The words we heard read from the prophet Isaiah have a personal meaning for me. When I first learned of my Jewish family history and traveled to the concentration camp where my grandparents were taken, I walked several miles outside of the camp to a river used by the Nazis to bury their crimes. There I saw a monument with these words: “At this place in November 1944, the ashes of twenty-two thousand Jewish victims from the Terezin ghetto were ordered by the Nazis to be thrown into the Ohre River.” This river was a cemetery and my grandfather was buried there. I yearned to feel the water that cradled the ash of his bones. And while I was there, beside the water, I read Isaiah: “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
I thought of how abandoned and afraid my grandfather must have felt. And I hoped and prayed that he was quickly lifted from that fear in the mysterious power of God’s ever-present love that will never allow any of God’s children to be left for dead. I would like to think that my grandfather held on to that promise in the terror and suffering of his final days, but I can’t know that. I do believe that he knows it now.
This sense of identity as beloved children of God is at the heart of today’s Gospel too-- Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism where the voice of God rings out: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Why was Jesus baptized anyway? He didn’t need to repent and receive forgiveness of sin. I think Jesus’ baptism lifts up some other meanings of baptism. Today’s psalm 29 says: “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood” But the gospel tells us that Jesus didn’t stay up above it all. Jesus stepped down into flood. Jesus waded into the waters of that Jordan River. Jesus’ baptism is one more way that God stepped into the river of life with us, sharing in our humanness. Jesus waded into the depths of human sin and failure and pain and sank under. Why?
So that we are not abandoned there. So that we might be raised up, over and over again. From sin, from fear, from failure, from hurt, from death. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River was a preview of what would come 3 years later when the waves of death closed over him for one final time… before a rising no one but God could have imagined. So maybe that’s how we can read our psalm. “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood. The voice of the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” A voice that knows what it means to go under. A voice that lifts us up. Where we can breathe. And find our way to solid ground once again.
But Jesus’ baptism was not only a preview of what was to come on Easter, it was a preparation for the days before him. “You are my son, the beloved.” Evidently, even Jesus needed to hear those words. To be reminded that he was beloved. He needed to keep these words in mind when he went into the wilderness to face the devil’s lies, when he was criticized, when he was mocked and called names, when he was tortured. “You are my child, the beloved.” You can get through a lot when you know you are loved. You can tune out a lot of hate when you know deep down who you really are, how beloved you truly are. Knowing that can change everything.
After his baptism, Jesus went out to repeat the words he heard to everyone he met, in everything he said and did. Beloved. You are beloved. And he calls us disciples so that we can be that voice. And remind each other of our true identity.
My identity as a baptized child of God is why I am heading for the airport after worship today to go to the border at Tijuana where our government has seen fit to teargas even mothers with toddlers in tow. Where our government mocks, name calls, and labels with hateful lies.
At first, I wondered at the purpose of such a trip. What good would it do for me to travel to the border? Is it worthwhile to show up as a clergy leader who believes that all people have a right to dignity and freedom and that much of the present treatment of those arriving at our border is immoral? That the crisis at the border is a crisis of morality. Is my role to accompany and support those seeking a safe refuge? To assist asylum seekers with paper work in representing themselves? To bear witness to whatever small glimpse I get of what is happening there?
Being a follower of Jesus whose grew up to say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” is enough of a reason to head for the border, but my personal identity draws me there as well. If my father had not been welcomed here as a refugee, I would never have been born. My existence is inseparable from the asylum he received. My father was a Jew who came here as a refugee from Nazi Germany. He came alone at the urging of his parents whose decision to stay was fatal for my grandfather.
One of the letters I received when I spoke out publically on behalf of those at our border came from a woman I don’t know named Alice Brice. Alice writes: “The majority of the horde at our borders are drug cartels, MS13, Coyotes, sex/slave traffickers & a multitude of other felons, sent to disrupt our country & our way of life. AND a third are carrying diseases to us—TB,HIV, Chickenpox. We don’t need either—disease OR criminals. PLUS, these people coming now are nothing like Mary & Joseph, nor were those who came during WW2. They would die rather than accept charity—they wanted jobs & worked hard& learned our language. These lovelies come across our border with their hands out. These people are NOT refugees—they come for a free ride! And your recent refugee comparison is ludicrous! It’s not unchristian to want to keep our country & families safe from crime & disease & to keep our culture intact.
So, please, Heidi, How you’ve EVER been hired as a pastor is beyond belief. Please, put a muzzle on the hogwash you’re trying to get Americans to believe—-we’re smarter than that,& we know EXACTLY what’s happening at our border—an attempt to bring this country to it’s knees, & we’re not having any of it—or your ignorant speeches! You’re a laughingstock!”
Actually Alice, I’m a beloved child of God. And so are you. She says that
the hordes at our borders are nothing like those who came during WW2 like my father. Those were the worthy refugees whom we welcomed. Except that’s not how it was.
When my father arrived in 1938, job listings in the NY Times said “CHR only,” Christians only, in other words, Jews need not apply. Refugees were seen as competitors for scant jobs and resources. There was growing suspicion of Jewish immigrants as outsiders who posed a cultural and racial threat. In 1938 a popular preacher, Gerald Winrod, spewed out the following: “The names appearing on the places of business, the condition of the shop windows, the babble of foreign tongues, the language used on the signs in public places, the greasy lives of the people, the utter disregard for American standards of morality, the flagrant violation of the Christian Sabbath…the whole atmosphere of these great unassimilated sections of foreign populace is such as to cause serious concern.”
In 1939, the New York Chamber of Commerce published a paper called “Conquest by Immigration” In addition to taking jobs from “real” Americans, it points out that among immigrants, there are a large number of criminals and people seeking to go on the “relief rolls.” Immigrants are branded as taking over precious jobs AND as lazy bums who arrive eager to go on welfare.
Also, Nazis were supposedly disguising themselves as Jewish refugees in order to spy from within the United States like the supposed terrorists mixed in with desperate parents and frightened children. The Readers Digest published three articles that lending legitimacy to this new fear.
So Alice, you say WW2 refugees were different, but the exact same lies were being told about them. On the other hand, there were many others who welcomed my father, befriended him, helped him to adjust, helped him learn English, find work and housing. And to them, I owe my life.
And so, I go to the border because of my own baptismal faith and to honor my father and those who helped him and in memory of my grandfather. I hope to be a face of welcome, of human decency and compassion. I would like to do more, to offer some form of concrete help and to return to join others here in advocating for just and compassionate immigration reform.
Regardless, if all I can do is to be a face of kindness in a fearful time, I believe that it matters. If all I can do is to be a voice that counters the voices of hate, to be a reminder of what even Jesus needed to hear- that all are beloved children of God, I believe that it matters. The words I spoke at my grandfather’s watery grave: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you… Isaiah’s ancient prophetic words- can come to life through our actions today, actions that show we do not journey alone.
Because in this caravan of hope, we make our way forward together, or not at all.