Wednesday, September 14, 2016

family detention

22 women are conducting a hunger strike in Leesport, Berks County.  They are Los Madres Berks.  They are being detained with their children by immigration and customs enforcement---the federal government---along with about 43 other women and children.  Many of them have been detained for over 200 days, some for as long as a year.  Their crimes?  They fled violent, impoverished Central American countries with their children and traveled thousands of miles to seek asylum and assistance in the U.S.  They have experienced trauma, abuse, and mistreatment.  They have not experienced protection or merciful justice.  They were arrested at our southern border and brought to the Berks Family Detention Center, one of three family detention centers in the U.S. They are in federal custody in a facility run by Berks county.  They are appealing a court order that blocked their application for asylum, because the process of determining “credible fear” was improperly conducted.   There living conditions are poor.  Children cannot attend schools.  Pennsylvania revoked the facility’s human services license in February because of the conditions under which the children we living.  The county is appealing.  In the meantime, nothing gets better for these women and children. Family detention was started in 2014 as a result of an influx of unaccompanied minors into the U.S. from central America.  Specifically, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. 

On September 6th, 2016, Christina Smoker, Michael Kelly and I attended an interfaith prayer vigil on the grounds of the detention center.  We joined about 250 others in song, prayer, and protest.  We were joined by Lutheran Immigration and refugee services staff and other Lutherans concerned for immigrants and asylum seekers.  Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, Lutherans, other religious groups, and human rights advocates gathered in unity and solidarity with the madres Berks and their children.  We stood on one side of a fence, on one side of a street.  The women and children stood together opposite us, about 200 yards away.  We were divided by space, but our hearts and voices were united in a common hope. They stood hand in hand and sang in Spanish as we stood together, with candles lit, and sang in English.  They seek freedom, asylum, compassion, mercy, and just treatment.  They fled dreadful lives in their home countries.  They came here.  They were forced to flee because of gang violence and economic poverty.  They want what all mothers want for their children.  They want their children to live, to get educations, and to thrive in safety with opportunity. 

The biblical witness calls the people of God to a stance of welcome and hospitality toward the foreigner, the stranger, and the resident refugee.  Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 says "When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”  Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Matthew 25.   
As Lutheran Christians, we are called to practice solidarity with and public advocacy for vulnerable peoples.   We are called to demonstrate hospitality and mercy for the least among us. We are called to serve as Christ served us.  Family detention is unjust and unmerciful.  We must call on our government to do better for the sake of these mothers and their children.     

To learn more about family detention and a Lutheran response please go to: 

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Excessive mercy

WORD of LIFE:  Matthew 5:17-20
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,* not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks* one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus is the fulfillment of God's law.  This means that to know what pleases God, what completes God's ultimate intentions for the human being, we are to look at and listen to Jesus.  He fully embodies God's justice, God's goodness, God's truth and health.  The law of God is defined as God's good and perfect will for all creation. And we know that we cannot fulfill or complete it.  We fail to do the things we know we ought to do; we do the things we know we ought not to do; we do and say the wrong things or fail to do or say the right things without actually knowing it.  Nevertheless, we are not exempt from the threat of the law of God.  There are conditions for life on earth, set by God, with which we fail to comply.  Thankfully, Jesus of Nazareth embodies and demonstrates for us what it means to live fully into God's will, God's hope and intentions for us all.   And he challenges us to live more like him, to imitate his life, and to do what is right and good and true even if it kills us.

