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.”