Faith: The Act of Dying to Live Again

SERMON FOR THE 13TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

As I prepare to leave Good Shepherd in two weeks, I am reflecting on my journey to the priesthood, what it is to be a Christian, and the blessing and the challenge I want to leave with you before I go. I can’t fit it all into one sermon, and it comes in little flashes, not entirely coherent or completely formed yet. But incoherent or not, I want you to know my gratitude for the role you have played in making me into a priest, and I hope I can convey my love for you, God’s never-ending, incomprehensible love for us all, and the call for us to follow that love where it leads: onto the path of Christ where we lose one life and, in God, discover a larger more meaningful life that expands far outside of our narrow, individualistic selves and stories.

This week I’ve been thinking about three women who transformed my entire understanding of what it means to follow Christ and be the Church in the world. (Incidentally, they, a teenage refugee from Afghanistan, and the Bible’s constant insistence that we care for refugees and immigrants, are also the reason I care so much about events like the one we’ll have here next week to support local refugees. I hope you can come). Their names are Amy Schubitz, Marianne Nielson, and Wendy Jiminez.

I met them in graduate school when I was doing research on the original Sanctuary movement. In the 1980s two social workers, whose names I, unfortunately, don’t know and haven’t been able to track down, began to see something very alarming on the bodies of people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. They saw fresh torture wounds: burns, lacerations, the marks of repeated shocks that had left men in constant pain and unable to father children, and they saw terrible cases of PTSD. These women discovered that these people were fleeing dictatorships and paramilitary groups throughout Latin America that were turning on their own citizens, killing and torturing thousands and thousands of them. And the U.S. was arming many of these dictatorships because we saw them as allies in the fight again Marxism. Because of our relationship with these dictatorships, we also were denying refugee and asylee status to the torture victims who came across our borders and were sending them back to their own deaths.

These social workers and several faith communities began a movement akin to a modern-day underground railroad, smuggling torture victims out of various countries throughout Latin America into the U.S. and sending them to host churches across the country. These “sanctuary” churches fed and sheltered these refugees, kept them from being deported, and asked them to tell their stories to raise awareness and change policies that were killing thousands and thousands of our neighbors across the border. Though it took many years, these faithful Christians and the incredibly brave refugees who told their stories were successful in winning the refugee and asylee status these survivors of torture were entitled to.

Wendy is one of them. She came to Tucson as a child after her parents were targeted by Guatemala’s government for the crime of teaching poor peasants to read and educating them about their rights to safe working conditions and to pay that would allow them to feed and clothe their families. For his work, Wendy’s father was kidnapped and tortured for six months before being released. And just before her family fled, Wendy saw a family friend gunned down in their house as she hid from the armed men who had stormed in.

I met her when she was in her 30s. She told me that Amy and Marianne, two former nuns, met her and her siblings at the border, wrapped them in blankets and gave them bags full of clothing and toys. Those two women were Wendy’s first memory of safety and welcome after trauma and a terrifying journey to the U.S.

I had never met people like Amy and Marianne. They were so immersed in their faiths that their love for God and God’s people animated their entire lives. For them, church wasn’t something they just did on Sunday mornings. Church was what they did every day of the week as they followed Christ and gave their lives for the good of others.

So these women didn’t just meet refugee children at the border and give them the physical things they needed to start life in the U.S., they and others teamed up with the Hopi nation to create an entire network to support these families physically, spiritually, and emotionally: therapists, doctors, lawyers, social workers, physical therapists, experts on the effects of torture and trauma, pastors and priests came together to help them heal and rebuild their lives. The organization is called the Hopi Foundation Center for the Prevention and Resolution of Violence, and today they continue their work with torture victims who have fled to the U.S.

Wendy told me that Marianne, Amy, and the Hopi Foundation had saved her and her family, not only in getting them out of Guatemala alive, but also in helping them to heal and rebuild their lives in the U.S. Her family opened a successful restaurant, and when I met her, Wendy was in nursing school, had traveled to testify before Congress on behalf of policies meant to eliminate torture, and was volunteering with refugee children and the children of torture survivors to help them heal as she had healed.  

As I got to know Wendy, Amy, and Marianne, and learned more about the faith that beat at the heart of the Sanctuary Movement, I began to see the Church as a living, breathing, powerful being embodying God’s love and healing. And I wanted to be a part of it. So much so, in fact, that I decided to leave a career in academia to pursue the priesthood.

I’d spent my entire life in the church, but had never seen it alive and active enough to convince me that it housed an infinite God of infinite love. In fact, I had often seen it act so small and ugly and do so much damage to woman, GLBTQ people, and to other minorities that I had nearly lost my faith. But in Tucson I saw how faith can literally save lives.  I suddenly understood that the whole point of being a church was not to insulate us from bad and hard things, or to enhance our own personal well-being, or to create a place where we can huddle together behind the Bible and doctrines as the “moral majority,” protecting ourselves from the world and making ourselves grandiose with self-righteousness and condemnation of others. The whole point is to lose our tiny selves, painful and risky as that is, as we take on the life of Christ to live for God, for others, and for causes that are greater than our individual lives could ever hope to be.

As Jesus says in our gospel reading today: “’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”

Here’s what I hear in those words: Once we take on the name of Christ by proclaiming ourselves Christians, we are saying that our lives are no longer ours alone. We no longer get to live just for ourselves and for those in our inner circles. We are giving over our identities and purpose in life to a Christ crazy and wild enough to sacrifice heaven and His own life for the sake of building a whole new kingdom for us. In this kingdom, what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community, those on the outside are welcomed in, the most despised and rejected are given places of honor, the rich give up their possessions so the poor can thrive, justice and peace replace violence and corrupt power, and our leader is not a power-hungry emperor like Jesus’ followers saw in Rome, but, instead, a poor man-God whose power comes from love, from serving others, and from standing with the marginalized.

The life Jesus promises us is not the life the world values—a life of comfort, riches, and success. Instead, it is a life that will sometimes hurt because, like Christ, we will choose to stand alongside those who hurt. It is a life that will challenge us to see others as children of God, and so to lose our preconceptions, our blinders, and our prejudices. It is a life that will push us to give up our privilege and to learn from and support those who are different from us. It is a life that invites discomfort as we loosen our grip on the reins and let our radical, wild Christ lead us in His footsteps. It is a life that will lead us to give up our own lives for the sake of being a part of a new life that God creates for all of us. But what we are promised in return are lives that matter, lives that put us in touch with the Divine itself, lives that can transform not just us but the world around us.

As I leave Good Shepherd, my prayer for me, for you, and for this church is that we will not be afraid of the cross—of dying to our small, limited lives, prejudices, goals and perceptions. It is that we will die so that we can rise again in Christ to a whole new kind of life. I believe Good Shepherd is moving toward becoming a place that is known for having a faith so vibrant that it saves lives, a place where the Church is not confined to a building, but is lived out in each of us every day as we follow Christ where He longs to lead us. I pray it may be so.

Amen.