Sunday, May 29, 2016

Seeing God in the Other: a sermon at United Church Tallahassee

Scripture used:
1 Kings 8:22-23; 41-43;  Psalm 96 1-9; Luke 7:1-10

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Naturalization Ceremony at the United States Federal Courthouse. I was there to show support for my friend, Beatrice, who after living in the country for thirty years was finally becoming a citizen. She didn’t want anyone to come and, of course, my wife and I, being her friends, heard this request…and ignored it. This was a big deal…and we were going to be there whether she wanted us to or not! That’s what friends are for, right?
Not only was this a big deal, it was a HUGE deal. Seventy-one people….from France, England, Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Nigeria, Vietnam, Palestine, Iraq, China…and so many other countries were taking an oath and pledging their allegiance to the United States of America. They were smiling (how many people are happy to be in a federal court room?) Family members and friends were snapping photos. Each of the petitioners was given a short moment to express the meaning of this day to them. Over and over we heard “thank you!” “What a privilege!” “I am so happy to become an American!” As a native of this country, I was in awe to witness this joy, and to hear people with various lilts and accents speaking with pride about becoming one with me as a citizen of this nation.
I don’t often think about what it means to be an American, let alone think about citizenship as a privilege or something that makes me feel grateful and happy. More often than not, I see America’s flaws and where we have failed to be a great nation that takes care of its poor, its hopeless, and its lost and lonely people.  I sat next to a woman wearing a hijab. She was there because her husband was becoming a citizen. She pledged allegiance to the flag. She recited the oath of citizenship along with everyone else.  And, as we stood and listened to a man with a magnificent baritone voice belt out the national anthem, I felt myself overcome with the emotion of this moment. We were welcoming the foreigners into our land of the free and home of the brave.
Welcoming, and including foreigners is a central tenet of our Judeo-Christian tradition. We hear that clearly in the reading we had from First Kings. Solomon has just finished building the Temple and in his prayer of dedication he calls on God to hear the prayers of the foreigner “who is not of your people Israel” when they come to this house and call upon God.  Jewish law required them to show hospitality to the strangers in their midst, and Solomon went so far as to intercede to the God of Israel to pay attention to the foreigners and give heed to their pleas in the same way that God would hear the prayer of an Israelite. In this way, the foreigner might come to know the God of Israel and become part of the crowd.  The ceremony on Tuesday reflected that same generosity of spirit toward these newest citizens. Besides all the documentation that they now possess that proves their citizenship (and their desk-sized American flags) the presiding judge and speakers could not emphasize enough that the most important right of citizenship was to register to vote. And don’t you know that our Supervisor of Elections had three members of his staff on hand ready to help sign them up! Many of the petitioners mentioned how excited they were at this opportunity to vote in the upcoming election. And those of us in the room contemplating the current political state of affairs in the country likely all had the same collective thought of, “Oh, I bet you are happy to vote!”
Which brings me to the Gospel lesson we heard this morning from Luke about the Roman centurion seeking help from the Jewish Jesus. Remember that in this time, Rome was an occupying force and the Jews felt under the thumb and oppressed by the presence of the Roman soldiers. This centurion, however, was viewed a little differently. He had been kind to the Jews and had even built their synagogue. He petitions Jesus to please heal his sick servant. When Jesus comes, the centurion, aware that Jewish law forbids Jesus from entering the house of a Gentile, urges Jesus not to come under his roof.  Just say the word…he pleads…and heal my servant. And I can almost picture this moment: Jesus…stunned by what this Gentile Army General has said and just how deeply this man “gets it”…turns around to the people following Jesus and says…to take some liberties with text…,“Whoa! Now THIS is what faith looks like!”
I go back to that Naturalization Ceremony and all those people who desired to become part of our country and take part in our right to vote. Even my friend made her first act as a citizen registering to vote so she could have a say in the governance of this state and the nation.  Think about that for a moment. People…who have had to jump through hoops and drive to Jacksonville and Miami and swear an allegiance to the United States…are relishing this opportunity to vote. They believe and have faith in this as a democratic society where voting does matter and does make a difference. And then consider the conversation---if you can even call it that—that seems to be happening on social media sites such as Facebook. I don’t know what you’re seeing and reading from your friends, but on my timeline it seems everything about the system is rigged and the will of the people is being thwarted. Democracy is a sham.
I don’t believe that. Democracy is messy. Democracy means that I win sometimes and I lose sometimes. If there is anyone who has cause to feel that the system is rigged, it’s those for whom guarantees of access through the Voting Rights Act are being threatened. And, despite the undue influence of money in our political system, I still have faith that my vote…and the votes of real people and not corporations…matters.
Now…before you think this is only a sermon on voting...let me bring this back to the matter of faith and the foreigner. Because just like the messiness that is our Democracy…this idea of who is a beloved child of God is also not so clean cut. It would be so much easier and convenient if we could say that if you look like me, talk like me, and worship in the same church as me…then you’re “of God” and everybody else…is not. But that certainly isn’t what Solomon was saying in his prayer of dedication of a temple he built to the glory of God. And it isn’t the lesson we’re getting from Jesus this morning about the one who is outside of his own flock of followers, and yet had more faith in Jesus’ healing powers than what the Son of God had found in all of Israel. Perhaps what we’re called to hear in all of this is that God’s grace is abundant, God’s mercy is everlasting, and God’s faithfulness can be found in those who are “the others” in our society. It could be that God is calling us to see in those who are not just like us the hope and the joy of what it means to be citizens not only of a country on earth but a country on earth as it is in heaven. Embrace the faith. Be kind to one another. And let us all say, “Amen.”