Sunday 24 June 2018
Nativity of John the Baptist
Today is June 24th, which is half-Christmas. It’s exactly six months after last Christmas and six months before next Christmas. The Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus was, so if it’s six months before Christmas, it must the be the birth of John the Baptist.
John is an undeniably important part of the early Jesus movement. He appears prominently at the beginning of all four gospels. And while, outside of Christian writings, we have no records of the life of Jesus, John the Baptist is attested even in non-Christian writings.
John is undoubtedly important, and yet he is shrouded in mystery. What is his relationship to Jesus? Luke says that they are relatives, that they mother’s knew each, but Mark suggests that John has no idea who Jesus is when he comes for baptism. Was Jesus a part of John’s movement before he struck out on his own? How many of his early disciples started out as disciples of John? John says that he is preparing the way for someone more powerful who will come after him, but both Matthew and Luke tells us that even after Jesus’s ministry is well underway, John sends messengers to ask he if he really is the one everyone is expecting, if he really is the Messiah, or if they should be looking for someone else. John doesn’t seem to think that Jesus is living up to the task.
John’s message is a message of repentance. God’s Kingdom is coming into the world. It’s time to turn away from sin and turn toward God. Make your lives fruitful for God’s mission or you’ll be chopped down like a fruit tree that bears no fruit.
When the people ask him what he means by that, he says, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the say.” God’s Empire is about reversing the desperation of poverty, about making life livable for even the most marginalized in society. The tax collectors ask him what to do, and he says “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” That would mean they would make no money at all. Roman tax collectors paid in advance for the right to collect taxes in a particular region, and their profit was whatever they collected over the authorized amount. Soldiers also ask him what to do to prepare for God’s Empire, and he replies, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.” It was standard practice for the military to extort money from the people whose land they occupied. John says that all that must end. There must be justice for the poor and the marginalized.
Come to the water. Be transformed. Reject evil. Return to God. Come to the water. Be baptized. Die to sin and become alive to God. Come to the water.
All week I’ve been putting off writing this sermon. All week I’ve been putting it off because I knew that I would have to say something about the news. And I don’t want to talk about the news this week. I don’t want to have to face it. And yet I can hardly think of anything else.
In politics, sometimes we use the metaphor of hostage-taking to talk about a particular political strategy. That’s when one party knows that there is something the other party cannot do without and so they refuse to give that thing unless they get something else that they want. We don’t use this phrase to talk about regular compromise or negotiation. Political hostage-taking means withholding something that if it isn’t given will cause pain, will cause harm. Politicians can hold the debt ceiling hostage. They can hold the federal budget hostage and force a government shutdown. Or they can hold veterans benefits hostage, or medicare. The idea is that it’s something that is usually fairly uncontroversial, but one side refuses to act on it unless they get certain concessions, and the consequences of not acting are highly disruptive. That is what we usually mean when we talk about hostage-taking in the context of US politics.
I am beside myself today to say that hostage-taking is no longer a metaphor. Our government has literally taken hostages, apparently for political purposes. And those hostages are children.
The Trump administration was not the first to implement widespread detainment of unauthorized border-crossers. The Obama administration, particularly during the refugee crisis of 2014, detained huge numbers of people, many of whom were eventually deported. In fact, the Obama administration still holds the record for deporting more people than any other in history, a fact that earned President Obama the nickname “deporter-in-chief.” Families who crossed the southern border without authorization, whether they were asylum-seekers or otherwise, were often detained in makeshift shelters while their cases for entry were considered. And that could sometimes take months.
In July 2015, the Ninth US Circuit Court ruled that ICE could not, as a standard practice, hold children more than 20 days while their cases were being reviewed, whether those minors entered the US on their own or with a parent. In addition, they ruled that a child’s accompanying parent must also be released after 20 days “as long as doing so would not create a flight risk or a safety risk.” ICE would then use other means, besides detention, to make sure these families appeared for their day in court. Electronic monitoring is one of those methods.
What has changed recently, with this administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, is that children entering with their parents have routinely been separated from their parents, put into separate facilities, often without warning or the chance to say goodbye. This includes several so-called ‘tender age’ detention facilities, for children five-years-old and younger. At the beginning of June, at least 2300 children had been separated from their parents and placed in facilities all over the country. An unknown number of children have been taken from their parents since then.
