Seeing the Sacred

From Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24 and Genesis 18:1-15

My heart has been especially heavy this week as I have seen pictures and read more and more about the humanitarian crisis the United States faces on the border with Mexico.  Part of me doesn’t even know what to say.  Desperate children—in record numbers—making their way alone or in groups—up the length of Mexico—primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador—frantic to escape increasing violence in their home countries, to find family, to break out of devastating poverty and hunger and persecution.  They arrive at the door of our tent, and unfortunately face even more persecution and hardship and rejection. . . .
The Psalmist tells us so eloquently . . .
     O  Lord, you have searched me and known me. 

     You know when I sit down and when I rise up; 
     you discern my thoughts from far away. 

     You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 

     You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 

     Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;  it is so high that I cannot attain it.
     Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?

We are assured that we are surrounded by God’s presence.  We are bordered and bound, encompassed and embraced by the Holy.  With every breath, we breathe in the Sacred.  We cannot escape God’s presence. 
Clivie has a book called Where Is God?  “God is the in the beginning . . . in the first red tomato.  God is in the end . . . in the last bite of birthday cake. . . . in the way people come together. . . .  God is in the world . . . in birdchirp, frogsong, and chattering squirrels, and in the fly caught in the spider’s web. . . .  God is everywhere we look.”
And Abraham . . . he looks up . . . sees 3 men . . . are they strangers?  Does he know them?  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that he sees the sacred in them.  It’s the heat of the day.  He knows these men must be tired.  Please let me give you water.  Please let me wash your feet.  Please come and rest here in this place.  Let me feed you.  Let me offer you refreshment.  Let me embody grace and hospitality for you.  This is the least I can do.  Because God is everywhere we look.  Because I see the Holy in you.
But what do we see when we see these children and families—desperately making their way toward us—and huddled in deportation camps?  

How do we make sense of this migration and this humanitarian crisis in light of our religious beliefs and theologies and principles of faith?

Humberto, a 16-year-old Zapotec indigenous child from the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, recently attempted to cross into the U.S. through the Arizona desert with his uncle. Humberto's goal was to reunite with his mother, who had left when he was three years old, hoping to make enough money to send Humberto to school.

Humberto was raised by his grandmother and supported by the remittances his mother sent home from her agricultural work in California's Central Valley. When his grandmother died, Humberto was pressured more and more to join a local gang, but instead, he decided to make the perilous journey with his uncle.  After walking through the desert for three days, they were apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol, and Humberto was separated from his uncle without explanation.  Humberto was deported and placed into a shelter for unaccompanied youth in Nogales, Mexico—notorious for its gangs and violence.

Only after arriving at the shelter was Humberto allowed to contact his mother to let her know what had happened.  And only at that time did he learn that his uncle had been charged with “illegal re-entry,” and was sentenced to six months in a U.S. prison.

Where is God?  And where is our sense of Holy Hospitality? 

Border crossings and the root causes of migration affect and implicate all of us—and I’m not just talking about politics here.  I’m talking ethically, spiritually—on the most human level—what affects us as vulnerable human beings in fallible human relationship with other vulnerable human beings. 

Contrary to what some people in the current immigration debate might have you believe, people don’t leave their countries of origin to make someone else’s life in another country more difficult. . . .

Just like in Biblical times, people leave their homes today to avoid violent conflict, food insecurity, economic distress, political insecurity, demoralizing inequalities, environmental destruction, and natural disasters.  People leave their homes in search of safety and a better life.  The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are at least 15.4 million refugees worldwide.  And that number is increasing. 

I mean, consider this:  In 2011, the gross national income per capita in the United States was $48,620.  In Mexico, the gross national income per capita was $9,420.  In Guatemala $2,870.  In Honduras $1,980.  Can you even vaguely imagine living on less than $2,000 per year?!  I can’t, even with the vast difference in the cost of living.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Honduras.  I know what $2,000 gets you. . . . 

So, people show up at the door of our tent in the heat of the day. . . . 
How will we respond?

We’ve been on the migrant journey with Abraham and Sarah for 3 weeks now.  And the same message from God keeps getting repeated—first in terms of Blessing, then as Covenant, now as Holy Hospitality.  The promise God makes isn’t new anymore.  It’s old news.  But we keep hearing it, even though it seems too difficult and ridiculous. . . .  Abraham and Sarah, you are going to have a son, and you will be the parents of a vast and beloved nation.  Your offspring will outnumber the stars. . . . 

Oh, yeah, right!  That’s not even possible anymore!  Sarah laughs with disbelief.

