Sunday, July 06, 2008

God's Country

Here's the homily I preached this morning, on a day when several parishioners had asked our priest for lots of patriotic content and when all the hymns we sang were patriotic songs. This kind of thing makes me very uncomfortable, for reasons I hope the homily itself makes clear, so I decided to try to be the gentle loyal opposition. It seemed to have worked pretty well. Many people really loved the homily; one man wanted to talk to me about immigration issues, which resulted in a long, thoughtful conversation, but I don't think anyone will be leaving the parish in outrage. Thanks be to God!

Here are the readings, the relevant ones being Genesis and Matthew.


When I was growing up, my grandparents had a live-in housekeeper named Helen. She was from Greece: a tiny woman, probably no more than four feet tall, but absolutely indomitable. Every day she cleaned my grandparents’ house in suburban New Jersey; several days a week, she then walked from their house into Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge, to clean house for people who lived in the city. It’s over four miles from my grandparents’ house to the New York side of the bridge, and probably several more to the neighborhoods where Helen’s clients lived. She never complained about the distance. She could have taken a bus or gotten a ride, but she wanted to walk.

At some point, Helen decided to become an American citizen. My grandfather taught her to read English and coached her on the answers to the citizenship test. She was very proud the day she passed it, and all of us were proud of her. My most vivid memory of her, though, dates from 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. Helen was walking across the bridge just as the tall ships -- historic wooden sailing ships with huge, graceful sails -- passed underneath. She stopped and gawked, amazed. Later, with tears in her voice, she told us how beautiful they were, how exciting it had been to watch them.

I think of Helen every Fourth of July. I don’t know what brought her to this country; after my grandfather died, she moved back to Greece. But she reminds me of everyone who has come to this country from somewhere else, and of the hard work and sacrifice these immigrants -- including many of our own ancestors -- have happily accepted to make a life here.

I think of her, and of all those other immigrants, when I read this morning’s Scripture passages, too. The reading from Genesis reminds us of the bonds that defy borders; Abraham, living in Canaan but homesick, sends his servant back to his ancestral lands to find a wife for his son. Rebekeh and her maids leave a great deal behind to settle in a new land when she marries Isaac. And Jesus’ famous words in the Gospels remind me of Helen cheerfully walking miles to work.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Living in the United States placed certain yokes upon Helen, as it does upon all immigrants: distance from home and loved ones, struggles with a new language and culture, the need to find work that often takes grueling, unpleasant forms. Helen, at least, seemed to find that yoke easy, that burden light.

For me, Jesus’ words echo another promise, one we often remember on July 4:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This is, as I’m sure most of you know, the most famous section of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from France to the United States. We’re currently in the middle of a rather fierce national debate about how best to keep that particular promise, about which huddled masses should be allowed entrance. This state of affairs is nothing new. Waves of immigrants have always come here, and periodically, the people already in residence have felt swamped by those waves, and have panicked.

It’s easy to welcome and love a diminutive and plucky Greek housekeeper, especially when she’s dutifully following the rules we’ve set up for how to be accepted into this country. Huddled masses of wretched refuse are more of a challenge, both emotionally and in practical terms, and especially when they’re too desperate, because of poverty or oppression, to follow our rules.

Following the rules takes time. It also takes time for huddled masses to become actual people to us, for a wave of strangers to become known, loved friends and family. It’s hard to remember at first that the frightening, teeming mass is a group of individuals, and that each one has a story, often involving great hardship.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Jesus -- friend of sinners, tax collectors, lepers and Samaritans -- didn’t limit his hospitality, didn’t set quotas, build walls or police borders. He welcomed everyone, even when he was overwhelmed by crowds or seized upon by people too desperate to follow instructions. It’s easy to respond that this is all well and good for the Son of God. We’re mere mortals with limited resources. As Christians, though, we’re called to follow Jesus’ example, to do seemingly impossible things with loaves and fishes.

We’re also called to remember that whatever nation we claim as home, we are also, by virtue of baptism, citizens of God’s country. That country is much larger than the United States: indeed, larger than any nation on Earth, larger than all nations on Earth. In that country, all who are hungry are fed, and all who are homeless find lodging. God’s country is the place of freedom, peace and justice that humans yearn for, and that so many humans have moved to new earthly countries, including the United States, trying to find.

As Christians, we live in two countries at once, and there may be times when we have to choose between them. Jesus told us that we cannot serve two masters. If the cross and the flag are in conflict, which will we choose? If our elected officials are not doing what Jesus would do, how will we call them to account? Is our earthly country, like God’s, a place of freedom, peace and justice? Does it offer those things to everyone? If not, how can we reach out to those who are being shortchanged, and how can we act in love to change the systems that are shortchanging them?

Some of you know that, through an odd and unexpected series of events, I began taking communion several months before I was baptized. I talked to Sherry and Rick about the situation, and they decided that I should continue receiving until my scheduled baptism. At the time, I was on an internet listserv for Episcopalians, and I told the story there. Most of the people on the list were supportive, but one -- a retired priest -- was furious and horrified. I had no right to take communion, he told me. Communion without baptism was just cheap grace. People like me were destroying the church!

People like me? I asked him. Where are these teeming masses of people trying to break down the doors of the church to take illegal communion? We should have such problems: most Episcopal churches are struggling with declining membership! But if your parish was besieged by people desperate to take premature communion, would you really send them away? Wouldn’t you even think about letting them in, instead? What would Jesus do?

The debate over open communion is similar to, although considerably less urgent than, the debate about immigration. In both cases, I think we need to ask ourselves why the newcomers in question have arrived at our doorstep. Is Susan trying to make a mockery of Christ and the church, or is she seeking a closer relationship with God and a chance to do God’s work? Is Helen trying to sponge off American wealth, or is she happy to walk seven miles each way to clean other people’s toilets?

What oppression is the person standing in front of us trying to escape? What freedom is the person standing in front of us trying to find? When we separate that terrifying, teeming mass into individuals and ask each individual for his or her story, what do we hear? What would Jesus do if he heard the same story?



  1. What a beautiful homily, Susan! Thank you for the wonderful start to my day/week. I'm glad you did this one. Once again, you've probably made people think.


  2. Anonymous8:10 AM

    Excellent set of queries! Thank you.


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