Until We Are Strangers No More

15589810_10101707667148154_8107485109657741731_n.jpgThe following is an edited manuscript of a sermon I delivered at the Wesley-Luther Fellowship at UNC-Greensboro on 9/10/17. This sermon was my attempt at engaging the events of the past few weeks from the proposed transgendered persons serving in the military to rescinding DACA all on the eve to 9/11. I was aided in this message by Chaplain Helena Epstein and my friend and blog/podcast partner Dr. Charles Bretan.

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto G-d the things that are G-d’s.” (Matthew 22: 21, KJV) Though tempting, it would be a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ words to claim this passage in support of the separation of things political and things theological. It is a misinterpretation because all things, including Caesar himself, ultimately belong to G-d. As People of Faith, it falls on us speak truth to power and hold Caesar accountable to G-d. However, Caesar is not himself the problem.

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto G-d the things that are G-d’s.” (Matthew 22: 21, KJV) All things belong to G-d, including Caesar. And, including those who through their actions or by their inaction elected him. And it is inaction, that is sin, when our protest is limited by the range of our wifi signal and an 140 character limit. Worse, silence in the face of such evil is itself evil and God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Doing nothing is still doing something.

Caesar is not himself the problem. No, he’s a symptom of a greater infection in the Body of Christ. And that infection is none other than the Noonday Demon; sloth, one of the so-called seven deadliest sins. Sloth is when a person created in the image of G-d cannot be bothered to build a transformative relationship with another person who is also equally created in the image of that same G-d. We know sloth by its legion of names transphobia, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, agism, racism, classism, and elitism. And I could go on and on! Sloth’s many names all point out that we live in a society that has replaced the inclusive Kingdom of G-d with pathological “otherizing.” How else people created in the image of G-d support a ban of transgendered persons from military service. How else could people ignore the sacrifice of fellow children of G-d who want nothing more than to defend a country that, as of late, does not defend them. Proposed legislation nearly becomes law because people are too lazy to build a meaningful transformative relationship with the transgendered children of G-d. This is pathological otherizing.

Caesar is not himself the problem. He’s just a symptom of a greater infection in the Body of Christ. In this moment, I am mindful that I am speaking to students and that we are just a stone’s throw away from campus. So how could people created in the image of G-d repeal measures that would then make our sisters in Christ more vulnerable on our many college and university campuses? How? By they’re being too lazy to enter into a relationship with their sisters in Christ that takes seriously their fear of sexual violence. This is pathological otherizing.

Caesar is not himself the problem. He’s just a symptom of a greater infection in the Body of Christ. An infection that causes people created in the image of G-d to rejoice about Caesar rescinding DACA? How else could parents not connect with their undocumented counterparts who are no less fellow parents and ignore both their and their children’s fear. To put it simply, they don’t care because they don’t know them and they cannot be bothered to get to know them. This is pathological otherizing.

So Thursday last when Steve Bannon, a one time advisor to Caesar and Roman Catholic, said in an interview with Charlie Rose about the rescinding of DACA that he, “As much as I respect [the cardinals and] bishops on doctrine, [DACA] is not doctrine. This is not doctrine at all. I totally respect the pope, and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine. This is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.” Mr. Bannon I beg to differ, it damn sure is doctrine! For as you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters you have also done unto me. The G-d who is known as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer demands that every vulnerable person be a mandate and opportunity for us, people of faith, to care.

Caesar is not himself the problem. He’s just a symptom of a greater infection in the Body of Christ. And this infection will spread from cell to cell, from member to member, until those cells, those members, decide that the category of “stranger” should not continue. The infection will be driven out only when brothers, sisters, and fellow children of G-d work towards making their strangers into their neighbors. And this is and will be hard work.

G-d knew that this would be hard work. So early on G-d had something to say about this, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your G-d.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34, NRSV) Just 15 verses earlier the Hebrew Bible gives the great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”(Leviticus 19:18), and this has often been taken as the basis of biblical morality. But it is not: it is only part of it. The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbor, but in thirty-seven other places it commands us to love the stranger. Our neighbor is the one we love because that person is like ourselves. The stranger is the one we are taught to love precisely because they are not like ourselves. (Rabbi Sacks, Faith in the Future)

Mark Twain once wrote that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of [people] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” By moving ourselves, that is traveling, to experience the world as a stranger does, as one who is vulnerable and in need, opens one up to the possibility of conversion.

In 2006, my wife, Summer, and I adopted our daughter, Sophie, from the Tuyên Quang province of Vietnam. She would be our first, and so far, only child. Summer and I were thirty and felt, for the most part, that we knew enough about babies to deal with any eventuality. We felt confident that together we could deal with anything Sophie threw at us.

