Open and Hidden

This was the sermon I preached this morning based upon John 3:14-21.  Having spent last Wednesday in a training session on trauma-centered care, trauma really stuck in my mind.  Plus, working with homeless veterans makes a deep impression, too.

Preached on March 15, 2015 in Dalton, MA

That we are awash in heroin here in Berkshire County is no secret. Even though Alan Chartock wrote about it in yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle,[1] we’ve known this for a long time. Most of the men I see in the county jail are there for some sort of drug charge.

All the men who come into the program at Soldier On were homeless. Soldier On is a transitional shelter, although we have a nine-bed emergency shelter as well. While many homeless people are veterans, we have many homeless people in our community who never served in the military.

Though our homeless situation is better than it was a year ago, we still have a sizeable homeless population. You don’t have to look very hard to see them during the day. They sit at the Intermodal Center or the library. They sometimes go to the emergency room at night. A Pittsfield police officer told me last year that there’s a man who actually commits enough of a crime at the beginning of winter to get himself incarcerated long enough to be released in the spring so he can take advantage of “three squares and a cot.”

These problems are open and aren’t hard to see if we open our eyes. We see them literally or we read about them in the paper. As for the latter, a week doesn’t go by without some sort news story about some drug-related arrest or event or a break-in or a robbery. I also sense that over the last several years we’ve seen an increase in news reports of shooting and other gun violence.

I believe the visibility of drugs, homelessness, crime adds to our anxiety and sense that things aren’t right. The problems are too big for any one of us to tackle. Even if we work together as a church, we have an implicit sense that the difference we make will not end any one of these problems. In the end, we know we have to work together as a community, including people who are not part of any faith community.

I believe there are many people who want to see a difference and are working towards improving our community. They’re also realistic enough to know that they might have to be content with small gains rather than solving an entire problem. They know that change cannot happen overnight as these problems took a long time to grow to their present size and that maybe satisfaction comes from reducing the rate of growth in these problems.

John’s gospel this morning is the tail end of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. Following Jesus is coming into the light. Light cleanses. Jesus cleanses. Darkness, however, or not being in the light keeps the evil from light’s cleansing power. Without exposing the deeds that contribute to our suffering, we can never be free of them.

We see the heroin problem and the homeless problem, but what we don’t really see is what’s underneath. Our drug problem, our homeless problem, and our crime problem didn’t spring up from nothing. Their roots have been kept in the dark without the benefit of the cleansing light.

I recently learned that when we face danger or a very stressful situation, we viscerally react by fighting, fleeing, or freezing until our brain and our body can settle down. It’s a form of protection, a survival instinct. Trauma, however, comes when stress overwhelms our visceral response to leave us feeling fearful, helpless, vulnerable, or out of control. We lost our sense of protection. We go into a state of permanent alert.

There are three types of trauma. There is acute trauma, a single event, such as an auto accident or a natural disaster. There is chronic trauma, a layered and continuous trauma. Think of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Many experienced a series of traumas: first the storm, then the flooding, then evacuations, and then the crowded Superdome. Chronic trauma could also be homelessness or abuse and neglect. Finally, there is complex trauma which happens in early childhood development as the brain develops. This type has a long-term impact on all aspects of development. Children subjected to complex trauma seek to survive rather than thrive. Factors contributing to complex trauma include, but are not limited to: poverty, single-parent households, having an incarcerated parent, child abuse, abandonment, presence of substance abuse, or violence in the household.

We typically can get through an acute trauma. It might change some things for us. For instance back in 1988 when I lived in Brooklyn I was burglarized three times in two months. Even though shortly after the last burglary I moved up here, it haunted me such that when we’d leave home for a weekend, I’d hold my breath from the moment we turned the corner onto our street until we got into our driveway. But complex trauma hard wires the brain such that when these children become adults they are more prone using high risk behaviors as a coping mechanism. These behaviors could include: eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, propensity to violence, and re-victimization.

In my work with homeless veterans I have come to see that many of them had a childhood that could be characterized as complex trauma. Let’s keep in mind that not everyone who is homeless or uses drugs or commits crimes suffered complex trauma. Let’s also remember that not everyone who had a childhood with complex trauma will be homeless, use drugs, or commit a crime. Still, we cannot overlook the factors contributing to complex trauma are roots to the community problems upon which we shine the light.

I raise this because we’re seeing increased childhood poverty in our community. The Berkshire Eagle the other day had a front page article in which Pittsfield school Superintendent McCandless made clear that we cannot ignore the impact of poverty on academic performance.[2] I recently spoke with a teacher in this school district who noted that the percentage of children receiving free and reduced lunch is 30%. McCandless made a point to say that we need to shift our focus from unfunded mandates and standardized test to addressing poverty among our children. Today more than 50% of our nation’s students live in low income families with Pittsfield at more than 60% and climbing.

Nationally, more than 20% of our children live beneath the poverty line, which makes the percentage of children living in low income households around 45% (discrepancy between 50% and 45% is that some children in low income households are not students).[3] Our childhood poverty rate, however, has been at least 20% for more than a decade. Imagine for a moment what we would do if a foreign nation pushed 20% of our children into poverty. And yet, we accept this of ourselves. That we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and that we have accepted this as normal is unconscionable and our collective sin.

We won’t, however, make any headway to bring down this statistic unless we shine a cleansing light upon it. The problems that are in the light, drug use, homelessness, and crime, will stubbornly remain if we keep child poverty and the other factors which make childhood traumatic for many of our children in the dark.

What can we do? This is traumatic in and of itself. We can protect ourselves by looking past it as though it is not happening. Or we can begin to address this collectively beginning here in Dalton, even though we know we don’t have enough resources to turn this around even in a couple of years. Still, if we think about the children in this community, especially those who are in at-risk situations, even if we can shine a light on their situation and help address it, it could make a difference in that child’s adult life and may keep it from self-perpetuating to a generation yet unborn. “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” (Mat. 19:14) Even if we can keep one or two children from becoming an adult prone to drug abuse, homelessness, or criminal activity, that’s progress, even though it is small and slow.

