Scripture: Mark 4:26-34
Beloveds, my heart hurts this week. I have to confess that until this past week, every time a story about family separation at the border popped up in the news, I read the headline, felt a knot in my stomach grow, and passed on by because since becoming a parent, I feel physically ill when I see these things. But after Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to use the bible to justify the horrors of separating kids from their parents, I had to read. Really read. Because I know this game. Sessions quoted the same scripture about obeying governing powers (Romans 13) that slave owners quoted to justify slavery, the Third Reich quoted to uphold Nazism and South African Apartheid leaders used to buttress their segregationist laws. This text out of context is a text of terror.
I’m not going to take too much time to re-interpret Romans 13. Except to say that a few verses past where Sessions quoted it says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Except to say that the author of Romans, Paul, was jailed for his subversive activity to upend the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. He was IN JAIL when he wrote this very scripture. Except to say that Jesus was arrested and executed for the same kind of activity. As the Poor People’s Campaign’s Rev. William Barber has said, “I follow a convicted felon who was incarcerated because he stood for the poor, the oppressed etc…. Jesus was felon falsely prosecuted by the state because he dared to speak love in all the wrong places. In the society of Caesar he elevated the poor and then gave a command to love your neighbor as yourself without exclusion.”
But even if Sessions and I read the scripture with vastly different worldviews, I would think we both understand the value of family and of home. As the British-Somali poet warson shire reminds us in this poem called “home”:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.
your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.
it’s not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.
you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.
no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side
with go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?
the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, between
your legs, insults easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.
i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.
no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what
This practice of separating families, forcefully removing children from their parents, has been used as a terror tactic in our country for far too long. Slavery. Boarding schools of cultural genocide for Indigenous children. Japanese internment camps. The list goes on. Which must mean that what is happening at our border is not just biblical idiocy but a technology of power, a means of purposefully destroying the humanity of those seeking refuge and peace here. Forcefully separating a parent from their child either destroys parents with rage or renders them helpless with grief. Let alone what it does to a child. It is a means of psychological torture. And it is a means of dragging the rest of us into mind-numbing overwhelm and a feeling of powerlessness. We have to find ways to resist this. We have to find ways to recover hope. Our collective lives depend on it. A generation of kids at the border depend on it.
That’s why we are here on Sundays. One of the things I love about this community is that I don’t actually need to convince you of any of what I just said. I just need to name so you can make some space to feel it all, so you don’t have to carry the horrors alone. The real work of church for us these days is hope. Church is a hope recovery program. And Sabbath, recognizing our need for it, for re-connection with the Divine, is one of the first steps of recovery. This is, after all, our now annual season of Sabbath Summer at Lyndale. In a little bit of a twist on the 12 steps, I propose we have to begin with acknowledging that we have grown to experience ourselves as powerless and it has made our lives unmanageable. And then we have to remember there is a power greater than ourselves that can restore us to health. We call that power God, the Divine, Jesus, Spirit. And the distance between awareness and re-connection with that power is the discipline of Sabbath.
My friend Liz, a member of Shir Tikvah Congregation – our Jewish sister congregation of sorts, puts it this way:
“[Sabbath] is about repetition. It’s about showing up to dinner with my friends, in the home of someone I love week after week and year after year. It’s the unfolding of life over a thousand challahs, it’s coming in with whatever’s true and making it more joyful or more bearable together. It’s about history at the small scale. The growing of our lives and our kids week by week until one year becomes five becomes twenty. It’s about how we change and how we stay the same. Connection. In small ways. Repeated over time. … I go no matter what. It’s a practice, not a personal preference, for all of us as a group, and that’s how it becomes a spiritual home.”
Liz is talking specifically about the Shabbat meal on Friday evening that welcomes the Sabbath in Jewish tradition. But church plays a similar role to this meal for many of us. We show up here. We connect with each other. We enjoy the Divine together. And over time, over an accumulation of small-scale practice at loving each other and loving God, we build a spiritual home here and strengthen our spiritual muscles for the days between Sundays.
I’ve been thinking this week of this practice in parallel with our scriptures. All along, I think God is like the soil in our parables. In this Gospel, there is a short parable that is in no other Gospel. Perhaps the editors of the other Gospels thought it was too boring. It says, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” Jesus is describing the ordinary turn of events when we plant seeds. No discourse about lots of different kinds of soil or seeds. Just plant. Wait. Let the God-soil do the God-soils’ work of transformation on that seed. And “the earth produces of itself” what we need.
I don’t think this is boring. Especially not from the writer of the Gospel of Mark, the same writer who originally ended his telling of the Jesus story without the resurrection. This is a writer who wrote under siege, under a terrorizing regime stealing land and power. In that context, this is a miracle story. Despite all that is happening to destroy life, plant seeds. Just plant anyway and then WAIT. Rest in the wisdom that God-soil is working on the seed, doing everything that needs to be done to grow that possibility of life. Then you will be able to harvest. The time between planting and harvest is the Sabbath time. It is the time of remembering the power beyond yourself and trusting it to do its part of the process too. You cannot plant the seed of any possibility in thin air. The seed needs the soil. The seed needs the time of transformation, deep in the dark, quiet, wet, gritty ground. And you need the Sabbath time of waiting. Or nothing grows. Especially not something as essential and yet sometimes delicate as hope.
Then there is the famous parable of the mustard seed, the tiniest seed known in the ancient world. This is not the seed of something spectacular, like a giant redwood. Or a profoundly productive crop. This is the seed of a shrub, an ancient, very large weed. It just happens to be the kind of shrub that is a good home for birds and other creatures in need of shelter and shade. Jesus tells us that the Realm of God is like this tiny shrub seed. God’s dream of liberation, of freedom, of love realized, of hope and healing is like a tiny shrub seed. It is all there inside, hiding in plain sight.
But unlike the seed in in the first parable of our scripture this morning, nobody sows mustard seeds. Nobody plants them intentionally. They are weeds. They grow despite our regimes of control of the land, of plowing and weeding and sowing. The Realm of God – or we might say the Realm of Hope on a day like today – is like this too, Jesus says. It is growing despite all efforts by regimes of control to stop it. God-soil, with resting time, grows these seeds despite our best human efforts to root them out.
I am still heartbroken and and furious. But I am not powerless. And we together are certainly not powerless to resist to horrors of our world, my friends. But neither are we all-powerful. As the Talmud says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Our power to resist and our hope are like mustard seeds. They just need some time in the depths of God-soil for to root and rest and they will grow into the Realm of God. Amen.