In today’s Gospel, we hear a prayer that Jesus prays to his Father before his death. It’s a prayer that recognizes that he will die. Jesus is still in this world, but prays in anticipation of his death, resurrection, and ascension. His disciples keep on in his absence. They will continue in his glory.
The book of the Acts of the Apostles has not ended. As Christians today, we continue the mission of the Church. God still moves among us. With love for neighbor, with life in community, and with forgiveness for our enemies, we are witnesses of Jesus’ message. God’s work; our hands.
Jesus says, “Protect them with the power of your name, the name that you gave me, so that they can be one, as you and I are one.”
Jesus hopes that his followers can be together in unity. Jesus is Lord of all, not only of one special group. The love of God is immense; God’s mercy is great. Jesus prays for unity: to be together in mission, together in identity, and together in spirit.
Jesus prays for the unity of his people, but he also recognizes the unity that Jesus has with the first person of the Trinity. There is unity and connection. They are of the same divine identity. Many times, there’s confusion about Jesus’ identity. In fact, for centuries. The ecumenical councils of almost two millennia ago tried to respond to the question: Who is Jesus—human being or God? What we confess in the Creed is the grand mystery of the faith. Jesus is completely human and completely divine at the same time. So then, we are mistakenly redundant when we say things like: “God and Jesus love you” because Jesus is God. The Father is God. The Holy Spirit is God. There is unity between the three persons.
I know that the feast of the Holy Trinity is not today, but rather June 11, but this theological doctrine is important to help us understand well what Jesus prays in this high priestly prayer in today’s Gospel: “that they may be one, as you and I are one.”
I love the description of the Trinity according to Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian who has thought and written much about what the Christian message means through the lens of the liberation of those who are poor and oppressed.
According to Boff, the Trinity is community. The three persons of the Trinity dance, function, and work together as a family in community: sharing and moving in harmony. The three parts are a symbol of unity and equality. The three parts—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are all God. One is not more important than the others—Holy Trinity Holy Community. I realize this language is very masculine. The point, for me is not the maleness of God, but rather the relationship of community of God.
In Genesis, in the Hebrew Bible, during the first story of creation, the human beings are created in God’s image. If we, then, are created in the image of God, then we are created in the image of community. To live in community—sharing and moving together in harmony, is to live in God’s image.
However, many times people in the Church prefer to fight instead of reconcile: Disagreement instead of collaboration. Jealousy instead of friendship. Gossip instead of affirmation. So then, to live with so much injustice and division is to live in contrast to our own image and identity. It’s not who we are. As creations created by God in God’s image, our true identity is one of community: equality, justice, and love.
I’ve seen here at San Lucas behavior opposite the Christian message. It’s ugly and wrong. I’ve participated in Synod gatherings that don’t include Spanish-speaking or Mexican Lutherans. I know that there are still congregations, even in our own denomination, that, sadly, do not accept the true leadership gifts of female pastors or LGBTQ leaders. There is no unity. There is no agreement.
But, in the midst of all this, there are hopeful signs of ecumenical cooperation, that is, cooperation between different denominations. Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), officially has full communion agreements with various other denominations. This means that the sacraments of these churches have the same validity as the sacraments of ours. A pastor of these denominations can serve in an ELCA congregation, and vice versa. We have official agreements with the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Reformed Church, the United Church of the Christ, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church.
This Lent, we tried to put some of this ecumenism into practice with Holy Week services together with Redeemer Episcopal Church here in Eagle Pass. The Episcopal priest preached here at San Lucas for Maundy Thursday, and I preached at Redeemer for Good Friday, processing with Stations of the Cross at San Juan Plaza. I know it is a first step, but I hope that we can have more opportunities to be together in unity.
There’s an old joke: Somebody dies and goes to heaven. There they see the grand diversity of humanity—people of every language and race, every culture and denomination, celebrating together. However, in the corner there is a group of people in a circle, focused only on themselves, ignoring all the rest. “Who are they over there?” they ask. The response: “They’re Lutherans. They think they’re the only ones here.”
As Lutherans, we don’t have a monopoly on God’s grace. We aren’t the only one God loves. The Christian life is more diverse and tremendous than we can imagine. The love of Jesus is for us Lutherans, but it’s also for Episcopalians. It’s for Pentecostals and Roman Catholics. It’s for people we love, but it’s also for our enemies. Christian love is immense and inclusive.