I recently had a conversation with Adam Hinds, Pittsfield’s coordinator for youth programs to stem the rise in gang violence. We both know our community’s reality, and this applies to Dalton as well. Our children will grow up and leave for other places. I said that the best thing we can do is instill in them the real values of community so that wherever they settle they will be good, upstanding, righteous members of their community. And when people ask them, “Where did you learn this,” they can say, “Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I grew up.” Our children from Dalton should be able to say, “Dalton, Massachusetts, where I grew up.”

What Jesus said is not just salvation after we die. Salvation can be in this world, too. Can we and will we shine a light on the lives of children at risk? Do we have the courage and will to bring those things that hide in the dark into the light and free those children from an adulthood of pain and suffering?

[1] Alan Chartock. Road to Heroin Addiction has Numerous On-Ramps. Berkshire Eagle. March 14, 2015. Page B1

[2] Jim Therrien. Pittsfield Superintendent McCandless Describes Dire School Budget Options. The Berkshire Eagle. March 13, 2015. Page A1


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Communion Prayer for Holy Week

I’ve started to plan Holy Week worship.  (OK, I try to stay a step ahead of the game.)  We’ll do communion on Maundy Thursday.  Given its connection to Passover, I wrote a communion prayer based upon the Seder prayer, daiyenu, a prayer offered to remember what God did for Israel.

You’re welcome to use this for your communion (just be sure to attribute it to me saying something to the effect, “Used with permission by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.”)

If God created this world with plants and living things for our nourishment and had not made a new covenant with Noah, it would have been enough.

If God made a new covenant with Noah and had not brought Israel out of Egypt and sustained Israel on manna and quail for forty years, it would have been enough.

If God brought Israel out of Egypt and sustained Israel on manna and quail for forty years and did not give us the Law that we might live in community with one another, it would have been enough.

If God gave us the Law that we might live in community with one another and had not led Israel into the land flowing with milk and honey, it would have been enough.

If God led Israel into the land flowing with milk and honey and had not built the Temple, it would have been enough.

If God had built the Temple and then restored Israel after its exile to Babylon so Zion could be a light to all nations, it would have been enough.

If God restored Israel after its exile to Babylon so Zion can be a light to all nations and had not come to us as a baby named Jesus who grew to bind up the wounds of the world, it would have been enough.

If God came to us as a baby named Jesus who grew to bind up the wounds of the world and had not died on a cross to rise again, it would have been enough.

And yet, O God, you did this to remind us that life always overcomes death and that out of death new life emerges. For this O God, we are eternally grateful.

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Christmas Eve Homily

I couldn’t pass up the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce, December 24, 1914. I used it to begin my Christmas Eve homily.

Christmas Eve, Dalton MA

People did not anticipate a long war at the outset of World War I. But after five months of war the battle lines became defined by a network of trenches from the English Channel snaking to the Swiss border. This “short” war soon became a war of attrition. Allied and German armies faced each other across no man’s land, sometimes only thirty yards apart. Both sides fortified their trenches. Some war fatigue had already taken hold.

The distance in some places was so close that the men from each side would sometimes hold up wooden signs to each other or even shout to each other. It was a sort black humor, especially after a heavy barrage. They might shout to each other “Missed” or “A little to the left.”

Tonight is the 100th anniversary of a wartime truce between German and Allied soldiers. Across the front a temporary peace broke out. The temperatures plunged on Christmas Eve after weeks of wet rain which gave a feeling of a “white Christmas.” The informal communications between the two sides during the weeks leading up to December 24 inadvertently forged a type of comradery. The truce was not limited to one location nor was it uniformly observed along the length of the trenches.

Traditionally, Germans celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with a large family meal and a gift exchange. They began to sing, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Alles schlaft, einsam wacht…” Silent Night was still relatively unknown outside of Germany. Some put up a Christmas tree festooned with lanterns on the embankments above their trenches. An account published in some of the English papers described, “Their trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees, and our sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of the Fatherland. Their officers even expressed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on, insisting that they were part almost of the sacred rite.”

A letter from “Rifleman C H Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford: ‘You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ’”

Some truces were arranged on Christmas Eve and others on Christmas Day. Some had formal arrangements, such as a designated end to the truce. Others were informal where the soldiers who had been fraternizing could not bring themselves to shoot at each other hours later. Some truces lasted until New Years.

The truce allowed the soldiers to bury their dead, swap jokes, exchange souvenirs, sing hymns and songs, and exchange information about the war. Because of military regulations, many of the soldiers risked disciplinary action for fraternizing with the enemy, but they proceeded to celebrate Christmas together anyway despite their nations’s enmity. In one location, the German and English troops set up a large table between the two trenches where they ate a meal together, swapped souvenirs and gave each other small keepsakes. The German soldiers even noted in their conversations that they disagreed with the Kaiser about going to war at all.

Though enemies, they were first men and because of Christmas saw each other as men not as enemy combatants. The truce happened because these men were able to purge their hearts of all the negative stuff: fear, anger, bitterness, resentment, jealousy, and greed. They allowed love, which also resided their hearts to grow and fill the empty space that remained once they cleared out the negative stuff. Love in all of its fullness grew in their hearts: compassion, mercy, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, peace, and grace.

We could call this truce a Christmas miracle, which it was. But we shouldn’t think of this truce or Christmas itself as a miracle when wishes come true. Christmas is not December 25 as much as it is a state of the world. Though we think of Christmas as the day Christ was born, it is more than that. It is the day God came down to earth and squeezed himself into a tiny baby born in a stable to a barely teenage mother in order to share our common lot, to struggle with us, and to suffer the cruelties of our world. God came to us in love for us in order for us to purge our hearts of all the negative stuff. God in Jesus showed us that love is a verb, which means it is actions we undertake towards each other.

