On Thursday of Holy Week members of my congregation shared a meal together. It wasn’t an ordinary meal, but rather a worship service with a meal. Something I would like to do again, and like to call, dinner church. This night (Maundy Thursday), we re-heard the story behind Passover, we remembered our own sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and then we shared a meal. That was, for me, a highlight of Holy Week.
On this second Sunday of Easter we contemplate the disciples who locked themselves in a room… because they were afraid. They were afraid in spite of the news that Jesus was no longer dead. Approximately 2000 years later we might wonder about their fear. Like, how could they have not believed Jesus’ predictions of the events that would transpire? How could they not gather strength from the wonderful news that Mary and friends had reported? How could they cower in fear? Would we be any different?
I look around and I see a society in the grip of fear. We seem to have so much to fear…and sadly, those fears are being exploited in so many ways that we can’t really enumerate them right now or we’d be here all day.
Fear is an emotion that is mentioned frequently in our scriptures. Fear is an emotion that immobilizes us, so much so that a common command given to God’s people is, “do not be afraid.” Why? Because when we operate out of fear we do nothing or tragically, we are capable of doing pretty horrible things. Not just us…but all people, or groups of people…when driven by fear, are capable of the most atrocious behavior.
Which takes me back to our story behind the story of Passover. Most of us are familiar with the story of God’s deliverance of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The story usually starts with Moses and God’s calling him to deliver his people.
But how did they come to find themselves in such a precarious position? It wasn’t an overnight thing…or a kidnapping and forcing into slavery thing (like the shameful part of our own American history). The oppression of the people happened gradually and the root of it all was fear.
Yes. Fear. You see the Egyptians saw that their Israelite neighbors were growing in number. The Egyptians saw that their Israelite neighbors were prospering. The Egyptians began to fear these neighbors. Fearing that their growth would eventually cause them to take over…to displace them. I’m sure that demagogues were active in stoking this fear of Egyptian towards their neighbor.
But rather than build a wall to keep out the Israelites (since they were already there) or mass deportation of their Israeli neighbors, they decided to just oppress them. And when oppression didn’t work they opted for a horrible form of genocide in killing all the baby boys. The story of Moses starts with these attempts at genocide. People can do atrocious things when they are afraid.
God knows this. So not only do we have the continued call to “not be afraid,” we have the common instruction to remember the oppression of Egypt. Why? So that it never happens again. The Israelites were to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and thus to treat the strangers…the sojourner…the refugee…the non-citizens in their land with compassion, with care, with justice.
Jesus would double down on this command when he instructed his disciples – including us – that the law is summarized in the command to love God and to love neighbor. Who is our neighbor according to Jesus? Everyone…especially the stranger. This was so important to Jesus that he in Matthew 25 said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
These stories, and Jesus’ words are pertinent to us today. How do we, as followers of Jesus, treat the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger in our communities? What do we do when a story as old as time is so pertinent for today?
Do we give in to fear and reject the stranger? In doing so we are most likely rejecting Jesus.
Do we listen to the words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” but stay silent? I think of the disciples hiding in a room out of fear. They were afraid of those in power, they were afraid of being arrested, they were afraid to live as Jesus had taught them to live.
Then, into the midst of this fearful existence Jesus appeared.
“Peace.” So much in this word. Peace. Don’t be afraid. Don’t worry.
But also don’t stay here. Don’t stay locked up in this room. Don’t stay locked up in your fears. Peace… and go!
As the Father sent me, I send you. I send you out into the world to be bearers of the peace I give you. I send you out into the world to learn to love your neighbor and to teach others to do the same. I send you to counter the fear that divides and diminishes and destroys peace.
This peace, this call, this promise of the Holy Spirit, this sending is for us. It’s a great gift. It’s an awesome responsibility and thus scary. It is not hypothetical.
On Friday a couple that has loved here in Oxnard for 24 years was deported. They were pastors at a church in Colonia. They literally lived across the street from us…can’t be any closer neighbors. They are grandparents. Their grandchildren are students in our preschool.
So today a church worships…mourns… the loss of their pastors. A son and a daughter mourn the loss of their parents. And most upsetting, preschoolers no longer have their grandmother who cared for them while their parents worked. These children don’t understand why their grandmother is suddenly gone. How do you explain that fear of the stranger has resulted in the expulsion of their grandparents?
As I contemplate this I wonder how we benefit from all of this? I cannot see how we are anything but diminished.
I am also reminded of other words from Jesus. Words of love and forgiveness. And as I remember these words I hope and pray that they will empower us to go out into the world and combat the fear that leads to the oppression of the immigrant.
Peace be to you.