Sermon for Sunday July 1st

He really had no right to come. But Jairus, this leader of the synagogue, this respected Jew in the community, had nowhere else to turn. The doctors had failed to save his little girl. The medicines had failed. Even his daily prayers in the synagogue seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Now, his daughter hovered near death. And so, as a last resort, he swallowed his pride. As a last resort, he turned to the very man the other leaders of the synagogue had condemned. As a last resort, he fell at Jesus’ feet. “My daughter is dying. Please come… and do something.” And Jesus looked into the pleading eyes of this man he had never met before, and without a moment’s hesitation they were off.

On the way, he met another. She, too, really had no right to come. This unnamed woman who had been hemorrhaging for the past 12 years was at her wit’s end. Like Jairus, her medical options had been exhausted. Unlike Jairus, however, her financial options had also run their course. So here she was, destitute and desperate, broke and broken. Whereas Jairus had approached Jesus and implored him to come to his home, this woman simply wanted to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak… to do something – anything – to experience his healing presence.

Neither of them really had any right to come. But come they did. And somehow, Jesus’ generosity extended even to them…whether they deserved it or not.

That was exactly the point that Paul was trying to make to the church he had established in Corinth. In the 8th chapter of 2nd Corinthians which we read just a minute ago, Paul was chastising his congregation for being so stingy when it came to helping out the poor Christians who were suffering in the church in Jerusalem. It seems like they were more concerned about taking care of their own needs than the needs of their brothers and sisters… even though they had so, so much more. Whether the people in Corinth had deserved it or not, Paul tells his flock, “Now you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you.” Indeed, within the church in Corinth, God’s blessings abound. But there is a price to pay, Paul goes on, for being so richly blessed. “So we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” The price is that God expects them to share their blessings with those around them… whether they deserve it or not. As Jesus says in the 12th chapter of Luke’s gospel, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” And so, Paul tells his flock, share the blessings… share the wealth.

She has stood just off the southern tip of Manhattan for over 130 years now, at that point where the Hudson and East Rivers meet to begin their final journey to the Atlantic Ocean, beckoning those from distant shores – like a moth drawn to a flame – to a new life, a new dream, a new future.  At her pedestal are written these familiar words:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Images of the Statue of Liberty, the lady in the harbor, have filled the airwaves, on everything from patriotic public service announcements, to insurance company commercials, to advertisements for beds and mattresses, as we find ourselves this week celebrating the 242nd anniversary of the founding of this great nation of ours.  And still they come today… from all corners of the globe, through gateways like New York and Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle, Brownsville TX and Buffalo NY, San Diego CA and Sault Ste. Marie MI… in search of the American dream… in search of freedom.  They come seeking freedom from persecution, freedom from poverty, freedom from a dead-end life with no hope of ever breaking the cycle of poverty or violence or oppression back home.  But they have come here not just seeking freedom from things they hope to leave behind.  They come here as well for another kind of freedom… the freedom to dream, the freedom to start over, the freedom to breathe the fresh air of liberty, of possibility, of endless promise.  Still… they come.

I have thought a lot about those words this past week, written by American poet Emma Lazarus, which are inscribed onto a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty– partly because of our annual Independence Day celebrations, and partly because of the text of this morning’s lessons. 

We are called as Christians… we are called as people of faith… we are called as followers of Jesus… to pattern our lives after the life of the one whom we profess to follow. The concept is fairly simple… although the execution of that concept is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life… Be like Jesus. Paul was reminding the members of his church in Corinth that they were beginning to lose their focus… beginning to take their eyes off the ball, so to speak… and beginning to put their energy into taking care of themselves more than taking care of those around them.

I must say, as I look around our community, our state, and most certainly, this week, our nation, I see the same thing happening in our own day. On this 4th of July weekend, I am so incredibly honored to live in this country. The intelligence of our people, the breadth of opportunities, the sheer beauty of our diverse landscape is unrivaled by any other country in the world. We are so incredibly blessed to live in this land. We have so much to celebrate. And we have so much to give. And as Jesus proclaimed: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

All of which brings me back to those words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.  This talk of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” may make for the stuff of high school civics classes, and warm and fuzzy sentiments expressed by romantic idealists, and mawkish greeting card quotes, but the reality is that I think quite a number of Americans today simply don’t really believe it anymore. It’s as though vandals have broken on to Liberty Island, and taken those cherished words at the base of the statue, and have spray-painted over them with hate-filled graffiti: “Go away. Go back to your own country. You are not welcome here.”

Last month marked the 79th anniversary of one of the, let’s just say, less noble moments in our nation’s history.  It was June of 1939.  Threat of war was already engulfing Europe.  Germany was just three months away from invading Poland, marking the official beginning of World War II.  Persecution of Jews in Germany had already been going on for six years.  Kristallnacht, the coordinated series of attacks against Jews throughout Germany and Austria had occurred six months previously.  On May 13, 1939, the MS St. Louis had set sail from Hamburg Germany with 938 Jewish refugees aboard, looking to flee the Nazi persecution which was closing in around them.  Arriving off the coast of Florida the following month, and what was sure to be safe harbor, the U.S. government refused entry to the refugees, and on June 6th forced the ship to return to Europe, where hundreds of those refugees would eventually die in the holocaust to follow.

That episode in our country’s history became a moment of profound national shame, sparking a period of corporate soul-searching about what it really meant to be an American, what Americans really believed, and what America really stood for.  You might think that we would have learned our lesson.  But as the early 20th century philosopher, George Santayana famously said in 1906, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

But we are bigger than that. We are better than that. In past generations, my ancestors – and your ancestors – came to this country as immigrants hoping for a better life. And the people of this land opened wide their arms, and said, “Welcome to your new home.” Immigrants still come.

And so, in this mid-term election year, as we find ourselves just four months away from going to the polls to elect a new crop of national leaders, I’ve decided that maybe I should get on the bandwagon, and so I’ve come up with my own political slogan. I thought long and hard about it, and came up with a short four-word phrase based on today’s readings which I think I’m going to have emblazoned onto a baseball cap. And those four words are:

Make America Generous Again

They really had no right to come, you see… Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, and the unnamed woman with the hemorrhage of blood. But come they did. And Jesus’ generosity extended to them, whether they deserved it or not. We have no right to come either (point to the altar). But come we do. And Jesus’ generosity extends to us as well, whether we deserve it or not. We have been blessed.  We have been so richly blessed.

I’ve mentioned before that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”. So while we are together – and even more so after we enter back into the rest of our lives in the world just on the other side of these open windows (which remind us that in God’s world there is no “inside” and there is no “outside” – let us make Eucharist. Let us make thanksgiving. As individuals, as a congregation, and especially this week as a nation, let us thank God for all those blessings which have been given to us. And then let us be the blessing by generously blessing the world in God’s name. “We want you to excel also in this generous undertaking… for…from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”