Today, I received a call from a woman. A mutual friend referred her to me.  She and her family (husband and 3 young kids) are stranded about an hour east of Lancaster, near Philadelphia.  They have no working vehicle, no money, and no housing for tonight.  She sought assistance. I am reluctant to spend money to help them.  I found out that they have a bad history with transitional housing in Lancaster county.  They did not follow the rules.  They destroyed property.  And the reason they left for Philly was to seek shelter with family after their situation fell apart here.  They will not be welcomed back here by some parts of the homeless relief community.  They may face criminal charges for their behavior, according to social service professionals who dealt with them recently.
They tell another story; That they were mistreated here; that they are trying to do what is right and judged wrongly by relief organizations ans churches. That they care for their children.  That they were misunderstood and misguided by people who were supposed to help and support them.  
Given their situation and the concern for the children, I called law enforcement in their current location.  A police officer arrived and is intervening as I write this blog.  After hearing the story I heard from social service agencies today, I was reluctant to provide any assistance at all.  But I spoke with both of the adults on the phone and realize that, even if they have broken rules and failed to comply with systems of assistance, they and their children do not deserve to be cast out and left homeless.
Fulfillment of the law means to love as Christ loves, to show mercy, to bear the grief of others with them, to be close to those at the bottom of the human pyramid, to make peace, to admit spiritual poverty and failure, to do the right thing even when it is hard or unaccepted.  Today, calling on reinforcements in the police department was the right thing to do.  Some might think any intervention on my part was excessive.  I didn't have to do anything.  I could have said, "Sorry, we can't help you." Some would not have any problem responding in that way.  But I chose to do something because they are human beings in need of mercy.   Hopefully, this family will experience mercy tonight and a desire tomorrow to set things right.
Jesus, you complete the law of God by means of sacrificial love.  You provide healing mercy for those who suffer. You care for the homeless and those in distress.  Be with this family and any family experiencing homelessness tonight.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-16.  
"You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt becomes tasteless in what way will it become salty again?  It is no longer any good, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  You are the light of the word.  A city on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to the whole house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven."

Hiding out and blending in.  The followers of Jesus are supposed to have a distinctive flavor, a brighter light in dark times.  But, when we love justice and show mercy and walk humbly with God, we will stand out.  I think the church is too often silent about and absent from the hard things, the ugly and broken things.  We hide in our sanctuaries and in our homes.  We hide ourselves, our own hearts and minds.  We keep silent in the face of critics and detractors.  We do not stand with those who experience the cross of shame and suffering in their lives.
Today, I'm going to a meeting of the NAACP chapter in Lancaster.  They have invited clergy to gather and discuss racial tensions, violence, and law enforcement.  I go to listen, to share my hope in the God of justice and peace, and to walk with others who are deeper in the struggle than I.  It would be easy not to go, to say its not my thing.  I have plenty of other acts to accomplish today.  White privilege and suburbia largely shelter me from the struggle.  I don't have many black friends.  I can easily say, "This is not my problem, my concern."
But what if I don't show up?  About the Good Samaritan story Dr. King said,

"The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But... the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'
Read more at:

This is the church's mission, to stop and help, to show up, to be present in the struggle, to accompany the suffering, to confront the violence and hatred with acts of love and mercy.  I will bring my distinctive experience and wisdom and compassion to the table.  

Salt and light.  If you're in a dark place, you know when the light comes in.  When your food is salted, you can taste the difference. What difference does it make others that I am a child of God and a follower of Jesus?  What does my presence expose or enlighten?  What darkness does my presence confront?   Today, I intend to be salt and light--to make a difference in the lives of those around me.  I intend to do all that I can to share the light of Christ.  To me this light-sharing involves participation in the community struggle for racial justice and reconciliation.  What can you do today to be salt and light, to bring the distinctive flavor and vision of the gospel to others?  How can you share a hopeful word, a brave act on behalf of someone else?

On my way, I think I'll sing:  

"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine; this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.  This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

Monday, August 01, 2016


After a couple of months of blog silence, I decided to return in the month of August.  Sometimes, I need time and experience to inspire the writing process.  And I needed a break from the daily grind. June included our annual synod assembly, a week of church camp, and time with my parents in central New York.  During that visit, we acquired a new puppy.  She has taken up the last month, like having a baby in the house again.  Church camp provided a week of restorative play, teaching, and rest.  After camp, my family picked up a new labrador retriever puppy.  She has brought joy and puppy mischief back into our house.  I forgot how cathartic it is to walk a dog.  Its one of my favorite daily activities again.  