One hundred years ago tonight, God broke into our world and showed us that despite enmity, peace is possible. Christmas is the end of our world’s darkness and the dawn of a new day that is God’s reign on earth. Christmas tells us that another world is possible. It is a world where love prevails over fear. It is a world where peace rooted in love proclaims true justice for all people. It is a world where God’s abundance is shared so no one will need to know or suffer from deprivation and scarcity. It is shalom, a peace that is beyond the absence of violence and embraces the wholeness of Creation.

We celebrate Christmas to remind us that another world is possible. And that world becomes real when we let love fill our hearts and we place our faith and trust in God’s ways so that we can share that love with family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and even our enemies. Christmas is hope born anew rooted in God’s radical, inclusive love.

Tonight we celebrate that God came down to be among us in Jesus. The name is Emmanuel, God with us. Let us ponder this in our hearts.


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Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Advent

I preached this sermon today, December 21, in Dalton.  I based it upon the today’s texts:  Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

What would you do or maybe what would be your reaction to an angel coming to you to tell you that God chose you to do some huge act? For women, it would be giving birth to the Son of God. For men… help me out, what is something that we can do that women can’t do that rivals giving birth, let alone to someone else’s baby, who just happens to be the Son of God?

By tradition, not scripture, Mary was a teenager, which added another level of complexity. She was a single teenage mother, betrothed to Joseph. By the way, we don’t know Joseph’s age, but by tradition we accept that he was much older than Mary. Though we tend to believe Mary was about 15 or 16 years old, an early non-canonical writing known as the Protoevangelium of James noted that Mary was about 12 or 13 years old when she gave birth.

Today, we’d think of this birth as scandalous. We generally look askance at teenage motherhood, but a girl who is 12 or 13 years old would probably suffer even more acutely from disdain. We certainly wouldn’t venerate her. So, imagine how scandalous it would have been for Mary.

No one would wish pregnancy upon a young teenage girl, especially betrothed to a man old enough to be her father. And just to add another dimension to this story, according the Protoevangelium of James, Joseph had two sons, who from the story were probably older than Mary. Given our current guidelines today, we couldn’t have this arrangement; for one, Joseph would be barred from marrying Mary. That we find this story difficult in our current context, it must have been much harder for Mary than we could even imagine.

Maybe it’s me, but I’ve carried this image of Mary as a meek and mild woman. Maybe it comes from an aggregation of many multiple images conveyed through Christmas carols. There is a sense of gentleness, such as in the carol “Once in Royal David’s City,” which has this line, “Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed. Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.” But that sentiment doesn’t capture Mary the mother of Jesus. Instead, we should think of the second verse of the carol “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” which begins, “’Twas gentle Mary maid, so young and strong.”

She was obedient, but obedient to God. When she sang, her words were a powerful indictment of all that was wrong with the Roman Empire in first century Palestine. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Those were words of revolution. They were words seeking to overturn the order of the day. This was not a woman who was blindly obedient. She was a fierce defender of the people like her, poor and oppressed. She knew that the powers of the day, political, economic, and religious, were not serving the people they ruled. She was effectively saying to the powers of her day, “I will not stand for this. I defy you and your power and authority.”

Her song was a preview of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maybe Mary taught a young Jesus to push for the underdog and ensure that those at the bottom of the economic ladder have their daily bread. God chose her to carry the Son of God to term and to raise him to become humanity’s teacher. She had to be strong enough, brave enough, and bold enough to seek overturning the order of the day. She followed him. She was the only person who was with Jesus at the moment of his birth and at his death on the cross. How could she be anything less?

Mary set in motion a movement that would challenge the Empire. She showed that there is nothing to fear when God is on your side. Her son, Jesus, continued to live courageously, like his mother, to pursue God’s peace and justice.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is the gospel in miniature. Its sentiment is breathtaking in scope when we really think about it. Mary practically said that God favors the poor over the rich and powerful. God’s mercy will be upon those who fear the Almighty and that power and wealth in and of themselves are ephemeral. And when you think about it, “Relying upon wealth and power for one’s well-being is a weak reed” would be one summation of Jesus’ overarching message. Psalm 146:3-4 expressed it as: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

I think people whether they know it or not are singing Mary’s song today. I’m sensing that something is happening, a shift of some kind or another. This month there have been ongoing protests over the Michael Brown and the Eric Garner cases. These haven’t been one-day protests and then are over. This past Thursday Union Theological Seminary in New York City held a community breakfast with faith leaders to discuss how to address the racial gulf these two cased exposed. Immediately following the breakfast many participants held a “die-in” in the intersection of Broadway and 120th Street.

But it’s not just these protests in the wake of the decisions. I see it going back to last year’s Occupy movement. And it is not just on the left. I see the roots of the Tea Party movement in the same way. All of these are manifestations of a deep, deep disquiet and unease in our community fabric. We know something is wrong. We feel it though we can’t quite put our finger on specifically what it is that’s wrong. Some of it is cultural. Some of it is racial. Some of it is economic. Some of it is political.

We’re frustrated. We know something has to be done, but we don’t see our political leadership, especially at the national level, doing anything substantial to address it. Furthermore, we can’t ignore that the long-held belief that if we “work hard and play by the rules we will succeed” is over. Economic statistics bear out that economic mobility in the United States has diminished over the years. It used to be that when the stock market went up, general prosperity increased too. Today, the stock market is at its highest levels ever and yet income seems to be stuck. Furthermore, data already show that income when adjusted for inflation has fallen over the past 20 years. And the benefits of the economic recovery since the recession in 2008-2009 correlate more favorably as one goes up the economic ladder.

There is a disconnect between the rich and the powerful and the rest of us. While there has always been a difference, the separation has become a chasm that is almost impossible to cross. This nation has not seen such disparity in wealth since the Gilded Age. And like the Empire when Mary sang, there is a feeling that many of the rich and powerful don’t seem to hear or know or care about those who are not like them. I often think of our situation as fighting for the scraps of food that fell from the table where the rich and powerful eat. They’ve forgotten, however, that Jesus said we have a place at that table, too.

