Monday, October 11, 2010

Penetcost 20: The Leper & the Pastoral Letter

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus at a borderline area – a place where people of different ethnicities meet and interact. Then, as now, these regions and relationships offer a variety of blessings and set in motion certain challenges. Jesus is in a vibrant and volatile area as He encounters ten lepers. The focus of the story as Luke tells it is not so much on the miraculous healing that Jesus effects, but rather on the one person who returns to give thanks… that person being a ‘foreigner.’

Let me use the context of this story to comment on a Pastoral Letter issued from the House of Bishops who met a few weeks ago in Arizona. Bishops of the Episcopal Church typically gather twice a year under the leadership and direction of the Presiding Bishop. From time to time the bishops use these gatherings to craft a Pastoral Letter which is then disseminated to the church. In the mid-nineties, for example, the House of Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on Racism. Clergy are bound by canon law to make these letters available to the parish they serve. Sometimes the diocesan bishop will give specific direction on how this is to occur. It can range from reading the letter in public worship to including it in the monthly newsletter to posting in on a bulletin board. On the occasion of this letter, Bishop Hollerith has made no directive, so the manner of presenting it to the parish is at my discretion.

This most recent letter addresses the immigration crisis facing not only our country, but countries throughout the world. Clearly this is a sensitive, polarizing issue around which many have strong feelings. The letter is included in your bulletin and I will allow you to read it on your own at another time. I did not reproduce the thirty-some pages of supporting documents that the bishops included with the letter. If you would like to see that I will help you figure out how to download it from the internet.

Here is what I like about what the bishops have said.

First, their meeting in Arizona was scheduled long before that state passed its controversial law to crack down on illegal immigrants. Rather than move their meeting out of the state in protest, they used the location to explore the issue more fully.

Second, I like that the bishops met in person with a wide variety of people connected with this concern: “migrants, immigrants, the border patrol, local ranchers, and Christian communities seeking to minister to all these groups.”

Third, I like that the bishops speak to us as leaders of the church, as people who think first and foremost about the kingdom of God, about God’s will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. Their perspective shifts the issue from Republicans verses Democrats, from Fox News verses CNN, and invites (challenges) us to consider what a faithful, Christian position might look like. For me, at least, this is very helpful, for while I am proud to be an American and while most of my personal political leanings are conservative, my first and primary allegiance is to the covenant I made with God at baptism.

Next, I like that the bishops have rejected a viewpoint which holds that this issue must be resolved in accords with the way only one perspective sees it. When emotions run high, competing interests have a way of shouting past each other, never hearing what the other is saying and never benefiting from the wisdom that the other speaks. So, for instance, the bishops “acknowledge the duty of governments to protect their people, including the securing of borders.” In addition they call on the government to create “fair and humane immigration policies” that allow for “a reasonable path to citizenship for undocumented workers” and “a viable system for receiving temporary or seasonal guest workers, with clearly defined points of entry.”

Finally, I like that the bishops mark the difference between those people who cross the border of any country “to escape poverty, hunger, injustice and violence” and those who are “drug traffickers, terrorists, and other criminals.” One group we should do all in a power to keep out, the other are “ordinary people who are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children.”

The immigration crisis is a huge problem for our country, magnified by our inability as a people to have civil discourse that results in common consensus which then empowers our public leaders to act.

What might we at St. Paul’s do in response to this Pastoral Letter? Well, first we might pray – individually and collectively. Our prayers might dive under the surface of the issue and consider the very real needs and concerns of migrating people. We are connected to them through our common humanity. Many are our brothers and sisters in Christ, related to us through baptism. They need and deserve our prayers.

Next, we can get more deeply involved in the House of Hope, a ministry to migrant workers on the Eastern Shore that we supported through this summer’s Vacation Bible School dessert auction. Several of our partner churches here in Suffolk had made mission trips to House of Hope and we have been invited to join them in future projects.

Finally, our bishops are not telling us what to think, they are telling us what they think. I for one always want to listen to what our bishops have to say, but that does not mean we are not able to speak. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Our bishops hope that we will speak to one another and speak with them and speak with other people in our community and speak with our elected officials. We can and should make our voices heard and it will make a difference. Ultimately what our bishops ask is that we speak as Christians, as persons whose lives are dedicated to the life and teaching and witness of Jesus.

The foreign leper that Jesus encountered was not an undocumented worker or an illegal immigrant because there was no such thing in Jesus’ time. There were no nation states with fixed borders to cross. A person was a Hebrew by virtue of birth, not citizenship. When the bible talks of a person being a “foreigner” it is talking about birth, not nationality. Our bishops caution against reckless reading of scripture that translates the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger and the foreigner into tacit acceptance of illegal immigration. Never-the-less, we cannot disregard Jesus’ example of radical openness to those outside His own ethnicity and heritage. And we cannot dismiss the reality that Jesus’ ministry of healing, as seen in today’s story, extended well beyond comfortable relationships and conventional social norms. It touched all because regardless of immigration status all of us our children of God.