Before I begin this morning I want us to hear one of the most repeated phrases in the bible:
Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid, God told the prophets. Do not be afraid, the angel told Mary. Do not be afraid even when you are forced away from your home, an unmarried woman, to give birth in a stable. Do not be afraid when you are then forced to flee to Egypt with your young child. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, St. Paul told the first Christians, when they couldn’t figure out who to let in. Let in everyone, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, Jesus told us when he went to die, at the hand of a corrupt government.
Do not be afraid. Our faith tells us this again and again. Wherever your heart is this morning: Do not be afraid.
I say this to myself, too, as I step into this pulpit. Deep breaths. We’re all doing this together.
Because a sermon--at its best, and sometimes you might not feel it in the architecture of this place with me all the way up here--but a sermon is a conversation. It is a conversation between the text that we read and what we do around that altar, It is a conversation between the people who come in here at 10am--you--and the people who leave here when we’re finished--you.
So I am gonna say some things this morning, but do not be afraid.
I want to back up a phrase from the Gospel reading this morning. What happens right before Jesus gets up on this famous mount to deliver the most iconic sermon in the history of sermons?
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news* of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”
“When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” That’s where we started.
You know, there are a lot of people who are very preoccupied with taking the bible literally -- and specifically in the United States of America. That is true, more than in any other country, a dominant form of being evangelical here in America includes this idea of biblical literalism. And so today I offer an olive branch to biblical literalists because LITERALLY in the gospel this morning,
Jesus welcomes at his feet sick and afflicted Syrian refugees.
You remember those bracelets that said WWJD? What would Jesus do? Today, we might have one of the easiest answers ever.
What would Jesus do when the people in political power sign into law a command to close borders, and to close them specifically and based on religious practice?
Jesus would go to the mountaintop, Jesus would sit his butt down -- he went up the mountain; and he sat down, and his disciples came to him.
But I am thinking about the ACLU lawyers I saw yesterday at JFK sitting right on the floor to do their work --
Jesus would sit down among the people and tell them the most radical thing a sick and suffering stranger could ever hear:
God loves you.
God loves you. You are blessed. You are blessed. You are blessed. You. are. Blessed.
What if everyone could really hear this? What would the world look like if people, in their despair, in their fear, in their sorrow, knew that God loves them, that God sees them. You are blessed.
I don’t think it will be a surprise if I tell you that I have been spending a lot of time recently, for the last several months, thinking and praying very intently on the question of politics and faith.
There is an unwritten expectation in a lot of churches -- I think especially Episcopal churches, and certainly the one that I grew up in -- that the preacher does not talk about politics from the pulpit. And there is a written rule, too, in the way that the separation of church and state works, that I, the preacher, would never endorse a candidate for public office by name.
And yet there is an imperative to preach the Gospel. To look to the Syrian refugee and say, you are blessed. And not just nominally blessed, but blessed with safety, with healing, with room at the feet of God.
But it can feel like playing whack-a-mole, keeping up with all the threats to freedom, to justice, and to peace, that are happening right now. And I don’t want church to be a place where we come only to hear a litany of fear & woe, because I know most of you here do not need me to get in the pulpit and read you the news. You can read that at home.
And I don’t want church to be a place where we constantly react to the headlines. We need the headlines to react to us! We need to be bold voices of moral clarity, not just stopping every gap temporarily, but forging a new river. I want this place to be a place where you come to hear the message: Do not be afraid!! Go out into the world!
This is the good news.
The story at the heart of Christianity--a story that we tell four different ways, from four different perspectives, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--is the story of God incarnate--God as a human being. And that human, Jesus, was a refugee child born to an unwed mother, who preached sitting down, to strangers of different faiths, who healed them, who blessed them, and who died at the hands of a corrupt government. That is the human Christian story, and there is no question--you can not divorce it from politics, you can not divorce its twists and turns from the actions of the government.
What do we do now? Where is the good news for those of us who are ready to go out into the world and act?
The prophet Micah asks the same: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Last night, New York City came together to do justice--to re-open the borders to legal immigrants--and to put a temporary stay on the detention of people with Green Cards who were in the air, but this is only temporary and it is not complete. There are still 134,000,000 people who are restricted from entering the US.
So there is work to do, and we know there will be more and more of it.
Today we go out with the blessing of God
With the promise “Do not be afraid.”
With the knowledge that you are blessed,
We go out and we do justice, we love kindness, and we walk humbly with God,
We look in the eyes of of the people who are fleeing persecution and we see Mary, carrying her child Jesus, and we know that they are blessed, and we welcome them.
We do justice. Amen.