This summer has been strange.  The American political story is unfolding for 2016 and it becomes more bizarre every day.  The contrast between the two primary political parties cannot be more clear. The leaders of the respective parties cannot be less similar.  One of the presidential candidates is a lifelong public servant and political figure.  She is unpopular, but doggedly determined. Her candidacy includes scandal and concern over her record as Secretary of State and first lady.   One thing we cannot say about Hillary Clinton, however, is that she lack political experience.  She knows how politics work, from the executive and the legislative branch of government. And she has spent time under harsh scrutiny.  She has enemies.  Some people want her to be indicted and imprisoned for what they perceive as treasonous, illegal abuses of power.  She comes with a public record, some of which is unflattering--none of which disqualifies her to be president.  And I have to say, she is the first woman in U.S. history to be nominated by one of the two major parties to become president.  It only took 240 years.  And 100 years since women's suffrage.  She must be commended for her courage in the face of adversity.  She has been defeated and she has fought back.    
The other candidate is Donald Trump.  He has won the Republican nomination amidst bigotry, violence, and a darkly negative almost apocalyptic view of the country.  He has tapped into a dark nationalism fueled by anger and fear.  He believes that he alone can fix all that is wrong with the country, perhaps the world.  He is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and pro "law and order" (a phrase from the Nixon era of politics that led to the failed war on drugs and the systematic mass incarceration of racial minorities.  His slogan, "Make America Great Again", has a pre-Roe v. Wade, pre- Civil Rights era, male dominating, white privilege nostalgia to it.  He is anti-politics, an outsider hell bent on ignoring the rule of law and the constitution to protect his self interests. Every day he says something that would disqualify other candidates from public office. He's a walking, talking scandal.
The public life has taken on new meaning now, because the nature of discourse has become so uncivil.  Freedom of speech has been misinterpreted as license to verbally abuse, malign, attack, and intimidate those with whom you disagree.  There is little room for conversation or compromise.    

In June, the country was rocked by more gun violence.  A mass shooting in a gay night club in Orlando, perpetrated by a Muslim American, with a variety of semi-automatic weapons opened up the debates about guns and terrorism and the LGBT community.  America's vulnerable underside was revealed again.  Bigotry, violence, and fear attack us and threaten freedom.  I spoke out on social media in opposition to gun violence.  I experienced slander and attack from angry people who do not want their 2nd amendment rights violated because of mass murderers using semi-automatic rifles to kill unarmed people.  White police killed unarmed black men in separate incidents.  Then an angry black man killed five police officers in Dallas.  One cannot help but think that we are in the throes of a national crisis.  Fueled by fear and prejudice (institutional racism), we cannot admit that we have a problem.  Like an addict, we react to gun death by purchasing more guns and ammunition.

The violence, politically and socially, compels us to retreat from public life.  This is a time when courage is essential to face injustice with the power of Christian love.  To that end, I intend to offer commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching of Jesus, over the course of the next week. If people adhered to the teachings of the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-8, what would the human community be like?  What would change?

Matthew 5.  
When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who show mercy, those with pure hearts, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for saying and doing what is right before God.  The world may not perceive greatness or power or blessing in those who embody this humble way of life.  But God blesses what the world curses or rejects.  God blesses what the world hates.  God blesses human goodness.  To be blessed is to thrive, to prosper, to live in contentment, to live in the wellbeing of God.   


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

a soldier's faith. a servant's life.

The story.   Gospel of Luke 7:1-11
1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

