Sermon May 3, 2015
Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8
The day after Easter, I went to the City Council meeting. The Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Justice sponsored a memorial saying immigrants should be treated as human beings and asking Congress to follow through on the President’s Executive Order. The Council listened to one person after another talking about how they contribute to the welfare of this community in a variety of ways. They described their work and their constant fear of being deported. The most touching voice was a little girl who asked the Council to pass the memorial (which had no legal power – it was simply a statement supporting the immigrant community). As she talked she began to sob because she is so afraid of her parents being deported.
Today is Immigrants Rights Sunday in the UCC. A man stopped by the church this week to ask for help. His English was much better than my Spanish. He had gotten a job in Santa Fe after looking for six months. The job required him to bring his concrete finishing tools, but he needed $52 to get them from a nearby pawnshop. I am struck over and over by how many obstacles people face as they try to get jobs and support themselves and their families.
Our book group is reading Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders. The author, Chris Hoke describes his work as a chaplain with prisoners and former gang members. We read about two young men that learned to fish and discovered a freedom and joy in fishing. They were chosen to participate in a rather elite fishing program that would educate participants in bugs and ecology and fly-fishing. Author David James Duncan paid for two young men and Chris to participate in the program. Juan, who was fresh out on bail and Teddy, a gang member, were chosen. Chris had his doubts about how these two would do in this elite program, but they loved it! They loved the river. Members of the class really loved them. The culmination of the class was a trip to fish in British Columbia, Canada. Both Juan and Teddy were so excited about the trip. They had never camped before. Chris made sure to have plenty of legal documentation for Juan and Teddy, but the official spotted their different skin color and tattoos. They were released back to the state of Washington and told they would be permanently detained as criminals if they ever tried to cross into Canadian territory again. (pp. 132-152)
It was so disappointing to watch these eager young men who had found something they loved to do and were so excited about the opportunity before them realize that they will always be criminals in the eyes of many people. How will they ever get a fresh start? Who will give them a chance?
This book is filled with story after story of young men who are hungry for a blessing. They have been told over and over that they are worthless.
Our system is broken. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated. Since 1970 our prison population has grown 700%. Over the last ten years immigrants have been the fastest growing group of incarcerated people (ACLU of Texas, “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in our Shadowed Private Prison System”). The Immigrant Customs Enforcement has a quota of 34,000 detention beds maintained at all times, a quota set by U.S. Congress. There are around 23,000 immigrants filling prisons that are owned by multinational corporations. These numbers are terribly disturbing. These numbers are terribly disturbing. What are we doing?
Surrounded by our current situation, we turn to the readings today. The Acts story today is rather strange, but I have always found it engaging. The story begins with an angel telling Philip to travel to a deserted road at noon. This is not the first, nor the last time in Acts someone will hear an absurd order from God. So, he jogs over and runs by a chariot where a man is reading out loud. It was customary for scripture to be read aloud. Philip jogs alongside and asks the man if he understands what he is reading. The man is both an insider and an outsider – he holds status in the queen’s court and has some wealth to be able to have a copy of the scripture. He is hungry to know God, but he has no status in the church. In order to serve in the queen’s court, he has been castrated. He has been castrated to serve in the queen’s court. He would not have been allowed to enter the temple because of his questionable sexual status.
The man, in great humility, says to Philip, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” He asks Philip to be his guide. When they see a pool of water on the side of the road, the man longs to be baptized, but is well aware that it may not be possible. He asks and Philip baptizes him.
If you can’t make sense of this story, try this modern day parallel: imagine a transgender person driving a BMW in a bad neighborhood of Los Angeles asking a street preacher to go for a ride and talk theology.
I believe that the church should be a place where we come to have our minds and our hearts expanded, but so many have experienced it as a place where walls are built and people are told they are not welcome. The book of Acts is the story of the early church. It begins with a crazy story called Pentecost, which you will hear in three weeks and it spreads like wildfire. People are joining this movement at every turn and giving themselves to follow Jesus. The man in this story wants to be part of this movement. Sources say that he went on to start a church.
It is powerful to me that God sends Philip to meet this man where he is and to feed his hunger to follow Jesus. It is powerful that Philip goes willingly and then says yes when the man wants to be baptized. He doesn’t put up a bunch of rules or debate about whether it is ok to do this or not. He says yes and cultivates another follower.
Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that Jesus said yes to people. He met the ones who had been told no, who had no worth or status and he cared for them. He didn’t ask what their credentials were or if they deserved his love. He just gave it. I think that is what we are about here. We are meeting each person and honoring the hunger that brings him or her to us and we are saying yes to our shared humanness, yes to love, and yes to caring.
The church has spent way too much energy deciding who is in and who is out. We don’t need more rules or ways to make people measure up or deserve to be part of us. We need to find ways to say yes to the human beings right in front of us and welcome them to be full participants. We are called to open ourselves to the ways God comes to us and we can be sure it is happening all the time. It requires us to find ways to say yes.
Rock Star Bono said, “I am still amazed at how big, how enormous a love and mystery God is—and how small the minds that attempt to corral this life force into rules and taboos, cults and sects.” (quoted in Good News, July-August 2002, p. 40)
May we open our minds and hearts to people in our path. May we honor their hunger. May we feed their bodies and souls. May we try and see each person with the eyes of God. It is then that we will see the fruit that John talks about. When we love as God loves us, we will discover that love produces the most amazing fruit.
This morning we remember that God meets us where we are and extends an invitation to us to come and be fed. As we receive the bread and juice, we know that God is feeding us so that we can feed this hungry world. May the love we receive at this table, be poured from us extending this welcome as wide as wide