Paradise Found

“It has been a long, cold season of waiting for everyone,  everywhere, lately — waiting for jobs, waiting for the resurrection of the housing market, for any hints of thaw across these frozen months. Winter is supposed to be gone, but whatever is meant to follow hasn’t really arrived yet” (NYT, April 11, 2009).

So we wait. And for those of us who have jobs still, our waiting is a kind of resigned take-what-may-come attitude.  If the weather wants to keep on snowing, well, at least we have a warm place to go at the end of a day of work.  Many of us can slog through the tough economy and get by.  But many among us cannot.

An article in last week’s New York Times, described a different kind of waiting for some in New Jersey:

The men who hail from warmer climes had their hands jammed deep in the pockets of their jeans, sweatshirt hoods pulled up over their heads like monks’ cowls. Standing in their usual clusters around the train station, they measured the passing vehicles for signs that a day’s work might be beckoning from inside. But none were stopping.

These men who hail from warmer climates are immigrants, some documented, and some not. For thousands of immigrants across our country, nothing is stopping for them.  And yet, says Rigoberto from Honduras, “I will wait — there is always something.  It is always better here, even if you don’t work for a long time.” And indeed, for the first time a long time, the news for immigrants in our country is less bleak and more hopeful.  Janet Napolitano, from the Dept of Homeland Security is reviewing a several year old law called 287(g) which allows local law enforcement bodies to take into their own hands the arrest and detention of undocumented immigrants.  She does not like what she sees.  No surprise.  Without proper training and oversight, some local authorities have overstepped legal and civil rights bounds in their zealous efforts to rid their communities of people they call illegals.

This issue is not tangential to the Easter story. The other, the outsider, the stranger in a strange land, has long been the target of human scorn and derision.  The  scorn and derision about difference breeds a powerful sense of shame, of human self-worthlessness. When the sheriff of Maricopa County marched his detained immigrants from one jail cell to another under the heat of the midday sun, in striped prison uniforms and pink underwear, he was shaming — he was saying that if you are different skinned, if you speak a different language, not only are you breaking the law, you’re offending us by your presence.  We will not only punish you for your presence, we will make you feel really embarrassed to be different skinned and to have a different language than us.

But to this situation, Jesus says, that no one has a legitimate power to shame.  It is not within the bounds of decent human community to shame another and cast her out of the company of God and humanity.

The author of the gospel from which we read our Easter story this morning, thinks that for Jesus this is so central an idea, so important to his preaching and ministry, that it is the last story he tells before he moves to the narrative of Jesus’ betryal, arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.   In this  story of a group of migrant workers are standing around at the town center waiting for work. Some have waited all day before someone stops.  In Jesus’  story, however, even that one who waited all day, who was hired at the end of the work day, is paid a living wage.  This is not just a story with a happy ending, where the worker goes home after a disappointing single hour of work, and discovers a  job offer in it  in the mail.  Not a story of the way we do business as usual.  This is an unusual story of business dedicated to the idea that a community that really works, is one in which the principles of domination and control are challenged because  we all  do better when individuals can flourish, no matter their circumstances. When no matter our circumstances we can live free of shame and open to life.  Let us not read Jesus’ story of the payment of a full day’s wage to one who only worked an hour, literally.  No one will argue that this story is about paying people for no work.

Jesus’ stories are about life and death.  More specifically, his are stories about snatching life from the jaws of death.  They are about freeing the one shackled by shame and disillusionment, poverty and banishment, about breaking these bonds of death and breathing again. Resurrection, as it is prefigured by this story of the immigrant receiving the wages which give life, is an offer to be free of the institutions of death that have crept up and around us in order to keep us shackled to the old way;  free to do something about those shadows of death, that stalk us when the sun goes down.  Resurrection is another way to express what those first believers expressed so clearly even before Jesus dies — You are life!  You are God! You are the one! It is to recognize, afresh,  as though for the first time, the blessed assurance that our days and our efforts are not in vain, and that a great source of encouragement and love underscores our lives.

Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker are right — for most of the history of Western Christianity, Christians have tried to view Easter as an event that transcends human experience because it is a divine event dislocated from human time and space.  Easter, we have heard,  is an event that awaits us some time in the future after our deaths.   Shaped this way, we have disconnected life from full engagement in the present.  We have been a people treading time until the fulfillment of time.  In this way we have watched our beautiful plant spoiled by people who have learned not to care.  In this way we have erected towers of avarice and greed in the name of doing something to ease our longing.  And in this way we have shamed parts of the human family into standing around on the street corner with hands jammed deep within cold pockets, begging to clean our houses.

Some argue that this is not to the time to be dealing with immigration matters. Financial concerns are more important, they say. Jill Flores begs to differ.

Jill Flores is an American citizen married to Felix, an immigrant from Mexico who crossed the border illegally. Despite their happy life together for over 5 years, and despite Felix’s attempts to apply for legal status, and despite the fact the he and Jill have two children in their family, he has been denied citizenship. Now, Ms. Flores said, she fears that her husband will have to leave for Mexico and will not be permitted to return for many years.

In an interview, Felix Gutierrez rejected the idea that the timing is bad for an immigration debate. “There is never a wrong time for us,” he said. “Families are being divided and destroyed, and they need help now.”

“Do not be afraid,” concludes our story from Matthew’s account of Easter morning. The story might have you thinking that the angel commands Mary and Mary not to fear ghosts.  But if Brock and Parker are right, and if common sense prevails — the imperative not to fear has instead to do with shaping human communities after the fashion of grace. Do not be afraid, in other words, for the power of God is such that the HERE and NOW are redeemed and the possibilities are open to shatter the icy tomb of winter which those immigrants in New Jersey now know. Do not be afraid to believe in a creative power, here and now which can move us, nay, move tens of thousands of us to cry against the injustices of society. Do not be afraid to believe in a creative power within each human breast enabling us to break the bonds of personal pain and to know the hope of new tomorrows. Do not be afraid to embrace resurrection — for when we do it this way, when we live it this way, in the here and now.  It is paradise found.

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