St Martin’s first strategic priority is called embedding the Bible in community life. In addition to recently completing the year-long Bible Challenge, many of our ministry groups now routinely take some time for Bible reflection during their meetings. At the recent men’s beer and pizza evening, actually, it’s more pizza than beer, we devoted time in our two hours together to have a Biblical conversation.
Taking the gospel for Pentecost 4, I invited the men into a subjective encounter with the depiction of the farmer scattering his seed. I asked them to note the word or phrase that caught their attention. We then proceeded to explore each man’s free associations evoked by encountering the text. This is an ancient process, known as divine reading, and in its contemporary form raises the question: how might God be using my associations to this text to speak to me about what needs attention in the next 5-7 days?
In the E-News Epistle which came out on Thursday, I made a very bold statement indeed. I said:
Despite our current immigration debate’s political and social complexities, the Bible allows Christians to hold only one view on immigration – we are to welcome the stranger.
Now I am aware that it’s always tricky, as Jeff Sessions is discovering, to appeal to the Bible’s text as literal evidence for any proposition we might wish to advance. For on almost any matter to do with how to act, what to believe, what is binding, what is not, the Bible is a collection of contradictory texts. You can use the Bible to argue for or against slavery, for or against the equality of women with men. It’s more difficult to use the Bible as evidence for God’s dislike of LGBTQ people because Biblical societies had no concept of an inherently natural and stable developmental state we recognize as homosexuality. However, the one matter on which the Bible is fairly consistent is the obligation to welcome the stranger. Hence my statement in the E-news is quite difficult to contradict.
If we ask who and what kind of God do we serve? Welcoming the stranger emerges at the heart of Biblical obligation because God’s word to Moses when he asked this very question; when they ask me who shall I say sent me? – was:I am the Lord your God who has heard your cry and brought you out of bondage in the land of Egypt.
The reason we are to welcome the stranger, God tells us, is because we were all strangers, once.
When it comes to engaging with the Bible, there is no such thing as a plain meaning for the words on the page. There is the text, with its own history and context. Then there is us, and the context in which we encounter the text. Meaning emerges in the tension of the space between text as written and text as received by the reader.
Mark offers us a rather uneventful story of the farmer who sows his seed by a rather careless method of scattering it, willy-nilly. He then forgets about it, getting on with his life, trusting in God’s goodness in creation to do the rest. The seeds sprout and fruit, though he knows not how. Unlike many of us, he seems OK with not needing to control the process. He knows well enough his real work will come when the harvest is ready.
Jesus’ gospel message is open your eyes and ears and see how the kingdom is in-breaking all around you. Its coming is not within our control, yet neither are we passive bystanders in its arrival.
We cannot hasten the coming of the kingdom. Neither can anyone frustrate its coming. We have work to do, work of scattering the seeds of faith, hope, and love – scattering ourselves and our energies in the world.
We have further work as harvesters of the kingdom’s fruits. Faith ripens into courage, hope into persistence, and love into justice.
The kingdom’s coming is always counterintuitive. Its inbreaking is not another version of the myth of progress; advancing step by step and evidenced by things getting better and better, over time. Will the coming of the kingdom be further advanced ten years from now? Experience shows it does not work like this.
We scatter, and the kingdom comes, though we know not how. Yet, are not the kingdom’s expectations advanced in a world where slavery is abolished, where women are emancipated, where LGBTQ men and women are accepted, and where the vulnerable stranger is welcomed? The answer is, of course. Nevertheless, the scourge of racism persists and in periods like the present seems even to grow stronger. Sexist discrimination, sexual exploitation of women, and the often-invisible limitations imposed by the glass ceiling, still remain firmly in place. Homophobia is still nurtured in the bosom of evangelical and patriarchal religion, and despite the divine requirement to welcome the stranger we tolerate the inhumanity of this Administration’s approach to immigration enforcement.
This coming week is World Refugee Week when Christians are asked to address the difficult issues of migration and population displacement in the light of the coming of God’s kingdom. What is our response when children, even infants still nursing at the breast are separated from parents at the border; when unaccompanied children and adolescents are detained in Walmart megastores converted into prisons? How must we respond to the latest extrajudicial decree denying asylum claims to women escaping from domestic abuse, and women and children escaping from communities ravaged by drug and gang violence; violence fed and sustained by our epidemic addictions. And when we have the temerity to object to these inhumanities, the Attorney General manipulates Scripture in support of a policy that by any standards is as draconian as it is arbitrary. The primary purpose of our rule of law lies in it being a remedy against capricious and arbitrary exercise of executive government.
In the light of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, what should our response to immigration be?
Experience rather than prejudice and phobia should be the driver of policy. It is worth noting that communities across the country are benefiting from organized refugee resettlement programs, such as the one Dorcas International manages in RI. Economics dictate that if our economy is to grow to meet our national needs then migration is a principal source of the workforce growth necessary. For those escaping political and social chaos, compassion should temper suspicion.
Neither a fearful nor a soppy handwringing response is acceptable.
The kingdom demands from us a hard-headed commitment to hold our legislators accountable for the fashioning of sound policy grounded in principles of justice that protect the vulnerable from the arbitrary and capricious exercise of power.
In authoritarian forms of government ruling through the mechanisms of scapegoating, the vulnerable today will eventually become you and me, tomorrow.
[T]he reign of God does not carve out a separate sacred space; it claims all aspects of human existence. There is no such thing, not in Christianity at least, as an apolitical gospel. There is no economically neutral gospel. There is no gospel that dismisses the importance of embodied existence and interpersonal relationships. …however your church conducts its ministry, if it doesn’t provide sanctuary, hospitality, sustenance, and renewal to those who need it, …. then it isn’t the gospel. In short, there is no gospel in which Jesus remains buried in the ground like a dormant seed. Matthew Skinner