The story of Moses is told with symbolism. He names one of his children “Stranger” because he says to himself, “My people are strangers in this strange land”.
I want you to draw to mind a time that you felt like you were the stranger? You were the Outsider? You didn’t know what to do?
I had a few harmless moments like that last summer in Norway. I’m in the parking garage and I cannot read any directions, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how to pay for parking. The cars behind me are backing up, beeping. Aye gefult!
One time, I rented a car in England, already driving on the wrong side of the road in London which was bad enough. Then I had to put the car in reverse. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t go in reverse, til some guy came over to the car and showed me that you have to lift the gear shift on European cars to get them in reverse. I’d still be sitting there.
When were you a stranger? How did you feel? When you don’t speak the language; You don’t fit in. You are the ‘other’. It is surprising, isn’t it, how quickly we can become unsure of ourselves, cautious, fearful… How easy it is for us to misinterpret what is happening around us when we don’t when we don’t understand the customs and mores.
And then there are the more horrendous examples from our deeper history, the profound tragedy towards the stranger that has created a trail of tears in our human story.
“In August 1619 (400 years ago this month)”, writes Nicole Hannah-Jones, “just 12 years after the English settled Jamestown, Va., one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and some 157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country (and penned the Declaration of Independence), the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. The English pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.
Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities”[i]
“Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks alongside furniture and cattle or behind storefronts that advertised “Negroes for Sale.” Enslavers and the courts did not honor kinship ties to mothers, siblings, cousins. In most courts, they had no legal standing. Enslavers could rape or murder their property without legal consequence. Enslaved people could own nothing, will nothing and inherit nothing. They were legally tortured, including by those working for Jefferson himself. They could be worked to death, and often were, in order to produce the highest profits for the white people who owned them.”
Just a few months earlier, they had families, and farms, and lives and dreams. They were free. They had names, of course, but their enslavers did not bother to record them. They had been made black by those people who believed that they were white, and where they were heading, black equaled “slave,” and slavery in America required turning human beings into property by stripping them of every element that made them individuals. This process was called seasoning, in which people stolen from western and central Africa were forced, often through torture, to stop speaking their native tongues and practicing their native religions.”[ii]
We have the ability to introduce spiritual death in the midst of life. Our long history has far, far too many examples of it. It was in the original dough from which we baked the loaf of bread that became our country. And in many ways, the story of our beloved country is the story to overcome and transcend this original inhumanity and the social deformation that it caused.
Jesus teaches us that the spiritual freedom of love that is the near polar opposite of the slave experience of being a ‘stranger in a strange land’. Jesus taught us of the healing power of compassionate presence, when we become shelter for each other and we take care of each other.
I was reflecting on that recently visiting friends that we’ve known since college. She was remembering her first marriage and how she couldn’t get pregnant. During those days, it seemed like Kate got pregnant every time I winked at her, which made things worse, even though we had no idea at the time and didn’t really think about these things in that era just before invitro-fertilization was even invented.
They tried this procedure and that. In the middle of that difficult period of her life, her husband started an affair with another woman. Worse, the other woman got pregnant. Worse, he left our friend for the other woman to raise this child with her.
Such a wound. Bright, capable, would go on to become a high powered executive leader in our country, our friend was devastated. And her ego was wounded, her identity as a woman was shaken in a way that got right to the core of her being. And she could not get over that, no matter what she tried at the time.
Fast forward, years later she meets a wonderful man, a real life partner. They adopt, they adopt again. They adopt twice more. They raise 4 children, develop a really solid home.
She is at a family reunion and she learns that her niece is having fertility issues. They are at this party together when the cousins and the siblings are engaged in silly cocktail banter and a couple of them make remarks about infertility that her niece interiorizes in pain. She can see it in her nieces face. She remembers how people say stupid things that actually make a difficult situation worse, just because they are clueless and don’t understand how vulnerable and fragile you feel when you are in this situation.
Only now, our friend is older and connected. One of the women in her book club is a national expert on the process you should go through for infertility and adoption. She calls her up and asks her for a special favor to take on her niece as a personal case, not something her friend normally does, and certainly not anymore. After hearing about the situation, she agrees.
And our friend, remembers just how expensive this can be, how she had to choose between children and a house when she was younger, and she calls her niece on the phone, tells her about the expert who can help, and explains that she wants to pay for everything if her niece wants to proceed.
Wow… what makes people do things like that? Just wow. They have a word for this in the New Testament- when you take your pain and your woundedness and you figure out a spiritually creative way to use that in compassion and empathy to make someone else’s life better. When you use your pain to bless others in that pain. It is called ‘redemption’.
It is the divine way, what Christians say that Jesus did for his disciples.
The boys at St. Benedict’s prep school in Newark say “Whatever hurts my brother, hurts me.” Those are divine moments, when we provide shelter and strength for one another.
I was thinking how much has happened since then between Kate and her friend. We watched births together, some deaths, weddings, children blossoming and becoming their own people, children not blooming, the whole wide range of sharing our lives.
We have that capacity to bring life to one another, even in the midst of tragic death. We can bring the power of life.
At the end of his life, Moses addressed the people of Israel and he said simply, “I put before you today, the way of life and the way of death. Choose life.
Choose compassion and be the divine presence of acceptance and shelter, be the divine care.
“Am I my brother’s keeper? No I am my brother’s brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize.
“We all belong to one another. That is the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.
“Prejudice disfigures the observer, not the person observed. If only the latter could remember it.”[iii]
Jesus calls us to live out of what is eternally true, the intrinsically authentic way of being through compassion and care.
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
So many of you have chosen the more meaningful way. I think of so many of our families that have adopted children, have blended families together. You provide so much healing and meaning for the rising generation. You met your people where they were, understood them for who they are, grew with them as they developed their potential and started to bloom their character.
Now, you have the same maddening frustrations raising children that all parents have, the same nights of anxiety, worry, concern. And you wouldn’t have it any other way. It is the grounded meaning that makes you get out of bed, get dressed on Monday and tackle the commute. It is the deeper, spiritual way of being. In the midst of it all, you are blessed.
And this is the hope of what we do together at Christ Church. We are trying to become a spiritual family of families. We want to meet one another where we are, in spiritual authenticity, to understand one another, to befriend and support one another, to share our burdens, our fears, our aspirations and our hopes.
We want to exercise our spiritual muscle through care and community.
And so today, I invite you to join with those on your left and those on your right as we come to the Table of Reconciliation ready to share the bread and wine of divine love to remember the grace of others showing up for us, to remember together what is most important in our lives. Amen.
[i] From the New York Times Magazine of August 14, 2019. The author, Nicole Hannah-Jones, introduces the new initiative by the New York Times titled “1619: that seeks to look at the history of slavery and Jim Crow in a more comprehensive historical light than previous generations had admitted.