We have to remember and hold dear to us that despite our differences in the way we see our current political climate we are all in this together. Fighting for scraps and crumbs distracts us from the real problem, the rich and the powerful have commandeered the table. Furthermore, those who are rich and powerful must not forget a huge lesson from the upside down world of the gospel. That with increased power and authority comes greater responsibility to be a servant, especially to the Marys in our world, keeping in mind what Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35b) And it is by coming down from their thrones that we can make real the kingdom of God on earth.

Something is happening. Something has stirred among many people who are not among the rich and powerful, who do not hold positions of authority, who are not among the elite, to sing as Mary sang long ago. This movement is not going away. It may take awhile, but something indeed is taking shape. As disciples we are called to speak truth to power, to “die-in” the streets, and assert everyone’s right to sit at the table. Like Mary, doing this is a sign of strength, courage, and boldness. We do this to overturn the world as we know it in order to bring forth the world as God through Jesus proclaimed it. We are the inheritors of a movement Mary set in motion long ago when Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”


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Emergency Food for the Food Insecure

Yesterday I attended a meeting with the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and other members of the local faith community.  Our local food pantries have been struggling to keep up with the increasing number of people who come seeking food.  Overall, we have a shortfall in food supplies.

The meeting, though, was valuable because we got to understand the situation the food bank faces and they got to hear our challenges.  We also received some guidance on other programs such as one for schools whereby a school having a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch can apply for a blanket allocation so all students can get a free meal, which reduces some of the stigma of free and reduced meals.

We have a pretty extensive food network in our area.  One church produces thousands of pounds of produce to put into our food distribution system so people using our pantries can get fresh produce.  We also have several smaller gardens that get their produce to the local pantries.

Even though we live in a fairly rural part of the state, we have an infrastructure problem getting food from farm to table.  We need a commercial kitchen which will process raw food into food so it will have more longevity.  An example would be making June strawberries into jam so they can provide revenue well past the growing season.  We also need a USDA approved abattoir.  Currently farmers must book slots months in advance and transport their livestock a couple of hundred miles for slaughter.

Though addressing the infrastructure impediment will enhance our local agriculture, it probably won’t change the dynamics around local food insecurity.  Food insecurity comes about for many reasons including low income, lack of transportation, and high housing costs.

I listened.  I couldn’t help saying finally, “What’s happening is that we’ve accepted begging as a way to address food insecurity.”

Today it seems so normal to have food pantries and public suppers to help people who are food insecure.  Many churches collect food weekly to fill food pantries.  Food drives to fill pantries have become a regular activity within our communities.  On Monday Pittsfield will have its third annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner giveaway.  (The organizers plan to distribute 1200 turkeys with all the dinner side dishes, including dessert.)

These activities we see as doing something good.  It makes us feel good because we’re helping people who don’t have food.  We’ll even congratulate ourselves when we give away or collect lots of food.  Something has changed in us that we make ourselves feel good for this work.

In reality we should feel angry.  Government policy could be more effective to raise incomes for the people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.  Benefits could be more generous.  Instead by donating to food pantries, holding food drives, and serving public suppers we let government policy makers off the hook.  They don’t see this and if they do, then they have no shame.

We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.  We produce more food than any nation in the world.  That we have food insecurity in a nation awash in so much food and wealth is hard to imagine.  Even worse, however, we accept begging as a way to address food insecurity.  This is absolutely wrong.  It is not just shameful, it is our collective sin.

And we’re stuck.  Since that meeting I’ve thought that maybe we should close down our food pantries and stop serving public suppers.  Let anger build so people will take it to the streets, but the anger will probably not be directed at the political leadership.  The faith community will feel its brunt.

So, we’re stuck working hard to feed people who don’t have resources to feed themselves. That is so time-consuming that we don’t have time do the advocacy and research necessary for systemic change.

I wish I could have more confidence in our political process.

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Advent Liturgy (Year B) for Worship

This is an Advent liturgy for worship based upon the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B (2014).  It is based upon the appointed psalms, except for the Fourth Sunday.  You can chant the psalms if you desire.  I use O Come, O Come, Emmanuel during Advent, adding a verse each week, as a conclusion to this liturgy each week.  On Christmas Eve I use Joy to the World. 

You are welcome to use this liturgy without charge provided you attribute it to me using the following text:  “Used with permission by the author, Rev. Quentin Chin.”

First Sunday of Advent – November 30

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

One: Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
Many: Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved
One: O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
Many: Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved
One: But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
Many: Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved

Light one candle

Unison Prayer
Merciful and loving God, the ways of our world trouble us. Some children in our corner of the world don’t have shelter. They beg for scraps of food. Yet, we live in the richest nation in the history of the world. We pray, O God, for a new day. We pray for that day when children will have homes where they can rest their heads. We pray for that day when all will have their daily bread. We pray for a new day in which your abundance will be shared so no one will know scarcity or deprivation. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (v. 1)

Second Sunday of Advent – December 7

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

One: Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
Many: Show us your steadfast love, O God, and grant us your salvation
One: Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Many: Show us your steadfast love, O God, and grant us your salvation
One: Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
Many: Show us your steadfast love, O God, and grant us your salvation

Light two candles

Unison Prayer
God of all faithfulness, the prophet’s voice speaks loudly. He prods us. He exhorts us to take action. Help us to bring hope to those in this community who have none. Help us to be a healing balm to wounded souls wherever they may be. Let us not fear to hasten the dawn of a new day, a day where scarcity is no more and love prevails. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (v. 1 and 2)

Third Sunday of Advent – December 14

Psalm 126

One: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
Many: The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
One: Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Many: The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Light three candles