The administration has said this is necessary because entering the United States without authorization is a crime that must be prosecuted. This is partially true. While it is legal for asylum-seekers to enter the US at a designated port of entry, entering between ports of entry is a violation of US Code, Title 8, paragraph 1325, a misdemeanor that is punishable by a fine not less than $50 and nor more than $250 for the first offense.
Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions—who by the way is a United Methodist Christian—has publicly defended the policy of routine family separation using the words of Romans 13, Paul’s advice to obey the ruling authorities because they are ordained by God to bring God’s wrath. I would argue that Paul is being more than a little sarcastic here; it would have been plain to any of his early Christian readers that the Roman Empire was not enacting the will of God. But under Mr. Session’s interpretation, literally anything that the government might do would be by definition just and moral. The same verses were used to justify American slavery. Martin Luther used them to justify the slaughter of peasants by German princes. Christian leaders from all over the world have condemned this most recent perversion of the gospel. In fact, there is a movement in The UMC to have Mr. Sessions censured for his actions.
President Trump’s recent executive order has been described by many as a reversal of policy. It is not. What it actually says is that the administration wants the previous court ruling overturned so that it can detain children indefinitely so long as they are detained with their parents. Late last night the administration released an initial plan for reuniting children with their parents. The plan is that so long as parents are still in custody pending their immigration cases, they cannot be reunited with their children. If their case is deemed worthy and they are allowed to enter the US, they can then apply to the department of Health and Human Services to become their own child’s foster parent, a process that can take weeks. However, as one news outlet reports: “It’s still unclear who will take responsibility for linking parents with children. Policies to date have put the onus on parents to track their children down using an HHS hotline, which parents and the lawyers and case workers working with them described as confusing and often ineffective.” The administration says that if parents are deported they can take their children with them, but many have already been deported without access to or information about their children.
In the mean time, we have all seen the images and heard the sounds of wailing children in cages.
I don’t want to talk about this today. I don’t. But I can’t not talk about it.
John the Baptist warns us that how we relate to God is defined in no small part by how we relate to the most vulnerable among us. Regardless of what we may think about immigration policy and who should be allowed to enter this country, there can be no doubt that poor people who have fled thousands of miles on foot to escape deadly violence in their home countries are vulnerable. When they are also children, so much the more. The response of our own government to that vulnerability is to take children away from their parents and shuttle them to undisclosed locations. And that is because that is what some significant percentage of us wants to have happen. It is because some significant percentage of us see some people as less than human, as the President has explicitly said, “These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”
John calls across the ages: Come to the water. Be transformed. Reject evil. Return to God. Come to the water. Be baptized. Die to sin and become alive to God. Come to the water.
Baptism is a sacrament that binds us together. It tells us something about our relationship to God; we are God’s beloved children. It also tells us something about our relationship to one another, our fellow human beings. The commandments tell us that every person is our neighbor, and that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Baptism tells us that even that is not enough. Baptism doesn’t say that we are all neighbors. Baptism says that we are all family. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all children of one God. We are all bound together as kin of Christ.
And as John’s preaching suggests, we are called to continually push out our definition of those we consider one with ourselves. John says, treat a poor person like you would treat your family; help them have clothes and food. Treat them fairly. Don’t cheat them. Don’t extort them. Treat them humanely. Treat them as your own.
This is at the core of who we are as Christians. How do we treat our neighbors? How do we treat our enemies? How do we treat those whom God calls daughter, son? These are the questions that we must struggle with in every aspect of our lives, not just in politics. We are always learning how to love more fully, to love with that boundary-breaking agape love that God showers on us.
And there are always those whom we will find hard to love. Sometimes we find it hard to love the foreigner. Sometimes we find it hard to love the stranger. Sometimes we find it hard to love the other, the outcast. But sometimes it’s the colleague at work we find hard to love. Sometimes it’s the classmate we find hard to love. Sometimes we find it hard to love our own friends. Sometimes it’s a person in our own family we struggle to love. And sometimes the hardest person to love is ourself. Wherever we find our love insufficient, we can rest assured that God’s love abounds.
Will you pray with me? Most gracious God, you have made us all of one blood. Through our baptism you name each of us children and call us to love one another as sisters and brothers. O God, we ask that you would pour out your spirit on all your children, all across this world. Soften hearts that have become hard. Inspire us to share in your love. Allow us to live both in justice and in peace. Let your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us courage to do our part to make your reign a reality. Give strength to all of your followers, that we might walk in your way. Amen.