clubs, social media networks, and other extended families.  These people are all people who are part of our purpose.  They are the people who God has given us to love in some way as a response to the incredible love he has for us.  When we let ourselves feel loved by God in that glowing, giddy, clumsy, beautiful way, we can’t wait to share that love with others.  The ways we share that love will depend on how God has made us as individuals.  Some people cook great meals for others, some teach– a special thank you this week to those with that gift --, some are good listeners and great friends, some fix things, some go off to school and invent things that make life better for everyone, some know how to encourage people when they are feeling down.  Your purpose is sharing God’s love with the people around you in the ways that bring you joy.

Your purpose is not only important to you, but to all of us.  You are the future of this community, and beyond this community.  When you live out your lives in God’s love, you are going to change the world in all the ways this world desperately needs to be changed. When you give over your lives, you are going to help change this world from the nightmare it often is to the dream that God has for it.   

Achieving God’s purpose for your life, brings me to my third point: give your life over to God’s love and purpose. Many people make a mistake here.  They think that to serve God, to live into their purpose, to make a difference in the world, they have to give up their life.  For some reason we assume that doing good requires us to go off to some far away land with lots of poor, sick folks and really bad wifi.  But God doesn’t want you to give up your life.  He loves you and he gave you the life you have and wants you to live a joyful, exciting, loving, amazing life that makes you happy at the deepest and most fulfilling levels.  Your choice is whether to live that life in a way that is “all about me”, or to give it over to God.  I’ll let you in on a secret.  The people who go off to poor countries and we know as saints – they can be quite fulfilled healing sick people and they hate twitter. So what can giving it over to God look like for us? 

Well, if you love parties, go to great parties.  Jesus loved parties.  Meet lots of new people, sing karaoke until your throat hurts, and dance until you are a puddle of sweat on the floor.  But give your time at that party over so you also stay sober enough to keep an eye on friends so they don’t get into compromising situations where they might hurt themselves or others.  To give another example, find the best job you can get, but give that job over to God’s purpose.  Be a good employee that is honest and dependable and does great work and brings value to their company and honor to themselves.  If you are going to college, give your studies over to God.  Hit the books as if what you are learning will prepare you to better love and serve others, because it will.  If and when you have a family, give that family over to God and his love.  Treat your spouse and children, and your parents and extended family, as if they are truly God’s gifts to you.  Cherish them, care for them, make the sacrifices necessary for their well-being, and set good loving boundaries that help them grow. Whatever you have and whatever you are, give it over to God, so that you can fully receive God’s love and share that love in living out your purpose.

As we close, I’d invite you to grab your cell phones. Turn around and take a selfie if you want.  You can put me or one of the other more photogenic preachers in the background.  Then caption it with “Give it over to God’s love and purpose.” I’d also invite you as you leave here tonight not only to give over your phones to God’s love and purpose, but also your lives.  You are an incredible class of graduates, and God is opening up a future for each and every one of you where you can love others and make a difference in the world.  God loves you.  The world actually needs you.  And we are all proud of you.  Make God bless you during this special week and throughout the rest of your lives.