She knows she should believe it—that she should welcome this news and this calling with grace and hospitality.  But it feels too hard, impossible.  Out of her hands.  Beyond her control.  And likewise, we know that the Sacredness all around us calls us to welcome the stranger, to work to reduce the reasons that people need to leave their homes as refugees, to provide hospitality for those in need, to recognize the Holy in our midst.  We know this.  We know this needs to happen. . . .  But do we believe it is possible?  It feels so hard and problematic, and part of us just wants to laugh sarcastically.  Yeah, right!  Like that’s going to happen!  How would we even begin to address the inequalities that fuel such desperation?  It’s out of our hands.  Beyond our control.

Yet, is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  Where is our faith?  Our sense of wonder?  Our belief in grace and hope, creativity and possibility?  Where is our courage and sense of justice?

Rumi boldly reminds us
     This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival.
     A joy, a depression, a meanness, / some momentary awareness comes

     as an unexpected visitor. / Welcome and entertain them all!

     Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, / who violently sweep your house

     empty of its furniture, / still, treat each guest honorably.

     He may be clearing you out / for some new delight.
     The dark thought, the shame, the malice, / meet them at the door laughing
     and invite them in. / Be grateful for whatever comes,

     because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.

Even in the midst of this humanitarian crisis—or maybe I should say especially in the midst of this humanitarian crisis—we are reminded that God is everywhere we look.  Abraham saw the Holy in the faces of the strangers who stood at the door of his tent.  We also have that opportunity.  The Holy is present in the places and people where we may least expect it.  So, let us embody grace and hospitality.  This is the least we can do.  Because I see the Holy in you.

God is in our midst—calling forth the best in us.  Calling us to do things we may never have thought possible.  But here we are.  Like Abraham and Sarah.  Beautiful.  Flawed.  Imperfect.  Amazing.  Passionate.  Uncertain.  Brilliant people.  We are your people, God.  We may not know exactly how to move forward in the face of the challenges, but we are willing to journey with you.

Let it be so.  Amen.

Blessed to be a Blessing

From Psalm 121 and Genesis 12:1-9

Weston Olson was one of my students at Chapman University, where I worked in church relations and campus ministry for several years, right out of seminary.  He was a vocal performance major and has had wonderful success in musical theater.  Since January, he has been performing in the Broadway production of Les Miserables.  He has always been quite gifted.  When I knew him—like many students—he was working his way through college—trying to earn money for school and to gain valuable experience to put on his resume.

Weston worked as a musician at Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral—one of the biggest and most well-known churches in Southern California.  He loved his work.

He always told me about the church’s fabulous sound system and its unparalleled acoustics.  And the church was widely enthusiastic and supportive of his musical gifts.  But something was missing. . . .
It was clear to me that Weston enjoyed his job at the church, but when I asked him if the church nurtured him spiritually, he grimaced.  “I try not to think about that,” he said.  “What do you mean?” I asked. 

“Well, it’s a great job, and they pay me well, but I do my best to tune everything else out.  Their message is so exclusive and distorted; it doesn’t make any sense with who I know God to be.  I mean, the church is full of all these incredibly wealthy people who come to church to hear the minister tell them that they are rich because God approves of them and has chosen them to bless.  And ordinary people come there to hear the minister tell them that if they do right by God, then God will bless them also with wealth and prosperity.  It’s like saying that you can tell how much God loves you and blesses you and approves of you by how much money you have.  That just seems warped to me—and spiritually questionable.  And what’s worse is that people actually believe it!”

Weston’s struggle has since caused me to wonder:  Is this what it means to be blessed?  Can we judge and determine God’s blessing on our lives by looking at our savings accounts, tax statements, and stock portfolios?  Is there anything true about this so-called “prosperity gospel”—which basically says that our wealth (or lack of it) is a direct sign of God’s blessing (or curse)?

In the first chapter of Genesis—in the 1st creation story recorded in Genesis—the Priestly writer of Genesis says that God blesses the women and men that God made.  In this creation account—with this first blessing that God bestows—as well as in our scripture reading this morning—with the blessing God bestows on Abram and Sarai—“blessing” is translated from the Hebrew word berakah, which literally means “to give life.” 

In fact, berakah is the only word for “blessing” in the Hebrew language, and it consistently refers to God’s gift of abundant life.  Berakah refers to a sense of vitality, health, productivity, longevity, and fertility.  And God alone has the power to bestow this berakah—this blessing—because only God has the power to give life.

So here in Genesis chapter 12, we read about the blessing—the giving of abundant life—to Abram.  God does not give him vast riches and wealth, prosperity and a generous retirement plan.  No, God gives Abram a challenge, a calling—fraught with risk and the unknown—to live more fully, more usefully, more abundantly, with more possibility and grace, in this moment.  There is no map, no mapquest, no guidebook, no e-tickets, no public transportation. . . .  But “Go,” God says. . . .  And without a word, Abram uproots his life, plugs himself into God’s vision, and goes. 