Whose kid was the first to go number 2 on a crowded bus hours away from our hotel room in Hanoi? That would be the Henson child. Summer and I had a plan. I planned on not smelling it and passing my soiled daughter to her mother and then saying, “She didn’t do that when I was holding her.” The going rule then was an adaptation of the “whoever smelt it dealt it” that went something like “if you smelt it, you dealt with it.” Full of confidence we high-fived each other over having conquered Sophie’s first caca. Still, we couldn’t wait to get back to our hotel and bathe her…a task that 11 years later still proves to be difficult…and love on her.

But, when we get back to our room our confidence as new parents eroded to near nothing. My daughter had a large sore on the back of her head from laying on a rice mat and rolling her head from side to side as a way of self-soothing. This sore became infected. We’d learn later that she also contracted Scarlet Fever. She was a very sick little baby. She cried, at times sounding like a goat bleating, and would not be comforted.

We didn’t sound like the people who had so lovingly taken care of her from the moment she drew her first breath. We didn’t smell like them either. Everything was just as alien to Sophie as we were alien to her. She didn’t like being held partly because she was sick and partly because she wasn’t used to being held as long as we were holding compared to what she likely received when she was still in the orphanage. We were thousands of miles from home. We were a day ahead in time zones. We spoke no Vietnamese. We knew only the couples who had traveled with us and who were just as new to parenting as we were. Sophie would cry for hours on end only stopping when she became so physically exhausted that she went to sleep. We didn’t know where to take her for medical care. And if we did we wouldn’t know how to explain her symptoms in Vietnamese. We were strangers in a strange land. And we were desperate.

Our desperation went on several more days before we could locate an English-speaking doctor; amazingly a visiting pediatrician from Duke University. (G-d is good.) But, while still in desperation, the G-d of Heaven showed up as a housekeeper. A small Vietnamese woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, who spoke no English whatsoever, but saw us trying to comfort our daughter while she was cleaning our room. This child of G-d pointed to our child and made a cradling gesture with her arms. We shook our heads yes and motioned for her to pick Sophie up. This beautiful woman took our daughter in her arms and sang to her softly in their native tongue. She patted her bottom and nuzzled her cheek-to-cheek. She rocked Sophie to sleep. And it was the first night in days that Summer and I also got some sleep.

Then another night, we get a knock at our door, which was alarming, because we don’t know anyone in Hanoi. We opened our door and there stood a different young Vietnamese woman, also a housekeeper. She hands us a baby stroller and in broken English explained that this was her daughter’s stroller and that she wanted us to use it while we were in Hanoi. The G-d of Heaven showed up again as a housekeeper who had just worked a 12 hour shift, from can’t see to can’t see, then went home by bus, and came back with her child’s stroller in what can only be described as a profound act of love and, really, mercy.

And G-d kept showing up in the guise of strangers with almond-shaped eyes. G-d was the doorman that wouldn’t accept any tips, but fiercely ran off price-gouging taxi drivers and would-be pickpockets. G-d even brought us a crib! A crib! We were strangers in a strange land. Thankfully, the love of G-d came to us in the form of strangers that would make us neighbors.

But, you don’t have to travel to Southeast Asa to experience life as a stranger. You don’t have to travel to any of the four corners of the earth to experience being a stranger. You don’t even have to leave this sanctuary to know what it is like to be a stranger, one who is vulnerable and in need. For we all were once orphans who were adopted into the family of G-d through the most perfect expression of love for strangers; the One who willing allowed his arms to be nailed open so as to embrace all of G-d’s children. “…which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36, NIV) You shall love the G-d who comes to you as a stranger with all your heart and with all your soul and with all  your mind.” (Matthew 22:37, NIV) This is the first and greatest commandment. “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:38) Live a life of discipleship that isn’t satisfied until all strangers are made into neighbors.

The Bethesda Center, a homeless shelter in Winston-Salem, coordinates with local churches and civic groups to prepare and serve dinner to the shelter’s guests. Often times these dinners were the only time some people encountered their homeless brothers and sisters in Christ. Two of my churches participated in this ministry. The first of the two volunteered to do it one Sunday a month for a year. At first, the ministry experience was novel. It was fun. It felt good to care for strangers. But with all novel or new things, the novel and the new wore off and the novel and new became work. Eventually, our volunteers would complain about “those people” and how “they” need to get their lives together. Worse, “they” should be thankful we come at all. They. Pathological otherizing. They is not a category or classification in a faithful Christian’s vocabulary. One evening the otherizing became too much. We hadn’t even opened the doors to begin serving the shelter’s guests and already it was “they” this and “they” that. And this would have gone on indefinitely had it not been for one little Vietnamese girl, then 4, who said, “We’re going to see Jesus tonight, right?” Until we can see Jesus in others, we, you and I, are not immune to the infection of otherizing.

