Sunday, June 22nd, 2014 – Second Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Genesis 21:8-21, Matthew 10:24-39
Hymns: “Standing on the Promises”, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”, “Wait for the Lord”, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”
“Who Then Shall We Fear”
Right now, in Arizona and Texas, there is a humanitarian crisis in progress. Since the start of the federal fiscal year on October 1, 2013, approximately 47,000 children have been apprehended in southern Texas. Hundreds of them have been sent to what has been approximated as a “warehouse” outside of Nogales, Arizona. Upon their arrival there, they sleep on plastic sheets, rarely shower, and live in conditions not unlike those in the New Orleans Superdome following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
You may ask, why are these children in this situation, and the answer is this: their presence in the United States is not legal. These are children from the war torn Latin American country of Guatemala and other impoverished Latin American countries further south. Their parents have, in desperation, entrusted them into the hands of coyotes – border crossing experts who would not be out of place in the most wretched hives of scum and villainy – in the hopes that their children will reach the United States and be able to experience the American dream.
Compounding the issue is that many of these children are sent here not to families, but to a whisper of a promise, a mere shadow of a hope that somebody MIGHT be able to help them – help them to live a life that allows them to grow up in a safe and caring environment, be educated at one of the hundreds of world-class colleges and universities in this country, be hired into a good job, have a family, live in the two story house with the white picket fence, two-point-five kids, a dog, and a sedan and an SUV in the garage, and MAYBE, someday, if they’re VERY lucky, see their status in this country include the words “United States Citizen.”
Yes, these children will likely never see their own parents again, but their parents have taken to heart the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” – and sent their children away on a crossing that will be perilous at best, fatal at worst. Indeed, so great is the draw to the United States, with potential unmatched and freedoms unparalleled in any other country in the world, that each year, millions of individuals from countries around the globe risk their lives, butting up against the laws not just of this country, but of their own home countries as well as whatever countries they cross on the way here, in the nearly vain hopes that they will be one of the tiny percentage that make it to America and successfully find their way in this country.
The least of these are the children. The children who are as young as a year old. The children who rarely have any say in the matter and certainly are not of an age to logically make the decisions that have been made for them.
The children that the United States government treats like criminals.
What do we have to fear?
You know, fear is one of the most pernicious feelings a human being can experience – indeed, one of the most destructive. One of the wisest thoughts I’ve ever heard on the feeling was that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, and hatred leads to suffering. Admittedly, that phrase was spoken by a Muppet named Yoda in Star Wars Episode I, but the provenance of the quote does nothing to diminish the wisdom within it. Think about it – for nearly a decade now, political forces on both the left and the right have gone out of their way to grossly blow out of proportion and capitalize on the fears of the country. These artificially enhanced fears have led to hatred between many on the left and many on the right. And as a result of that hatred… the entire country suffers.
In fact, we can look back thousands of years to see that very chain of events take place. In today’s Old Testament reading, we see a number of different things that have taken place because of fear. Abraham and Sarah were promised a child by God, but as the years passed, Sarah began to fear that the promise would never come to fruition. And so, instead of trusting in God, she instructed Abraham to have a child with her handmaiden, Hagar. Abraham did so, and named him Ishmael.
Of course, the child that God had promised was eventually born – Isaac. As far as we know, Ishmael loved his little brother. Indeed, the Scriptural account describes them playing together, as brothers will when they are boys. But Sarah grew fearful once more – fearful that Ishmael, not Isaac, would be the one to inherit Abraham’s wealth, fearful that Ishmael, not Isaac, would be the one to inherit the covenant made by God with Abraham. Her fears, of course, were unfounded – Isaac was the son who had been promised to them by God. The inheritance of wealth and covenant were his.
But Sarah feared Ishmael, and her fear grew into hatred. So, she made Abraham send away Hagar and Ishmael – something that, it should be pointed out, Abraham wanted no part of. He was instructed by God to maintain trust, and so sent them away.
Now, it is only natural that as Ishmael grew, he should have had some enmity toward his father, his step-mother, and his half-brother. He appears only once more in the Hebrew Scriptures, in Genesis 25 – when Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael together buried him in the tomb with Sarah. And after that, his story in our Bible comes to an end.
Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar, is a common figure in the Qu’ran as well as other Muslim writings. In fact, Muslims often refer to themselves of sons of Abraham and sons of Ishmael. He is revered in their Scriptures, and is considered one of the progenitors of the Muhammad and Islam as a whole.
Consider, if you will, the enmity that has existed, in forms ranging from subtle to violent, between the sons of Ishmael – the Muslim people – and the sons of Isaac – the Jewish and Christian people – for hundreds of years. Persecution and warfare has gone in both directions, and there has been great suffering experienced by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike as a result. And to think…
Perhaps this suffering could have been avoided had Sarah not submitted to her fears.
What do we have to fear?
Last week, I spoke of the Pharisees of the early church, people motivated by fear. They feared the loss of power and prestige within the Christian movement, and so sought to make others conform with their norms, to bend to their desires. These fears were well on their way to hatred and could have resulted in brief but significant suffering for those Gentiles who joined the churches of Galatia and Antioch had they not been nipped in the bud by Peter, Paul, and James.
In today’s Gospel passage, however, Jesus speaks to His followers of those motivated by fear whose hatred will cause them suffering. Much like the Pharisees spoken of in Acts a few years later, these are persons whose power and prestige is threatened. Perhaps He speaks of the religious elite, perhaps He speaks of the Roman government. Either way, He has told His followers that they could well be betrayed by family and friends, arrested, beaten, imprisoned – even executed. Such is the cost of following in my name, He tells them.
But then, He tells them something curious – “Have no fear of them,” Jesus instructs His followers. Yes, nearly two thousand years before George Lucas put the words in the mouth of a Muppet, Jesus knew and readily communicated to His followers that fear would lead to His followers developing hatred of their own, and that hatred would itself lead to suffering. And so Jesus tells His followers to not be afraid of those who persecute them. In fact, He tells them to look their fear in the face and respond with fearlessness!
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops!” Jesus charges His followers. If ever we wondered the origins of the song “This Little Light of Mine”, here they are – don’t put your light under a bushel, but stand on the rooftop and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
Jesus backs His charge to His followers up with what academics would call an “eschatological promise” – that though the body can be killed on earth, the soul cannot. “Do not fear that which can kill the body and not the soul, but rather that which can kill both,” Jesus tells them. And what can kill both?
Denial of the one who they have followed. Indeed, it would later become a theme in the accounts of martyrs in the centuries between the ascension of Christ and the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of Rome. Those who swore allegiance to Christ, even unto death, were confident that they would be acknowledged by Jesus before God, while those who chose to deny Christ to save their own lives would similarly be denied on the day of judgment.
But as far as Jesus is concerned, He will never need to deny one person, for if God cares even for the sparrows, He tells them, then what do you have to fear? If not one sparrow falls to its death without God’s knowledge, then how much more will the followers of Christ be cared for on earth and in heaven? God cares for those created in God’s own image, God will take care of them. Their bodies may be killed, but fear not – the soul will live eternally.
What do we have to fear?
How far we have come in the two thousand years since then – in the wrong direction. What do we fear today?
The Tea Party.
Westboro Baptist Church.
Clergy abuse run amok.
The ozone layer.
Faulty ignition switches.
Why? If we truly trust the words of Christ, what do we have to fear? Indeed, our mission should not be to cower in our fear and spit hatred in the hopes of causing suffering, but it should be to stand up to our fear! Some fears we must embrace, learn to not fear, and then there are others we must resist, overcome, even eradicate. If we are to eradicate sexual assault, we must shout from the rooftops that the fault lies not with the victim, but with a corrupted culture. If we are to learn to not fear those with whom we disagree, we must embrace them and actually hear them.
We live in a world where we fear children and clergy, because we have allowed ourselves to be overcome. We live in a world where we fear those whose political views differ from ours, because we have allowed ourselves to be overcome. We live in a world where we fear those who drive Toyota Priuses and those who own guns, because we have allowed ourselves to be overcome. We are overcome by our fears, when indeed, we should be proclaiming life from the rooftops. Our fears can only beat us if we so allow them!
What is said to you in the dark, proclaim in the light, and what you hear whispered in secret, shout it from the rooftops. Let us not live in fear, but in peace, joy, and love.
And perhaps, when we learn to not live in fear, 47,000 children will find a way to join us in shouting from the rooftops.