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Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12
Gracious God, Maker of the Heavens and the Earth,
Creator of all creatures,
Bless our hearts and our minds,
Conform us to your love—Amen
If you ever want to have an interesting conversation, sit down beside someone and say, “So, tell me about yourself.”
That person may tell you their height, weight, and chemical makeup, but it’s much more likely, that they will tell you a story. Where and when they were born, where they grew up, who their parents and grandparents were. Stories are how we understand ourselves. It’s how we make sense of who we are. In a very real way, we become the stories that we tell.
Stories are one of the few truly universal characteristics of human cultures. There is no culture that does not tell stories.
Narrative theorists, who compare stories from around the world, have said that there are three things true of every story. According to the experts, every story is
like all other stories
like some other story
like no other story
put more plainly, all stories follow a basic, identifiable structure. Every story bears some resemblance to some other story we’ve heard, but ultimately, every story is wholly unique.
In our reading today from Matthew, Jesus tells us the story of who we are called to be as Christians. The story of God’s love for humanity.
Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill, which cannot be hid. Jesus reminds us of the ancient stories out of which our faith grew, from the Law given to Moses, and from the Prophetic tradition of ancient Israel.
Christianity is a collection of stories.
The story of a people who God delivered out of bondage from Egypt.
The story of a people who were commanded to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God.
The story of Jesus, who lived and died, so that all could know God’s love.
These stories tell us who we are, and who God is.
This is the story that Christians have transmitted from generation to generation, for over 2,000 years. A story they carried with them. It is the story that we tell to this day.
Like Christians, and like all people, we as Americans tell stories about who we are. Our American stories shape how we understand our history, and who we think of as part of “We the People.” We know the stories of Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali, Susan B. Anthony, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and countless other American heroes. But many of our American stories are in fact, stories of immigrants. From our beginning as a nation, we have been made up of immigrants.
The Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor, welcoming immigrants arriving on the shores of America. On the base is inscribed:
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The Statue of Liberty is herself an immigrant, making the voyage from France in 1885,
she is a symbol of the great waves of immigration that created the America we know today.
That’s how the story goes, at least, that’s how I learned it. And that’s why when my father took me to see the Statue of Liberty, when I was just a wee lad, I knew that I was standing beneath something truly good. Something that I could believe in. A story worth telling.
Immigrants came to this country with different languages, different foods, different religions. They brought unique stories of who they were, and for this, they were hated by many nativists. The Irish were hated for their love of whiskey and beer, for their “craic,” an Irish word that refers to “having a good time.” Most importantly, the Irish were hated for their religion: Catholicism.
But despite the fact that immigrant life was difficult, and that the ugly truth was often swept under the rug, the narrative of the hard-working immigrant, who came to America and made a life for himself caught on. The story of Irish, German, Polish, Italian, and other immigrants, became woven into the story we tell when someone says, “So, tell me about America.” But these inspiring tales of determined immigrants are not the only American stories. There are many other stories in our nation’s history, too.
Some of which are often forgotten.
We can get so swept up in this story of “making it” in “The New World” that we forget the stories of the people who lived in this land for thousands of years, before any Europeans ever set foot here. We forget about the brutal, genocidal tactics carried out against native peoples. We may not want to hear that story, but it’s a story we need to remember.
Or we forget the story of those who made the dreaded Middle Passage, not as immigrants, but as slaves. The millions of Africans, taken from their home lands, packed into crowded ships, and brought to America to be sold like agricultural equipment. That may not be a story we want to listen to, but it is a story that we must never forget.
Or we ignore the stories of countless Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and others, who have made perilous journeys across the Southwest deserts, often taking great risks, all with the hopes of securing a better life. Some don’t consider these stories American enough, but they ring true in my ears.
These larger stories are made up of countless individual stories, perhaps less widely known, but no less important. For example, the story of a barber named Friedrich Trump and his wife, Elizabeth Christ, who fled Kallstadt, Germany for America in 1885, the same year as the Statue of Liberty. Last weekend, while refugees from the Middle East were in the air, dreaming of the possibilities of their new lives, mourning the loss of their homelands, our nation’s president, the grandson of those German immigrants, signed an executive action refusing to accept the huddled masses of refugees fleeing violence in their own homelands. Sadly, this too, will be a story we will have to tell, no matter how shameful.
More than anything, immigrant stories are stories about people adjusting to new and unfamiliar circumstances. Finding their way across difficult terrain. Figuring out exactly where they fit, in the tapestry of humanity.
Adjustment is what allows us, like any other species, to adapt to new surroundings. It’s what drives evolution, and it’s how we survive. The stories of immigrants are stories of adjustment—evolution—survival.
