Homily for February 5, 2017
A little over 10 years ago my dad had a pretty major heart attack. My sister and I jumped on planes and rushed to the Cleveland Clinic where he was being treated. Not long after we arrived that evening, we were joined in the room by a colleague of my father’s, a surgeon named Dr. Celik, who was checking on my dad after a long day of caring for his own patients. Dr. Celik was Turkish, and also happened to be Muslim. He walked in and erupted: “Barney! What the heck happened? How many stents? Good Lord! But Dr. Mostow put them in? Oh she’s the best, Barney. The BEST. You’re in great hands!” His visit had nothing to do with medical care, and certainly nothing to do with religion, but it was a moment of wonderful humanity when we needed it the most. Dr. Celik was warm, funny, and gracious, and his presence helped my family to begin to heal at the end of a very frightening day.
That memory surfaced this week when I learned that another physician who works at the Cleveland Clinic was unable to return to the country after vacationing overseas. Dr. Suha Abushamma, who is Sudanese, was vacationing with her family in Saudi Arabia, but was detained at JFK airport, and not allowed to continue on to Cleveland.[i] Now, I have no personal connection to Dr. Abushamma. But I do have that connection to the hospital where she works, a place where dedicated folk from all over the world use their God-given gifts to help people to heal.
Over the years I have learned to resist the temptation to rush in to fix things. Most problems are far too complex for a simple fix. Though we tend to look to our leaders and our pastors and our cultural heroes to fix things, sometimes the fix is a distraction. When we perceive that something is wrong, we want to see swift action and a quick resolution that asks as little of us as possible. Never mind the fact that a fix rarely works the way we think it will. Oftentimes the drive to fix draws our attention away from what’s really going on beneath the surface.
Perhaps we need to do less fixing, and more fasting. You might not see those two ideas as being connected, but consider that one is all about jumping in and saving the day, regardless of how God might already be present, and that the other is rooted in a disciplined and loving letting go of one’s own needs. I want to suggest that fasting, a basic Christian practice, goes a lot farther in changing us, and the world, than fixing.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that fasting connect us to the those in need. Fasting is about fidelity to God, but it is also about embodying God’s justice through limiting ourselves. God asks, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke… to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?”
Notice that each of these mandates aren’t simply the risk-free doing of good deeds. God asks us to do things that are hard, and by doing them we grow in our capacity to love. Christian love means giving something up. When we share our bread with the hungry, we are fasting because we won’t have as much bread as we did before. When we bring the homeless poor into our house, we are fasting because we’re giving up a sense of control when we let them in. When we loose the bonds of injustice, we knowingly give up power.
This is justice through fasting: sharing our bread, opening our door, freeing the oppressed, seeking justice. This is what we mean by dying to self: fasting is a practice of dying to self to make space for Christ. This fast, though, actually makes us stronger, more faithful, more loving, more compassionate, more Christ-like, and frankly less in need of someone to come who can promise to fix everything.
It turns out that, at least as of two days ago, more Americans support the president’s executive orders on immigration and refugees than oppose it.[ii] I suspect that comes from a desire to see something get fixed, and even though that means that folk like Dr. Abushimma are caught up unfairly, there’s a sense out there that folk would rather be safe than sorry.
But many Christians are troubled by this because we are called very specifically by scripture to care for the alien among us. This message is offered repeatedly and coherently across the Old and New Testament. Like the fast that Isaiah proclaims, caring for immigrants and refugees is a deeply Christian practice that means taking a risk on behalf of someone who has no power.
The book of Deuteronomy declares that God has a special affection for those residing in a foreign land. For the Lord defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.[iii] We are to love these foreigners, because we ourselves were foreigners once.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we can just open the doors and say “everybody come on in.” The world doesn’t really work that way. Economies are complex things, nations can’t be reckless with their own safety.
We get into trouble, though, when our decisions are based on fear. “Better safe than sorry” is not an option for us. As Christians we recognize that the world is a broken place, but nonetheless we are formed by a different canon: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” “Love the foreigner among you, for God loves the foreigner.” “Be not afraid.”
This week I was invited by a friend at Slate magazine to reflect on what it means to preach in today’s world. It gave me a chance to really think about the preacher’s role, and how we as a church might hold those things that divide us up to the light of the Gospel. I already knew that it wasn’t my job to stand up here and tell you what to think. That’s never been my role, and I know that we each will filter what we hear when it doesn’t ring true. I started today with a very personal story that illustrates my perspective; you may have equally personal stories that speak to a different one. Good. We need that or else we aren’t the Body of Christ in all its fullness.
My job is preach the Gospel, one morning a week, so that you can proclaim the gospel of Jesus seven days a week. My question to you is, however you feel about the issue of the hour, how will you proclaim the gospel of Jesus today, and in the six days before we gather again?
The passage on the sign outside the Narthex echoes Deuteronomy, but the words are from Jesus: I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. That statement alone does not answer everything for us. The truth is that our country has a deeply complicated history when it comes to how we welcome or turn away the immigrant and the refugee, and the world is a dangerous place, and in our polarization we are not as ready to listen to one another as we need to be.
But as we go back and forth, as we try to find God and seek God’s guidance in a moment of division and uncertainty, listen once more to Jesus’ words:
I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. When we welcome the stranger, we welcome Jesus. When we turn the stranger away (the other, the foreigner, the Muslim, the liberal, the conservative, the adversary, the scapegoat), when we show the stranger the door, we turn Jesus away.
These words speak to all of us equally, challenging each one of us in a unique way: Jesus is at the door, asking to come in. When we choose instead to fast, to seek justice and to abandon our fear, we open the door and let Christ in.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, February 5, 2017, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina
[i] Broad Challenge to Trump Order May Center on Cleveland Doctor https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/03/nyregion/trump-ban-suha-amin-abdullah-abushamma.html?_r=0
[ii]Firs Muslim Ban Poll Finds Americans Support Trump Order by 7-Point Margin http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/01/31/reuters_ipsos_muslim_ban_poll_finds_support_for_order.html
[iii] Deuteronomy 10:17-19, NIV