Movers, shakers, law-breakers

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Meditations on Matthew 2, adapted from a sermon preached at First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, July 29, 2018.


I became an immigrant this year. I have moved to Honduras, for my work, and I have applied for permanent residency in that country. Of course I did this by choice. I sought a job, was called by the Presbyterian Church, and I accepted the call.

In Matthew chapter 2, there is much migration. Magi from Persia to Judea. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Judea to Egypt. The magi back to Persia, by some other route. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Egypt to Galilee. There is much migration. But very little choice.

The only person who doesn’t move in this story is King Herod, a puppet king, a cacique or a maharaja, if you will, of the Roman Empire. King Herod stays still. He wields enormous power here, and holds it so tightly and so fearfully that he is willing to slaughter hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of infants. Simply because he was afraid of losing or sharing power.

Herod’s word was law, and these astrologers traveling from Baghdad or from who knows from where would have known this. The text says all of Jerusalem, or that is, all of the privileged courts paying homage to Rome, displayed their fear of this newly rumored “king of the Jews.” Even for the foreign astrologers, to disobey Herod was to disobey Caesar. To disobey Caesar was to disobey God.

So what are we to make of their decision to protect the holy child by going home on a different route? They certainly made a choice, and a risky choice. They could have been hauled in, arrested, tortured, forced to tell, forced to stay.

By grace, yes, but also by the civilly disobedient choice of the wise ones from the east, the Christ child’s life was spared. They made a radical, law-breaking decision. They could have taken the legal route—finding God where the powers of the day told them to find God: in the empire, in the law, in the king. But where did they find God?

And what does this teach us about where we should be looking for God? Certainly today we have many choices…where to seek god?

Do we think the magi had a choice?

I can tell you that in Honduras, choice or desire is rarely a factor in a person’s moving across borders, deciding where to live or whether to stay.

A springboard for my ministry in Honduras was time spent in 2014 on the border in El Paso, Texas. I volunteered with an organization that housed and helped hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant children and mothers who were seeking asylum, mostly from Central America. This summer, the same organization started helping thousands more, mostly parents reunited with children after cruel separation.

And now I see these mothers and children from another perspective. Since moving to Honduras six months ago, I have not gone a week without meeting a family who has someone in the states, either documented or “mojado” or undocumented. I have met a couple who work as coyotes, smuggling people across borders for a fee. Every family in Honduras is touched by migration.

Remittances, or money sent back into Honduras from other countries, make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Central Bank of Honduras and the World Bank, and that number has increased faster than the country’s overall GDP in the past year. The economy has no momentum of its own. Honduras is hugely dependent on the United States, on the International Monetary Fund, on the World Bank.

What does this mean to us today, when we in reading this text in Matthew? When you read in the scripture “Galilee,” think of Honduras, the “developing” neighbor of Judea. When you read “Jerusalem,” think of Tegucigalpa, and remember its iron-clad connection to Rome, that is, Washington D.C., the seat of political and economic power. When you read “Egypt” think of the Texas-Mexico border, where the refugees flee. The dynamics of dependence and power are strikingly similar.

Of course, the gospel writer likely chose to emphasize these details in order to concretize Jesus’ claim to divinity, as outlined in the Hebrew scriptures as well as within the Roman political structure. This text is subversive in both directions. And the infant Jesus, making no choice of his own, becomes a refugee, confounding all expectations of where divinity should be found—that is, not in Jerusalem, but on the highways and byways and the in-between places.

As I said, I’m an immigrant by choice. I have the enormous privilege of a U.S. passport. Earlier this summer, I traveled twice, once with a Honduran Presbyterian woman and once with a youth group, because eight of the youth and one Presbyterian Women partner were barred by the U.S. Embassy from completing the trip. These teens and 20-somethings, even with letters of support from U.S. Presbyterians, could not provide enough “evidence” in a three-minute interview that they were not intending to stay permanently in the United States.

Imagine if you were denied that visa. Imagine that your family is permanently separated, that your husband or one of your children is in the United States, and that you have no resources to continue applying for tourist visas. Imagine that you have a job that pays you $15 a day. Imagine that you live with many other family members in a barrio of Tegucigalpa that is governed by a violent gang that is recruiting your younger children. Imagine that the police refuse to enter your neighborhood for fear of their own lives, or else they collude with the gang to keep residents in and non-residents in fear of entering.

