A Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord who came to set the captives free. Amen.
Imagine it: a man forced to live out among the graves. Not some serene field with polished headstones, but a necropolis – a city of the dead – filled with charnel houses in which the deceased rot, are exhumed, and then re-buried. Not a place in which death and decay are buried beneath the surface of a manicured lawn, but where the dead hide just out of sight and the ugly truth of our mortality fills the air. Where tombs are a family affair and, after a person dies and decays, their bones are pushed further back to make room for the next corpse. A person literally goes to join their ancestors in the ever-growing pile of bones. The tombs are not beautiful, well-maintained historic sites. Instead, they are homes of stench and rot, an unclean place. They are not a place to visit or for an evening stroll to admire the handiwork of centuries-old sculptors on a nice spring day. Rather, they are somewhere to be avoided except to fulfill certain familial obligations.
And in to this horrible setting, enter a person. Not a visitor or a caretaker, not a family member fulfilling her duty, but a resident, a man possessed and driven to live among the dead. A man skulking about the tombs, among the bones and decaying flesh. A man driven to this life by demonic powers – a Legion of supernatural entities who have given him such strength as to shatter the chains by which he is bound. A man snarling and growling among the dead. As Saint Mark tells it, this man howls and barks while tearing at his flesh, bruising himself with shattered stones.
This man is, by all accounts, an outcast. Driven to the tombs where he weeps and gnashes his teeth, he exists on the margins of society, the place nobody will go. He is the living among the dead.
But we cannot blame this tragic state entirely on the Legion of demons. The villagers, his family and neighbors, have cast him out. They have given him over to the powers and principalities of this world to live among ruin. This man, supernaturally strong, is a menace and a reminder to his community that their attempts to control and restrain him – and the Legion that occupies him – are shattered like chains. The man, along with his demons, is expelled. “After all”, they ask, “what does this man have to do with us?”
Two thousand years later, we still abandon people to the legion of powers and principalities, shackling them among the tombs, expelling people to make their homes on the margins in places of decay with weeping and gnashing of teeth. We still give in to the voices of fear, and we still expel beloved children of God to the realm of death.
In Arizona, a man is currently on trial. His crime? Inspired by his Christian faith, he left water in the desert for undocumented immigrants literally dying from thirst.
In our own denomination, a pastor, Betty Rendón, was arrested and deported because she was undocumented; she came to our country after Colombian rebels attacked the school where she worked and threatened to kill her. When she fled to the US, she applied for and was denied asylum because there was no official police report documenting the attack. Faced with a choice of dying in her own country or risking arrest in ours, she made the same difficult decision any of us would – and for years she faithfully served as a shepherd of God’s people until an ICE SWAT team stormed her home. They arrested her last month and, a week later, deported her.
In detention centers around our country, children – CHILDREN – are caged, and the government is arguing in court that these beloved children made in God’s image do not need toothpaste, beds, schooling, soap, or showers. It was reported this very week that some of these detention centers are not providing sufficient food. We are starving children. Our representatives are doing this on our behalf.
Lest we think this is a new problem, eighty years ago this month, the US government turned away the MS Saint Louis, a ship carrying some nine hundred Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Forced to return to Europe, nearly three hundred passengers who had safely reached our shores but were denied safe harbor went on to parish in the Holocaust.
I want to be perfectly clear here: there is room for Christians to disagree about immigration policy, about the best way to build up a just society. But whether you vote Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Green, we are called by our Lord to see the image of God in all people, regardless of their language or documented status, and to treat them with dignity and mercy, to love them as God loves them. We can enforce our immigration laws, but we must do so while honoring the image of God in all people. Do not be fooled: the government’s amoral and repugnant acts are what it looks like in modern times to shackle a person among the tombs. “After all,” they ask, “what do migrants have to do with us?”
Into both of these situations comes Christ, breaking the chains not of restraint but of oppression. Jesus enters the scene and is greeted with the cynic’s question, “What have you to do with me?” And he turns the situation on its head: Christ expels the Legion rather than the possessed man. Christ re-builds the community rather than hiding the social ills, rather than pushing the problem to the fringe. He sends the man, newly dispossessed of the Legion, back to the town to bear witness. So too is he calling us to rebuild the community, to abide with those fleeing to places of safety, to treat all people with dignity, to see the image of God in every single one of our neighbors. Calling us to proper stewardship, to care for our neighbors – even when we are separated from them by distance, language, and national borders. We are called to proclaim the Living One amongst the dead, to preach resurrection among the tombs and prison camps.
Beloved, through Christ we have been brought into a new reality – or rather, a restored reality. Just as the Lord made us all in God’s image from the beginning, so are we united in Christ. Now, as Saint Paul tells us, there is no longer Jew no Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, immigrant nor native-born, for we are all one in Christ, descendants of a wandering Aramean.
How often we have failed to live into this blessed reality – how frequently have we shunned the unifying grace given to us in the Sacraments. How often our sinful division has killed! The Church persecuted our Jewish kin, argued for slavery, and led lynch mobs. Four years ago, one of us – a confirmed member of the ELCA – massacred nine of his sisters and brothers in Christ in Charleston. And, on our watch, our government has let detained migrant children die in prison camps for want of medical intervention. It is long past time for us to finally finally finally FINALLY hear the voice of Christ calling to us, driving out the Legion demons of racism and xenophobia, urging us to throw off our sinful shackles, and to treat our neighbors as though they bear the image of God and deserve LIFE.
Imagine that – looking at a migrant child and seeing the very same Christ who conquered the grave. Imagine it – looking at the Altar and seeing not bread but a Somali man thanking you for giving him shelter. Imagine – during the peace, turning to greet your neighbor and seeing not Nova or Charlie but our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, wandering Arameans, migrants made in the image of God and called by God to places of safety. Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing the image of God staring back at you – Pastor Betty Rendón freed by Christ and greeting you with the words “Declare how much God has done for you.”