As Lutherans, we have our own beautiful perspective. We teach a theology full of grace and abundance. We celebrate a tradition of reformation. We don’t want to lose that. But we humbly recognize that we aren’t the only Christians. We recognize that God moves in ways we don’t understand. We find unity in the midst of so much diversity.
Sometimes, we need to be uncomfortable so that the other person can be comfortable. Sometimes, we need to focus on the needs of others instead of our own desires. Sometimes, we need to remember that we don’t have a monopoly of God’s grace.
Jesus prays for unity. Jesus shows a hope that his followers may live in the unity of the Father and the Son. Jesus trusts his people into the power of God—God of incredible love and transformative reconciliation.
We are men and women and transgender people, but we are one in Christ. We are Mexicans and Germans, but we are one. We are Namibians and Norwegians, but we are one. We are Republicans and Democrats, but we are one. We are PAN and PRI, but we are one. We are little kids and wise elders, but we are one. We are Lutherans and Episcopalians, but we are one. We are citizens and immigrants, but we are one. There is difference and disagreement, but we are one. We are one in Christ. Amen.
[Preached in Spanish on May 28, 2017, at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas].
Grace and peace to you in the name of Christ. Amen.
Gracia y paz en el nombre de Cristo Jesus. Amén.
On behalf of the congregation I serve, Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, I bring greetings on this festive day. San Lucas is a Spanish-speaking congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America located near the United States-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas. It is a ministry of welcome and faith formation and life together in the midst of poverty, injustice, and border uncertainty. Eagle Pass is right across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila. With many families on both sides of the river, it is a community bound by bridges. In many ways, it is not unlike my hometown of the Quad Cities, except you don’t need to show a passport or a visa to armed agents in order to go to Bettendorf.
It is an honor for me to be back here with you today “by the Mighty Mississippi.” I realize that when I started as a first-year student here at Augustana, most of the seniors graduating today would have been in kindergarten.
I’m filled with nostalgia of my time here as I return to campus. Augustana formed me in many and various ways, crystallizing a curiosity for learning, connecting me with a tradition of scholarship and discovery, and strengthening me with a community of faith and service.
For you getting ready to graduate today, it’s probably too soon for nostalgia. It’s more likely relief, or accomplishment, or fear and excitement as you imagine what comes next. Augustana is a part of your story. You are a part of Augustana’s story. It is all a part of God’s story.
I remember a storied piece of Augustana lore told to me by my late father, James Bailie, class of 61. According to Dad, a few prankster students got some feathers, and put them into the pipes of the organ on this stage here in Centennial Hall. You can imagine what happened next. You can imagine when the organist strikes the first chord: Piles of projectile plumage. Everywhere. I tell this story, not to promote collegiate mischief, but as a sign of God’s Holy Spirit.
A pastor I work with in Texas, when talking about the Holy Spirit, often says, “Look for the feathers.” In Christian tradition, the presence of God’s spirit is often symbolized by a bird, floating and maneuvering amongst us. “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove.” Birds sometimes leave behind feathers as signs that they were there. So too it is with God. We can’t always see God among us, be we can see signs of the Spirit’s presence: Lives transformed. Families welcomed. Communities impacted. Feathers. Our lives become piles of projectile Spirit-signs: lessons learned, friendships cultivated, dreams inspired.
In today’s Gospel from John 14, Jesus promises the presence of the Holy Spirit. In his farewell discourse, Jesus prepares his disciples for time without him, after his death. They are in a liminal state, in-between, unaware of the future without their teacher, without their friend. In their uncertainty of what happens next, Jesus promises that they will not be abandoned. He will send an Advocate, a Comforter, a Guide, a Spirit of Truth, so that they will not be alone. And so it is with us. We are not abandoned. We are not alone.
The time around graduation is a liminal in-between time. You might not know what happens next. There’s anticipation and expectation. Farewells and finals. Sometimes our lives might feel strewn out like a stage full of feathers. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes our plans don’t happen like we want them or how our families want them. Sometimes the Holy Sprit surprises.
I remember the day that I went to the Register’s office to undeclare my Spanish major. “When will I ever really use this?” I wondered. Now I function in Spanish almost daily as a pastor on the Mexican border.
God’s spirit surprises and changes us. My time after Augustana has led me to a variety of places and contexts: Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, an internship in a bilingual and multicultural congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and now parish ministry in Texas.
