O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; *
it is you who uphold my lot.
I have set the Lord always before me; *
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. (Psalm 16:5 and 8)
On April 4, 1967 as our country was engaged in a battle for the human rights of all its citizens, it was also ensnared in an escalating war in Vietnam. It had not begun as a war, but as a “police action.” But gradually more and more young men were sent to a country, most of them could not locate on a map, to fight an unwinnable war in the name of “stopping the spread of communism.” On that day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped into the pulpit of the great Riverside Church in New York City to deliver a speech to a group of clergy and lay people who were concerned about the carnage on both sides in Vietnam.
In that speech, entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” he used a phrase that had entered the public space in his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. The phrase Dr. King used on these two important occasions was “the fierce urgency of now.” In the “I Have a Dream” speech, he used it to state that people of color would not postpone their lives while people who see themselves as white denied them daily the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised to all citizens. Dr. King said, “This is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
Along the same lines, Dr. King sensing that the programs aimed at addressing the urgent rights of people of color and people living in poverty were being devastated by the cost and political energy, drawn like a “demonic destructive suction tube” toward the Vietnam War. He warned that the failure to heed the “fierce urgency of now… (may lead to life) leaving us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity…Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”
We are facing a “fierce urgency of now” moment. A humanitarian catastrophe is raging unabated on our southern border. The pictures and the stories break our hearts. This should be a bipartisan issue. It should be a crisis that calls our whole country to respond with the genius that is possible when our country comes together to solve great issues. But instead we are wasting precious time and energy lobbing verbal attacks against each other as families are separated and children are held in abominable conditions.
Most of you have seen the tragic picture of Valeria and Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, a father and his tiny daughter lying lifeless on the shore of the Rio Grande river. Valeria and Oscar’s story is particular, but also too common. They had traveled more than 1,000 miles seeking safety for their family. They hoped to apply for legal asylum, for refuge from the violence that plagues their home country of El Salvador. But when their hoped-for dreams were within sight, they were turned away from the international bridge that leads from Matamoros, Mexico to Brownsville, Texas. They were told the bridge was closed; that they should return in three days. They also learned that the line to get across the bridge was several hundred people long. Having traveled through Mexico for more than two months and knowing that Matamoros was a dangerous place to be, particularly as a migrant, they tried the river because it looked safe. Oscar was able to get his young daughter across, placing her gently on the American side of the Rio Grande. But when he turned to go back for his wife, his young daughter followed him into the river. Oscar was able to turn back and grab Valeria, but the current swept them both away.
In a news conference, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called the migrant’s deaths “terrible.” But he said that as there is more rejection in the United States, there are more people who will lose their lives in the desert or in the river.
But even when our brothers and sisters reach the American side of the river and desert, our system of discerning their claims and providing care while the courts do their work is failing horribly. We know that thousands of children have been separated from their parents. And we know that with the overwhelmingly incompetent management of the thousands of people who are seeking asylum, that reconnecting these children with their parents or other family members will take years, if it can ever be accomplished. Children are being contained in places that are filthy, overcrowded, and understaffed. Children as young as 8 years old are being asked to take care of babies and toddlers.
A pediatrician visiting a Texas detention center for migrant children says that what she witnessed could be compared to “torture facilities”–children sleeping on concrete floors with no bedding or blankets, in a space where the lights are continuously on, no access to soap or toothpaste, or diapers, inadequate food and water. The pediatrician described the children she examined at the Ursula detention center in McAllen Texas as being inappropriately subdued. Dr. Sevier said, “I think all of the children had signs of trauma.” Attorney Toby Gialluca told the Texas Tribune, “Their eyes. I’m haunted by their eyes.”
The invitation “follow me” is a common refrain in the ministry of Jesus. But in our reading today from Luke’s Gospel, the call to follow has taken on a new urgency. Jesus places heavy warnings to those who fail to recognize and respond to the fierce urgency of now. Jesus has now “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” He knows that he is walking toward persecution and probably death. He knows that he has little time left to guide and prepare his followers. And then, after all this time together, two of Jesus’ disciples respond with the ultimate violence when they are rejected in Samaria. Have they learned nothing of his message of love? Jesus must feel even more urgency in his dwindling time left on earth. So his response to someone who wants to follow him seems an extreme one: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Don’t think in following me all of your comforts and security will be protected. To follow me you are going to have to face squarely your priorities. The times call for you to look with honesty at what you believe is essential in life. If you follow me, you are going to be called to be and do things that may call you out of your routine, your automatic response, your way of viewing things, your comfort zone.
Jesus asks another to follow him and the man answers, “Lord, let me go and bury my father.” This is a more than a reasonable request. But Jesus feels the fierce urgency of now. Jesus responds in a way that shocks. “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”Some situations call for immediacy that requires us to put aside what we see as important, even required, to do that which must be faced in this extraordinary moment.
