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The New Jerusalem!

by Rev. Felix C. Villanueva

     “The text for today’s sermon is Revelation 21:  1-6.”

     And all the people cringed…
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the pastor is preaching from Revelation?  The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?  The  OK Corral showdown between Satan and Jesus?  Crazy visions (and what the author was smoking)?  The end of the world? 

     Though placed at the end of the New Testament, Revelation, which was intended to bring hope in a world that had become unsafe and unpredictable, was written not last but, instead, probably at the height of the Roman persecution of the early Christian church.  Read in context, it is a book of hope in the midst of despair, anxiety and fear.

     It is quite powerful.  Looking at the Bible in its entirety, we find that in the beginning, God created man and woman (or so the story of Genesis goes), two individuals set in an idyllic setting called Eden.  The story then moves from that utopia to a more realistic story of wars, murder and deceit.  Along the way we learn how, at the Tower of Babel, the punishment of multiple languages divided humanity.  
     Fast forward to Revelation 21.  Humanity is back together in a wonderful new city where everyone is welcome, a community in which God is present and very real.  Notice that Revelation does not end with people leaving this earth or with this planet being destroyed.  God’s promise of hope and peace is fulfilled here on earth, with the creation of a New Jerusalem.  There are no golden crowns or streets of gold, but, instead, an honest-to-goodness city full of people who know God.

     I find it fascinating that our Lectionary provides this text on Immigration Rights Sunday which, in 2010, came only days after Arizona passed a law that makes it legal to profile people with “brown” skin.

     “What’s wrong with that?” you ask.  “Illegal immigration is a big problem that requires tough laws!”

     It’s quite painful for me to hear such comments, usually made by someone who has never suffered racial discrimination.
     Let me try to bring some context to the Arizona law.  If, for example, my wife Sherry and I decide to visit Phoenix, I would need to carry my passport as, at any time a police officer could pull me aside and ask for proof of citizenship – and he or she wouldn’t have to have a reason for doing so.  If I don’t have my passport on me, I could spend six months in jail.  By the way, a California driver’s license will not suffice.  So, you see, this law not only affects people who are here illegally, but also those of us who are born citizens of this nation, who happen to be of Latino heritage.  Now tell me, when did this nation cease to be the “land of the free?”
     I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Romero Center Lecture on Immigration. Mr. Bob Orr, Assistant Secretary for the United Nations talked about the challenges of immigration in the U.S and elsewhere.   Among the points he made were:

• 75% of the world’s borders were made by humans.  In other words, borders were not part of God’s original Creation plan.
• Thriving economies require migration for survival. Immigration keeps a society vibrant and everyone benefits. This is one of the reasons the U.S economy has been so successful.  We are a nation of immigrants!
• Migrants help the local economy with their work force and also their country of origin through the financial support provided to relatives in their home country.  It’s a win-win situation.
• Migrants around the world are the subject and target of discrimination. Problems that are part of the society are blamed on immigrants.
• Migrant populations are the most vibrant and yet the most vulnerable. They often do not have advocates who can fight for them.  They become easy targets.

     Dr. Orr finished his talk with a question:  what’s the first place visitors from other states and the rest of the world want to see when they go to New York?  The Statue of Liberty!  He said that it is quite powerful to watch these visitors read the inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired and poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  That inscription,  by the way, doesn’t include a list of approved countries of origin.

     How quickly we forget! Welcoming the poor and the tired, no matter where they come from, has been part of our “national DNA” since the beginning. 

     For Christians this is an even more powerful mandate.  The Bible goes into great detail to explain why welcoming and loving the “alien in our midst” is fundamental to our faith.  As a matter of fact, the core of our faith resides in the belief that we are all aliens on this earth!

     There are many people, including Christians, who question the motives of those who migrate into our country.  Some believe they come because they don’t like their own countries.  A recent “NewsHour” on KPBS challenged this assumption, highlighting the lives of many Vietnamese-Americans, especially the second generation, who made the choice to leave the U.S. to go back and live in Vietnam – because they love their country and want to influence its future.

     So, what does immigration have to do with Chapter 21, verses 1-6?   According to Revelation, our journey will end and begin anew at a place called the New Jerusalem.   At that time we will cease to be aliens and become citizens of the universe.  In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to make sure we don’t fall in the trap of believing that those who are different from us don’t have a place in our society.

     One of the challenges we face is that we are bombarded by hatred and prejudice every day.  Just watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh.  The popularity of both mirrors their exploitation of our fear, homophobia and prejudices, as when they called the President racist because he issued a call to young African-Americans, Latinos and women – to support his party’s candidates.  If I remember correctly, President Bush issued the same call during his campaign for a second term.  Not too long ago Glen Beck made negative comments about churches which support social justice and Pat Robertson identified 19th century voodoo practices with God’s punishment during the earthquake in Haiti.

     Reinhold Niebuhr exhorts his readers to look for the truth in our neighbors’ falsehood and the falsehood in our truth.  And, although at this time I may believe Fox News, Glen Beck and Pat Robertson have strayed far from God’s embracing love, God is somehow still at work in their lives, calling them to a better and greater perspective.

     Marcus Borg talks about the fact that, in its inception, Christianity radically changed the social order.  The new community Jesus inaugurated would be characterized by compassion for everyone rather than compliance with ritual codes; by radical inclusivity rather than hierarchical exclusivity; and by inward transformation rather than outward ritual.

     We live in a time of rampant individualism. As the Church we need to stand for the value of community.  At a time of intense consumerism we insist it is not what we have but how we treat one another that counts.  At a time of growing isolation we remind our nation of its responsibility to the broader world, to pursue peace, to welcome immigrants, to protect the lives of hurting children and refugees.  At a time when the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer we insist the moral test of our society is how we treat and care for the weakest among us.  We are to be fearless in our witness to the New Jerusalem God is about to inaugurate.

     We are one people, all children of God.  Ethnicity, economic class or gender do not matter.  The Apostle Paul says that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).  To those who limit God’s lavish love, who see themselves as morally upright, the Gospel of Matthew says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45).  Whether gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Wiccan, wealthy entrepreneur whom you envy or beggar on the street who repulses you, remember that in the Book of Acts Paul quotes a pagan poet to affirm that every person is God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28).

     The question for us then is:  How can we love one another, care for one another and proclaim the Good News, especially when our faith includes the stranger and the immigrant?  I don’t have the political answer for that challenge, but I believe our Christian faith is quite clear in this respect:  we are to provide shelter, support and love to the migrants in our midst.  We are to fight for the rights of those who are exploited, marginalized and singled out as subjects of discrimination. Christ has called us, his Church, to be the voices of these, our brothers and sisters.  God is not a God of partiality or favoritism.  God warmly welcomes every person from any nation. Let’s go out and do the same!

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