Tuesday, November 7, 2017

We Are Powerful People

We are powerful people.

But sometimes, we forget.  And sometimes, the rulers of this world would like us to believe otherwise.  It isn’t true.  Don’t believe them for a minute.  We are powerful people.

Many of you have been personally affected by the terrible wild fires that swept through this part of the country last month, leaving 42 people dead and others still missing.   More than 8,000 buildings were engulfed in flames covering some 250 square miles, displacing thousands of people.  Santa Rosa alone lost 3,000 homes. 

In the face of such catastrophe, it would be easy to feel powerless, but within two days of the fires food and clothing distribution centers already were overwhelmed – not by the need of the victims – but by the generosity of donors.  Neighbors quickly opened their doors to neighbors, some of whom they will be housing for many months.  The crisis is far from over, and the work of reconstruction has only begun, but there is hope because of people like you.

One of the silver linings of this terrible experience has been the discovery that we can make a difference in our world.  Our action – and inaction – has real consequences.  When we allow ourselves to see and experience the pain of others, when we hear their cry, we want to help.  When we recognize our common humanity, we can claim our power to alleviate suffering and promote healing and restorative justice.  

One of the many moving stories related to the fires was about the 3,800 forest fire fighters who are California prison inmates.  Prisoners convicted of low level felonies with good behavior can volunteer to serve in this capacity, developing useful skills, earning $2 per hour and reducing their sentence by two days for each day of service to the community.  They literally underwent a baptism by fire that will lead to new life for them and others.  No matter our circumstances, every one of us has the capacity to be of service to others.

We are powerful people.

Now it was hard to miss the fires.  Even in San Francisco, we were choking on the fumes.  We couldn’t act like everything was OK, that it wasn’t our problem, that life should just go on as if nothing bad were happening.  We are too close to the pain to pretend it isn’t there.  It was our pain too.

And yet, and yet, seeing and experiencing the pain of others is a choice.  We can and do choose to ignore suffering.  We can even benefit from the pain of others, and so mask their suffering to preserve our privilege.  The prophet Micah wails against the leaders of Judah and the false prophets who cry, “Peace!” and say, “Surely the Lord is with us!  No harm shall come upon us,” willfully denying their complicity in the violent exploitation of the poor. 

Micah defends subsistence farmers struggling to keep their ancestral inheritance against the greedy expropriation of their land by Judean elites.   There was a homeless crisis in Judea, exacerbated by rapacious landlords evicting tenants without any regard for their pain, supported by corrupt judges eager to accept bribes and false prophets preaching a gospel of prosperity. 

In this conflict between the all too real pain of the poor, and the denial of their pain on the part of the privileged, Micah finds his voice, shouting, “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.” 

Don’t believe those false prophets!  We are powerful people!  When others deny the reality of injustice, we can make the pain visible!  We have the power to de-legitimate social structures that oppress God’s children.  But we must choose to see.  We must be willing to experience the pain that others willfully dismiss.

Some pain is hard to see.  It isn’t like a roaring forest fire.  It smolders in the shadowy spaces of society, kept out of sight and out of mind in hospitals, jails, trailer parks, tent cities, and detention centers.  We must look for the pain to be in touch with it.  We must exercise our power to uncover it, to bring it into the light of day so that it can be seen, challenged, and healed. 

The detention and deportation machine that is crushing the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants, tearing parents away from their children, and forcing people to live in fear is one of the hidden structures of evil in our society.  It is the source of great pain, but it is far removed from most of us.  We don’t see Immigration and Customs Enforcement police raiding our schools, homes, and businesses.  

We don’t see people like Floricel Ramos, a single mother and farm worker, who was picked up by ICE in Lodi.  She is now being held in detention.  Last week, she had a hearing before an Immigration Court in San Francisco.  Floricel's hearing, which was scheduled for 9am, did not come before the judge until 11:55 am.  The judge summarily declared that five minutes was not enough time before the noon recess for the government to make its case. Therefore, the judge said, she would postpone the hearing for 15 more days.

Floricel’s daughter, Jennifer, wept, desperate for her mother. At 17, Jennifer is a parent to her younger siblings, Michael, 13, and Daisy, 10. She coordinates school drop-offs and pick-ups and takes Daisy, who has autism, to her speech therapy sessions. She takes them to mass, helps them with their homework, and takes them to the park on the weekend after she finishes her shift at a local taco truck. Because her father was deported five years ago, she is also a surrogate partner to her mother in detention, reassuring her on their daily phone calls that the children are well. Jennifer is also a normal high school student who spends her evenings studying for her medical assistant class.

Floricel and her children are not alone.  Members of Faith in Action, a faith based community organizing group promoting dignity and justice, including folks from St. James and other Episcopal congregations, packed the courtroom, offering prayers, and chanting, Liberen a Floricel! Free Floricel.  We are now raising money to make bond and reunite this beautiful family.  Last weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of California’s Convention voted to declare ourselves a Sanctuary Diocese.   We see their pain, and the pain of the 11 million undocumented sisters and brothers in our land, and we will not be silent.   We will accompany them in their pain, advocate for justice, protect their children and claim our citizenship in a kingdom without borders because we are powerful people. 

Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism for those who, secure in their privilege, place great burdens on the poor who live on the margins of society, while making no attempt to relieve their pain.   Jesus instructs us to have no regard for their privilege, to afford them no special, much less, superior deference or honor because greatness is reserved for those who live lives of humble service:  people like Floricel and Jennifer Ramos.  Rather, Jesus invites us to join him in a discipleship of equals, in which all are sisters and brothers, bound together in mutual service, living close to the pain in our communities, and claiming our power to promote dignity and justice. 

We are powerful people, because we serve a powerful God. God comes to us in Jesus, the pain-bearer, the life-giver, to reignite our imagination and creativity, our collective power to resist evil and become the midwives of a new world that God is birthing, a world in which God’s reign becomes our reality.  This power takes the form of love. It is ours!  We were made for it! Claim it! Use it!  Share it!  Give it away! 

We can make a difference in our world.  We are powerful people and God is counting on us!  Thanks be to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine!  Amen.

No comments: