Sermon: September 10, 2017 – “Just Asking Questions”

 

“Just Asking Questions”

Text: Ephesians 2: 14-19

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

I want to begin this morning by sharing some personal information about my family and what I think may be a unique experience and perspective because of events that took place while I was growing up. To gain perspective, we have to travel back in time to 1966. This makes me about 10 years old. It is also the year that my oldest sibling, a sister named Shelda would have been graduating from Westmar College. This is the same college in LeMars, Iowa where my dad taught physics and the town where I grew up.

Shelda, if I remember correctly, had a double major in college, one of which was Spanish and with that Spanish major, she wanted to use that education in her career which she did. But before she began teaching Spanish in the public school system, Shelda spent two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, where of course she used Spanish quite a bit.

I remember the day when the acceptance letter arrived from the Peace Corps. Shelda was still in college, but living at home with the rest of the family as she finished up her senior year. I remember that she was in class when the letter arrived, but I was already home from school and other siblings were present as well. It was with great anticipation that we waited for Shelda to come home from class and open the letter with the Peace Corps return address. After it was opened and acceptance into the program confirmed, a great celebration ensued!

Shelda served in the Peace Corps for two years, from what I think was the summer of 1966 to the summer of 1968. While she was in Guatemala City working in a hospital there, she met a native Guatemalan who was also working in the hospital as an orderly. His name was Federico, but everyone called him Lico for short. It wasn’t long before the letters we received from Shelda started to include all the things that her and Lico had done together.

To shorten the story a bit, when Shelda was ready to return to the United States in the summer of 1968, Lico came with her and they were married in November of 1968. When Lico arrived he knew very little English, although Shelda had begun to teach him some. They returned to LeMars and lived there for a number of years.

Now here is what I think is the fascinating part of this story. Over the next couple of years, Lico learned Enlgish well enough that he could start to attend classes in the evenings to earn his GED. Which he did.

Then with a GED in hand he was able to enroll in college, which he did at Westmar where Shelda had graduated and my dad taught physics. In about four years, Lico not only graduated from college, but graduated with honors and proceeded to have his own career teaching in the public school system and coaching soccer on the side.

At some point during all of this, I remember another celebration we had as a family. There was a cake and home-made ice cream and a healthy collection of friends and family and relatives all gathered at our house. This time we were celebrating the day that Lico became a US citizen.

It has taken quite a few years of perspective in order for me to fully appreciate all that Lico accomplished and the magnitude and the importance of that day when citizenship was granted.

With that perspective comes the stark realization that in today’s political climate and attitudes that some hold toward immigration, Lico’s story may not have been possible. Of course we can’t know for certain, but I’m sure the system has changed a great deal since 1968. I’m also certain it hasn’t gotten any easier to accomplish what Lico has accomplished. Today, Lico is retired and recently celebrated his 80th birthday; he and Shelda live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area in Texas.

I wanted to offer this background information from a personal level so you might better understand that I probably have a unique perspective and unique personal experience with the potential upside of positive immigration.

Immigration has been in the news recently and the current administration is seeking to make some changes within our system. Some of those changes I’m not certain are beneficial and I think some of the attitudes of suspicion, fear and outright racism are hiding behind the veil of immigration reform. This is a complicated issue and everyone will need to gather information as they can and come to their own conclusions. You will not hear from me what you should think about this issue; rather you will only hear some comments and observations and questions I have as it relates to this issue. You are free to think for yourselves.

Having said that, I want to return to the text I read a few minutes ago and make some observations about what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians. First of all, I think it is worth mentioning that the political climate and the tensions that we experience today are not all that different from the situation that Paul found himself in. For Paul, there were aliens coming to Christianity that others felt did not have the right to do so. These aliens were the Gentiles.

For Paul, there were only two groups that made up the entire world view from his perspective; there were Jews and there were Gentiles – that was it. In the text Paul says that Jesus has bridged the gap between these two groups, and the entire world, as far as Paul knew, was reconciled into a single humanity. Verse 16 says that both groups have been reconciled into one body; verse 14 says the wall that had been dividing the two groups has been broken down. Paul defines it even further as he says that Jesus came to offer peace to those who were near and those who are far off. In verse 19 Paul summarizes all these thoughts in a powerful closing statement; “So you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

In response to Paul’s statement and example given us in this text, what would Paul’s thoughts be with regard to our current situation?

Last week the Attorney General of the United States made a statement about the end of what I consider to be a positive immigration program known as DACA. As Attorney General, he focused on the law side of the issue. To be exact, and I’m quoting here from his statement:

“To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. Therefore, the nation must set and enforce a limit of how many immigrants we admit each year and that means all cannot be accepted. Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering. Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our country at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.”

We can look again at the text in Ephesians about what Paul had to say about the law. In verse 15 the text says that “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

So I will ask another question; is what Paul says here about the law applicable in any way to our current situation?

Others have weighed in on this idea since Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians 2,000 years ago. Martin Luther King, Jr is remembered for having said once that “we should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’.”

A literary giant and scholar who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union for a number of years and labeled as a dissenter and heretic, Alexander Solzhenitsyn has observed the following: “A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence of society.”

So great thinkers and philosophers that have gone before us question the benefits of a dogmatic adherence to the law, however it is defined. What do you think Martin Luther King, Jr or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or even Paul would think of the argument brought forth by our Attorney General?

The last question I want to ask is what would Emma Lazarus think of our current situation? If that name rings a bell, you might be remembering that Emma Lazarus is the author of the poem “The New Colossus” which is memorialized on a plaque installed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. This poem’s last few verses has become immortalized in our nation’s history:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I will close with just one more observation. Last week I made reference to another sacred text that is more ancient than our own New Testament. It is as old as or older than much of our Old Testament and is considered to be a valued asset in philosophical thought and theological exploration. What I am referring to is what is called the Tao Te Ching; this ancient sacred text is Chinese in origin and is said to have been authored by a Chinese prophet named Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is a collection of observations listed as verses, numbered one through 81. It is verse 17 which I found to be so interesting in our current situation. Verse 17 of the Tao reads:

With the greatest leader above them, people barely know one exists.

Next comes one whom they love and praise.

Next comes one whom they fear.

Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him.

The great leader speaks little.

He never speaks carelessly.

He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.

When all is finished, the people say, “we did it ourselves.”

And that is food for thought.

Amen.

 

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