Unison Prayer
You are exceedingly generous, O God. You have done great things for us and we rejoice. The struggles, pain, and suffering in this world will not end until the fortunes of all are restored. We are your instruments for peace and justice, O God. Strengthen us so we might use our gifts to bring fortune to those who do not have your peace and do not know your justice. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 1-3)

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 21

Luke 1:46b-55

One: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Many: My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
One: His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Many: My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
One: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Many: My spirit rejoices in God my Savior

Light four candles

Unison Prayer
You, O God, are the source of love and the purveyor of justice. You know the world in which we live is not the world you intend for us. Your world is one of peace and justice. Your world is one of abundance not scarcity. Your world is rooted in love not fear. Instill in us faith and trust to labor on your behalf so day will dawn on the world you wish for us. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 1-4)

Christmas Eve – December 24

Psalm 98

One: O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Many: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
One: Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Many: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
One: Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Many: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

Light all the candles, including the Christ candle

Unison Prayer
Tonight we sing a new song, a song to welcome the Christ. It shatters the silence of the night to proclaim the glory of a new day. In Christ the world is made new. In Christ we are made new. O God, we celebrate your presence and re-dedicate ourselves to further the ministries that Jesus began long ago. By our labors may our world be less fearful and more generous. Let your love be proclaimed in our songs and our labors so we might bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hymn: Joy to the World

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Another Ad Nauseum Reflection on Election Day

The dust has settled and the GOP will take control of both houses of Congress and several governorships, including here in Massachusetts.  Yet, state ballot initiatives, such as increased minimum wage, which tilt left won.  Despite the sweeping GOP win, many of those wins were not by sizable majorities.

My assessment begins with a lousy campaign by the Democrats.  First, they let the GOP write the narrative for this election.  It was about fear and incompetent governance.  The party conveniently overlooked its own role in the government shutdowns.  The GOP seemed to address the people’s concerns by saying that government is not on their sides, even though they had control of the House of Representatives and effective control of the Supreme Court.  As a corollary, the Democrats allowed the GOP to pummel them without trying to counter-punch.  Second, the economic record over the last six years, though not exactly, robust is not a bad one to promote.  Six years ago economic fear gripped this nation.  People had little confidence of their job security.  The economy seemed in free-fall.  Today, the stock market is at an all-time high.  Unemployment is way down and the budget deficit is the smallest it’s been in decades.  Granted there are still too many college graduates looking for jobs and wages are basically stagnant, but more on that later.  They also could have made clear that the Affordable Care Act is actually working and making a difference in the lives of millions of people.  Third, Democrats didn’t understand that despite Obama’s low poll ratings, his were higher than theirs and the GOP’s.  They didn’t have to keep him at arm’s length.  Fourth, the White House has done a terrible job of making its accomplishments known to the public.

The GOP ran a campaign that could best be described as what they are against, but other than the tired nonsense about incompetent and intrusive government they offered nothing substantive in terms of policy direction.  So, if there is a positive, it forces scrutiny upon the GOP to use these two years to be for something constructive.

I don’t see that happening.  The GOP managed to paper over their severe internal differences.  The extreme elements of the party have an overall agenda that will ultimately cripple government and offering nothing to replace what will be gone.  They refuse to take any constructive step to address climate change through legislation and can’t see how the government, which they loathe, will be forced to ameliorate its effects such as wildfires, reduced crop yields, without adequate resources.

Even if the Democrats did better, I don’t think we would have gotten much better governance.  Somehow, our politics have evolved into an adversarial contest rather than a collaborative venture.  Our increased polarization makes cooperation and collaboration even more difficult.

Though I am not registered with any party, I tend to vote Democratic because the GOP leadership has gone so far to the right that my vote has become more defensive in that I can’t see letting the GOP lead this nation.  If they were less extreme, I’d consider it.

But I think both our parties are operating as though our country is still in the 1970s.  We organize our foreign policy around our military as though there is an army to defeat and a nation to conquer.  We think about economic policy without recognizing that capital has become global and doesn’t respect national boundaries and that technology’s impact has erased national borders as well. Technology has also redefined the way companies operate and have challenged entire industries (think journalism), which has had a negative impact on some workers.  Basically, our political leadership needs to see this nation as it is and its contours in the future as it is shaped by external forces.  It cannot see it nostalgically and wishfully desire it to return to the 1970s.

Here’s an example.  The Affordable Care Act was probably appropriate for a workforce composition in the 1990s when people could earn a living working a full-time job.  The bulk of the people could be covered by their employer.  Today, however, too many people work multiple part-time jobs in order to earn enough money to live.  What was once an adequate salary from one job has become inadequate and adequacy depends on getting two or more jobs and none of those jobs would provide health insurance.   Another change is people who got paid by an employer in the 1990s are now doing the same job as a freelance or consultant because companies reduced their headcount in order to reduce their benefits.  ACA doesn’t account adequately for this.

Washington is not working because leadership in both parties is out of touch with our lives.  Furthermore, they’re not sure what can be done.  And frankly, we’re not sure what can be done either.  It’s hard to offer a suggestion when everything seems so undefined.  But the adversarial nature of our politics where parties seek the upper hand at the expense of our nation’s health doesn’t foster any desire for collaboration.

I wish I could be optimistic about the next two years, but I’m not.  I think the divisions within the GOP will contribute to their inability as a party to offer a vision for the future that breaks away from the worn out and dis-reputed mantra that government is the problem.  While I think Democrats offer a more positive vision, I don’t see them risking anything to articulate bold changes in our current policies.

