Delivered by the Rev. J. Gary Brinn on July 17, 2016
at First Congregational Church of Blue Hill
They say we become our parents, and I can sure see my late father when I watch my youngest sister. Amy and her husband Paul live in an old house, and the closets were not designed for our oversized lives. The bath towels only fit if they are folded a very particular way, and Paul, who is out of work for six to nine months on disability and trying to be helpful, has not mastered towel origami. Faced with a stack of mis-folded towels, Amy is apoplectic. Like my dad, her way is the right way.
At least she can sleep at night. This is not always the case, for Paul is a cop. It is a scary time to be in law enforcement. Weapons of mass murder are in all of our communities, paranoia runs rampant, fueled by politicians and the press. We refuse to fund care for the mentally ill and addicted. Extremists commit acts of unspeakable violence in the name of God, an Islamic Jihadi in Nice, a Christian Jihadi in Colorado Springs.
Many would divide the world into us and them, and it is easy to see why. Then God wanders in from the desert, three strangers in need of hospitality.
Abraham and Sarah, immigrants themselves, don’t know these strangers. They follow the custom of the desert peoples, they share what they have. This is an adaptive practice, for they all knew that at any point, they might be that stranger. The God thing, and the blessing that followed, are an interesting twist, though we should be mindful that the birth of Isaac lead to the expulsion of Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, born of Hagar, a slave.
Muslim tradition understands Ishmael as the ancestor of Mohammed just as the Christian tradition understands Isaac as the ancestor of Jesus, one brother supplanting the other, the shared traditions of the three monotheistic faiths. We could almost believe that we are doomed, that conflict between our tribes is inevitable. But God still wanders in from the desert, a Honduran child fleeing violence and drug gangs.
Like that Honduran child, the Hebrew people were an immigrant people. They were a people that had been enslaved, escaped, grown to be a powerful nation-state under one great king, then they forgot all that they shared in common and become politically divided, eventually collapsing.
They told their story, they wrote justice for the immigrant and care for the vulnerable into their laws, for they were mindful that they too were once strangers in a strange land.
God in the stranger, God wandering in from the desert. “When did we give you food when you were hungry Jesus? When did we clothe you when you were naked, tend to you when you were sick?” And the rabbi answered,“I say to you, when you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.
This is our story, the story of a God that shows up in unexpected places, that is with the vulnerable, the oppressed, the immigrant.
Telling our stories is important, not because we must cling to the past, try to recreate it, but because it tells us who we are, and if we are mindful, if we listen carefully, our stories tell us who we might become.
How about this story… they were angry at what they saw as injustice. Life had become militarized, men in uniform excessive in enforcement. So they covered their faces, these protesters, these thugs, and in the dead of night, they rioted, destroying property. Shameful, you might say. Surely they could find a better way to express their outrage.
It was December of 1773 and we call that riot the Boston Tea Party.
How can we condemn those who resist oppression when we claim a heritage that starts with rebellion against an unjust system in Egypt, that triumphs when a man unjustly executed by the state rises from the dead?
We are marked with protest, it is in the name of our movement, Protestant. Our nation was formed in protest and yet wrote oppression into our constitution, declaring African-Americans to be 3/5ths of a person.
And then, five innocent officers lost in Dallas. My brother-in-law, soon to once again be on the streets of Rochester, New York, has attended far too many funerals in his dress uniform.
My heart hurts. I do not know what to do. Like most of my United Church of Christ colleagues, I am more than willing to declare that Black Lives Matter, for the fact is that they have not mattered for most of American history. Yet some of the officers involved in situations of excessive force and abusive behavior are themselves members of minority groups, including officers involved in the fatal “rough ride” murder of Freddie Gray.
And our militarized police state does not exclusively claim the lives of African-American men, for the mentally ill and mentally disabled have also been victims, in fact, make up half of those killed in police shootings. Parents of an autistic young adult have as much to fear as parents of African-American boys.
We may find fault with the polemic documentarian Micheal Moore, but I think he was correct fourteen years ago when he argued in “Bowling for Columbine” that the 24-hour news cycle was contributing to the escalation of violence, feeding our anxiety and contributing the arming and militarization of our culture.
Yet Jesus lies dead on the floor of the Bataclan in Paris, in the bathroom at the Pulse nightclub.
He was shot and killed at Sandy Hook, shot in his car in Falcom Heights, Minnesota.
We see the aftermath on a Facebook live feed, a young boy holding a sign for the kind man who worked in his school cafeteria.
How can our hearts not shatter, not be torn in two as a mother cries in the streets of Orlando, for she cannot find her son, and he is not answering text messages.
Friends and family have told me that I will be safer in Blue Hill, that it seems an unlikely target for a terrorist attack, but I cannot celebrate, for my faith tells me that Jesus is with the oppressed, that Jesus is with the victim, that Jesus is standing on the promenade in Nice, celebrating Bastille Day.
Fear is not the answer, for Jesus says “be not afraid.” And in truth, fear is the original sin, fuels violence and division.
It is a difficult path, the razor’s edge between too much exposure and isolation. And we cannot choose isolation, for that is the wide road to Dachau and Srebrenica. We must remain engaged but must remain sane. Maybe a little less television news, maybe I turn off the breaking news alerts that make my smart phone buzz and leave me feeling sad and powerless. What is the right balance?
And there is Jesus. He has crossed the border. He is an immigrant. He is the victim of state violence, surely he must have done something to deserve it they say. If he had only listened and did what the authorities told him to do… He is not like us.
God wanders in from the desert, found in the stranger, the one who is hungry, bloody in the ditch. That is where we meet God, our God, God who is both Savior and scapegoat, victim and victor, a challenge and a blessing.
I can pray and I do. I can vote and I will. I can protest in the honored tradition of our faith and of our nation. But first I must love God where I find her, where I encounter him, here, on the street, in Tradewinds, the bag boy, the cop, with skin of every color. First, I must love God.
May we see God, for God is with us. Amen.