Jesus: A Moving Target

Pentecost 2016

May 15, 2016

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Jesus says if you can see him in someone else you can see him. In Matthew 25: 44 – 46, “They (the disciples) also will answer, “Lord, when did we you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” He has long made this allegiance with the stranger his hallmark.

Meet Myrna. The United States Government deported Myrna three years ago and two weeks ago she walked to the border and was allowed to walk across the border and meet her 14 year old and 8 year old daughters, who were also brought there. Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz of the New York City Sanctuary Coalition walked in both directions with the daughters and the mother, across the border and back across the border. We all see Jesus in this successful reunion. It was my back-story privilege to speak with a man at border control and to urge him to allow the passage to take hold. He did not agree on the phone to allow the passage but rumor has it that he did. Myrna will now apply for refugee status and we believe she will be so granted. She spoke to our congregation on Pentecost and spoke in her own language, so that we could try to hear her across the divide of our English and her Spanish. It was an awkward experience, to put it mildly. One older gent walked out, grumbling. “I don’t understand what she is saying.”

It is easy to identify with Jesus the successful companion. I also want to comment on his spotty track record. For every one glorious reunification, there are thousands that never happen. Jesus remains unseen, just like most of us remain incomplete. We want these coming togethers to happen over and over again. And they don’t. And we don’t know how to improve on our track records. We grumble on our way out of service: “I just don’t understand what she is saying.” Plus, how could I possibly help?

You could help by offering sanctuary. Small s sanctuary which notices the horrible plight of migrants worldwide, prays for it, observes it, talks about it. Large S sanctuary like those churches attached here are doing! You could also set a table in some wilderness.

My favorite refugee story comes from Sarajevo. Remember Sarajevo? One of the women who walked out of her native land during that crisis took a small suitcase with her Sabbath candles and lace tablecloth in it. Her son wrote up his picnics with his mom in the camps, saying that they had less food than other people, until she brought out her tablecloth and candles. Then people shared with them. Bread and Roses is the title of the story he told.
His Mom gathered people together and put them back together around a tablecloth and candles They always shared their food with her. The son stopped complaining about what she had brought along for their journey.

Unfortunately the tablecloth got dirty. They had to sell the candlesticks and ran out of candles fairly early. For every one refugee who gets out and up, there are thousands, if not millions who do not. What are we to do with their Jesus? And his spotty track record?

We are to learn how to be riven until the Spirit fully lights on us and in us. We are incomplete, just as Jesus declares he is. He doesn’t say anything about right and wrong but instead says that he is incomplete. He needs the stranger to be seen. He needs the stranger to be fully understood.

Many of us describe Jesus as the true human or the ideal human. If he is riven and split, so are we. Learning to be riven is a practical art. It is the decision to intend to become whole and to know we will die in parts. It is the self-direction of touching suffering and learning to be less afraid of it. LaShawn Warren of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice says in a Yale Divinity School Reflections Spring 2016 article, “I have come to realize it is impossible to change the world without being proximate to the brokenness we seek to heal.”

Likewise in the Pentecost story, the people all had only their own language. They were jammed together in an Upper Room. Suddenly, a spirit came upon them and they experienced the miracle of understanding each other. They became whole and complete after being partial and incomplete. They understood each other and recognized themselves in each other.

The most practical thing I can tell you about becoming whole and complete is here. Stay close to suffering. Approximate it. Don’t be afraid to touch the people you can’t help. Learn to be as useless as they are. As my friends told me last year during a Black Lives matter event, where I was feeling particularly (first-world) hopeless and helpless, we just need someone to stand in the mud with us. That pesky mud returns. Surprisingly, many of us put a lot of effort into avoiding suffering. “Don’t’ go to that neighborhood.” “Don’t go to that school.” “Be safe.” Slight turns in the direction of touching suffering can change these behaviors. Go to that neighborhood or school. Accompany an immigrant to an ICE check-in. Tutor. Make sure you don’t live your life protected from suffering. You will only become more riven, more isolated, more alone. You will certainly become less complete. That lack of completion will dog your days and your ways. Becoming proximate to brokenness will actually make you less open. I don’t know how that works so much as I know it does.

In horrifying situations, like that being experienced around the world by the Syrian refugees, you can at least grant the courtesy of noticing the plight of the wanderers. That noticing makes a difference, for you and for them. Of course those wandering right now, no matter when this book is published, wonder as they wander. Does anybody give a damn that I am here right now, far from home, not knowing where my feet will take me? The answer can be, impotently, yes. Especially for those on whom the spirit does light and who have spiritual gumption.

Complete humanity is a destination we covet biologically as well as spiritually. Spirit filled people have the capaciousness for the brokenness that the unspirited or dispirited do not. Why not be spirit filled? The spirit is willing on just about any occasion.

