Prophets and Pedestrians
If you have followed me on Facebook, you will know that over the past 10 days, I, together with our daughter Hannah, participated in two public actions in opposition to our government’s unjust immigration policy.
The first happened on the morning of Tuesday, June 26. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was awaited in Los Angeles to speak at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation's Annual Luncheon Meeting at Millennium Biltmore Hotel, with a stop at the Federal Court building. Faith leaders and others gathered in front of the Federal Court building to first speak their opposition to the zero tolerance policy and separation of children from parents at the border. And then we spoke our opposition with our feet, walking into and blocking Spring Street. About 25 protestors locked arms and eventually sat down on the street declaring their intention to disobey the LAPD order to disperse. As those of us who weren’t being arrested walked onto the public sidewalk, we watched and chanted and sang as one by one the protesters engaging in civil disobedience were lifted off the ground, handcuffed and led step by step out of the streets by police. The first person to be arrested that day was a female Methodist pastor. The Attorney General of our nation calls himself a Methodist.
The second anti-immigration action took place last Monday this time outside the Federal Metropolitan Detention Center on Los Angeles by the 101. Those of us who know the history of Los Angeles see the wicked irony of where the Immigrant Detention Center is placed, sandwiched between Little Tokyo and Bunker Hill, Little Tokyo is the area settled by Japanese immigrants who fled the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, then emptied by Executive Order 9066 in 1942 that ordered the “exclusion” i.e. internment of Japanese residents. Bunker Hill, originally the most exclusive address for wealthy Angelinos when founded in the late 19th century, by 1930 became the first stop of immigrants from all over—Europe, Mexico, Asian--and the poor arriving in LA in search of a better life. In front of one of the driveways to the Detention Center, we demonstrated our opposition to immigration policy, especially the holding of children apart from the parents, believing that some youth are being held in the detention facility. This time, a group of perhaps 20 protestors—clergy, a Catholic LA City Council member, and regular citizens—sat down and blocked the entrance of the Detention Center. Until LAPD declared the gathering an unlawful assembly, and called for protestors to disburse, and then again, one-by-one leading protestors in plastic handcuffs away.
Why do this? These actions are surely not going to change AG Jeff Session’s mind or hardened heart when it comes to migrants. Why do I, a Lutheran pastor, participate in and support others in these actions? The answer lies, in large part, in our readings today.
Our first reading is from the prophet Ezekiel—where he describes how it is that he became a prophet of God. It has some wonderful language in it, and it deserves taking a look at again:
And when God spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” 5 Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
There are three phrases I want to lift up: the first is how Ezekiel describes God giving him the charge of being a prophet, a spirit entered into Ezekiel and “set him on his feet.” Ezekiel must have been resting, reclining, enjoying his life when God said, I have something for you to do. Get off your mat or your recliner, get up on your feet, for I have somewhere for you to go, I have somewhere to send you.
Where is God sending Ezekiel? “to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against God—they have rebelled against God’s teaching, God’s vision for humanity and creation.
And finally, God says whether or not Ezekiel changes any hearts and minds or not—it doesn’t matter. At the very least, people will know that a prophet is among them, God is there, speaking, acting. (It doesn’t matter whether or not the Attorney General’s heart and mind was changed by that action or not—the people, the nation, the immigrants, the children know at least when they saw the pictures in the evening news that God was there, God is there in the midst of the struggle.)
So what is a prophet? A prophet is someone whom God calls to bring God into the lives of others, into whole communities of people. Through an active mouth and active feet. There is no such thing as an armchair prophet. The prophet speaks and walks God’s vision, speaks and walks God’s truth especially in places that don’t want to hear it….in places of immorality, in places of injustice. But here is the question (what I call the Leon Alexander question): How can we know for certain what God’s vision is? How do we know God’s truth? There are obviously contradictory Christian views on all sorts of social issues: LGBTQ-rights, abortion, more recently immigration. How do we know that we are prophets of God’s true vision? Good question. We cannot be absolutely certain we get everything right—but armed with humility, confession, and incisive study we can discern much of God’s vision for humanity from the records we have of God’s relationship with God people.
