January 1, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-15
The Same Light
Arise, shine; for your light has come.
The glory of the LORD has risen upon you…
Lift up your eyes and look around. They all gather to you —
Your sons and your daughters shall come home.
You shall see and be radiant. Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.
After all the waiting and the worry, through the weeping of grief, the disillusionment from the promise that didn’t come true, after all that, the light of God is your light now. Your light has come, and the prophet prods us to go on and get up from the dead.
No doubt, there is something resplendent and thrilling in this prophesy. On this first day, it is good to hear the truth: Your light has come. No kidding.
Of course, there’s something terrifying about it too. That’s just how light works. We know it can be a source of comfort and warmth, the gentle glow insisting that the mystery of the dark is not alone. There is more than the dark. But there’s also more to the light.
Light has no hesitation about revealing the greater truth. Light shows off the fine lines between opposites. Light exposes what is beautiful and what is ugly in the same story, in the same being. In the light, it is easier to look out and see a great distance. In the light, it is harder to hide.
The passage we hear from Isaiah rises up from a long song asserting the power of God, which is a sure sign that the power of God was not a given. Scholars believe this song came from the period right after the Babylonian exile when the people who had been taken into captivity (or whose parents had been taken into captivity) were finally beginning to return home. This event of coming home was supposed to be magnificent. The LORD God would prevail and the nations would enjoy prosperity and give up their fighting. There were supposed to be plowshares made of swords and pruning hooks made of spears.
Instead the people “came home” to a community torn apart by conflict, especially conflict between those who had been exiled and those who had stayed. It was as though the only thing harder than being a refugee in a strange land was being a refugee in the land of your people.
So the prophet sings “Arise, shine; your light has come!” and that reminds me of a triumphant descant that billows high above a grumbling song of war. “Arise and shine!” is the soaring song of the trumpets, but underneath, there is an ugly side:
“The LORD will put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation…
God put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as a mantle. According to their deeds, so will God repay wrath to the adversaries, requital to the enemies” (Isaiah 59:17-18).
There is a fine line between a promise of restoration and a promise of revenge; the rising light of God shows it all.
Now of course, our situation is different. We’re not returning to our native country after being exiled only to find that oppression is still going strong… Except of course, oppression is still going strong in certain places. There’s still human trafficking. There’s still slave labor in our prisons. And right now, our nation is deeply conflicted over questions of whether and how to welcome refugees.
Some of these concerns are about scarcity. Do we have the resources to support refugees? What if they take the things we need, like jobs? Some of these concerns are about security. How can we trust that the people coming here won’t hurt us? Some of these concerns are about diversity of language and culture. Will the refugees coming here learn English? Will they wear American style clothes and eat pizza? Or will we need to learn French and Farsi and serve injera and lentils in school lunches?
When it comes to welcoming refugees into the United States, there are critical questions to consider. There are practical concerns that emerge in policy conversations. When it comes to welcoming refugees into the United States, I believe there is also a deeper concern, a deeper problem that can’t be solved by background checks or expanding the menu for school lunches. It’s this: Receiving someone in their vulnerability makes us confront our own.
When pundits paint refugees as criminals, you can understand why it’s appealing to believe that. Broadly speaking, it’s not true, but it is appealing. See if refugees have done something to deserve their plight, then maybe I’m immune from this ever happening to me.
There’s a fine line between the words refugee and fugitive.
There’s a fine line between being in trouble and being in trouble.
And of course, there’s not really any line between them and us.
Here’s something kinda funny that happened. A few weeks ago, I was carrying three packages into the post office. One was heavy and the other two were strangely shaped, and my two arms could not hold onto all three at the same time. Add to this the fact that the Davenport Post Office does not have automatic doors or even push doors you can open with your hip. So I put one box down, pulled open the door, then I tried to pick up the box to get it through the next closed door.
The woman coming in behind me very kindly went ahead and opened the inside door for me, but it was too late. I had dropped them all. So I’m on the floor trying to pick up the heaviest one while repositioning the other two on top. From the floor of the post office, I looked up at this woman holding the door and realized, I completely recognize the expression on her face! I know this look! I have given this look before. It is exactly one part sympathy and one part frustration. Do you know this look?
I will confess this to you. It seems like when I meet someone who is utterly vulnerable, who’s hungry, or sick, or curled up on the ground, it seems like seeing them should unleash all my compassion and only my compassion. Look, they are suffering. I know what it is to suffer. Of course I am sorry.
The problem is there’s an ugly side underneath my compassion. There is a fine line between sympathy and contempt, a fine line between unflinching kindness and unreasonable impatience. Imagine being frustrated with someone whose only offense is needing help —whose only offense is holding up a mirror revealing that I might need help too. In the shining of the light, all of this gets exposed…
As you know, Church of Peace is known for being a place that welcomes refugees in this neighborhood. Three days a week, families gather in this room to learn English. They sit at these tables and use our bathrooms. The littlest ones crawl around in our nursery and sit in these high chairs when there’s a party.
Everybody knows we’re supposed to be welcoming; that’s not the question. What I’m interested in considering is how we honestly feel about this —why it is hard and why it is meaningful. If I have always thought of Church of Peace as my church, as my family’s church —this is our kitchen, this is our artwork on the walls…then something is lost when we open the doors to the neighborhood and let other people come into our home. That is okay.
The truth is it changes our church to have families pouring into our building three days a week plus Saturday mornings, especially families who come from different places, especially families who are profoundly in need. And if that’s all they brought into Church of Peace, it would be enough. These mamas and babies would see us looking at them with one part sympathy and one part frustration —because they are so vulnerable.
But here’s the thing… if you’ve ever tried that sometime, then you know. The families who come here don’t just share their neediness —they share welcome. Of all things. They will make you feel welcome in your own church. As though maybe that’s the hope.
We can choose compassion over the contempt lurking beneath because there is so much compassion here for the choosing. We can choose kindness over impatience —not because we’re supposed to —but because the person we’re supposed to welcome went and beat us to it. They’re holding the door open for us and saying, “Good morning.” Now I can become more welcoming, not just because I remember what it was like to be a stranger —because I remember what it’s like to be a stranger who got welcomed home.
Lisa, who’s the former ESL Director, says it like this: “When I think of Church of Peace, I think of the red doors and how they remind me of open arms. Those two doors represent another home for so many refugee families. They feel safety, joy, and security when they enter those doors.” May this church become another home for us all.
I know it seems like there should be a fine line between how we are vulnerable and how we are welcoming, but in the light of God you can see there’s isn’t any line at all. The light is rising within each of us to announce the glory of the LORD. This is the same light that shines in the star over the stable announcing, “All you refugees and magi, come on and get in the house and help us. This family has to flee to Egypt. This baby is in trouble.” It’s the same light in each of us. Amen.