Two years into my first call as a pastor after graduating from seminary, I was serving a congregation in suburban San Antonio. The bishop’s office called me seemingly out of the blue saying, “We’d like you to interview in Eagle Pass.” “Where’s that?” I asked.
Eagle Pass is 140 miles west of San Antonio, across vast open spaces of cattle ranches, mesquite trees, and rattlesnakes. Sometimes it is 45 miles between gas stations. It’s 120 miles to the next closest ELCA Lutheran congregation. Ministry is meaningful and the people are welcoming, but the location can is remote and can be isolating.
I distinctly remember, as a geography major here at Augustana, being firmly admonished by Professor Norman Moline to never use the phrase “Middle of nowhere.” Every place, he told us, is somewhere for somebody. Even the smallest town is home for those who live there. Even the places uninhabited by humans are still somewhere for somebody. They are part of ecosystems and watersheds. Everywhere is somewhere.
And so it is with God. Every place is someplace as the Spirit of God abides. No corner of the universe, no path untrodden or peril unknown, no parents’ basement or entry level position is away from God’s presence. God’s Spirit is with you.
My six years on the border have taught me that God’s presence has no boundaries. We try to build walls, but God’s love transcends our human divisions. In whatever language, God speaks.
God shapes us and forms us. God challenges us and guides us. God is present in the mess and the mystery. God’s Spirit is present in us and with us. Jesus says, “This is the Sprit of Truth.”
In another piece of Augustana lore, I invite you on a scavenger hunt this afternoon during Commencement. Take a look at the banner used in the procession. There’s a Greek word on it. Aletheia. It means truth. It’s the word used here in John’s Gospel.
As you celebrate your graduation from Augustana, the truth is with you. In the liberal arts tradition, we celebrate truth. Truth in classroom. Truth in the laboratory. The truth of creative art. The truth of life together in community.
Students of Augustana, family, friends: Today as we give thanks to God for the gift of education and the blessings of learning, we celebrate truth. We celebrate the truth of God’s love for each and every person here. We celebrate the truth of God’s abiding presence. The Comforter, the Advocate, the Guide is with you. You will not be abandoned.
The Good News for us today is that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. You are not alone. We are not alone. However the feathers of your life may fall, God’s Spirit of love has been with you. God’s Spirit of peace is with you right now. The Spirit of truth will be with you forever. Amen.
This weekend, the Southwestern Texas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is gathering in San Antonio for its annual Synod Assembly. It is a time of worship, fellowship, and decision-making for the sake of ministry. As a pastor of the synod, it has been a way for me to keep connected with colleagues and mission partners.
However, this year, I decided not to attend Synod Assembly for a variety of reasons: 1) The registration fee of $180 per person is hard to manage for a congregation in a community of poverty that already struggles for everyday ministry expenses. It basically becomes an ecclesiastical poll tax. 2) I was already planning to be gone several Sundays this spring and didn’t want to be away from worship too many times. 3) Increased fear about Border Patrol and ICE presence makes some parishioners nervous about traveling.
Perhaps I am being a colonialist gatekeeper pastor myself, but I don’t want this to be my Spanish-speaking congregation’s experience with the wider Church. When parishioners have attended Synod Assembly in the past, it has not always been a safe space or a pleasant experience. Spanish translation, if available, is not always the best quality. Micro-aggressions abound. In my eight years in this synod, I’ve long felt the unspoken rule that one must be German before being Lutheran. It has improved slightly, but it still feels to me like an ethnic insiders club. Polka music and sauerkraut are not uncommon. There is nothing wrong with honoring German heritage. The problem comes when that culture is assumed to be normative, to the exclusion of others.
I know that by not attending Synod Assembly this year, I am disenfranchising the congregation and am avoiding collegiality with other leaders, but I am also avoiding the physically-draining geographical commute of five hours round trip across desolate Texas backcountry, as well as the emotionally-draining cultural commute.
My decision to not attend was reaffirmed when I saw the bulletin for worship on Saturday morning. I think a polka service could be fun every once in a while. I think it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the mixing of cultural influences that has happened in the course of Texas history. The accordions and oom-pah rhythms that I hear on the local ranchera stations have roots in the musics of the German and Czech immigrants of a century hence.
