Sunday, February 17, 2013

Repenting Of Triviality: Lent, Human Trafficking, & Immigration

There is much hand wringing in Churches around the county
about whether we are going to survive.
Actually, in Nevada we are doing pretty well these days.
But the Church, as a whole, is aging and declining.
As Episcopalians we are part of something larger;
            so we have to be concerned about whether there will
            continue to be something larger we can be part of.

So let me name the problem with the Church.
The number one threat to the Christian faith is triviality.
If we are going to survive as a force in this world,    
            we have to make a difference in this world.
If we don’t make a difference, we don’t matter.
If  people outside our walls don’t see us making a difference,
            they won’t bother to have a relationship with us.
They won’t even think about joining us.
My question then is: are we making a difference;
            or does the Church divert our God-given lives
                        into trivialities.?

We Church folks are inclined to fret
about the trivial and miss the important. 
It often seems that what we call Christian practice
makes our hearts and minds small
and our actions irrelevant to our communities.
We fight over little things and pay no attention to issues
            that affect each other’s lives and the lives of our neighbors
                        in the most serious ways.

In Lent, we intensify our Christian practice,
            which might be a good thing,
            or it might be even more intensely trivial and irrelevant.
We give up candy or Facebook or doughnuts for 40 days.
Then we resume our old habits, having transformed
neither our souls nor our society.
The Kingdom of God does not break in when we are trivial.

Think back to our lesson from Ash Wednesday.
Isaiah lists the religious practices, the self-mortifications,
            of good religious folks in that day – the equivalent of giving up
            candy or coffee for Lent and God says it’s all trivial.
God says, “On the day of your fasting . .  . you exploit your workers.
            Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife. . .
            Is this what you call a fast? . . . .
            Is this not the fast I have chosen:
                        to loose the chains of injustice
                        and untie the cords of the yoke,
                        to set the oppressed free. . .  .?”

Biblical Christianity is clear as a cloudless sky
            that we please God by freeing the oppressed,
            not by refraining temporarily from candy and Facebook.
Right now, this week, we are working to set children free
            from human trafficking;
            and to set adults free from being held against their will
                        in the sex trade by force and violence.
Eight out of nine Episcopal Churches in the Las Vegas Valley
            have joined in that fight for freedom.
Churches from Sparks to Fallon will be in Carson City
             this week to testify for the Human Trafficking Bill.
Some of us are riding through the night from Vegas to carson
             on a Freedom Bus as a witness against modern slavery.
I believe I am speaking for God on this one.
I am positive I have the Bible with me.
If you want to keep a Holy Lent,
            you don’t need to give up your favorite TV show.
You need to go to the Nevada Legislature web site and send e mails
            to Senator Joe Hardy and Assemblyman James Ohrenchall
                        urging them to put a stop to human trafficking in Nevada.

I hope that much Lenten practice will come easy.
The next part may come harder.
We may or may not like what the Bible has to say.
But if we’re Christians, we can’t ignore it.
We can’t pretend it isn’t there.

I call myself a Christian
and I’ve been preaching Lent I sermons for over 20 years.
The lectionary hasn’t changed.
But I never noticed the Old Testament lesson until this year.
There it is – in black and white -- another lesson about sacrifice to God.

The first thing the Jews were to do was remember
            that they had once been aliens.
When they were aliens in Egypt, they had been treated badly
            by Pharaoh and the taskmasters.
But God had set them free.

Their  offering was a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving
            for their freedom.
They were to give back some of the wealth God had bestowed on them.
Then comes the important sentence:
            “Together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you,
            you shall celebrate with all the bounty the Lord has given to you.”
“Together with the aliens who reside among you,
            you are to celebrate.”

Our religion begins in the experience of aliens
            who travelled into  a strange land
                        where they worked hard and were kept poor.
But God heard their cry and set them free.

Got gave them a land of their own,
            but he expected them to treat the aliens there
            differently than they had been treated in Egypt.
Lent begins in a Jewish tradition of sacrifice
            that focused on extending hospitality to people
                        from other lands, the non-Jews, non-citizens.

That ritual act of  hospitality expressed a fundamental rule
            of Jewish morality.
Leviticus 19: 33-34 commands:
            “If an alien lives among you, do not mistreat him.
            (He) must be treated as one of your native-born.
            Love him as yourself,
for you were aliens in Egypt.”
The well known golden rule “Love your neighbor as yourself,”
            comes from an older rule, “Love the alien as yourself.”

If we put these two texts together,
            they teach us how to observe a Holy Lent
            in this state of Nevada in 2013.

First, “untie the cords of the yoke to set the oppressed free.”
Second, extend hospitality to the alien,
            treat the alien as the native born.

So the first thing modern Nevadans can do
            is give up human trafficking for Lent.
Give up slavery for Lent and don’t resume it in Easter.
The second thing is to extend hospitality to our brothers and sisters
            from across the border.

I don’t know  how the politics of either one of those things will play out.
I don’t know how they should play out in the details.
But the sprit in which Christians approach
            sexually trafficked women and children
            is clear as a cloudless sky.
The Bible sets it out in black and white.
We are to set them free.

The spirit in which Christians greet immigrants
            is clear as a cloudless sky.
We extend hospitality. -- the kind of hospitality to outsiders
                        that makes them insiders.

These things are not trivial.
They matter.
They are as important as freedom, justice, and mercy.
Some of us may not like what I am saying.
We may need to argue about these things.
If so, at least we will be arguing about things that matter.
We will be having a conversation the world outside our walls
            will find worthy of listening to.

