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Focus Text: Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
Scriptural Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16
Jeremiah, the 6th century BC prophet of Israel, is hardly known for his positive outlook. Look up the most famous word associated with him (“jeremiad”) and you’ll find synonyms along the lines of “diatribe, condemnation, and denunciation.” A quick glance on Wiktionary reveals ‘jeremiad’ as “a speech that bitterly laments the state of society and its morals, and often contains a prophecy of its coming downfall.”
Famous jeremiads are attributed to everyone from Jesus to Jonathan Edwards. And note that a good jeremiad can get you in big trouble with the culture you are ‘jerimiding’ . . . even when you are Wright, Jeremiah! (10 years ago, reflecting on September 11, 2001, Jeremiah Wright condemned an America long bent on violence abroad. Wright was excoriated for his comment that “America’s chickens have come home to roost.” Jeremiah Wright clearly had another prophet in mind: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Anyone wonder what the 6th century Jeremiah might pronounce December 2, 2018? The ‘state of our society and its morals’ certainly lends itself to commentary. Any preacher worth her salt these days cannot be true to the Christ if she avoids the high crimes of our own culture.
That said, it’s important to note that in our specific Lectionary reading, it is not a despairing word, but a hopeful vision offered:
“The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise I made . . . [God’s people] will live in safety.”
Where does the original Jeremiah find such hope?
Well… God, of course.
You simply must look beyond the border of our ‘down-falling’ culture to the promise on the horizon where all will live in true safety.
Therein lies the hope for all humanity.
Pastoral Reflection on Jeremiah 33:14-16
In truth, we did not know much about the undocumented immigrant when he arrived at our church. Our congregation had agreed to offer sanctuary to someone in danger of deportation and this man met both criteria we had established.
- He had no egregious criminal record.
- His legal counsel assured us there was a real possibility that he could win a stay of deportation.
Otherwise, we knew only that he wanted to remain in this country, home to him for more than half of his life. His primary reason to remain? His children were U.S. citizens and for Eliseo, nothing was more important than being a good father and providing the best opportunities for his children.
In the morning of his first day with us, before we held an afternoon press conference to announce his public presence, a reporter asked me, eyes wide,“Did you know he has felony charges on his record?”
“No,” I replied, “can you explain the details?”
-The Rev. Doug Long, Umstead Park United Church of Christ
“I was just talking to I.C.E. on the phone in the parking lot,” she excitedly replied. “They say he has been charged with multiple felonies.”
I told her I honestly couldn’t shed any light on that.
When the undocumented one came into the room later, I noticed the bottom edge of a large tattoo protruding from the sleeve of his shirt.
What else did I not know, I wondered.
Now, for the past 14 months, Eliseo has lived and moved and had his being among us. In that time our building, this refuge, has doubled as a prison. That sounds harsh but, truth be told, choosing ‘sanctuary’ from deportation requires an act of self-incarceration. We may be a nice prison, but we are none-the-less a physical space in which Eliseo is confined.
24 hours a day.
7 days a week.
Well into year two.
With no light at the end of the tunnel.
True enough, Eliseo could leave if he chose to but with what consequence? Deportation. Separation from those he most loves. Being blind-sided one day while with his children, perhaps. Their ‘Poppy’ ripped away while embracing them. Eliseo is as good a father as I have ever witnessed. Since I’ve pastored for almost 40 years now, I’ve witnessed a lot. Further, Eliseo knows how to be a good father because he learned first-hand what a bad one was like. His own alcoholic father beat his mother until Eliseo had to physically intervene. After that, Eliseo’s mother pleaded with him to leave the country and join his cousin in the land of promise to the north. Otherwise, she feared her husband would kill his eldest son.
So the 17-year-old Eliseo came and worked in cotton and tobacco fields and ended up laying floors. Wood. Linoleum. Carpet. Tile. Hard-working, dependable, conscientious . . . Eliseo was every construction supervisor’s dream. He was the kind of person you’d yearn to find on Craigslist to repair your roof, clean your home, run your farm, or fix your septic field. (Who among us does not often depend on the 11 million undocumented persons in our economy?)
Then one night, more than ten years ago, Eliseo got pulled over in Alamance County. His tail light was broken. In the blink of an eye, he was jailed, detained and deported.
No lawyer. No call home. No justice. No humanity.
Suddenly back in Mexico, he walked into a cathedral and approached an altar to St. Jude, Patron Saint of those in desperate need. “St. Jude,” he prayed, “If you help me return to my family, I will find a way to honor you.”
And Eliseo returned. (A border cross.)
His children were ecstatic.
Jump ahead 5 years. In a mix-up that would be fodder for a hilarious sitcom were it to happen to me or you, Eliseo again was deprived his humanity. It unfolded like this: In a pinch for time and with no other options, Eliseo used his roommate’s car to hurriedly drive his wife and family to a baptism. (She was the Godmother of the child!) The problem was, his roommate missed the note Eliseo left explaining why the car was gone, and the roommate reported it stolen. When Eliseo returned, his roommate quickly explained the misunderstanding to the authorities to no avail.
Eliseo was charged with several felonies and sent to Stewart Detention Facility. Months later, no convictions resulted, but the charges still live on his record. Hence the reporter’s question to me the day Eliseo entered Sanctuary.
Oh . . . and the tattoo? It’s St. Jude.
Eliseo is as fine a human being as I have ever had the privilege to know. His presence among us has brought a depth to our community that we have never before reached without him. For us, he is a gift of God. With no exaggeration, he is a living embodiment of the Christ among us.
I wonder how many people like Eliseo are among those seeking refuge in our country today?
They are not a caravan of criminals but instead a crowd of human beings. Mothers and fathers and children seeking a land of promise.
A border cross.
And are we a land of promise? Or a land of lies?
Where is the border of our humanity?
Suggested Hymns about Sanctuary
-A mash up, of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’, Jeremiah 33:14ff, and ‘The New Colossus.’
My country, tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty…
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
Of thee I sing
In those days I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up … and he shall execute justice
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Quotes about Sanctuary
Victoria Sanford, The New York Times, November 9,2018
“The would-be immigrants to the United States traveling from Central America are trying to escape rule by authoritarian governments tied to gangs, organized crime and other criminal enterprises.”
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.
your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
You have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.