If we want to know God’s vision for humanity, we must do two things: we have to study the Word of God—we have to study the Bible. And we need to embody the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when we study the Bible, it is useful to study it through a Lutheran lens. And that Lutheran lens is the lens of the Gospel, the lens of the mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ. What do I mean by that? This is the Lutheran way of interpreting: we privilege the values and statements of Jesus over other parts of the Bible. So that when contradictions or ambiguity or lack of clarity are found in scripture---and there are many contradictions and conflicting stories and ambiguities—we consider Jesus’ view on things first. Martin Luther said: “Scripture interprets Scripture.” This rule means that the clear passages of Scripture, namely those which teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be used to interpret and evaluate those portions of Scripture where this truth is obscure. In short: Gospel always trumps law. Mercy always trumps judgement.
Take the issue of LGBTQ rights—it is the case that Old Testament laws declare homosexual sex an abomination. And that Paul in his letters also rejects same sex relations. But, and this is a critical but, Jesus says not one word about LGBTQ issues. Jesus teaches about faithfulness and marriage, but never speaks of same sex issues--and he certainly could have. But doesn’t. If he had, we would be in trouble. But the fact he doesn’t gives us a lens of mercy and grace through which to look at other parts of scripture and reject their prohibitions as inconsistent with the Gospel. Because of Jesus’ mercy and love for all the marginalized figures of his day, when we see rules about sexuality or gender, we read them as human laws slipped into scripture under the guise of God’s law.
The Lutheran way of reading scripture is generally supportive of what we might identify as progressive Christian values. But it is more difficult with the issue of abortion. It is much harder to make a Biblical argument for pro-choice positions. Jesus in several instances affirms the value and rights of children: “Let the children come unto me!” He gives children status and dignity. The best Biblical, prochoice argument you can make—if you want to make one--is the recognition that for many women, especially women in poverty who lack access to health care and education and are more frequently victims of sexual violence, for them unwanted pregnancies can condemn them to life-long entrapment in poverty and oppression. But the Gospel, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, brings good news to the poor and lets the captives go free.
What about immigration? What does God say about immigration? A curious thing happened 2 weeks ago. Attorney General Sessions used Paul’s letter to the Roman’s Chapter 13 to defend the administration’s immigration policy of “zero tolerance” and it’s enforcement. Romans 13 begins: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” There was a gasp of shock and tremendous outcry from theologians and pastoral leaders on all sides. Romans 13 is a problematic passage that has been used regularly throughout history to defend unjust laws and authoritarian rule. In our own nation Romans 13 was used to defend British rule over independence-seeking American colonists. It was used to defend slavery in the face of the Emancipation movement and civil war. It was used by totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany to shut down Christian opposition. So religious leaders are very careful, and very reluctant to base a religious argument on this passage.
What does the Bible tell us about immigration? More than 30 times God tells us in the Old Testament to “Welcome the stranger.” God’s command is not only based on God’s core mercy, but on the history of God’s people. “Remember,” God says, “Remember you too were once strangers in a strange land” when you lived in Egypt. And in the New Testament we have the famous parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 that charges us with welcoming the stranger. As does the letter Hebrews that reminds us to welcome the stranger for some have thereby entertained angels.
So why do I participate in public protest in regard to immigration law and other issues of justice? Because like Ezekiel I feel God setting me on my feet and sending me. But it isn’t just clergy that are called on to be prophets. It isn’t just pastors’ kids that God sets on their feet. Jesus makes clear in our Gospel reading today that every disciple of Jesus is outfitted with the holy spirit and called to stand up and speak out and bring God to the people. Bring God’s teaching, bring God’s love, bring God’s mercy, bring God’s justice to the people.