My denomination, the United Church of Christ, has an unfortunate habit of calling every other church Plymouth or Pilgrim Church. We imagine ourselves as pilgrims, which is a much nicer word than refugee or immigrant. The latter implies something wrong about you or yours or your homeland. The former implies that you are marching in the light of God. I love the United Church of Christ. I love the United States of America. I am torn, even riven, by the way we blame immigrants and deport them regularly. I fear that we are making a lie out of our own welcoming and open truth. We are becoming a forgery of ourselves. We are lying to ourselves about ourselves. These forgeries are at the root of our sense of bad timing or time famine. Consider this poem about Pilgrims by William Stafford. It is about the visit at the door of those who would convince us of something. I want to think of all of us, insiders and outsiders, first and second and third worlders, as having something to offer to each other. We are all angels to each other. We can complete each other. We are all hosts and guests.

“They come to the door, usually carrying or leading
a child, always with The Book held between them
and the world. They quote Ezekiel, Daniel, Kings.
They look at us and think of Nebuchadnezzar
eating the grass. It is good to listen, because
maybe they are angels, and behind them the sky arches,
the trees glisten in worship of the sun.
These travelers in the Word and their offspring have
their commission from somewhere, filtered down, through
mistakes, pride, greed, and the plans committees
make, the way pilgrims have always come.
Over their shoulders day extends its hand;
beside them a child whimpers. It bows its head
as we bow: it hungers; it cries; it will be fed.

Getting a hold of our own metaphors about ourselves will help heal our bad timing and turn it in to good timing. How? By decreasing the attention we have to pay to our forgeries and allowing us to walk in more truth.

Consider another metaphor, beyond the pilgrim one. Think of how we look at the English settlement in Virginia in 1607. It is a prime story about how we Americans think of our wandering suffering. We were also immigrants and we have turned our wander into heroism about ourselves. Maybe there was also terrible suffering? Have we come through that suffering? Or just ignored it? Have we come through the suffering we have inflicted on others? How much did our first world lives, such as they are, come from theft from the natives and theft of labor from the slaves? What is it that we are really hiding? For me, I have had to look at my own privilege through the lens of how much it actually cost others and came from others. I have a fundamental incompletion here. There are no possible reparations that are adequate. But I can notice. I can acknowledge the riven. I can even see the separation of peoples as fundamental to my existence, not accidental.

What practical suggestion lurks here? Either extend the title Pilgrim to everyone or call yourself a refugee. Or both. Know what you want to say when you knock on another’s door. You do have something to say and to offer. Also be ready to listen to the angels who knock on your doors. Above all stop denying history and forging your truth. It will help as you try to become complete and try to have enough time.

Try to listen to the Jamestown story, as told by Garrison Keillor, in a different key, as a pilgrim and a refugee:

“The fleet was made up of three ships, 39 crew members, and 103 passengers - all men and boys; the women wouldn't come along for another year and a half. They soon found out that island they chose was in the middle of Algonquian-speaking Indian territory, with some 14,000 people already living there.
After four months at sea, the colonists' provisions were already running low when they arrived at Jamestown. They wasted no time in unloading their ships and breaking ground on their new settlement, which they named Jamestown in honor of their king, James I. The governing council chose Edward Wingfield to be the colony's first president. One of the seven council members was a man named John Smith, who originally had been sentenced to hang for mutiny until the orders revealed that the Virginia Company had named him to the council. John Smith was leading two other men on a search for provisions when some Indians captured them. Smith's companions were killed, and Smith was taken back to the Indian village as a hostage. His life was saved after Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, interceded on his behalf. Powhatan and Smith established a trade relationship in spite of the tension between their two factions.
(Note the Pentecost here: they are completing each other. They are trying to unify and become one and not be riven.)
Women began arriving in 1608, but the men vastly outnumbered them. John Smith was in charge of the colony by this time, and he had a pretty good trading relationship with Powhatan and his people. But when a gunpowder fire injured him, he went back to England, never to return to the colony. Things fell apart after he left: the colonists fought with the Indians, and were unable to supply enough food for themselves due to the prolonged drought. In their weakened state, they were more susceptible to illness, and many of them died from starvation or disease. They referred to the post-John Smith era as "the starving time." By the spring of 1610, they were talking seriously about abandoning the colony and returning to England, when a fleet arrived from England bearing provisions and a charter that put Jamestown under military law. “
This story is one of dozens of UR or origin stories for the United States. It grounds us in a beginning. What does the beginning have to do with today? Or what does history have to do with us? Lots. But we have to take the time, the time we do have, to develop the capacity to understand our origins. Why bother caring about anything besides yourself? Or anything that is not yourself? Why bother caring about the long ago? Why? Because without that care for the proximate you are split in two. You are riven. Is there anything you can do to help? Yes, you can notice. That may be all you can do but at least you can do that. The most interesting people are the people in the corners. The most interesting people are the ones you can’t see. They are hidden in plain sight.
There is a great way of reading parables, in which you take the role of everything in the parable. You are both the prodigal son and the father and the brother. Why not learn to read American history from the point of view of all the people in the story? Why not become complete?
You will have better timing and enough time if you can see the other. You might even see Jesus. Or become more capable of being whole or truly human.

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