And God also makes Abram an extravagant promise. “I will make of you a great nation. . . .  I will bless you. . . .  so that you will be a blessing. . . .” 

Yahweh, who called the entire world into being with a word, now calls again.  Yahweh calls to an aging Abram and a barren Sarai—people who surely didn’t expect God to be calling them—calling them to create a community and to offer fresh words—to open themselves up to God’s will in a world that has tried to leave God behind. 

Like God calls to us this morning, Yahweh calls Abram and Sarai so that they might embody, explicitly in human history, the unexpected inbreaking of God’s calling into people’s lives and the simultaneous power of God’s blessing—God’s berakah.  “Abram, Sarai, I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.”  “Abram, Sarai, I will give you abundant lives so that you can share the power and wonder of abundant life with others.”

This blessing does not mean, however, that all our human ailments subside.  God offers no magical blessing that eliminates harsh realities, heartbreak, or grief.  Even though we are blessed by God, our humanness remains part of us. . . .  Later in this Genesis story, famine strikes Abram and Sarai.  Abram sells Sarai in marriage to an Egyptian Pharaoh (for those interested in the traditional, Biblical understanding of marriage. . .).  Sarai struggles to have children.  And even the land God has promised them is already claimed and occupied.

Such problems and hardships don’t mean that God’s blessing has failed; they don’t mean that we are forgotten or unloved.  They don’t mean we should hurt others simply because we are in pain and want to claim God’s “blessing” as our own.  God is forever for us, never against us.  God stands with us in times of pain and adversity.  The Psalmist this morning reminds us:  “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord,  who made heaven and earth.”  And God’s blessings are abundant.  Even when we have a hard time understanding or seeing.  With whatever difficulties arise, God is with us—continually offering blessing and continually offering life. 

But we must learn to accept and embrace ambiguity.  Life in the real world is restlessly ambiguous—and sometimes we may not know, what is the blessing?  What is the curse?  And the reality is that nothing is finite. Everything is in flux. And God is still speaking. . . .  We are on a journey that casts new light on old and familiar places.  Faith never permits the people of Abraham to escape this ambiguity.  Faith is the act of balancing the ambiguities—balancing the fact that God has promised this land to these people but that other people—other people who God loves—currently occupy it.  Faith is believing, even when there seems to be little hope.  Faith is the decision to live into the promise and blessing of God, even in the places where the promise and blessing seem to be in question and at risk. 

This makes faith hard.  This makes faith hard, but worth the struggle.  We don’t live in a world of absolutes.  Nothing is simply black and white.  And forget gray; we live in a world of colors, rich and diverse, complex and layered, rainbow colors!  This is a blessing.  This is abundant life, even though it might seem difficult and hard to navigate at times.

Throughout time and throughout the Bible, this has been God’s message to us:  “I offer you my blessing, but that does not mean the road will be easy.  That does not mean I will privilege you at the expense of others—who I love just as dearly.  You are blessed to be a blessing.  You also have a role to play.  You are to bring my showers of blessing to the stale, rigid, and closed attitudes, prejudices, rage, and ways of living that choke out my wellsprings of hope that constantly attempt to nourish all peoples and parts of creation. 

You are blessed to be a blessing.  And you have to believe in that blessing—even when the going gets tough, and light at the end of the tunnel is bleak.  You have to invest yourself in that blessing—even when others curse you, even when your path seems uncertain, when money gets tight, when a loved one betrays you, when politicians try to legislate injustice, when you’re overcome with anger, grief, frustration, temptation, consternation.  You have to have faith.” 
You see, we are blessed . . . to be a blessing.

For we are given this blessing, we are given this abundant life, not only for ourselves.  We are given this blessing so that we can increase the quality of life of others.  Abram may have been the first person to hear this, but this message has come down through time.  It was also the message of Jesus Christ who also extends this blessing—this abundant life—to people regardless of wealth, rank, occupation, race, class, gender, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, family situation, nationality, cultural identity, table manners, dress code, marital status, educational background, social history, or any other imaginable distinction and division.  This is the power of God’s blessing.  It is extended to all peoples—so that, as God says, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—and that through this blessing, all people might know what it means to live abundantly.

But to believe in God’s blessing means we must let go of belief in the prosperity gospel—in the belief that our wealth—our possessions, our stuff, our success—is a direct sign of God’s blessing.  This contradicts berakah—God’s blessing—at every point.  God is with us, no matter what!  Weston was right to feel a little queasy.  The music at his church may have been great, but something more important was missing—something spiritual, deep, and sustaining—an understanding that God’s blessing is offered openly to all people.  We can choose to be ruled by the fear and unfairness of life, or we can choose to live right into that blessing—come what may.  Like Abram and Sarai, we are blessed … to be a blessing.

Let it be so.  Amen.