I understand the desire to honor heritage. I realize that German was the primary language of San Antonio in 1870, but it is not anymore. There are people in our synod who speak German, but I imagine that they also speak English very well. German is not a survival language. There are people in our synod who only speak Spanish. Including Spanish is a matter of hospitality and welcome. Including German is a matter of grasping onto nostalgia.
My discomfort comes from the litany, “Thanksgiving for Our Heritage.” It’s not all our heritage. If the author were to read it himself during worship, that would be one thing. However, goading the congregation to respond, “May Jesus Christ be praised” at the end requires worshippers to affirm words that are not necessarily theirs. The litany celebrates Biblical heroes—women and men—as well as reformers and European immigrants. It seems to assume that those present share that German heritage or those other White heritages from “a more civilized North.” This is not the heritage of the Spanish-speaking Lutherans in places like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Pharr, and San Juan. This is not the heritage of the “incredulous faces” of the Coahuiltecan, Karankawa, and Comanche whose lands the synod’s territory claims. This is not the heritage of the African Americans whose ancestors picked cotton on plantations in our synod’s territory. This is not all our heritage. The #decolonizeLutheranism movement is not about denying European culture. It’s not about pretending that German immigrants didn’t exist. Rather, #decolonizeLutheranism is about recognizing other parts of the story. It is about celebrating a theological identity based on God’s grace instead of a cultural one based on our human divisions. I long for a day where there is not this disconnect, where I don’t have to exude so much energy to deal with all the layers of cross-cultural mission.
In my absence at Assembly, I know I will miss out on the opportunity to be collegial. Parishioners will miss out on the chance to meet folk from other congregations. I don’t want to spend my congregation’s precious financial recourses perpetuating the ELCA Marriot culture where decisions happen in expensive hotel ballrooms. I’m skipping Synod Assembly this year because I don’t want to culturally commute to a context where “all are welcome” doesn’t always seem to include me and the parishioners with whom I serve.
I was invited to give the invocation at the Women’s March in the Plaza San Juan in downtown Eagle Pass. I hesitated at first, because I’m not a woman, but I accepted when I realized that several women from the community would also have leadership roles. I marched because I realize that injustice impacts all of us. I saw this as an opportunity to show a ministry of presence in the community. About sixty people marched today, January 21, 2016, in Maverick County, Texas. Here is what I prayed:
Holy God, we give you thanks. We thank you for this new day, for the freedom to lift our voices, and for the chance to be together today, marching for the wellbeing of our community and of this country.
Santo Dios, te damos gracias. Te damos gracias por este día nuevo, por la libertad para levantar nuestras voces, y por la oportunidad para estar juntos hoy, marchando por el bienestar de nuestra comunidad y de este pais.
Aunque soy hombre, recognozco la herencia de tantas mujeres valientes y fieles: Esclavas y sufragistas. Profetas y pacificadoras. Artistas y organizadoras. Abuelitas y activistas. Madres y soñadoras. Hermanas y heroes. Te damos gracias, oh Dios, por sus ejemplos y su testamonio. Y juntos marchamos hoy, en su memoria y en su honor. Juntos marchamos en paz. Juntos marchamos en solidaridad con mujeres en muchos partes, con esperanza por un mundo mas justo.
Although I’m a man, I recognize the legacy of so many brave and faithful women: Slaves and suffragettes. Prophets and peacemakers. Artists and organizers. Grandmothers and activists. Mothers and dreamers. Sisters and heroes. We thank you, God, for their example and testimony. Together we march today, in their memory and honor. Together we march in peace. Together we march in solidarity with women in many places, with hope for a more just world.
We lament hatred and prejudice. We lament nepotism and idolatry. We await equality and transformation.
Lamentamos odio y prejuicio. Lamentamos nepotismo y idolotría. Esperamos igualdad y transformación. Oramos por familias vulnerables en medio de temor. Oramos por migrantes y presos y personas sin seguro de salud. Oramos por paz.
We pray for families, vulnerable and in fear. We pray for immigrants, prisoners, and people without health insurance. We pray for peace.
Bless this march, oh Holy Spirit. Bless this country with a spirit of resistance and integrity. Encourage us to unite our message and to recognize the needs of our communities.
Bendice esta marcha, oh Espíritu Santo. Bendice este país con espíritu de resistincia e integridad. Empújanos para unir nuestro mensaje y reconocer las necesidades de nuestras comunidades.
En medio de injusticia y opresion, dános ánimo para no estar callados. Dános proposito. Dános un plan. En medio de venganza y violencia, dános sabiduría para responder con amor. En medio de homofobia, Islamofobia, y cualquier tipo de temor, guíanos para proclamar la dignidad de cada ser humano como tu creación buena.
In the midst of injustice and oppression, help us to not be silent. Give us purpose. Give us a plan. In the midst of vengeance and violence, give us wisdom to respond with love. In the midst of homophobia, Islamophobia, and all sorts of fear, guide us to proclaim the dignity of every human being as your good creation.
We pray for the new leadership, in every level of government, so that each person of Eagle Pass, of this country, of the whole world, may truly live with liberty and justice. We pray with hope and faith.
Oramos por el liderazgo nuevo , en cada nivel del gobierno, para que cada persona en Eagle Pass, en este país, y en todo el mundo, pueda vivir verdaderamente con libertad y justicia. Y oramos en espíritu de esperanza y fe. Amén.
Here in Eagle Pass, we’re in the midst of getting ready for Christmas. Our blue Advent candles are getting lit. This year we had Noche de Talentos, an open mic night for the holiday season, celebrating the many gifts in our community. In our multigenerational spiritual formation time on Wednesday, we wrote Christmas cards for families in immigration detention through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service’s #HopeForTheHolidays program. A cadre of parishioners scooped up turkey and trimmings while volunteering for the local Feast of Sharing at Thanksgiving. For the second year, I was invited by the City of Eagle Pass to pray the invocation for the lighting of the Christmas lights downtown in Plaza San Juan.
Approaching my sixth Christmas as pastor here at San Lucas, it is my privilege to serve alongside people for whom immigration is not an abstract political issue, but rather a daily reality. Anxiety is high; uncertainty abounds. As we remember the ancient holy pilgrims María and José, we also remember immigrant communities today and those seeing welcome and new opportunities. My hope is that San Lucas can be a sanctuary of peace and hospitality. At the beginning of this year, we installed signs at each entrance to prohibit weapons in the buildings, in accordance with a new Texas law allowing open carry at churches. Powers and principalities…
Looking back, 2016 has been a year of challenges here at San Lucas. A few emotional funerals marked the death of several beloved saints. We had an incident of vandalism and another of theft. With sporadic denominational funding and fewer mission partner congregations sending support, our financial situation has been nebulous, to say the least. Some of our buildings were without electricity for a few days in October as we waited for some checks to clear. Thankfully, the office remained with power, protecting refrigerated food pantry inventory. Perhaps I have been too much of a martyr, triaging other expenses before my own paycheck, for months at a time.
Yet even in the midst of irksome tasks and weighty responsibilities, hope permeates San Lucas. Perhaps more than ever, I feel God’s presence in the ministry here. We’re in a context of poverty and corruption that so desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus. In August, after hearing local news reports about increased migrant deaths in the arid stretches of Maverick County, we installed several water stations, in cooperation with the South Texas Human Rights Center. Our food pantry received over 68,000 pounds of food in the fiscal year. We partnered with Cross Trails for summer Day Camp. We’re getting started in advocacy, especially around health care, immigration, and the environmental impacts of a new local coal mine. We’re in the nascent stages of building a chicken coop for the poultry who found their way here. I have been doing some mission exploration scoping potential possibilities for ELCA presence in nearby Del Rio. A meme with a picture of tostadas from our San Lucas VBS snack helped ignite the conversation around the budding #decolonizeLutheranism movement.
On behalf of all of San Lucas, I am grateful for all of the prayerful support we receive. (You can donate electronically at http://www.sanlucas78852.org/donate). This was the first year that members have used numbered offering envelopes. With a spirit of accompaniment and mutuality, we long to be financially self-sustaining, but that is still not the case. The generosity of so many individuals and congregations helps continue the ministry of San Lucas. Thank you. Thank you for your gifts.
Pastor Paul Bailie
Por parte de mi congregación, la Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, en Eagle Pass, Texas, les mando saludos y bendiciones. Gracia y paz en el nombre de Cristo. Amen.
On behalf of my congregation, San Lucas, in Eagle Pass, Texas, I bring you greetings and blessings. Grace and peace in the name of Christ. Amen.
