4th of July

July 1, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


In today’s passage from Luke, we hear the story of Jesus sending forth the seventy to prepare the way for him as he sets out to preach and teach, and he tells them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!”  It may be hard for us in our present circumstances to imagine welcoming strangers who might appear at our door, and not only welcoming them but sharing our food and inviting them to stay for a while as they share their ministry in our community.  And yet, at the time of Jesus, he sends these seventy appointed ones out because he knows that it will take many voices to share his message and to bear witness to  the peace and healing and compassion that is his essential to the coming of God’s Kingdom.  Let us pray, God of fresh beginnings, you make all things new in the wisdom of. Make us agents of your transforming power and heralds of your reign of justice and peace, that all may share in the healing you so desire for our world. Amen.

This week, we celebrate the 4th of July, our Independence Day here in our country…and many of us may have happy memories of when we were children, seeing our first fireworks, which one of the Founders, John Adams, called Illuminations and which he had intended to be a part of our celebrations year to year.  We often gather with family or friends to celebrate this national holiday and the liberties we have inherited as part of our legacy.  And certainly one of those great freedoms was the ability to worship as we choose.  In fact, those early Pilgrims and Puritans, the earliest Congregationalists who settled here, were seeking that very religious freedom when they chose to travel to this new land and settle here despite the great hardships and suffering they endured.  In 1620, when our spiritual ancestors prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.”  It’s a wonderful blessing that remains true today…We do believe that God still has more light and truth to break forth upon us, upon our nation, upon our world.

And I think we all understand that this nation, like all nations in the world, is and always will be a work in progress.  Like so much in life, democracy, much like church life, is a messy business and from generation to generation, we imperfect people, try to respect the traditions that have been passed down to us.  We know that we enjoy an extraordinary freedom here in our nation, to speak freely and live and worship as we choose.  In our faith lives, we also enjoy great freedom to believe, to choose to follow a spiritual path and that is a great gift. It was the gift of love that Jesus often shared with his followers that continues to inspire us to be the kind of community that Jesus spoke about when he talked about the coming of God’s Kingdom.  We all know that with freedom comes great responsibility.  This is true both in our lives of faith and as citizens in this country. There is a wonderful expression, ‘to whom much has been given, much is expected.’ That is true in our lives as citizens of this great nation and it is true in our lives as people of faith.

In the Isaiah passage today, we hear these lovely words, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad with her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy” and he says, “for this says the Lord; I will extend prosperity to her like a river, As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”  We have this wonderful connection between this holy city and the people whom God had invited to be in a covenantal relationship, a relationship of love and of living righteously.  Jesus in his ministry carries forth this reminder of that relationship of love and he sends out the 70 to preach and teach and to heal the sick and to share a meal with those who will welcome them into their homes.  And always, that relationship begins with a greeting of peace.  He encourages them to explain that in the midst of their visit, in the healing and teaching, that the Kingdom of God has come near to them.

And Jesus understands that the ones he sends out will not always be welcomed, he knows that people will be suspicious or downright hostile…and so he cautious them that if they are not welcomed, they should wipe the dust from their feet and be on their way.

Even though we live in times when we wouldn’t always want to open our doors to a stranger who might knock- out of fear for our own safety or those we love, I have seen wonderful expressions of welcome and kindness to newcomers in many places I have visited.  People who visit our church are hopefully always welcomed with great warmth, and I have seen wonderful exchanges in our community when people are visiting from other places.

When I was in college, I was traveling with friends in Great Britain, and I will share that I was actually hitchhiking with two friends north of London.  I didn’t tell my parents at the time, but later, when I was home safely, I shared the story of what happened.  We were out on the road on our way to a smaller town when a car pulled over with the bumper sticker, I Love NY.  Well, a handsome young man, not much older than us, got out and introduced himself and offered us a ride.  He seemed safe and friendly and he explained that he had spent the summer before traveling all over our country and people had extended incredibly hospitality and welcome to him…and he wanted to return the favor.  In the end, he invited us to his home where his parents greeted us with a full meal and offered us a place to sleep that night…we had an amazing visit and the next day, he drove us to Stratford on Avon, home of Shakespeare, our intended destination.  It was a great connection and we stayed in touch for a time after that visit.

I have been amazed at the wonderful conversations and connections that we can have during a coincidental meeting with new people.  Almost to a person, they have been extremely positive and I come away with such gratitude for the ability to cross paths with people I might never have met.  Yes, sometimes, just like those followers of Jesus, we may cross paths with someone who isn’t always kind or isn’t always good and we need to be aware.   Our nation was founded on a spirit of welcoming new peoples…and scripture speaks again and again of welcoming the stranger in our midst.   When you meet people from other countries, they often speak about how incredibly friendly and welcoming the people of our country are.

