Homily for Proper 25, Year A preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (virtual worship in a time of pandemic)
It was a sweltering hot July Sunday in Texas when I boarded the bus with other Episcopalians to pray and proclaim our public witness at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center. This caravan of attendees of the 2018 General Convention in Austin was an amalgamation of delegates, bishops, clergy and lay people representing multiple dioceses, provinces and affiliations within The Episcopal Church. Sunday was the only day during the 14 day stretch of General Convention without scheduled business; since I was attending as a member of the press it meant it was the only day off I had. I debated just sleeping in. But this event of public witness had been weighing on my heart.
If you asked me before that day, I would have acknowledged my general concern regarding mass detention of immigrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. Until that point, the experience of immigrant detainees was distant, political and something I heard plenty of opinion about on social media but it was honestly not something that had been front and center in my own life. I remember being stirred when I read about the prayer vigil at Hutto and my heart felt deeply moved by the invitation. I decided, like hundreds of other people, that this would be my Sunday act of worship. We gathered to pray together outside the Austin convention center that morning, then we boarded a string of busses and headed to Hutto.
Our gathering place was a public park next to the massive, concrete edifice that was the detention center. Hutto was the destination for hundreds of immigrant women detained at the US-Mexico border, many of whom were immediately separated from their children. Numerous abuses had been reported and substantiated to have occurred there. As we drew near, the general chatter of the bus shifted to quiet, prayerful silence. That silence continued as we stepped off the bus, into the park where we were allowed by permit to gather for prayer and worship. One of the first things I watched was a priest walk with intention to the wire fence separating park and private prison grounds and drop to her knees in prayer.
Most of the group was gathering around a portable stage where some musicians began playing and singing uplifting music in Spanish, loudly enough to carry the refrain towards the several hundred women under confinement. People carried signs, and held hands, and prayed. Something prompted a smaller group of us to begin walking toward the detention center itself, along a slice of public property. There were plentiful guards watching by the invisible line in the grass separating “park” from “prison” to see if our toes were getting too close. We stopped at a place where we were informed that any further steps would be trespassing. It put us close enough to the facility to be able to see long, thin slits of windows. I paused between two trees, intuitively forming my hands in the shape of a heart, a sign I use to signal love to my own child. It was then that I saw that in that tiny slit of a window that there were women’s faces, and hands holding up signs, “Oren por nosotros” (pray for us) and “Gracias.” We began to chant, “Nosotras te vemos”; “We see you!”
In that space, a tiny place between two trees not even large enough to produce shade from the beating Texas sun, I moved from a state of intellectual awareness about the plight of these women and into a state of deep and profound love, conversing across human barriers of space, language, and freedom with my sisters in Christ. I could see with the eyes of my heart and feel with the depth of God’s own belovedness the yearning and desire of these women to be seen and known and loved. I saw a woman in that window making the same heart that mine was. Whether it was in response to me, or of her own motivation I will never know. But I did know, instantly and intuitively, that she also had made that heart to her children. I prayed with all my strength for their safety and reunification. That moment of drawing near and seeing redefined for me what it means to be siblings in Christ.
I don’t remember if I was in that space for 5 minutes or 15…but guards began to descend upon us and tell us we had to go back to the park with our group. We walked back together in silence, still praying, still loving. Changed.
When we rejoined the vigil, our presiding bishop Michael Curry was offering a message, from the same passage from Matthew that we read today. In that message, he said these words:
“We come in love. I would submit that the teaching of Jesus to love God and love our neighbor is at the core and heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And we must be people who reclaim Christianity that looks something like Jesus. And Jesus said, Love God and love your neighbor, so we come in love.”
Yes, we come in love. In this Gospel lesson, Jesus not only silences those who test him, but he aligns the great laws of his Jewish faith and life: the shema which is the first and greatest commandment: you shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is coupled with another great law: love your neighbor as yourself. What Jesus does in liken these two great commandments to each other is to bring these laws into relationship: parallel showings of divine love. When we love God with our whole selves, we experience the love of God transforming us. We come to know that we are beloved, and we radiate that love. Likewise, when we draw near to our neighbors…when we truly see them…we see God’s belovedness in them and our neighbors see and recognize that belovedness in us, too. It becomes inseparable. As Bishop Curry often says: love God; love your neighbor; love yourself.
When we begin to love God wholly, we will be moved into places where love is the most needed. I’m not convinced that in this passage Jesus is asking us to engage in some sort of intellectual exercise where we try to force ourselves to imagine loving the seemingly unlovable people in this world. Sometimes, we hold this statement of Jesus up as a sort of challenge, a sort of “who do you love on a scale of Mister Rogers to Hitler” kind of game. But, I don’t believe that is what Jesus is really saying in his choice to unite these two great laws. Jesus is saying that if we love God with our whole heart, and allow ourselves to experience that transforming love in return, then it will be just like that in our own lives: the profundity of that love will draw us into relationships of love with our neighbors. Those God-inspired relationships will also transform us to feel more deeply, to step out of our zones of comfort, to find ourselves compelled to the kind of deep, merciful caring that means we will begin to truly transform the world through love. It is God who loves us and invites us into a relationship of deep and profound love in return. Love God with all your heart and you will never be the same.
Loving God and feeling that love in return will mean that we are compelled to draw near, not to avoid. We will want to know our neighbors and siblings in Christ, not to write people off or intellectualize who is worthy or do what my social work training calls, “othering” where we put up a false wall thinking we are somehow different or better than others who differ from us. We may be compelled to stand out in the hot sun to meet strangers distantly imprisoned in a concrete slab because there will be a transformative moment when love will pierce time and space and language and find us. We may be compelled to have conversations we didn’t imagine ourselves having, with people we didn’t imagine ourselves speaking with. We may recognize that the seemingly random people we encounter in our lives, in our community, at our food pantry, or in other serendipitous encounters might not be by chance after all. People become opportunities to see and know God. Our hearts soften, and we open ourselves to see humanness and belovedness. It is in that humanizing that we will be neighbors in the realm of God. These neighbors of ours at the margins of this world are loved and beloved by God just as we are loved and beloved by God. Whether people are ravaged by the changes and chances of this world: poverty, illness, greed, hatred, indifference, malice…they are still at their core capable and worthy of love. God is the one who loves. God is the one who loves even those who are the hardest for us to love. It isn’t a contest; it is an invitation. We are invited and compelled to participate in this sharing of God’s love for us, and for others. That is what likens loving our neighbor to loving our God: both reveal to us the profound imprint of divine love.
That moment of heart-shaped love experienced beneath the sweltering Texas sun made a permanent imprint on my soul. I believe with all my heart that is how God intends for it to be. That love continues to compel me to act, to proclaim, to stand up for justice, to write, to share this story, to love more deeply and courageously.
I can’t tell you exactly how God will compel you when you open yourself to love, but I can tell you one thing: it will happen. And I can promise you: love will transform you.
Thanks be to God!
Note: to read my reflections from General Convention’s Center Aisle Blog at the time of my participation in this prayer vigil and public witness, refer to We See You.