What’s goin’ on? Those of you who were here last Sunday will recognize the question as one posed by Rev. Katherine in her brilliant sermon. She extended the discussion Fr. Justin started on Martin Luther King Day and showed us that, like Dr. King, Marvin Gaye expressed the hopes and fears of a generation and he did it with music you could dance to. Through a very turbulent time in American history, Dr. King inspired us through his oratory and his courageous leadership; Marvin inspired us through song.
I want to extend this theme by lifting up someone who was an inspiration in another time, Harriet Tubman. Her name is nearly synonymous with the Underground Railroad, that network of secret routes, safe houses and abolitionists used by slaves to escape into free states and Canada. She inspired others by her bravery and her actions.
Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman. Harriet was born into slavery in the state of Maryland in the early 19th century. She was a religious woman but rejected the teachings of the New Testament that urged slaves to be obedient. Instead, she found guidance in the Old Testament tales of deliverance.
When she was about 24, Harriet escaped to Canada. But she could not forget the others she left behind. Instead of living in the safety and freedom of a new country, she worked with the Quakers and made at least 19 trips back to Maryland between 1851 and 1861, freeing over 300 people by leading them into Canada.
Guided by God through omens, dreams, warnings, she claimed her struggle against slavery had been commanded by God. When the Civil War began, she joined the Union Army and served as cook and nurse, caring for soldiers on both sides. She served as a spy and scout. She led 300 black troops in a raid that freed over 750 slaves, making her the first American woman to lead troops into military action.
Can you imagine the courage it took for this woman to stand up to slavery in this particular way? Nineteen times, she walked people from Maryland to Canada in the face of danger and potential arrest, bounty hunters and hunting dogs.
Perhaps today’s passage from the Prophet Isaiah is one that spoke to Harriet. The setting for the passage is a time of transition, when the exiles returned to the Holy Land from the Babylon, out of captivity into freedom. One would expect that this new freedom would be a time of great joy. But, it’s not. Fasting and prayer are not working, the people have complained. God’s answer is clear; God wants the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor inside, and to cover the naked.
In other words, it is not enough for a small group to be safe and free, well-fed and adequately housed. We must take care of each other.
So, I’ll ask again, what’s goin’ on? Our own civic life is in transition of a different sort than what Isaiah addressed. Some might call it turbulent. The divisions in the country that were exposed during the election season remain and probably will continue for some time. Not for the first time, the world we live in is broken. Perhaps what gets expressed most is anger –towards other people, towards a system, towards some external threat – and fear.
Just this past week, after the executive order on refugees was issued, I had discussion about fear that made me reflect on the subject. When a friend asked me whether I am afraid of something bad happening to me, I said no, I’m not afraid of a knock on my door by the police or the FBI; I’m not afraid that I will be kicked off an airline flight because of what I look like or the language I speak; I’m not afraid that I won’t be allowed to return to the US if I leave the country. I’m not afraid that anyone is coming for me.
She looked at me like I was missing something and said: “Pam, you’re a white Christian, you’re DAR material. You’re part of the most protected class.”
I hadn’t really thought of that.
Don’t get me wrong. I have as many fears as anyone else, just not the ones that were aired in response to the refugee order. But what about other people’s fears?
Fear is a survival mechanism that is built into the human species. In the early days of humanity, the human body’s fight or flight response protected us from the dangers in our environment. Is that noise in the bushes the sound of a friend approaching or is it a tiger getting ready to pounce?
In our more civilized world, fear remains. In fact, polls have shown that a majority of Americans worry about being victims of crime and terrorism. Even though crime rates are down, every new mass shooting and terrorist attack, whether at home or abroad, increases a sense of disorder and danger.
The pace of social change in America has also caused fear. How many times over the past two years did we hear that people were concerned that their way of life is threatened? The post-election political climate has generated more fear. Fear of separation from family, fear of being labeled a terrorist because of one’s religion or country of origin. Fear of deportation.
I understand the fears about crime and terrorism. But we are not made safer by scapegoating people, creating solutions that are off the mark. We just create new fears. As one of the “most protected” groups and especially as a follower of Jesus, it is incumbent on me to stand up to fear. Like Harriet Tubman, I must have the courage to act on behalf of others.
This, I think, is one of the key messages of today’s gospel reading. For the past three Sundays, we have been following the travels of Jesus through Galilee, where he calls his first disciples from the working people of the area. Last week we heard the Beatitudes in which Jesus lifts up people who are broken or vulnerable, the poor, the meek, as well as the merciful, the peacemakers.
Today we hear Jesus taking directly to his followers. He calls them the salt of the earth, the light of the world. He doesn’t ask them to aspire to be these things. He tells them that this is what they are: essential to life. Salt and light. There’s no use denying it or trying to hide or get away. But be aware, salt can be wasted and putting a lamp under a bushel makes it useless.
Jesus knew that, with religious, political and community leaders lining up against him, his followers could expect opposition. He encouraged his followers not to hide who they are but to live out their commitment to him openly. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.
As most of you saw in Fr. Justin’s Tuesday email, later today, we will have the opportunity to discuss how All Saints might support refugees and immigrants. Should we join a grassroots coalition to encourage San Leandro to become a “sanctuary city?” Should we hang a banner outside the church that says, “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome Here?” Are these ways in which we will shine our light? Is this one way to stand up to fear? It is an important discussion to have, recognizing that there may not be unanimity of opinion. But the Holy Spirit will guide us, as always, as we seek Christ in all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
© Rev. Deacon Pam J. Jester