What would you do? Would you flee? Would you try to reunite your family? And perhaps a more profound question: Where would you be finding God, among all these dire choices? Where would you be looking for God? In the empire, in the law?

Now imagine that Joseph and Mary had been denied permission to travel to Egypt. Or to return to Galilee. Imagine that the Crucifixion had not happened when Jesus was 33 years old but 3 years old. Where would we be expecting Joseph and Mary to find God, or to look for God?

I can tell you where I have found God. I have found God in the faces of immigrant children eating a peanut butter sandwich, their first meal in days. I have found God in the faces of the youth of Puerto Grande, Honduras, who long to make their hometown a place they don’t have to leave to survive. I have found God in the efforts of the Presbyterians of El Horno, struggling against government efforts to remove them from farmland because they don’t have ownership papers, even though they have lived there for generations—struggling to remain in the home they know and love.

I have found God in the face of the Presbyterian elder of Buenos Aires, who is doing seminary-level work even though he never attended school a day in his life and can barely read and write. He wants to better himself, to better his church, to better his community and make it a place that young people can choose to stay and make a home in.

Where do we look for God, and where do we truly find God? This story of the slaughter of innocents tells us: Not where you think you should find God, among the rulers, among the powerful, among those where conventional wisdom tells us we should find God. We find God in the innocent, the lowly, the vulnerable, the endangered. We find God among the movers and migrants. We find God among those who resist and defy. We find God among the law-breakers.

Advertisements

Be brave and strong

Teaching a workshop on the sacraments to pastors and elders of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras.

Written as a reflection for a mission connections letter.

I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because THE LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9, Common English Bible

This verse was read before I knelt and prayed before the Presbyterian congregations of Honduras, their pastors’ hands laid on me, and I was installed as the mission co-worker assigned to work with them for the next four-year term.

The commandment to be “brave and strong,” to not be afraid, was particularly meaningful to me because I arrived in Honduras immediately after a time of political turmoil and violence. At the time of my installation, I had spent the previous month heeding my Honduran colleagues’ advice on where to go and not go, whether to drive alone, whether to visit strange neighborhoods for the first time. I had chosen a rental home and a car with safety and security as my primary goals. I had watched news of political protesters killed by military forces, police officers killed by gang members, bus drivers extorted for “taxes” to thugs, a corporate executive arrested for masterminding the assassination of an environmental activist. There is plenty to fear in Honduras.

I am used to being independent and bold — as a journalist and as a chaplain, I went into places where others feared to tread. I am not used to heeding the fears and worries of others: I travel alone, I live alone, I have driven cross-country alone, I have accompanied the dying alone in their hospital rooms.

Blessed by pastors in Honduras as I am installed as mission coworker.

“Be brave and strong.” “Don’t be terrified.” I mulled over those words as I knelt on Pastor Edin Samayoa’s sweater — he had taken it off and put it on the floor to cushion my knees. Pastor Edin leads a church in a neighborhood where I am not allowed to go alone, or at night, and where newcomers have to announce their presence, roll down the car windows, and get permission from gang members to enter.

Your God goes with you wherever you go. Those words were made flesh to me as I was helped to my feet, and dozens of people, everyone in the congregation, came forward to embrace me and hug me tight, and whisper in my ear their blessings and prayers. “I’m with you, you’re not alone.” “I pray God’s blessing on you.” “You are already a blessing to us, and we are so happy you’re here.” “Whatever you need, we will be there for you.” “We love you.” I felt their hands on my shoulders, their lips on my cheek, their tears of joy and welcome on my shoulder.

They are with me, and I am with them, and God is among us, wherever we are. In my short time in Honduras, I have seen the flowering of new projects and ideas, sparks of the Holy Spirit’s movement — among lay pastors studying to improve their care of their congregations, among women working to take over and renovate a spiritual retreat center for the benefit of all 26 Presbyterian churches here. I am learning also to reach out towards the warm spirit of caring that has been offered to me here. Nothing I do here will be alone. The Holy Spirit will be with me, embodied in the care and concern of hundreds of church members, the hospitality of strangers who have become family. I am learning to leave “alone” behind.

The ‘visible sign of invisible grace’

Reflections from weekend of teaching, learning, and my installation as mission co-worker with Iglesia Presbiteriana de Honduras:

Part of my job is to assist with a pastoral education program offered by the Instituto Bíblico Pastoral from Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana. The professors and facilitators asked me to teach a workshop on the sacraments from a Presbyterian/Reformed perspective. So I and my regional liaison, Tracey King-Ortega, prepared a two-hour lesson and activities.