Another says to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Again, under normal circumstances, this is what anyone would do, to say goodbye to our loved ones before leaving on a journey. But Jesus knows that there is never an end to the things on our “to do” lists. That there are always more and more demands on our time, on our energy. Jesus’ face is set to go to Jerusalem. Jesus knows that there is fierce urgency, now. Now, you must align your priorities. Like Elijah’s response to Elisha in our reading today from 1 Kings, if you put other tasks, obligations, responsibilities over my call to you, then you will miss the opportunity, now.
The debate around immigration has gone on for generations. Every American, with the exception of Indigenous Americans, are immigrants. But our attitudes have long been determined by who we see as immigrants. Have you noticed that when a person of Hispanic or Latino origin comes to live in our country, we call them immigrants. But when white Americans go to live in another country, they are called “Expats.” From our welcome of “white people of good character” in 1776, through our exclusion of German and Irish immigrants in 1849, through open immigration for Europeans at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20thCentury, through the many other times we opened and closed the door to people “yearning to breathe free” we have struggled to determine how to maintain or increase those we welcome into this country. The time for this important work continues. But we are now faced with the fierce urgency of now. Men, women, and children are suffering enormously on our southern border. Men, women, and children are dying as we debate the reality and the importance of their desperate need.
The Episcopal Church is deeply involved in this crisis. Churches on the border are responding to families who are released onto the streets without food, supplies, or money. Bishop David Reed, Diocesan Bishop of West Texas issued a statement on June 20, World Refugee Day, calling on his diocese to set aside political differences to care for all in need, “as Jesus taught.” He said, “We can and should, and desperately need to, have informed, respectful debate on our country’s immigration laws and policies. But the time for that is not when a weary, confused, and hungry person stands before you.”
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry issued a joint statement with several ecumenical leaders that stated, “As U.S. religious leaders representing diverse faith perspectives, we are united in our concern for the well-being of vulnerable migrants who cross our borders fleeing from danger and threats to their lives.”They referred specifically to the seven known children who have died in the custody and protection of the United States government.
So what should we do in this moment of fierce urgency. Children depend on us. Our faith calls us to see Christ in all persons. Christ is suffering and dying on our border because we fail to care and do all we can to welcome the stranger to safety.
The first thing we need to do is to pray without ceasing. We must daily lift up prayers for the children, the men, the women who are seeking asylum and the hope of a life of safety in our country. We must pray for all who work for the Border Patrol, for ICE, for those who are charged with caring for the children, men, and women who cross our border We must pray for all who seek to support these people as doctors, nurses, lawyers, and counselors. We must pray for all leaders who have the authority and the ability to respond with creative compassion to the needs of these traumatized people. But we must do more.
The third thing is that we must not let the enormity or the horror of the problem make us feel helpless. As the Rev. William Barber says, “If our leadership fails to act with compassion, then there must be a movement of the people from the bottom up.” This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue where our faith calls us to respond.
So write or call your state and federal representatives every day. Just as you pray, brush your teeth, call your representatives and tell them to help the people on the border. Volume of contacts do matter.
Give to organizations who are doing the vital work in providing legal assistance, medical care, and mediation for separated families and our government. A list of agencies is available at the Welcome Table and will be in Tuesday’s Child and in next week’s worship bulletin.
Whenever you can, stand up for our brothers and sisters who are immigrants. Come out to stand with immigrants on Friday, July 12 between 7:00 and 9:00 PM for a Candlelight Vigil. Lee Cheek is working to have one in Great Barrington. Look for this. This vigil will be held in Pittsfield.
Practice radical kindness every day. Make it a point to talk with people, thank people, look people in the eyes and smile, teach your children and grandchildren the importance of kindness. Help kindness be a core value in our world.
The Jesus we meet in today’s Gospel reading is one who sees that time is of the essence. That each minute, each second must be regarded because being human often means urgency. Every moment really does count. And we are called as followers of Christ to seize the fierce urgency of now. Not because Jesus does not care about what is important to our own personal lives, but because for the sake of the kingdom of God, every second matters, every encounter matters, every child, woman, and man matters to God. And it must matter to us as well, if we are to follow Jesus.
Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam-Time to Break the Silence.” Speech at Riverside Church, New York City, NY, April 4, 1967.
“Torture Facilities: Eyewitnesses describe poor conditions at Texas Detention Centers for Migrant Children.” https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/06/25/texas-border-control-facilities-migrant-children
Unaccompanied Minors and the Flores Setlement Agreement: What to Know. http://www.ncsl.org/blog/2018/10/30/unaccompanied-minors-and-the-flores-settlement-agreement-what-to-know.aspx
Cedar Attanasio, Garance Burke, and Martha Mendoza. Attorneys: Texas border facility is neglecting migrant kids. https://www.apnews.com/46da2dbe04f54adbb875cfbc06bbc615