For what it’s worth, my recommendations for Washington are these:

  • Restore the role of government to ensure the common good.  This includes reducing income inequality through a combination of higher income taxes and increasing the minimum wage.  It will also treat tax subsidies to corporations like we do assistance to families through social services; the effect is the same on the budget.  Crassly, one is corporate welfare and the other is personal welfare.
  • Address the financial stress families face.  It will probably necessitate increasing benefits, but it will also entail restructuring programs to foster more personal responsibility and accountability.  An example might be to encourage families currently receiving benefits to work by tapering off the benefits more gradually as their incomes rise.  Address student debt because their debt makes wealth accumulation difficult.
  • Reduce our military expenditures and shift them to domestic programs.  If we subjected our military to the same cost-benefit analysis we do our social programs, I believe the military would receive low marks.  We spend more money on our military than the next ten nations in the world combined and our outcomes have been less than decisive.  Furthermore, we’ve organized our foreign policy on a perpetual war footing, which has only fostered a false sense of peace.
  • Connect our criminal justice system to social dysfunction, especially within families.  We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  We bear the costs directly through incarceration and indirectly through its impact on family structures because it can dramatically reduce family income.  We can begin with sentencing reform, including revising our drug laws.
  • Stop trying to repeal or dismantle the Affordable Care Act.  Though imperfect, it is far better than what we had before its implementation.  Ideally, we should have a single-payer system, but that may be a bridge too far in our current climate.  (One should note that prior to Medicare the elderly was the poorest demographic cohort, but by the mid-1970s that was no longer.  It was a universal health care program and it worked.)  Make adjustments to ensure broader and cheaper coverage, especially in states that extended Medicaid or implement a government option similar to what was done in Massachusetts.
  • Invest in infrastructure.  Our roads are in sad shape.  Many of our cities have old water and sewer systems.  Our electrical grid needs a major technology upgrade. (Check out this article from the National Geographic.)  Revamp our air traffic control.  Invest in technologies which will diminish the effects of climate change.   Pay for infrastructure now while interest rates are low.  It will be a huge economic stimulus and will pay dividends for decades to come.
  • Address climate change.  The debate is over, really.  But even if some refuse to believe that it is caused by human activity, it cannot be denied that our climate is changing and that we have to address some serious issues now, such as the water supply in the Southwest or rising sea levels in Miami.
  • Immigration.  Even the business community wants it addressed.  Stop demonizing immigrants.  Acknowledge that immigrants helped to build this nation and contribute to our economy today.  Our system is broken.  Stop posturing and get it done.

Rather than try to score points against each other or against the president, our political leadership should try working for the people who elected them.



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An Advent Devotional

The following is a devotional for home use based upon the lectionary readings for this coming Advent.  If you don’t have an Advent wreath, making one is pretty simple.  You can find directions through an internet search.

The basic wreath consists of five candles.  Four are in a circle and the fifth in the center.  Traditionally candles are three purple and one rose or pink (lit on the third Sunday of Advent) and a white Christ candle in the center for Christmas Eve.  Some people do not adhere to the three purples and one rose.  Some people use red candles.  Others use all white ones.  I use all blue.   The Christ candle, though, should be white.

Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. During Advent we prepare for Christmas, God’s coming into our world in Jesus. Christmas proclaims the end of a world ruled by fear to one ruled by love. It will be a world organized not by scarcity but abundance. Our Advent preparations, then, help us to anticipate the end of one world and the beginning of another. As we read in Mark 13:31 Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Lighting candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday symbolizes the growing light, the end of darkness and the dawn of a new day. While we do this each Sunday in church as a community, doing this tradition at home will help our preparation on a personal level to usher in God’s reign of peace and justice rooted in love.

This devotion suggests a home practice based upon Bible study. Although the reflection question is based upon the focus scripture, the other scriptures can be read as well. Similarly, the prayer is suggested, but don’t hesitate to create your own. This devotion helps us to prepare.

Advent 1 – November 30
Ritual Action: Light one candle

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Focus Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9

Question for reflection: If someone told you that you would see God face to face, what would you do to prepare?

Suggested Prayer:
We await the dawn, O God, the promise of a new day. Burdened by suffering and oppression, our world groans. We yearn for this suffering to end. We cannot abide by this oppression any longer. Help us to face our own failings and sins which contribute to the ways our world has lost sight of Jesus’ teachings. Give us strength to use our whole selves to bring about your peace and your justice. Help us to keep awake and not falter. Amen.

Advent 2 – December 7
Ritual Action: Light last week’s candle and one more

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Focus Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11

Question for Reflection: When you meet God face to face, what words of comfort do you need to hear?

Suggested Prayer:
Loving and compassionate One, we need to hear comforting words. The world is too harsh. We need a new song, one that proclaims hope and love. Unstop our ears and attune us to stories of your justice. Open our eyes to see places where your peace prevails. May comforting words be upon our tongues when we speak with those whose lives are in turmoil so they might find comfort and hope. Amen

Advent 3 – December 14
Ritual Action: Light the preceding weeks’ candles and one more.  If you have a rose or pink candle, light this candle along with the preceding weeks’.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Focus Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Question for Reflection: When the time comes that you see God, how or what around you do you want to see changed and how will you make the difference?

Suggested Prayer:
O God, anger and helplessness seem to rule the day. Dawn is almost here and there is so much left to do. Comforting words seem to fall short. Give me the voice of a prophet. Give me strength and courage to speak truth to power and to bring your healing grace to my community. Amen.

Advent 4 – December 21
Ritual Action: Light the preceding weeks’ candles and one more

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Focus Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Question for Reflection: When you think of your heart as God’s dwelling place, what must you do to prepare God’s room?

Suggested Prayer:
Loving and merciful God, I open my heart to make it a dwelling place for you. Let me clear it of greed, vanity, and hubris. Let me rid it of arrogance and fear. Fill my heart with love so I might offer compassion, mercy, and grace to all who I meet wherever they might be. Grant that love will support all my ministries in your name. Amen.

Christmas Eve – December 24
Ritual Action: Light all the candles and the Christ candle

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrew 1:1-4, [5-12]
John 1:1-14

Focus Scripture: John 1:1-14

Question for Reflection: God has always been here. God is here. God will always be here. Are you ready and what will you tell the world?