I knew beforehand that the sacraments can be a delicate subject between Honduran and U.S. Presbyterians, because most U.S. Presbyterians baptize infants and children, and the Honduran church believes in a “believer’s baptism,” that is, a person must be of age and able to choose baptism for themselves. There are valid arguments in the Reformed tradition for both, so my goal was to present the varied arguments and discuss the reasons that the Honduran church believes one way and the U.S. church believes differently.

I wasn’t getting very far and had the feeling that most of the pastors/lay leaders in the room were somewhat unthinkingly entrenched. Finally I said, “For example, I was baptized as a baby. By my grandfather, who was a pastor.” I went on to explain that I was confirmed as a teenager in my church, and that was my own conscious decision, and I was not rebaptized. Later, I was ordained, first as a deacon and then as a pastor in my church, and in both cases was following a call by my community and by God, and in each case “remembered” and invoked my baptism but was not rebaptized. “Now not all North Americans feel this way. My mother, for example, was baptized as an infant, and then again as an adult, because she felt that it was important for her to make that decision for herself. But I don’t feel that way. In my heart, I feel baptized, even though I don’t technically remember it.

“Now, in your church, where I am now called to serve, do you think I can participate fully, without being rebaptized? For example, may I take communion, for which baptism is a prerequisite?”

Wide eyes and silence for a few seconds. I knew that at least some in the room were thinking to themselves that, yes, I probably ought to be baptized again, but how could they say that to a new pastor/teacher/missionary that they just met?

Discussion opened up again. The room was still split, but we were somehow no longer unthinkingly entrenched. We talked about the importance and meaning of baptism in our tradition, and we talked about the importance of inclusion as well as personal independence and liberty. We didn’t come to a consensus, but that didn’t matter. We started thinking about the reasons why we do what we do, and not only about how to convince others to think as we do.

Near the end of the discussion, a lay pastor, a 65-year-old farmer with no formal education outside this pastoral education program, shared his own story of personal conversion and baptism. And he said directly to me, “What matters most is your own conscience. If in your heart you are baptized, then you are baptized.”

What a pastor. I felt so affirmed by his response. I felt he was telling me, “I trust you and welcome you, even though we’re different.”

What I learned in teaching this workshop is that formal education, intellectualism, systematic theology, critical thinking are all important tools. It helps if you have them and use them. But they are not what make a pastor. A pastor is someone who touches your heart, who helps you feel seen and trusted and welcomed. And by feeling seen and trusted and welcomed, then we are able to see and trust and welcome others. Personal connection, tenderheartedness, vulnerability, and story sharing: Those are the most important tools of a pastor.

How appropriate, then, that we were discussing the sacraments, of which John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion said: “The seals which are affixed to diplomas, and other public deeds, are nothing considered in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment, and yet this does not prevent them from sealing and confirming when they are appended to writings. …  sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture.”

The authority of love

From a sermon preached Feb. 8, 2015, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Calif.

Romans 13:1-10

A little over two weeks ago, I was having dinner in a shelter for migrants in Agua Prieta, Mexico. A man I was talking to had been deported from the United States about four months prior and was contemplating trying to cross the formidable border again, to go back to the taco cart he pushed in Salt Lake City, and the $700 he had hidden under the battery of the car he had left at a neighbor’s house. “I got here, and crossing is much more dangerous than it was the first time,” he told me. “I’m not sure I will try it.” He asked me how long I would be in Mexico. I was traveling with a group of Presbyterians, studying Central American migration issues. “We are traveling from Tucson, Arizona, south through Mexico, through Guatemala, to El Salvador,” I told my dinner partner. “We are doing the migration in reverse.”

“Ah, the difference is,” said Miguelito, “They aren’t going to try to kill you.”

We looked at each other for a few seconds, over our chicken legs and rice.

“That’s true,” I said.

My trip had started on the U.S.-Mexico border, with a visit to the desert, to the fence, with Border Patrol agents who speak of migrants they are trying to catch as “bodies” or “arrests” or “aliens” or “bad guys”—never as people—and the trip ended at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, with a presentation about the billions of dollars the U.S. has poured into El Salvador in order to make it safe for trade of U.S. goods and multi-national corporate interests, not of people.

