Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Fair to say, dominate cultures have, over time, almost always misused their power in controlling individuals in subcultures, and, in acts meant to suppress and dominate them, they often cause irreparable harm to those individuals and groups. Efforts to assimilate subcultures have usually been at the expense of those being assimilated, and, whether it is intended or not, their acts end up marginalizing those peoples. For instance, in Canada, between the years 1804 and 1947, around 150,000 indigenous children were placed in residential schools, nationally. Attendance was mandatory. The movement was funded by the Canadian Government and administered by Christian Churches in Canada. The school system was created to isolate indigenous children from the influence of their own native culture and religion. Ironically, these children were from families whose ancestors first stewarded the land on which these schools were built. The profound effect of these schools on the indigenous peoples is still being felt – and examined by the Canadian government and the churches there. We weep for those now-adult children and families.
In the United States, the dominate culture held hundreds of thousands of Africans and African Americans as slaves from before the founding of the country in 1776 until 1865 and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Though slavery was no longer legal, treatment of African Americans reflected the dominance of this country’s European culture – and still does today. We weep and repent for the acts done in the names of the dominate cultures everywhere.
Those acts of dominance by one culture over another is NOT the way of the Kingdom of God, and a while they mourned their pain, a new vision began to emerge – in song, a vision of that better way. Inspired by God, the Creator, recognition of their pain along with new hope took voice. African slaves of the antebellum America, often during the work done by their master’s hand and in the sweltering heat, in the drudge and sweat that was their day-to-day reality, began to see beyond, to extend the vision of what was their day-to-day reality to a deeper, broader, higher image, and the truth of God’s love for all people and cultures. And so many of their sacred songs, the whole spiritual genre, brought voice to the hope for a new social order. A kingdom not born of, nor controlled by the powers of this world, but born of the Spirit. A kingdom for all of God’s children, a kingdom of inclusivity and equality. One of those spirituals was titled, “There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom.” Indeed. . . there is.
For the writer of Luke’s gospel, this is the central message in Jesus’ life and teaching. Dare I say it is ours as well. There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom for all. Jesus proclaimed God’s passionate dream, compassionate desire and bold determination to gather all God’s children closer and closer in God’s embrace and love. Just like that mother hen, God seeks to draw, embrace, include and welcome God’s children into the family of humanity that the God of love has intended for us from the dawn of time – inclusivity of all.
Think of the nativity story told in in the early chapters of Luke – the one that we hear told every Christmas Eve. Luke tells that the shepherds were the first to receive the good news of the Messiah. Not such a big deal until we consider that in ancient biblical times, shepherds were those on the margins of accepted society. Shepherds were considered, dirty, for they spent their lifetimes outdoors with sheep and they were unrespectable because they left their families alone for days on end so that they could tend to their flock. General society saw shepherds as dishonest and outside the law, for they frequently grazed their flocks on someone else’s land. And yet, it was to shepherds that God’s angels brought the good news. Shepherds were like those on the margins of society today. But, the gospel surpasses those margins and makes a place for the birth of a new way, one not born out of human society and its customs, but of the spirit of God - a place where there is always Plenty good room.
And so it is, also in Luke, that a young peasant girl announced the Savior’s coming as she sang a song of transformation, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. . . “ (Luke 1: 46-47). And Luke told of a prodigal son who was welcomed home by a father whose benevolence was excessive and whose love seems out of control. Again . . . In Luke, we hear Jesus tell of a good Samaritan - to folks who believed that the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan! And Luke remembered a “good thief” who found the kingdom of God while dying on a cross next to Jesus. The writer of Luke acknowledged again and again. . . Plenty good room.
And in Luke, Jesus, as a young man, announced his ministry when he read from the scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) Plenty good room.
Jesus encountered the poor, the outcasts, the lepers each day. The social stigmas, physical conditions, and cultural realities served as signs of exclusion. The Levitical code acted as a basis for separating the people of God from those who were considered to be unclean. In some circles of belief, one’s color, social condition, or physical malady was viewed as a sign of sin and therefore, a reason for the separation from society as a probable punishment from God. In Jesus’ day, whatever distinguished a person as “other” represented a sign of exclusion, and a reason for rejection. Jesus, however, encountered a people who only knew rejection and he dealt directly with the trauma of human need. Jesus’ theology is that there is “plenty good room” for God’s people to enter into God’s Kingdom. Jesus moved outside of the mores of the day and into radical inclusion.