Learning new languages, figuring out how to cook with unfamiliar ingredients, deciphering confusing government documents. These are all skills that we would consider the marks of someone who is well-adjusted. Someone who is brave and strong. Someone who is unable to adapt to a new setting might be called maladjusted. Someone who cannot accept the shifting demographics of our nation, or the changing ecological reality of our planet, for example, might be called maladjusted. To be maladjusted is typically not a good thing, it can be a sign of denial, or fear. But maladjustment can also be positive.
After all, if everyone was perfectly adjusted then everyone would become a cheap replica of their neighbor.
In the city of Chicago, my adopted home, there is proof of maladjustment everywhere. German breweries, Swedish bakeries, authentic Mexican food, these are all forms of maladjustment. People refusing to become completely assimilated to their surroundings. People who wouldn’t stop telling their story. It’s what makes Chicago such a fantastic, vibrant city.
Part of carrying on a tradition is refusing to let go of it, refusing to simply adjust. Maladjustment is reflective of our humanity, it is the courage to stand up and say, I exist, I am beloved, and I will not sacrifice who I am to fit more neatly into your story.
In some ways, maladjustment is what we are called to do as Christians. We carry on a tradition that follows Jesus Christ, a man who was radically maladjusted to the Roman Imperial culture that dominated first century Palestine.
Let us not forget the story:
He was a poor Jewish child born to an unwed mother,
He was not welcomed into the world with open arms,
He lived at the margins of society, eating with tax collectors and sinners.
He had to flee political upheaval, to become a refugee.
The land that Jesus found himself in was rife with injustice,
but, Jesus did not allow himself to become well-adjusted to this injustice and for this, he was crucified. An agitator. An enemy of the state. A punk. A failure.
In our reading from Matthew this morning, Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, and that if salt loses its saltiness, it is good for nothing.
Church buildings have changed, our hymnals have changed, who we welcome into our community has changed. These are necessary adjustments, but through all these things, we must not lose sight of what we are called to do:
To carry on the story of good news that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
That is the salt that we are called to be, and to adjust ourselves to some things would be to relinquish our saltiness. To become useless.
Like immigrants, we Christians find ourselves in a strange new land.
A land in which our Muslim brothers and sisters are demonized
A land in which our Spanish-speaking neighbors are called simply, “illegals”
A land in which the dehumanization and shaming of women is given the Presidential Seal of Approval
And so, Christians must make a decision. Do we wish to blend into this new landscape? Do we want to become just another family on this block?
Or do we want to remain maladjusted?
It would seem to me that if we are to continue to exist as Christians,
If we take the prophetic calls for justice in our scriptures seriously,
then there are some traditions we cannot afford to let go of.
We cannot fully adjust ourselves to this new homeland without forgetting our story.
Like immigrants, who stubbornly hold on to their traditions, keeping family histories, and recipes, alive for future generations, we must continue to tell our story, because who we are matters. The story we tell the world, matters. The Gospel matters. It is only by appreciating our own story that we can fully appreciate the stories of those whose are different than ours, whether they are told in Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, or Arabic.
Dr. Cornel West has said that, “prophetic religion is a praxis of maladjustment to greed, fear, and bigotry.”
We must be maladjusted to calloused indifference towards human suffering and ecological devestation.
We must be maladjusted to hatred in all its forms. Racism, classism, Islamophobia, transphobia, and just about every other –ism and –phobia you can think of. We must be maladjusted to the idea that these things are not our problem.
If we are to continue to tell the Christian story, we must be prophetically maladjusted to be prophetically maladjusted is to hold out hope that peace is possible in an increasingly diverse world. To be prophetically maladjusted is to continue to assert that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. To be prophetically maladjusted is to insist on seeing the image of God in all of humanity.
In other words: to keep telling the story.
Just like immigrants, who are hated and reviled by so many for their unwillingness to conform to American culture, we must know that if we refuse to adjust ourselves to greed, fear, and bigotry,
If we are unwilling to learn that language, and tell that story, then we too may face hatred, and persecution. But, despite the hatred immigrants have made this country the melting pot that it is.
Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Agnostics, and everyone in between, has contributed some specific flavor to this pot, and it would not be the same without any of them. Humanity is not whole without them. We are not human—without them.
We are called to be the salt of the earth. We need to stay salty. But sometimes that means speaking up to let people know that there is room in this pot, and we welcome the cinnamon, the ginger, the cardamom, the vanilla, and the sugar too. Because though our stories are different, and though we may pray in different languages, and call God by different names, we are all telling the story of humanity on this planet, and we cannot do that alone.
Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.