In Arizona we heard from Presbyterian pastors whose churches were illegally infiltrated by U.S. government operatives in the 1980s, while they harbored refugees from the Cold War military enterprises in Central America. We read about just how dangerous crossing the border in the Arizona desert is: Hundreds have died, and as the border fence grows higher and longer, arrests drop, and deaths increase. In Guatemala, we learned about the dire consequences for overstaying a visa in the United States (felony charges, deportation, permanent exclusion), compared with the consequences of a U.S. passport carrier accidentally overstaying a visa in Guatemala: a fine of about $20 and fixing the paperwork. To apply for a visa to come to the United States costs $160 for every application, every time, win or lose. I didn’t even have to buy a visa to enter Guatemala, or visit a consulate. The power of a U.S. passport.

As Christians, in a country where power and privilege is becoming more and more unbalanced, and where assistance to our neighbors is based not on humanitarian needs but economic interests, how shall we understand the apostle Paul here: “Be subject to the governing authorities. … for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants.”

The strange thing is that Paul was writing to Christians in Rome shortly after Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews (and presumably Jewish Christians) from Rome. And Paul writes shortly before a time when Emperor Nero would pin the blame for Rome’s burning on Christians and have them killed and burned right and left.

Paul would not have been blind to this. I want to offer the possibility that Paul was writing this bit of Romans ironically.*

Watch how many times he subtly subverts the governmental authority to God’s law: authority rests on God, God appointed, it is God’s servant, does not bear the sword in vain, servant of God, be subject because of conscience, the authorities are God’s servants.

Owe no one anything except love. For love is the fulfilling of the law.

Love is the fulfilling of the law.

During this reverse migration, Miguelito was right, and no one tried to kill me, not at the embassies or government offices, not at the borders, not in the gang-run neighborhoods of San Salvador. We visited not only “the authorities” but also with church women, with shelters, with migrants themselves, with people who had been kidnapped and maimed on the route to the border, and with people who had returned from the U.S. in order to create more opportunities and relationships in their homeland. We met families who had been torn apart. We met families who vowed not to be torn apart again.

The issue of migration is extremely complex. Most of the people on our seminar trip started with the goal of finding a “root cause” of migration, as if migration is a problem to be solved rather than part of the human condition. We are concerned for the thousands of unaccompanied children, young mothers, babies, poor people crossing our borders and seeking asylum from violence and poverty in their homes.

Most of the “authorities” in the migration system, most of the power, most of the money, most of the voices, are on the side of the governments, particularly the U.S. government, which so far is doing little to facilitate a just and safe migration, but is doing everything to stop migration.

Where is God in this extremely complex system? Is the U.S. government, the fence, the border patrol, the embassy, the economic aid, the detention centers, the immigration courts: Are they subject to God’s authority? Where was God on this 2,300 mile journey? Where is God for the migrants who are still on the 2,300 mile journey?

God’s authority is love. I saw love on this journey. Sometimes it was more visible than others. I saw it in the face of a mother who is raising the baby who is the product of rape by kidnappers. I saw it in the face of Miguelito, a hardscrabble taco-vendor deportee who talked with me candidly about the dangers he knows he’s facing. I saw God in the faces of amputees who had been maimed by the “Beast” train that carries migrants through Mexico. I saw love in the face of a young man who founded a café, and an education center, and an art gallery for youth, so he could reconnect with the Guatemalan identity that the Mayan God of light and hope birthed him into. I saw love in the face of a pastor who was willing to become a felon in order to do the right thing and protect a Central American family.

I saw love too in the face of the Border Patrol agent who quit his job as a teacher because he thought he could save more children faster in law enforcement. I saw love in the face of the Salvadoran government agent who is trying her very best to make sure the 50,000 migrants who will be deported back to her streets know that El Salvador hasn’t forgotten them, and cares enough to help them get on their feet. I saw love in the face of the U.S. AID worker who believes in making Central America safer and more prosperous.

The systems and processes that we have built are extremely complex. Too complex even to find God in them. We had to look really hard to find the authority of love. But we found it. And that is where Paul points us to when he tells us to obey the authorities. In order to do that, we must look really hard. We must find where the love is. That is where God is.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authority. The governing authority that is love.

* Carter, Timothy L. 2004. “The irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum 46, no. 3: 209-228. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 9, 2015).