But suppose we don’t just argue.
Suppose we don’t just talk.
Suppose we take action.
What happens then?
Isaiah answers:
            “If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
                        . . . and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
                        then your light will rise in the darkness,
                        and your night will become like the noonday.
            You will be like a well-watered garden,
                        like a spring whose waters never fail.”

Unveiling The Gospel By Faithful Participation In The World

After Moses had drawn close to God on Mt. Sinai,
                        his face radiated a holy light.
But when he met his people at the base of the mountain,
            that light made them uncomfortable,
                        so he put a veil on to hide the holiness.
St. Paul did not think that was the right thing to do. Paul said:
            “Since we then have such a hope,
                        we act with great boldness,
                        not like Moses who put on a veil.”

After we bask in the light of Christ,
            we naturally radiate his holiness.
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus said. Mt. 5:14.
He goes on: “No one lights a lamp
            and puts it under a basket.
            You put the lamp on a stand
            So it gives light to the whole house.”

After we have been blessed to dwell in the light of Christ,
            our mission is to radiate that light
                        into a darkened world,
            to share some hope with people in despair.”
What does it mean to be the light of the world?
Jesus told us straight out.
He said, “Let you light so shine that people
            may see your good works
            and glorify your Father in Heaven.”

In theology, that’s what we call a “dominical injunction” 
-- meaning Jesus said, “Do it.”
He said, “Let you light so shine that people
            may see your good works
            and glorify your Father in Heaven.”

There are verses that say we should pray in secret.
There are verses that say we should give alms in secret.

But when it comes to active, hands on doing good in the world,
            Jesus says, “Let you light so shine that people
            may see your good works
            and glorify your Father in Heaven.”
And Paul says, “Do it boldly – no veils.”

We, however, have been well taught to wear veils.
Nice people are modest.
If we do something good, we don’t want anyone to know it.

But here’s the difference.
Christians don’t do good works so people pat us on the back.
When we go about doing good while keeping quiet about our faith,
            the danger is people will just thing we are naturally heroic.
The reason is all-important.
Jesus says to do good boldly and publicly:
“so that people will glorify your Father in heaven.”
When we do something right, we redirect the credit to God.

Jesus shows us how this works in today’s Gospel.
Like, Moses, he drew near to God in prayer on the mountain
and like Moses he glowed with holiness.
When he got back down the mountain,
            he showed people the light,
            not by physically glowing, but by healing,
                        by setting a child free from bondage to a demon.
When he did  it, the people saw it, and the glorified God.

Setting children free from oppression
            and doing it in the name of Jesus
      that’s shining the Christ light into a darkened world.
Tomorrow morning 35 people of faith will fly from this Valley
            up to Reno and drive over to Carson City
            to talk with our legislators.

We’re going to tell them who we are.
We are people of faith.
And we are going to ask them to pass the Human Trafficking bill,
            to set our children free of the sex traffickers
                        who exploit them here in our state.
That is shining the Christ light into some serious darkness.

Whether it’s Jesus setting a child free from a demon
            or a follower of Jesus setting a child free from a pimp,
            that’s shining the Christ light
            so that people may glorify our Father in Heaven.

James Davison Hunter’s  book, To Change the World,
is about how Christians try to make a difference here and now.
It’s a hard facts study of what works and what doesn’t.
Trying to seize power and make people do what we say doesn’t work.
It hasn’t worked for the Christian Right
or for the Christian left.
But when we participate in our community,
            when we get involved with the place where we live,
and we do it honestly in the name of Jesus,
            it does make a difference.
Hunter calls it “fathful participation.”
People see Christ acting through us;
they are touched by it, encouraged, inspired
– they are  changed.

Hunter says the problem with modern Christians
            is that we are wearing veils.
Mainline Christianity has withdrawn from the culture
taking refuge from the modern world inside our church walls.

We have handed over the universities, sold the hospitals,
stopped making art and literature,
and entrusted social services to government bureaucracies.
We have abandoned the field.
When Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp then puts it under a basket,”
he hadn’t met us.
But I see signs of hope.
There are green buds on the bough of our faith.
Here at St. Timothy’s, you have been stubbornly Christian
in your work with Friends in the Desert,
            serving the poor and the hungry
even when it offends your neighbors.
That’s what Paul called “acting boldly.”

I am very encouraged by Michele Turner’s stepping up
to make connections between St. Timothy’s
            and Nevadans for the Common Good.
Fr. Mike recently went to the 5-day community organizing training
at our seminary in California.
He is the second non-Hispanic priest in this diocese
get that training.
There are stories like that all over this diocese.

Congregations who had not been involved with their communities
are getting involved.
Congregations who have always been involved with their communities
are doing more.

This MLK Day,
         St. Catherine’s, Reno, visited a homeless shelter
         to teach people how to use crock pots.
The homeless people saw that. But they weren’t the only ones.
The next day, it was in the Reno Gazette-Journal,
         because when Jesus shows up, that’s news.

Will our good works shine light in the darkness?Let me share a few simple stories.
After my mission trip last year,
I met a young man at the luggage repair shop.
He asked me what I had been doing in Kenya.
I told him about Melvin Stringer’s work to save young women
         from genital mutilation and forced marriages.
He said, “Where is your church? That’s a church I’d go to.”

When I went to help clean up a community center in Las Vegas,
         several young people said, “Where is your church?
                  If you’re here, we want to be there.”

I went a community organizing training in Texas this year-
- the same training Fr. Mike just did in California.
All of us trainees who were over 50 were church folks.
The ones under 30 were not.
But two of the young adults said, each in their own way,
 “if I’d known Christians like the ones here
         I’d still be in the Church.
         In fact, I’m going to give it another try.”

“You are the light of the world.
No one lights a lamp and sets it under a basket . . .
Let you light so shine that people may see your good works
         and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.”