I’m a Quad City native, formed and nurtured in the faith here at St. Paul. It’s good to be back today. Thank you for your prayers and for your support. Juntos somos la iglesia. Together we are the Church.
I serve a Spanish-speaking Lutheran community along the Mexican border in South Texas. We worship God and study the Bible. We feed over one hundred families each month with our food pantry. We’ve just started maintaining water stations for migrants crossing the dry Texas backcountry. Life at San Lucas is beautiful and life-giving cross-cultural ministry, but not without frustrating challenges:
Poverty and unemployment.
Unexplainable immigration laws that separate families.
Local political corruption and injustice.
Sometimes, we just don’t know who to trust. During my time in Eagle Pass:
County commissioners were indicted for such crimes as currency smuggling, tax evasion, bribery, conspiracy, and fraud.
The school district police chief was arrested shoplifting at Walmart.
The sheriff’s department can’t seem to find financial documents for the entire year 2010.
There’s little accountability. Nepotism abounds. Power corrupts.
In today’s Gospel, we meet a woman who is likewise fed up with injustice. She’s bold, audacious, and persistent. She’s deliberate and faithful. Like too many women of the Bible, we don’t know her name. We don’t know her reason for needing to speak to the judge.
But we do know that as a widow in the ancient world, her livelihood would have been rather precarious. Without a first-century version of Social Security, Medicaid, or CHIP, she would be vulnerable to impending poverty and the first-century versions of payday lenders and exploitative elder abuse. Hers is a voice from the margins.
Yet in the midst of everything, she shows steadfastness, persistence, and determination. She protests. She agitates. She resists. She speaks truth to power. Deep in her heart, she does believe, she will overcome some day. What does she want? JUSTICE. When does she want it? NOW!
When the Bible talks about justice, it’s communal and collective. When the Bible talks about justice, it’s about how society treats people often marginalized: orphans, widows, foreigners. Biblical justice is less about punitive punishment, giving people what they deserve. Rather, it’s about God’s abundance, giving more than anyone deserves. More grace, more forgiveness, more reconciliation.
I’m always moved by scholar Cornel West’s quote: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” This widow was seeking some public love, public accountability, public action to make things right. Justice is far more than a food pantry or a water station. It’s systemic. It’s on a much grander scale. When we seek justice, we do more than write a check or donate old clothes. Seeking justice, we challenge our leaders and we challenge ourselves. We ask difficult questions:
Why are people poor in the first place?
Why does a Black life, an undocumented life, an Iraqi life, a transgender life, seem to matter less than a white one or a blue one?
Why do our Lutheran congregations far too often not reflect the demographics of our neighborhoods?
From the margins, this unnamed widow asks difficult questions. She seeks a public answer. She looks for justice. She is persistent.
And then, “Here comes the judge!” This judge is a guy with power and privilege. He plays by his own rules. He is full of his own ego. We know the type. He’s in charge even when he’s not. He says what he thinks, even if it does damage. He doesn’t care about widows, orphans, immigrants, or anybody but himself. He’s arrogant and superior. He doesn’t show mercy or grace. Finally he grants this woman justice. It’s not because he’s compassionate or loving. Rather, it’s because he’s just tired of being bothered.
The Bible says this is a parable about the need pray always and not lose heart. When we pray, we make known the needs and hopes and joys and struggles all around us. We pray for those near and far. We do pray for justice. Prayer is advocacy, but prayer is more than a Christmas list or a fast-food restaurant order. It’s not a monologue or soliloquy. Prayer is conversation. It’s a two-way street. We speak to God, but God also speaks to us. It’s a chance for us to open to God’s transformation.
Let’s flip this parable around. Rather than seeing God as an arrogant judge who gets annoyed by our prayers, let us instead imagine ourselves as the judge and God as that persistent widow, calling us to justice, inviting us to prayerfully listen to the voices around us. We don’t need a law degree, or a black robe, or a Senate confirmation to be a judge. The truth is, we all judge people all the time.
Maybe you roll up the windows and lock the car doors when you drive down Pershing or Gaines, south of Locust.
Maybe you clinch your luggage when you see somebody in a turban or hijab at the airport.
Maybe you laugh at the girl with clothes not as cool or trendy as yours.
