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Based on the Scripture readings:
Psalm 123
1 John 3:16-23
John 10:11-18

2006 May 7
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

To Carry Each Other

We are living in a Kairos moment. Kairos, the ancient Greek word, when used in the New Testament means the appointed time in the purpose of God. Not just any time. The time when God acts. Crucial time. Not just time we set aside as important. God's time. With millions of immigrants demonstrating throughout our land, with news coverage 24/7 telling immigrants' stories, with debates about the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish. The story is so big that somehow God has got to be right in the middle of it. There's no turning back. On the front page of any national newspaper we see a sea of people wearing white, rallying for their human rights, and it's as if God is saying as we pick up the paper, this is a Kairos moment. Just what are we going to do about it?

It's confusing. I've been in conversation with several of you about illegal immigration over the past couple of weeks. Just what are we supposed to do? Who has it right in Congress? What about our needs, those of us who are US citizens, won't our needs be threatened by their needs? But wait a minute, we're Christian, so of course we care about their needs, and anyway, we know that in the grander scheme of things, they are we. Jesus says: "That they all may be one." There should be no "us and them." We are equal in God's eyes, each one of us reveals something about how we are made in the image of God. We know it's a roll of the dice. Had fate had it differently for any one of us, we could have been in their shoes.

It's complicated and confusing. I wish I could stand here and proclaim that I knew what the right solution was. But I'll tell you one person who wasn't confused. Our very own Matt Aufman. A year ago, he had this wild idea that frankly, I was kind of skeptical about. He said, "Let's bring our youth to the Arizona border," (at the end of June no less) "endure the heat and the sun and offer water to some illegal immigrants." Crazy, I thought, this is not gonna fly. Then, the next year, he brought it up again, and Anna McMahan did some research. They said, more or less, "We know we have pressing needs on the Gulf Coast for mission work,". "But there's this great UCC sponsored program Humane Borders. It's safe, it's well organized and educational, much of the experience will be climate controlled, the border police are fully aware of what's going on, it's legal, and above all, it's humanitarian. No sooner had they laid out their request before the Christian Education committee to consider, than all of a sudden, boom, we were faced with a mega moment in time. Back to topIllegal immigration became a big story in the news. It seemed Providential.

Today, Shepherd's Sunday, we hear the story of the Good Shepherd, Jesus. Jesus says: "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." In the Gospel of John, we are told that Jesus is like the one who leaves the 99 sheep to find that one lost sheep. The one who is not a hired hand. The one who would never ever turn his back on you, or me, or them. The one who would not leave a single of his sheep to wolves.  And what we hear Jesus say over and over again in the New Testament is, "Go and do likewise." "I heal the sick," Jesus says. "I stand up for the poor. I embrace those who are excluded. I speak truth to power and demonstrate against injustice. But I ask all of you, go and do likewise." The great commandment Jesus challenges us with is: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you are to love one another."

I love to meditate upon Jesus' image in our stained glass window over there. He carries the sheep with strength, with love and protection. He can carry me, he can carry you. But Jesus goes further than that. Much further. He asks us to carry each other.

I had the privilege of meeting one man who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. I met him when I worked at Radcliffe and he was a student at Harvard. He told me the story of how he got to our country. I have thanked God that he arrived safely and that I had the good fortune of being his colleague and friend. His name is Viet Le. He was 18, came bounding into my office one day with a smile that lifted my spirits - his smile always does that. He was so warm and kind. Full of energy. He was very smart, knew a lot, and always curious to learn more of just about every subject under the sun. He was illuminating. He had very free flowing laughter. He was and is one of those people you walk away from feeling just a little bit wiser, a little bit happier, and grateful to God for the time you have spent together.

