Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thou Shalt Not (a sermon on the child refugee crisis)

As I was made more aware of the child refugee crisis at the southern border of the United States, I felt the call to preach on the issue.  Although we were in the midst of our summertime 'God on Broadway' series, I found an unexpected parallel in our previously announced selection for the week.  As it turns out, Shrek - in both its film and Broadway musical forms - happens to provide an entry point into the issue of refugees fleeing violence.  Bear with the first couple of paragraphs that made the contextual link for the people who were in the room, to get to the meat of the message...  

Thou Shalt Not (preached on July 20 2014 at McFarland UCC)
The most famous self-help book ever written was – is – “The Power of Positive Thinking.”  Since it was published in 1952, a whole industry has grown up around the idea of stopping negative self-talk.  Coming from the same stream, we find the “Law of Attraction” and the “Power of Intention,” in which focusing your energy on the positive is supposed to bring all the good things you want in life.   It’s in the parenting and teaching and leadership literature, too: “use positive language”.  “Please do this”, not “stop, don’t.”   (When you hear the question “Can I have a cookie?” at 5 pm, the best answer, according to the latest authorities is not "no," it’s, “you may, after dinner.”)

It would be nice if positive language did it for us all the time.  And yet, it's not quite sufficient.

At the opening of Shrek, the Musical, the young ogre’s parents sing him a song, “it’s a big bright beautiful world...but not for you.”  At the age of seven, they warn him against men with pitchforks.  They let him go out on the road, telling him, “Just keep walking…and you’ll find somewhere to go.”   There’s something a bit warped – broken - about a world in which parents have to put those images into their children’s heads, for their own protection.  It’s enough to drive you to live in a swamp. By yourself.  With a ‘Keep Out’ sign.

There are good reasons to frame things in the positive.  But sometimes, for the most compelling reasons, we have to identify ourselves in the negative.    In the story of the nation of Israel, a good portion of the law is occupied by statements of,  “we are the people who do not ___.”  
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:   Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.  You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD.
   - from Leviticus 18
In the story of the Israelites, there is much attention given to identifying as the people who do not - who will not, who shall not.  Surrounded by other cultures that worship other gods, cultures which demand sacrifice in the name of cultural stability, it is important to be the people who do not – who never would.

Among all the thou shalt nots, there was a particular kind of sacrifice that was singled out for attention in the law of the Israelites, as given to them by God - child sacrifice:
You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech,
and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
- Leviticus 18:21
Molech was a god worshipped in the region, and in the worship of Molech (those who study such things tell us) the sacrifice of children figured prominently as an act of deepest devotion.

For the nation of Israel – our faith ancestors - child sacrifice was utterly forbidden.  And yet, it was apparently common enough that God needed to say it, over, and over again – through the law and through the prophets – with the strongest language imaginable.  An abomination, it is called.  Something that defiles.   Something that cuts you off from the worship of God, from the sacred assembly.  
… I myself will set my face against them, and will cut them off from the people, because they have given of their offspring to Molech, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name. And if the people of the land should ever close their eyes to them, when they give of their offspring to Molech…
- Leviticus 20
And yet, despite such dire warnings, the people do not listen.  By the 7th chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet is raging against the Israelites themselves, because something has broken in the sacred relationship.  The people, while still claiming to worship the Lord, have embraced the sacrifice of children.  In a valley outside of Jerusalem – a valley from which we get the image “the valley of the shadow of death” – there, they have built a place of worship to another god.  A place where children are turned over to be sacrificed, and the sound of the drums and the tambourines is made loud so the city will not hear the children’s cries.

Never was this commanded by God.  Never did it come to God’s mind, the prophet laments.  Through Jeremiah’s voice, the Holy One tells us what happens when the children are turned over to the fire:  
I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth,
the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.”
Jeremiah 7:30-34
The horror of this is beyond imagining.   We want to turn away.  We do not want to imagine this in scripture, we do not want to hear this in worship, something so terrible that it causes God to mourn and simultaneously, to condemn. Might we have some more pleasant scripture, on a week when the news has been unremittingly negative?  Yet, in our demands for relief, we are just as guilty as those who turned up the volume on the music so as not to hear the children’s cries.  There is no secret chord that can make this go away.
When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.
 - Ezekiel 20:31
Hear this:  The children come from places with names like, “Little Hell.”  El Infiernito.  Burning with violence.  Read some of their stories. 
The Children of the Drug Wars:  A Refugee Crisis, Not An Immigrant Crisis, NY Times.
It’s a terrible kind of desperation that would drive a parent to send children that young, hundreds of miles away…or a children that age to leave all they had ever known.  It is clear that to send the children back is to send them into likely death.  Into the valley of the shadow, the valley of the fire, the place where children are sacrificed to a burning god and we turn up the volume so we don’t have to hear their cries.
The messenger will bear witness against those who thrust aside the alien.
- Malachi 3:5
There is much more to say on the topic of welcoming the stranger, but if we focus on whether we should secure the border or leave it wide open to immigration, we are asking the wrong question.   Christ comes to our doorsteps in waves of children.  One, two, ten, ten thousand.   Christ sleeps on the floor of the detention center, under a donated blanket.  Christ comes to free us, knocking at the gates of our hearts. How is it that we turn him away?

Being made a Christian means getting a heart transplant, and a new identity to go with it.  We become the ones who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned.   We become the people who do not neglect the stranger.  

We are the people who do not turn away the children.  
We are the people who do not send children back into the sacrificial fire.  


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

God on Broadway: Herding Cats

Since mid-June, I've been preaching and planning worship around themes pulled from Broadway musicals.
I tried God on Broadway as a short preaching series last summer as way to get myself out of a preaching rut.  As it turned out, it's also good for worship attendance.  The church vitality folks will tell you that visiting musicians bring along a fan club of friends and family.  I can't claim to have been that strategic. I just wanted to have a little bit of fun.

Having stumbled into a winning strategy, though, when it came time to plan this summer's worship arc, I knew what I had to do.  In my innocence, I committed myself to rounding up twelve consecutive weeks of singers who were willing to offer their talents for free.  I thought I could have this accomplished by Easter, so as to promote the series.  In the end, it was a bit like playing 3D chess to match up singers' availability with weeks we still had to fill, and ensure that it wasn't for a show we'd already scheduled at another point that summer.  After a few rounds of shuffling, the season looked like this: