We are immigrants

Ellis Island, July 1, 2015
Pentecost 6, Proper 9B
Mark 6:1-13

In the name of God our creator, Christ our brother, and their Spirit who continues to guide us.  Amen.

All week this week - and this weekend in particular - our minds have been turned toward independence; toward celebrating this country and the freedoms we enjoy, and too often take for granted.  At our Wednesday morning service earlier this week, we read the lessons and prayers for, and geared our discussions around Independence Day.

One of the resources we shared was a reflection on Independence Day by the Rev. Dr. Sam Portaro.  While this wasn’t planned on my part, it was surprising - jarring, almost - how much his words seemed to speak to us here at Holy Trinity about the discussions and discernment that we’re engaged in as a parish.

His reflection focuses on our own shared condition as immigrants - for we are all immigrants.  Except for the few of us whose heritage is more defined as Native American than anything else, everyone within these shores is an immigrant.  We are all strangers in a strange land.  We are all guests.  No matter how much we’ve made this our home, it’s an illusion.  We are immigrants.

Dr. Portaro says, “Most of us are descended from people who were so desperate, who circumstances were so dire, they were compelled to leave everything that they held precious - family, homeland, friends, language, and culture - and strike out for the unknown…  Their survival depended notably upon their ability to embrace this new and challenging wilderness; their survival depended, as well, upon their disciplined letting go of all that was behind them.  They had to let go of the warm memories of love and comfort, of home and security…  But they also had to let go of the despair, the anger, and the fear that had driven them to leave.”

His words are a remarkable take on Independence Day - it’s not only about celebrating “home”, but about remembering how it wasn’t always our “home”.  Independence Day isn’t just about cookouts and fireworks.  It’s not just about patriotism and parades.  Instead, a deeper embrace of Independence Day requires recalling the need for leaving behind the things that were holding us back.  It requires remembering the sacrifice that freedom requires - not just in an all-too-cliché “remember the troops” sort of way, but remembering the real sacrifice of all the real people who had to leave behind real joys and comforts and familiarities in order to find something better.

The words we heard on Wednesday struck me as almost chilling.  As we face the future of this parish - whatever it may hold, be it merger or anything else - the fact is, it will require significant change.  No matter what we decide, we will have to leave some things behind.  We’ll almost certainly have to leave behind expectations for how we’ve always done things.  We may have to leave behind some areas of influence.  We may have to leave behind physical things that were once very precious to us.  And, if we’re going to find real independence from the challenges that have been stifling us, we will, without question, have to leave behind some of the pain, and difficulty, and fear that have too often defined this season for us.  We can be angry for a little bit, but we can’t hold onto anger or blame for long.  We can mourn the comfort and security we used to expect, but eventually we’ll have to let the sadness go.  It’s alright to feel unsure about our next steps as we start to take them, but in time, we need to let our fear give way to faith.

The one thing we can’t do is bury our heads in the sand.  The one thing we can’t do is stay home as if the world is no longer rapidly spinning beneath us.

As I was reflecting on the Gospel lesson for today, I was reminded of my first time traveling to Africa.  I was there as a part of a class in my seminary - we were studying “African Indigenous Religious Roots of African American Spirituality”.  Our class took place in Ghana, and there were very different experiences between the white students on the course and the black students (all of whom were African American).  Those of us who are white immediately expressed our experiences of being the racial “other” for the first times in our lives.  The African American students, however, mostly described a sense of excitement of glimpsing the world of their ancestors.  A few students even described the experience as feeling like they were going home.

As our course took us to different locations in the country, our group stood out wherever we went.  Children swarmed around us and shouted “Obruni!”  When we asked our guides what that meant, they explained that it was an unfortunate side effect of colonial influence.  Whenever the children saw white people, they had learned to run up and to beg for handouts.  Obruni simply means “white person”.

A few days later, however, some of the African American students had ventured out separately from the class.  When they returned, they disappointedly reported that the children continued to swarm around them shouting “obruni”.  Our guides explained to them that the children didn’t see them as Africans.  Instead, they were seen as no different from the white people.  To the Ghanaian children, African Americans remained distinct from themselves.  Their concept of race had less to do with ancestry than it had to do with culture.  No matter how much my colleagues imagined themselves to have been going home, that home turned out not to be what they thought it was.

Jesus had a very similar experience of “home” in the Gospel lesson we’ve heard today - both our experience, here at Holy Trinity, and the experience of my colleagues on the course in Ghana.  He, too, had a shifting understanding and experience of home.  He went to a place - a place that should have been a place of sanctuary and welcome for him - but instead he found opposition, distrust, and people who could only see him for what they expected of him, not what he had become, or what he knew to be true.

In order to truly realize his power - in order to faithfully live into his calling - he had to leave home.  He had to leave behind the comfort and the security.  He had to chart a new path, because the old path had become worn out for him.

It couldn’t have been easy.  He must have felt angry and betrayed.  He probably felt sad.  But he couldn’t live there.  He couldn’t live in either that place where his potential couldn’t be realized, nor in the difficult feelings that must have come from realizing his new truth.

Like the American immigrants who are still building this country, he had to leave something behind to find something new.  Whatever our future holds, we will have to do the same.  We’ll have to leave something behind to find something new - to realize our potential, to fulfill our calling.

As Christians, we are all immigrants.  We are always immigrants.  We are always journeying to some greater truth, some deeper calling, some clearer sense of God’s presence.

As Dr. Portaro wrote, “…we could [try to] return and settle in our past.  But God has promised us a new land, a brighter country where all people dwell in love and mutual respect.  Our God accompanies us, yet always with the leading step.  God is the great pioneer, walking with us as a bush blazing in the desert, as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, in the transfigured Christ ascending victorious over death, as the fresh and liberating spirit present whenever and wherever we venture beyond our past to embrace one another.  God is leading us into our unknown future, where we will find new depths of compassion, new heights of understandings, and a greater breadth of affection.”

Sometimes that means leaving something behind.  In fact, it usually means leaving something behind.  That path is rarely easy, but we follow in a long line of immigrants before us.  The same immigrants that we celebrated this weekend, but also that same immigrant that we celebrate here each week.  These are the examples after which we model our own journey.  May God continue to give us the strength to be the immigrants whom God has always imagined us to be.  Amen.