A Welcome That Transformed Me
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
The following is the transcript of the sermon given on June 30. No audio is available.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” and you all kept me calm, focused and sane. At least that is my starting point. Let me start with being welcomed as a stranger.
Over Lent I participated in “Exploring Our Faith” and shared a little bit about my faith and evolving relationship with God. Until very recently I had little faith in God and less in the existence of a loving, compassionate God. If one existed, I felt, it was a punishing God that permitted harm and not always necessarily interested in preventing it. That belief has changed for a number of reasons, including the ways I’ve been welcomed here and I want to share some of that with you today.
I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and followed the church tenets as a child and youth. I was even an alter boy until high school. While the cultural aspects-quincineras, fiestas, celebrations, weddings and so on-were fun, the sermons seemed scolding. I rarely left church feeling positive or even fired up. And there was little participation in the service-it felt rote. I wondered why the priests could not marry and why they were all male. Someone had made those decisions at some point but the congregation could not change them. After awhile I felt increasingly disengaged from the church teachings, the cultural, really political, turn in the Eighties (especially birth control and the AIDS epidemic) troubled me deeply. I stopped going to mass and did not miss it for decades.
I recently joined United Parish, after working on my spirituality, rediscovering my belief in a higher power, and in the process my faith in God has strengthened over the past year. It has been rewarding to participate in the worship services, meet other members, serve the parish, hear about perfect shortcake recipes, even grilling hot dogs for others at the Strawberry Festival, and learn more about worshiping God.
Frankly I’ve always grappled with “faith” and how to serve “God”. One reason is work related-how do I incorporate my faith and my belief into everyday life? Especially at work. I’m a homicide researcher and my expertise is on racial/ethnic/immigrant disparities in mortality. I don’t talk a whole lot about work at church because I like to distance myself from work-related stress. It's not always clear how to bring up the subject of "intentional deaths" in the warm atmosphere of coffee hour nor does it always lead to warm discussions of faith.
Moreover, our research findings are undoubtedly important to disseminate, but sometimes I get hate mail from non-academicians. The findings, and those of my colleagues <#moreimmigrantsmeanslesscrime> are controversial in some segments of the population, and dealing with that hate is challenging. I enjoy discussing research on the protective effects or benefits of immigration with others. But I also like to keep work separate from church. I’m here to worship, work on my faith and relationship with God. Not talk about work. At least that’s what I thought to myself-keep work and church separate. That idea has evolved.
In recent months some of the sermons touched on the “Wall” or at least acknowledging the conditions conducive to demonizing others, singling them out from society, in particular immigrants and refugees. Like Jesus told his disciples in the scripture passage we just heard from, Matthew 25, our hearts and soul should focus on welcoming others-like I was welcomed in this parish- not keeping them out.
Like my great-grandparents I was born and raised in South Texas. I’m a native of San Antonio and still return several times a year to visit family and friends in the area. So the border has always been close to my heart, soul and spirit. The Wall is not a new invention. In previous decades it was also known as the “Tortilla Curtain” or some other obstacle put in place by “La Migra” which refers to the INS or immigration police and used to prevent economic migrants from crossing the border.
Not surprisingly, given the sustained political interference, economic grip and control over drug market routes, in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other nations, there are now primarily Central American political refugees trying to seek asylum in the United States. Near my birthplace, practically in my backyard, and the mean spirited debate and punishing images haunted me then. And they haunt me now. We are all familiar with the images of families and children in jail-like camps lacking basic amenities and now images of death in the Rio Grande. Political refugees, fleeing death, crossing a polluted river and dying trying to reach the richest nation in the world.
But what does that have to do with a “Milestone in my Faith”? Like many, I have always felt isolated, alienated and like an “outsider” in Boston. Those feelings heightened over the past two years. I was feeling burned out at work and disconnected from society. Maybe I was searching for something but didn’t realize it. Still I was a stranger and you welcomed me. From the moment I visited just over a year ago. This church’s “Black Lives Matter” banner, inviting signage and the Rainbow chairs attracted me and reflected my core beliefs. The comments outside touched on my own concerns about racial equality, social justice, keeping families together. This mattered to me and I thought they were important. I still remember that first sermon with the smiling ushers and the parish children and youth bearing flowers and smiles. I also remember that first summer meeting for me when the service was held “underground” as I called it and there was discussion about the acting associate pastor soon to be given a more settled position. After hearing about her contributions to the parish I was ready to vote for her and I wasn’t even a member. (It was also the first time I had ever seen a female pastor.) I found the sermons socially relevant and gradually the prayers touched my spirit. And an interesting thing happened to me. The more I prayed, the better I felt, and the more I prayed, the more in touch I felt with others around me. I was welcomed with open arms (or at least that’s how I felt).
What does this have to do with my faith or even my professional work and personal experiences on immigration? Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, we hear how, just after Jesus was born, King Herod made an edict to kill all the children aged two and under. Joseph had a dream to take Mary and Jesus and flee their homeland, crossing the border if you will, to Egypt because of this persecution.
I will let others debate whether or not Mary, the mother of Jesus, “broke” the law when she and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Based on the definition of a word, Mary and Joseph were probably lawbreakers or at least broke a technical violation. But in this case, does the past story of fleeing violence inform the present refugee and crime linkage?
My guess is, if the Holy Family arrived at United Parish, we would welcome them with open arms. Like I was welcomed. When families and groups move across the border, into places like San Antonio, what are the consequences? That is a research question I try to answer. Over Christmas and Lent I thought more about the reception to “Jesus and his family if they had to escape to a new land to avoid danger, as immigrant families sometimes do.” Is that the same as a ”Central American parent who risks a long, treacherous journey with her children to escape” criminal and political violence? Are they criminals or refugees? Now, I can more readily reconcile faith and work.
For me this was an “aha” moment that occurred while I was listening to the sermon about The Wall and others over the past year. Connecting the biblical story to a contemporary issue on something that I cared about was new to me. And it was something linked to work. I had not done that previously or thought about that connection before. It helped change my understanding of my faith, my belief in God, even the way in which I trusted others around me.
Now it feels like “work” is connected to my faith and has a spiritual connection. That gives me comfort, keeps me grounded and makes me feel welcomed. I even feel sane, more calm and focused on life.
I hope to welcome others into our parish in the future, contribute to our activities especially when the chili cook off starts. You all really need to turn up the spices a few notches! Thank you.
A note: The following sources informed the ideas used in the sermon. Please read for more details.