Sermon: There’s only us

20 July 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin:
The article’s dateline jumped off the computer screen.[1] San Pedro Sula. That’s where my friend Andrea used to live––a seminary classmate who spent a year working with Episcopal schools in Honduras. The New York Times article was about children in Honduran cities and the extreme violence they face from drug traffickers. I felt sick reading it. The article and another piece a couple of days later described children as young as six pressured to work for drug gangs. Recruiters for the gangs work openly in schools, and if a child refuses to join, the gangs threaten to kill their family. Anthony, thirteen, tried to leave a gang and was murdered. His seven-year-old brother Kenneth went looking for him, and he too was killed. Girls as young as eight are abducted, raped, and murdered; parents are too scared to send their daughters to school. The government of Honduras is unable or unwilling to stop the traffickers. The unbearable conditions are driving Honduran children to leave by the thousands, traveling over two thousand miles on their own to the United States, where the flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the border is making news. I wondered if my classmate Andrea knew any of these children, if she’d patched up their skinned knees or beamed with pride at their graduations. The sick feeling in my stomach grew as I realized that, given the pervasiveness of the violence, it wasn’t a question of if she knew any of them, but how many. In short, I wondered how many of them were ours.

We’re often not conscious of the international reach of the Episcopal Church. I’m not talking about the Anglican Communion, the global fellowship of Christians who trace their heritage to the Church of England, but of our Episcopal Church, which includes Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Taiwan, Venezuela, and congregations in Europe as well as the United States. The Diocese of Honduras has one hundred and fifty-six churches and seven bilingual schools. It’s twice the size of our Diocese of California. We might think of Episcopalians as being us here in the US, but the “us” is much bigger than that, and people we might regard as “them” in other countries are really the “us” in our church.

There’s a tendency in human nature to divide people into us and them, to classify people as ours or theirs. I certainly do this myself, especially where college basketball is concerned. This way of seeing the world has an evolutionary benefit; when they are out to hurt us, knowing who’s us and who’s them allows us to survive in a hostile world. The problem is that dividing people into us and them builds walls. It separates people from others who might be remarkably like them. It encourages us to dislike, even hate those we’ve labeled as “them.”

Jesus knows this about us, and because telling stories is what he does to communicate a complex truth, he tells a story about the wheat and the weeds. An enemy sows division in the field, turning a uniform crop of wheat into a patchwork mixture of desirable wheat and unwanted weeds. If the weeds are left in place, they’ll drink up water, absorb light, and choke out the wheat. Pulling them up, returning the field to its pristine state of uniformity, seems to be the only solution, so that’s what the laborers want to do. But the farmer says no. Let them stand, he says. Let the rain and sun fall on the weeds and the wheat, and we’ll sort it out at the harvest. It seems like a completely senseless decision. But the farmer sees that the roots of wheat and weeds are bound together, and uprooting the weeds would uproot the wheat as well. Leave it all there, Jesus says, and leave the sorting up to God.

In this parable, Jesus proclaims that there is no them. There’s only us. He says this again and again in the gospels. He is suspicious of the bonds between family members because he teaches us to regard all people as our brothers and sisters. He calls us to love our neighbors, and when he’s asked “Who is my neighbor?” he tells a story that makes it clear that all people are our neighbors. Paul expands on this in his letter to the Galatians with perhaps the most powerful statement of us-ness there is: there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, there is only Christ, and Christ is all and in all. These human categories of us and them are no longer relevant because of our fundamental kinship in Christ Jesus. Paul, too, says: Love everyone. Treat all people as your brothers and sisters. And leave the sorting up to God.

We can and do disagree about a response to the children at our borders, and that’s a good thing. Disagreement is necessary in a healthy democracy, especially when the simple solutions are problematic. If we deport these children to their home countries, some of them will certainly be murdered. Can we live with their deaths on our conscience? If we grant them asylum and let them stay in the United States as refugees, what happens to them? Our foster-care system and public schools are not equipped for thousands of traumatized children. It will take many people of goodwill with different opinions to figure out a responsible, humane path forward in this crisis. Whatever our individual beliefs might be, Jesus reminds us that we cannot think of these children as “them.” They are us. These children are ours.

This might be a difficult shift for us, except that we already see other people’s children as ours. Each summer, St Dorothy’s Rest, a camp of the Episcopal Diocese of California, does two special camp sessions for children who have survived either cancer or an organ transplant. While these kids are healthy enough for school, their medical needs make it impossible for them to attend a regular camp. St Dorothy’s Rest offers them a week of camaraderie and fun, where they can forget about being sick and simply be kids, and where they can fit in and make friends with other children going through the same things they are. These camps are funded completely by donations; there’s no cost to families. The kids don’t have to be Episcopalian, or even Christian; they only have to meet the medical criteria. These camps are one of the best things we do as the Diocese of California. And we do them because we see these children as us. It would be easy to define these kids as “them,” to let them be someone else’s problem. But we choose to see them as us.

And we don’t just do that at the diocesan level; we do it at St Bede’s too. When the founders of this parish started Trinity School in 1961, and when we re-founded it in the late 1970s, the school was intended to serve children of all faiths and none. It was never only for members of this church. Today Trinity School enrolls active Episcopalians, children who go to Catholic and Presbyterian and other churches, children of interfaith families, and children whose only connection to a faith community is through the school. We may never see them on Sundays, and still we choose to view them as us.

Jesus asks us to take that same us-ness, that same willingness to see children of this city and region as ours, and extend it to all people everywhere: to passengers on the plane shot down over the Ukraine, to civilians dodging shells in Israel and Palestine, to the Central American children at our border. Jesus calls us to consider how our roots are bound up with theirs, so that pulling them out would cause harm to ourselves. He urges us to love them––not to like them, but to love them. Challenging as it may be for us to see others as us, it’s good news for us in the end, too; if there is no them and there was only ever us, we can’t be treated as them either. There are no outsiders in the kingdom of God. Everyone belongs. Everyone. That is Jesus’ hope and vision for the kingdom of God, and he calls us to make it real here on earth.

Proper 11A: Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

[1] Frances Robles, “Fleeing Gangs, Children Head to U.S. Border,” The New York Times, July 9, 2014 (accessed July 14, 2014); Sonia Nazario, “The Children of the Drug Wars: A Refugee Crisis, Not an Immigration Crisis,” The New York Times, July 11, 2014 (accessed July 14, 2014).

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.