Sadly, in recent weeks, so much sad and deeply upsetting news has come to us from the southern borders of our country.  We know that immigration is a very controversial topic in our country, but did we ever imagine that we would be a country that could possibly separate young children from their parents when they entered here seeking a place of escape from gangs and violence and desperation from where they have come.  I have personally visited some of the countries from which they are fleeing and I have met a number of refugees from those countries who have spoken in tragic ways of the absolute desperation they feel.  While we know that there is much that needs to be done, and that much of this stems from a long history in their countries of tremendous disparity of wealth, and support, including from our own country, of terrible rulers in the past, it is a problem for today.  I have said more than once that we may not be able to do everything, but I think that we know that separating children from their parents is inhumane and cruel and that there have been countless speakers across all religious traditions and in both major political parties who have spoken out in the strongest way against this tragedy.  Is this the spirit of welcome with which our own ancestors were welcomed?  I am not trying to romanticize how difficult it was to arrive here in the past, but is that what we wish to be know for as a nation?

I was born in Lewiston, Maine and that was the place that my own ancestors ended up settling from both my mother’s and father’s sides.  I have English, French and Irish ancestors who arrived hundreds of years ago.  Then on my Dad’s side, his parents arrived from Lithuania over a century ago.  All of them ended up working in the mills there, much as many here in Biddeford did as well.  Lewiston has seen its own ups and downs over the years as many immigrants from Somalia and other African nations came to find refuge there. Some were not always welcomed because of the fear of loss of jobs and public support and that has certainly caused friction that is understandable.

In the past year, though, a great story emerged about the high school soccer team and their work at building a successful and integrated team.  If any of you have been watching the World Cup Soccer in recent weeks, we know that it is an immensely popular sport in many countries, including many African countries.  The high school soccer coach realized he had a great opportunity to build both a winning team and a spirit of true teamwork by uniting this team.  A book was written about their great teamwork and their success on the state level as they have gone to several state championships in recent years.  Furthermore, residents in the community have taken pride in the team and turned out to cheer them on to victory.

The Portland Press Herald recently did an update on the story which spoke about this amazing book. “One Goal” by Amy Bass which was published in February and quickly drew national attention, including a crew from NBC’s “Today” that filmed at Lewiston High School. An excerpt of the book appeared in Sports Illustrated magazine. Bass has spoken to groups, book clubs and schools around the country about it.”

“In telling the story of the team, “One Goal”  Bass explains how Somalis settling in Lewiston, a mill town in one of the whitest states, created an uneasiness. But as Somali kids began playing soccer in parks, high school coach Mike McGraw began working with the immigrant community to integrate the newcomers onto the team.

The result was a powerhouse squad that brought the school its first state soccer championship. Bass added information to the book after the team won it all again in 2017. The book also has a section on Lewiston’s history and context about soccer’s growing popularity in America.”  It appears now that there are plans to make the book into a film to air on Netflix. I think this story is such an important one as we look ahead to the 4th of July.  This high school soccer coach decided that he would try to welcome the gifts of these Somali refugees and find a way to create an integrated team and in so doing, he helped transform the beliefs of their classmates and people in that community.

Important dates in our lives, and in the history of our nation, provide times when we may pause and reflect about that for which we are most thankful. We certainly give thanks for the beauty of our nation, for the freedoms which have allowed each of us to live the lives we have and we give thanks for the freedom to worship in the manner in which we have chosen.  It’s also a time to think about the very best that our nation has been and continues to be. I imagine so many of us have stories of the ways in which our ancestors came to these shores in search of the American dream.  It’s a dream that still lives on today for many, many people seeking to live in dignity, seeking to live in peace.  As people of faith, we may live in the confidence that our God has provided us with many blessings, blessings which take the form of things that truly matter…of life and peace, freedom and joy.  When Jesus sent out those first messengers, I imagine that he may have hoped that that message could be shared again and again, over time, and that people who would hear that message would be inspired to embrace that message and actually translate it into lives that reflect those important values.  Jesus always welcomed people to come to him; he was truly the great includer, the great welcoming presence to anyone who wanted to draw near and be inspired.  And so this week, in the midst of all the fun and delicious food and sunny days, let’s all take some time to be grateful for the freedoms we enjoy and let’s rededicate ourselves to upholding the very best of what this nation has been and will continue to be in the future.  I believe that even today, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth” upon our nation, and we, as citizens, and as people of faith, need to be the bearers of that light and truth always.