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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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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One Response to Antidote for Our Struggles

  1. Thank you Quentin. I am always inspired by your wisdom, compassion and insights.

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