 What's it mean? 
This weekend many of us pause to remember those men and women soldiers and sailors who gave their lives on the battlefield’s of American history.   With bravery, most of these sacrifices were made in foreign countries; Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia…President Obama has made pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Vietnam in recent weeks---mainly to suggest that former enemies can become allies, partners, friends over time with diplomacy and leadership.  Germany and Japan have become important U.S. allies and points of stability in the world.  The moral arc of the universe bends toward Justice.  As we remember and honor the soldiers who gave the last full measure of valor, storming beaches, invading jungles, crossing deserts, we hear a story about Jesus and a Roman soldier---the enemy occupier of Israel. 
The Roman centurion is a commanding officer responsible for 100 Roman soldiers.  He is there as part of the occupying forces on the ground in Israel.  He is stationed in the north away from the city of Jerusalem.  He’s thankful for that.  Jerusalem is far more dangerous.  Apart from a few rabble rousers, his time in Galillee has been relatively easy time.  He has learned that military occupation of foreign territory requires some finesse.  He appreciates the stress civilians experience with soldiers patrolling their streets.  And some soldiers do not act with valor or respect toward others.  He does.  He has come to like these Jews.  When their synagogue burned down last year, he and his men joined the work crew and helped them rebuild it.  By doing so, he has built relationships with local leaders.  He can acquire intelligence from them and Capernaum remains a safe place for everyone. 
There is a Rabbi who heals sick people.  They say he made a blind person see and a paralyzed man walk. When the centurion’s servant boy becomes deathly ill, he remembers the rabbi called Jesus.  He speaks with a couple of the Jewish elders, asking them if they thought Jesus might help him. But why would a Jewish Rabbi help the enemy?  Why should he care what happens to Roman soldiers or their households?  The man knows he is not a Jew, knows he is the enemy of Israel.  But the Jewish elders insist that they go and ask Jesus on his behalf.  When they return to say that Jesus is on his way, the solider is shocked.  But the boy, his slave has gotten sicker.  He will die without help.  He sends friends to meet Jesus on the way and to tell him that he understands authority and power.  He knows that when he gives an order, even from a distance, if it isn’t carried out people could die.  He knows that authority and command are given from a higher seat of power.  He draws a parallel between his life and the life of the healer.  And he knows that if Jesus says the Word, his servant boy will be healed.  Jesus is astonished and announces that his faith exceeds that of all of Israel.  And the boy is healed.  A soldier, enemy occupier of Israel, has faith? 
What does Jesus mean by faith?  Faith is not personal assent to religious belief and practice.  Faith is not rooted in ethnicity.  It is not tied to one’s piety.  Those who go to synagogue, or church, who read their bible and pray daily are not the only ones with faith.  We do not know what this man knew of holy scripture, of prayer, of God.  He was a Gentile Roman soldier, enemy of Israel and he had great faith.  Perhaps it was his character---the Jews say he is worthy to have this done, but he himself says he is not worthy to receive Jesus into his home.  Humble and generous.  So is that why Jesus calls him faithful?  I think it is simply for this reason:  Because he called on Jesus and believed that Jesus could heal.  He did so on behalf of a very sick child.  Faith may be a single act, in which a community of people act together on behalf of someone in need.  Those people may be enemies who come together for a common cause.  What does it mean for us to respect the faith of our "enemies"? When we face matters of life and death, faith shows us the power of God.     
I noticed how many people are involved in the care of this sick slave boy.  Jewish elders, friends of a soldier, a Roman Centurion.  A community of people, both Jews and Gentiles, seek out Jesus for his sake, for a slave boy.  Everyone is worthy to be healed in the kingdom of God.  No one is insignificant.  GOD favors the poor, the slave, the servant---those in the bottom of the economic and social pyramid.  God sees them and powerfully helps themAnd those who cannot speak or act for themselves can be borne up to God.  Something about this story is like intercessory prayer.  When we pray for others, Jesus hears us.  And something about this story is an answer to the prayer of Solomon, who prayed that God would even hear and answer the prayers of the foreigner.  Solomon, King of Israel, prayed that God would listen to his enemies!  And now God listens to Israel’s enemies, who come to Jesus for healing! Foreign enemies are included in the Kingdom of God, a borderless kingdom.    
Something like this story is happening in our midst.  Today a child has been borne up to us.  She has been brought here to this community, brought for healing and cleansing from sin and death.  Today, we baptize Tegan Lynn and welcome her into the kingdom of God.  Tegan comes here because of the faith of her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.  This is the place where they met Jesus.  Those people helped to build this place. They are worthy to have this done for them. Though we do not perform baptism today because of that or them.  It is not their character or their religious devotion that gives them access to Jesus, to the mercy and love of God.  It is only this.  They asked on her behalf.  Those who are far off and those who are near; those who have been enemies and those who are friends, those who are ethnically and culturally other and those who are citizens, foreigners and strangers and dearest loved ones---all are received and welcomed into the household and  kingdom of God. No one is insignificant here.  Rejoice today, the Lord brings rebirth, healing, and new life here and now. And a child is blessed and we are blessed to be part of it.  Amen.