“Here comes the judge.” But like that persistent widow, God keeps coming to us: Showing us the dignity of our neighbors and pointing out the humanity of our enemies. God enters our lives. God speaks to us, calling us to justice: Not a punitive law-and-order justice, but a holistic biblical orphan-widow-migrant justice where each and every person has value and integrity as God’s beloved child. That kind of justice.
In Christ Jesus, God consistently appears as someone marginalized and vulnerable:
A baby in a manger.
A refugee family in Egypt.
Somebody eating with tax collectors and sinners.
A political prisoner, beaten and killed by law enforcement, just doing their jobs.
Living on the Mexican border, I’m privileged to accompany so many faithful saints, with hope in the midst of challenges. I remember that countless host of unnamed migrant pilgrims, whose names I don’t know, but whose stories are told by their wet socks and t-shirts left behind on the shores of the Rio Grande in downtown Eagle Pass, fleeing unimaginable violence and seeking a new opportunity…All beloved children of God.
Throughout my life and ministry, God keeps sending me persistent voices of justice and hope. God keeps speaking to me through my neighbor. I’m inspired and called to action. I’m humbled and grateful.
But one need not travel to the Texas border in order to hear God’s voice in prayer. Wherever you live, you have neighbors whose voices aren’t always heard. Where might you hear God this week? What bold, audacious, and persistent prophetic voice from the margins might be speaking to you?
Perhaps someone you’ve wronged.
Someone whose life experience is different than yours.
Someone whose background might challenge you.
An immigrant. A prisoner. An actual widow, longing for a visit and conversation.
A story of hope. A narrative of transformation. A testimony of justice.
Listen. Hear. Begin to understand. Like that widow, God is persistent. God keeps calling us to justice. God puts people in our lives to push us, to form us, to impact us:
Across the Rio Grande…
Across the Mighty Mississippi…
Wherever there is pain…
Wherever there is uncertainty…
God is present with those who suffer. Jesus enters the world. That is the power of the cross. That is the power of solidarity. From the margins, God leads us to compassion. Our prayer becomes a chance to listen.
Our encounter becomes a holy prayer.
In ways we don’t always expect, with people we might not always imagine, God draws us into new life:
a life transformed by grace,
a life enriched by togetherness in community,
a life sustained by God’s unending mercy.
Pray always and do not lose heart. Amen.
[Preached October 16, 2016 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa]
This summer at San Lucas, we’re following a series of scripture readings from 1 and 2 Kings, with more readings from other prophets later. I felt called to use these readings because it’s a chance to learn more about these ancient stories of Elijah, Ahab, Jezebel, and other prophets, that are still so very relevant in our current world of religious pluralism, sacred violence, and political idolatry.
In the mythology of the Ancient Near East, each land had its own god, and there were gods and goddesses for each aspect of life. There were gods of life and death, of earth and sea. It was normal to worship multiple gods, depending on the situation. Therefore, it was strange that the Israelites would worship only one God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As a prophet, Elijah tried to eliminate (or at least discourage) the worship of other gods, especially Baal, a Canaanite storm god. In archaeology and art, Baal almost always has a lightening bolt in his hand. He was responsible for the rain. He was often worshiped alongside Asherah, a goddess of fertility.
Today’s story (1 Kings 18:20-39) takes place in the midst of a long drought. Without rain or harvest, life was hard. Just a chapter earlier, in a famous story, Elijah has an encounter with a desperate widow struggling to survive in a challenging time. With all the fear of not having food or water in a time of drought, I can understand the temptation of the Israelites and Ahab, their king, to pray to a god of storms and a goddess of fertility. In 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah thus asks a provocative question: “How much longer will you try to have things both ways? If the LORD is God, worship him! But if Baal is God, worship him!”
We have in today’s story a tremendous show—a contest between four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and only one lone prophet of God—Elijah. At Mount Carmel, they had put two piles of wood and two bulls, ready to light a fire and offer a sacrifice. For hours and hours, they waited. The Baalist prophets danced and sang and prayed, but nothing happened. They even cut their own skin as a sign of faith and devotion. Still, no smoke or flames.
Then Elijah prayed, at the altar to God. Elijah prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elijah prayed that the people may know the true identity of the only God. And suddenly: FIRE. With flames and smoke, the fire came, with power and presence. Upon seeing this tremendous sign, all the people, as witnesses of this incredible marvel, bowed to the ground, saying “The LORD is God.” It was clear that Baal has no power. It was clear that God is the only God that exists. This story reminds us of God’s true presence in the world. This story shows us God’s unending power.