Suggested Prayer
O God, you have given me gifts to bring your day of peace and justice to this world. Release my tongue that I might tell your story. Open my hands that I might proclaim your grace with labors. I will sing your praises, O God. I will sing of your mighty deeds. I will be your hands and feet to continue the work you began as Jesus so all will know your peace and your justice. Amen.

Note:  You can use this devotional without charge.  If you distribute this to others, please be sure you attribute it to me with the following:  “Used with permission by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.”

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When Yes is No

I realize I haven’t posted for months.  Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed with work.  Between serving as a chaplain in a transitional housing shelter for veterans and serving as a church pastor, time to write a post has not been on my side.  Tonight, though, I got some time as I am taking a week of study leave off from church to prepare for a weekend meeting I have at the national office of the United Church of Christ.  I also decided to skip a lecture on the common good.

Though we are voting for statewide offices in Massachusetts in a couple of weeks, the election seems pretty quiet.  As I’m an unenrolled voter I don’t get barraged with phone calls asking me to support one candidate over another.  Plus, I don’t watch any television (because I have no time) so I don’t see advertisements either.

One of the four questions on the ballot this year seeks to “prohibit the Massachusetts Gaming Commission from issuing any license for a casino or other gaming establishment with table games and slot machines, or any license for a gaming establishment with slot machines; (2) prohibit any such casino or slots gaming under any such licenses that the Commission might have issued before the proposed law took effect; and (3) prohibit wagering on the simulcasting of live greyhound races.” (from the Massachusetts Information for Voters published by the Secretary of State)  Basically, the question seeks to repeal the authorization for casinos that was passed several years ago in Massachusetts.

Voting yes is a vote against casinos.

Proponents talk about casinos as an economic stimulus in the local economy.  It will create jobs during the construction and operations.  It will keep people in Massachusetts who already travel to Connecticut to gamble from taking their money out of state.  Plus the commonwealth gains some significant revenue from the fees the casino developers will pay and the ongoing fees to keep gaming in the Commonwealth.

I say this is lazy economic development.  Casinos make money by taking money from people’s pockets.  We can call it gaming, but it’s really gambling.  Gambling’s basic premise is the winner wins because s/he causes everyone to lose.  Or expressed economically, the collective amount of money everyone brings to the poker table goes to one person, which means everyone but one person leaves the table without money.  Note that the overall wealth at the table did not increase.  This is hardly consistent with the premise that a healthy community relies upon the common good.

Good economic development tries to put money into people’s pockets.  Classically, it requires money from outside of the community entering the local economy and through the multiplier effect (meaning the external dollar gets re-spent multiple times) it generates income in the local economy thus increasing the community’s wealth.  An example is the recent announcement that the new transit cars for the Boston’s mass transit system will be built in Springfield.  The company will hire workers who will spend money in the local economy at restaurants and stores.  As those businesses improve, their employees will receive more money, who in turn will spend it locally.  Thus the re-spending of that dollar multiple times.

Alternatively, economic development tries to leverage local assets to increase overall wealth in the community.  I keep thinking about local churches leveraging some of their endowments to free up capital in their communities and thereby opening opportunities to provide credit to people typically shut out of traditional credit markets.  (But that’s another post for another day)

While casinos will bring external dollars into the local community during construction, it won’t be the case once they open.  Furthermore, by claiming that Massachusetts residents will no longer have to go to Connecticut to gamble, it undermines the rationale as an economic driver.  All casinos will do is redistribute existing money.  Like the poker table, they won’t increase wealth.

Furthermore, casino proponents conveniently overlook the economic failure of Atlantic City, the first community outside of Nevada to legalize casino gambling in the United States.  It never delivered on its promises for an economic revitalization of that city.  Today as the casino market has been saturated on the East coast, four of twelve casinos in that city closed this year.

Here’s another hitch.  The New York Times published an article on Foxwoods back in 2012.  A lot of the article was about its poor financial health.  One point really stuck out for me, though.  Referring to the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in October 2011, the author wrote the following:

“Millions of younger Americans who like to gamble are playing online poker, hosted on offshore sites. They may never become casino habitués. So at the same time that brick-and-mortar casinos are proliferating, the demographics may be working against the industry. The A.G.A. is lobbying for legalization of online poker in the United States and for strict regulation of it — a rare case of an industry’s seeking regulation. The strategy would likely put those who already own casinos in a favored position in the new online world. ” (Michael Sokolove.  Foxwoods Casino is Fighting for Its Life. March 14, 2012. )

I remember in seminary I had to write a paper on a contemporary issue through the lens of the first nine chapters of Proverbs.  I chose casino gambling and equated it to the harlot who beckons:

“I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you! I have decked my couch with coverings, colored spreads of Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took a bag of money with him; he will not come home until full moon.” (Proverbs 7:14-20)

I cited economic research which noted how casinos changed local economies such that the mix of businesses did not support the local community but the casinos and that visitors to the casinos drove past local businesses directly to the casinos.  Casino patrons didn’t support local restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues because they ate, shopped, and found entertainment exclusively in the casino.

I don’t see much value in casino gambling in Massachusetts.  It has yet to prove itself an economic engine outside of Nevada.  It is a false promise best summarized by the conclusion of Proverbs 7:

“With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. Right away he follows her, and goes like an ox to the slaughter, or bounds like a stag toward the trap until an arrow pierces its entrails. He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life. And now, my children, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths. for many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.” (7:21-27)

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Antidote for Our Struggles

Rep. Mo Brooks (R- AL) made recent comments by on the Laura Ingraham show in which he said the Democratic Party has been waging a war on whites. First, the Democrats are not waging a war on whites as many of them are white. Though many in the GOP would argue against it, the GOP has not shown itself to be sympathetic to people of color. Charles Blow noted that in The New York Times.

I note that the public face of the party is not racist, but it’s a reaction to its perceived loss of white privilege. The most obvious example is the party’s vehement opposition to anything Obama.

I addressed this in my sermon this past Sunday.