I want to leave you this evening with what I hope will be both a meaningful and timely story. Tonight, it is September 10. Tomorrow is 9/11. On the ride up here tonight I was listening to NPR as the news anchor mentioned nationwide “celebrations” for 9/11. I struggled with the word “celebration.” I wanted to ask the anchor, “What are we celebrating?”  (I prefer “remembrance.”)

In 2001, my wife and I lived in Oldham, England, just outside of Manchester. Oldham was a city that then was deeply divided along both racial and religious boundaries. The Oldham Riots erupted months before Summer and I moved to the UK. We saw our future hometown burning like Watts as disenfranchised young Asian Muslim men defended themselves against the British Nationalist Party (BNP) The BNP is an English version of our Alt-Right. Summer and I were one of the few American families in town. Oldham was a jigsaw of uncomfortably conjoined boroughs alternating between “Anglo-no-go” and “Asian-no-go” areas. The worst ethnically motivated riots in the UK since 1985 continued to throw-off sparks, civil unrest made for dry powder and then the unthinkable happens; the towers fall.

I remember, the moment vividly. I was driving home from visiting Mrs. Winterbottom-a beloved parishioner-when BBC Radio 1 began cutting in and out like I was losing their signal. I recall thinking how odd it was that there was no white noise. The silence was broken by a stuttering reporter struggling for words to describe the horrors unfolding in New York. I entered a surreal dreamlike state where the lines of reality and fiction became most assuredly blurred. Only in that liminal space could I even begin to fathom what was going on back in the States. I drove to the house with no recollection of how I made it from Mrs. Winterbottom’s flat to my front door. I fumbled with my house keys. I was shaking. I thought, “I’ll call Mama.” The phone lines were overwhelmed, so there would be no calls to my Mom or anyone else’s for that matter. I made for the living room thinking I would turn on the TV and this would all be some kind of sick joke. I turned on the news just in time to see the second tower be struck. Then it was replay after horrific replay of airplanes hitting towers until even the locals were said to be calling the BBC asking them to show some respect and take the damned images off the air.

Then it hit me; I had forgotten about Summer. Where was she? Was she safe? I didn’t have a cell phone. And the phone lines were still overwhelmed. The phone rang and I fumbled the receiver like I did my keys as my hands were still shaking, Summer was on the other end crying and wanting to come home. She couldn’t tell me where exactly she was or how to get to her. Summer was trying to get home from her National Health Post in nearby Bury, but stunned motorists made for gridlock on the motorway. She later described scenes of drivers and pedestrians alike stunned into a holding pattern unable to do anything but park or stand still. My wife summoned the will to take bus after bus to get home. What an ironic word, home. We were an ocean away from home. She got home. We wept. We did not celebrate then. We will not celebrate tomorrow.

That first night, the images on the BBC was more than we could bear to watch.  The sad irony, the other local stations were airing reruns of old war movies. Isn’t it funny how real war makes Hollywood fiction look trifling and offensive? A day passed, the phones stayed busy, the news replayed the senseless violence and horror of that day, and we sat waiting for what would happen next. Would our churches, the only people who knew us in the entire country, would members call or visit? Who was going to protect us? We were outsiders. Would we become victims of further violence? After all, we’re Americans.

Early on the morning of Sept. 12, there was a knock at our door and the people who were knocking were most unexpected. At our door were the first people to stop by and make sure we were ok. Our visitors were two men, one with a snowy white head of hair and an equally full white beard and the other looked similar only younger with coal black hair and beard. A Muslim father and son who lived a few doors down. I guess the two men had seen us moving in, the older man embraced me as if I were his son. They cried. I cried. We held onto one another until we all realized how absurd the sight of three grown men hugging and crying must look. We even laughed at the wonderfully weird and yet powerful moment that our embrace made for.  We hugged some more. We cried some more. We only spoke when we parted. The younger of the two men said to me, “G-d be with you.” I met his words with Alaykum As-Salaam; “and also with you.”

And just like my trip from Mrs. Winterbottom’s, I again found myself somehow in my living room unaware of having ever closed the front door. Summer had been asking who it was for what may very well have been an hour. “Who was it?” she asked. I said, “Our neighbors.” Mark 12: 31 “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Amen.

One response to “Until We Are Strangers No More

  1. Pingback: Episode 42 | A Jew and A Gentile walk into a Bar . . . Mitzvah·

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