Elijah asks, “How much longer will you try to have things both ways?” This is a good question for us today, as well. As local communities, as a country, as citizens of the world, who will we worship: God or other gods? We may not have statues of Baal or poles of Asherah, but we live in a pantheon of all sorts of gods. It’s so easy to worship something other than God: Wealth. Beauty. Health. Sports. Success. Patriotism. Power. “How much longer will you try to have things both ways?”
At last year’s Synod Assembly, there was a breakfast where leaders from various congregations were gathered to talk about mission. I clearly remember the centerpieces that the convention center staff had lovingly placed at each table: Crosses draped with United States flags and little placards proclaiming “God bless America.” I confess that such mixture of faith and patriotism makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. First, God’s blessing is not just for [the United States of] America. God’s love is for all peoples and nations. We can’t be putting limits on God’s grace and liberty. It’s not just for one country.
When we drape a flag on the cross, we are making Jesus a United States American, when his mercy is for the whole world. Secondly, to collude cross and flag is also problematic because many brave people that died fighting under that flag were not Christians. We live in a world of religious pluralism. Our neighbors are loyal US Americans who are also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, and all sorts of other faiths and denominations. They are all loved by God, even though they may not worship God as we do. We may not all practice the same religion, but our Christian faith pushes us to respect others with dignity and integrity.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the time in which the United States remembers those who have died in service to this country. Memorial Day is more than a time to barbecue chicken on the backyard grill or to buy cheap shoes on sale at the mall. It is a solemn time to remember those lives forever changed by the violence of war and the horror of death. We also hope for an end to conflict and suffering. We hope for the time when there are no more casualties. As Americans, we remember those serving for this country, but as Christians we must also remember those of all countries who have suffered in our wars. Violence is violence, whatever the uniform. Blood is blood, whatever the source. Death is horrible, for each and every person.
This weekend, President Barack Obama traveled Japan to visit Hiroshima, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb during World War II. He did not officially apologize, but he did meet some survivors and family members of survivors from this United States attack. He did offer his hope for a world without nuclear weapons. Perhaps it was just an unintentional coincidence, but the date of the attack on Hiroshima back in 1945 fell on Transfiguration Sunday, the day in which the Church remembers the vision of Moses and Elijah together with Jesus on a mountain—another Elijah/mountain story. In Hiroshima, it wasn’t a transfiguration of glory like in the Gospels. Rather, it was a transfiguration of death and destruction, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and transforming the world forever.
Many times that I’ve preached on the Transfiguration, I’ve described Jesus as a new Moses and a new Elijah, living out the traditions of both the Law and the Prophets. After re-reading the whole story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, I’m not sure I want to think of Jesus as a new Elijah. Elijah is a bully, arrogantly taunting the prophets with sarcastic verbal jabs and mocking put-downs. “Baal must be a god. Maybe he’s day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up (18:27).”
Elijah is also a murderer. Our lectionary bulletin insert stops at verse 39 with everyone happy and worshiping God. However, in verse 40, Elijah kills all 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah is another example of why we as humans need a savior. He’s one person in a long chain of religious people carrying out horrible violence against people of other faiths. It’s completely against the faith that Jesus teaches. In the Crusades, Christians killed Muslims for centuries. In both the Americas, Europeans murdered generations of indigenous tribes. During World War II, German Christians (including Lutherans) were too often silent and complicit during Hitler’s genocide of the Jews. Closer to home, at Crystal City, in the next county over, the United States locked up Japanese and German Americans in an internment camp. Sacred violence is not that sacred. I don’t want to worship Jesus as a returned murderer nor even as a bully, as a new Elijah.
The good news for us is that Jesus is neither Moses nor Elijah. Jesus is not a murderer nor a bully. Jesus is God-With-Us. Jesus enters our world, in life, in death, in the midst of violence, even in suffering. That is the power of the cross. Jesus’ love and mercy is for all people in all places. We remember those who have died. We remember our whole world’s need for a savior. We lament violence and we hope for peace. As we remember Elijah on that mountain, we remember that there is one God. There are many things that pull us away from God, but in the person of Jesus, we encounter the God that comes to us, transforming our lives in the way of peace. Amen.
[Adapted and translated from a sermon originally preached in Spanish at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas on May 29, 2016].