Viet was 11 when his mother knew she would have to have him smuggled out of the country along with his sister. Viet's parents had worked for the Southern Vietnamese government. When the communists took over, Viet's father was sent to a labor camp because of his association with the former regime. Coming from a bourgeois class, all of Viet's family's properties were confiscated. Anything they owned became public property. The children's education would be severely restricted, and they would be prevented from advancing even to high school. Viet's father had barely anything to eat in this camp. His wife would work hard to get him some food. Back to top"Even a tiny bit of sugar," Viet said, "that would be like heaven to him and the others in labor camp."

It was out of this context that Viet's mother had the courage to send her children away. Can any of us truly imagine what it must be like to send your children away in such a circumstance, maybe never to see them ever again? Courageous people like this are blamed for doing something illegal when so many are selflessly trying to provide a better future for their children.

Viet and his sister traveled by night, risking being severely harmed or even killed. They hid away in the Southern coast of Vietnam. Viet was separated from his sister for a time and hid in a small boat for a month, only a pair of shorts to his name. After many failed attempts, eventually Viet, his sister, and 31 people filled a small flimsy boat (without a top) and took off. Their only sustenance was 25 gallons of water to last them the trip to Thailand. But the container of water did not even have a lid. They risked losing even the water that would help them survive, as the waves of the ocean shook half of the water out. Later, all of it spilled.

I'll never forget Viet telling me, as if it were yesterday, about the huge, big storm that hit. "The waves were as high as the first story of a building in Boston." Viet said. "People were praying, making promises to Buddha, to God; we were crying in the rain and thunderstorm, waves so high, every time it goes up, we cannot see anything except lightening and a stormy sky. When it would come down, you could feel it on your back, you could see the waves falling into the boat.  The engine stopped working," Viet said. "The boat didn't have lights, it just floated. The compass was broken, we didn't know which direction we were going in. We had to get the water out with our hands. I remember lying there, looking at the sky and letting the water fall into my mouth, so scared, so sick…"

Then something remarkable happened. Viet said his Mom gave him and his sister before they left "magic paper." It was a full piece of paper folded up into a size of a coin. "When in danger," the mother said to her kids, "swallow it." The hope was this magic paper would help them be safe. Both kids swallowed their magic coins in the midst of the storm. Soon, the ocean calmed. Later, the engine started working again.

Their boat made it to Thailand before it would eventually sink. They would live in different refugee camps for two years, often with only rice to eat, running into danger constantly -- violent gangs and pirates threatening them. Finally, miraculously, Viet and his sister landed in California. Back to topHis first thought upon arrival was, "This place is heaven."

Viet is now American, living in Chicago, directing financial systems for an international architecture firm. He says, "We (meaning here many Americans) are so comfortable with our lives and our privileges. I can easily forget too what it's like to live without privilege. But if you put yourself in a refugee's position, how would you feel, think, act? People get so emotional about illegal immigration, they lose sight of the fact that we're all human beings."

Viet and his wife recently went on retreat with the revered Buddhist monk Tich Nach Han. Tich Nach Han just named Viet's newborn son 5 months ago. Viet's guiding principle as a Buddhist and one he will pass on to his son is: "We need to have compassion, love for whatever we do and feel toward other beings at all times."

Viet is such an incredibly loving, positive human being. I've always told Viet that he inspires me. He said, "I'm happy if anyone can be inspired. I went through a lot of suffering for what I have now. "

In the epistle reading for today, the author of first John writes: "We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us -- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

I know Viet is Buddhist, but I like to imagine what Jesus would do if he were to meet Viet and his sister at the airport in California when he was 12 years old. Would he have said to these children after all their torture and travail, "Get back on that plane, go back to that sinking boat, back home to Vietnam where you belong?" Of course we know that would not be what the Jesus we love and worship would say. I imagine Jesus, like the good shepherd over there, picking Viet up as if he were a lost sheep. I believe God carried Viet, through the hearts and hands of good people who would eventually lead him to safety. God asks us to carry one another too. While this immigration debate continues, let us not forget the image of the Good Shepherd.


Copyright © 2006 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission. to top


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