8th Sunday after the Pentecost
Dalton, MA
August 3, 2014

Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21

Jacob was returning home as a prosperous man. His herds were large. The image I get from reading the description of this journey is a grand procession of people: four women, twelve children, and servants, plus and lots of animals: goats, sheep, camel, cows, and donkeys. But Jacob feared Esau, from whom he fled many years before. Before nightfall he sent his brother a substantial peace offering: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. Still he worried.

Who did Jacob wrestle through the night? Many commentators say it was God. Others say it was an angel. Still others say that this wrestling match was Jacob wrestling with his conscience – trying to figure out who he was after his long absence or struggling with the relationship he would have with his brother. Though they fought to a draw the outcome for Jacob was clear, he had a new identity, symbolized by the name change. He also was struck in the hip which caused him to limp.

He was fearful. In his youth he took advantage of his brother. Yet, when he met Esau, there was no animosity, but generosity. Esau ran to him, embraced him, kissed him. They wept. They reconciled. Esau turned aside Jacob’s offering. But “Jacob said, ‘No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.’” (Gen. 33:10-11) Esau accepted.

Generosity healed the divide between the brothers. Jacob had the means to bring about this reconciliation.

We can read different meanings into this story. As I think about the humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border where tens of thousands of unaccompanied children wait, Jacob’s wrestling match is a metaphor for us in America today. We’re struggling between compassion and a hardness of heart. But this dispute is not really about the children as much as it is about immigration itself, which itself is a stand-in for our national identity.

This nation has had its ups and downs with immigration over the decades. As a Chinese-American, immigration is very personal to me. Chinese-Americans, who are older than 50, probably had relatives or knew family friends who entered this country illegally. They skirted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which purposefully barred Chinese immigration with narrow exceptions. Addressing that, however, is a sermon for another day. Overall, this nation has been generous in its acceptance of immigrants over many decades.

The hardness of heart which we have recently seen is a response to the shifts in American culture. Though English is our national language, we see or hear Spanish snippets almost every day. Supermarket shelves stock items which only a decade ago were found in ethnic food stores. We used to be able to pronounce the names of people in our community, but now we struggle to sound out names from India and Pakistan and Thailand and Ghana and the Middle East.   Merchants are no longer exclusively white men. Our president is black.

The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann described our situation in the United States as a type of exile. He wrote, “exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed. Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral, and cultural.”[1] He went on to describe exile’s cultural dimension. “The ‘homeland’ in which all of us have grown up has been defined and dominated by white, male, Western assumptions which were, at the same time, imposed and also willingly embraced. Exile comes as those values and modes of authority are being effectively and progressively diminished. That diminishment is a source of deep displacement for many, even though for others who are not male and white, it is a moment of emancipation. The deepness of the displacement is indicated, I imagine, by the reactive assault on so-called political correctness, by ugly rumor, and by demonizing new modes of power.”[2]

Like Jacob wrestling with his past and his future, we’re struggling over who we are as a nation as our cultural markers shift and vanish. Our past is gone and we don’t know what we will become. It’s not that people who oppose letting the children into this country are not compassionate, but wouldn’t bringing in people who do not share the same culture, even if they are children, cause further displacement? I’ll also add that many people struggle economically because the economic pie is small enough already. Many will say there’s just not enough for new immigrants, too.

But we’re overlooking generosity. Jacob’s gift was generous and was a clear sign to Esau of his intentions and need for reconciliation. While we see the diminishment of traditional culture, we should not ignore our national character. Our generosity rebuilt Europe. Our generosity gave college educations to thousands of soldiers after World War II. Our generosity has been an impetus for letting immigrants settle this nation. We have been a generous people. We are a generous nation. But we seem to have forgotten that.

We don’t send people away even when we have five loaves and two fish. Feeding all those people must have seemed daunting to the disciples at the end of a long day. “You give them something to eat,” said Jesus.

Though this was a miracle, let’s not bog ourselves down by trying to explain how it happened or believing that this was a one-time event. Let’s focus on the meaning of this story and its implications for us today.

We hear echoes of communion. Jesus blessed and broke the loaves. He gave it to them and they ate. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray those words every week. The implicit message is the celestial banquet can happen here on earth. Furthermore, first century ethical practices in Palestine meant that people who ate together had to care for each other. Thus, 5000 men, plus women and children, left that meal with an obligation to care for each other whether family or friend or stranger. It reminds us that we have an obligation to ensure the common good, which extends to people who cross our borders. True community is the collective responsibility for everyone. Shalom cannot be achieved when we let unaccompanied children wait in limbo in shelters at our border.

God created this world with an abundance. We proclaim that whenever we come to the table. We should never forget that. The table reminds us that in God’s world scarcity does not exist and no one knows deprivation. The scarcity we experience now is our doing. It is our responsibility to do what we can to ensure that everyone has a place at the table. We don’t send people away from the table. We don’t send them away from our borders.

We’re going to continue to struggle if we refuse to have faith in the gospel. Years ago Walter Brueggemann spoke at Smith College in Northampton. He talked about our contemporary exile and said that we will find the remedy in the thick narrative of scripture. He would argue that we must go deeper, below the stories. Stop wondering about the miracle and instead incorporate scripture’s underlying wisdom into our lives. Responding to our exile today, Brueggemann wrote, “for persons who refuse assimilation, and eschew despair, is to respond with fresh, imaginative theological work, recovering the old theological traditions and recasting them in terms appropriate to the new situation of faith in an alien culture.”[3]

Immigration has been an important part of the American story and American culture for close to two hundred years. We are a mighty nation because immigrants, including many of our own family members, contributed their treasure, talents, and sweat. Our struggle over immigration may not give us a new identity, as much as we might reclaim our former identity as a generous nation willing to share what we have so that all will have daily bread.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. Cadences of Home Preaching Among Exiles. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY 1997. Page 2

[2] Ibid. Page 2

[3] Ibid. Page 116

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