It’s a really good thing that Jesus had his ear to God, and not to other humans, just as we heard in today’s gospel as the Pharisees tried to shoo him off. Jesus had the ability to embrace the rejected, the outcast. Because of that, it’s a very good thing that you and I are not God, because we, in our human frailty, might be prone to limiting the number of those who could be embraced and included. Possibly, we might save folks who look like we do, or think like we do, and exclude those who look and think and speak differently. Jesus, through God, calls us to something better.
Our nation has, historically welcomed the immigrant. However, we live in a time and place that often struggles with racial profiling and the borders over which immigrants may enter. Our Statue of Liberty is inscribed “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp. Beside the golden door.” We are an inclusive nation, despite some chapters in our history that suggest otherwise, and yet we sometimes struggle with the presence of “the other.” God calls us to know and to live the fact that there’s plenty good room. And around the world there are plenty of opportunities to grow into that reality.
Like you, I suppose, Michael and I have watched the horrifying news feed from the Ukraine. For the many who are now in exile, who have left home and family and jobs and security to keep children and women safe, while many stay and fight – my heart aches. Children not knowing what is happening; mothers comforting their tears, while shedding some of their own. But, as many of them deboard trains in Poland, Hungary, and other destinations, they are welcomed, fed, wrapped in blankets, given strollers to use, a place to rest and feel secure, and made to feel warm and loved – even as they grieve the loss of all that is home and live with the memory of bombs knocking down much that is familiar and loved. I have heard that kindly individuals trying to help new arrivals form a way to their ultimate destination ask them, “And where would you like to live?” And my heart aches again, for the only answer to that is, ‘The Ukraine, my home.” (The kindness of these individuals who are trying to help is noted, and for them we give thanks.) But, the greed and hunger for power of mankind, the lust for more land and might – all is leveled by the love of brothers and sisters who wait, who send blankets and supplies and food and financial gifts from all around the world. Even in exile, even as they grieve their losses, they are looked after – because there’s plenty good room in God’s kingdom. There is love, there is acceptance, there are hugs to wipe away the tears of loss – and there will be many more tears to fall.
A former student of mine has lived, until this last week, in Moscow with his Russian wife and their four children (two of whom are adopted and severely disabled.) The family decided to leave their home and work, to leave Russia, her home – for his safety as an American in Russia. This decision and putting travel plans in place were not easy, nor safe and it still goes on, as their travel to the US has been circuitous. But, on Tuesday morning, I heaved a sigh of relief as I read Chris’s note to us all that the six of them had boarded the plane to Kyrgestan where they spent a few days with friends, and are now making their way, over these days, to his mother’s home in Virginia where the children will be able to finish their school year and the family will reassess. I sense in what Chris writes that he and Elvira will not feel safe until they reach the US, as some of their colleagues were actually removed from their planes as they tried to leave. But, each step, each flight, they are closer and closer to a new way, and a welcoming new land for Elvira and the children. Home for them is now a memory, or a question – and we grieve their loss. The photos he sent reminded us all of what they left behind – Elvira’s mother, who is Russian as she tearfully bid farewell to the family at the airport, unsure of when (or if )she would see her family again. Chris wrote, “So, we now join the crowd of unknown futures. But we are safe, we are warm, we are well taken care of. And our hearts break for the many in and outside of Ukraine who can’t say that.”
And. . . I am so deeply thankful for your understanding that there’s Plenty Good Room, as you help to support the Kahn and Nabizada families who have fled from their homes in Afghanistan. And, you’ve done the same for the families and individuals who come to Spin Café, and who have been given a place, food and shelter here at St. Stephen’s. Plenty good room because you are aware of God’s love for all.
Plenty good room, the vision of the indigenous children in residential schools, of the African slaves centuries ago and countless others on the margins. Plenty good room exists, my brothers and sisters, only because of the hope in us and the acts that follow that hope. Jesus, particularly in Luke, declares a new order, one that has been longed for.
The old slaves realized that the infinite reach and eternal embrace of God’s reign was at the core of the gospel message of Jesus. Their vision of that Kingdom, “There’s plenty good room, plenty good room, plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom!” May it be our vision as well, as our voices sing out and our work continue to make it so!