Yearning to breathe free

This is the sermon from my first “solo” day as an Episcopal Priest. It was a difficult sermon to preach, but truly important. As a lawyer, I’m well versed in dissecting the different things the same words can mean. Here, I spend time with the word “all”. And, truly attempt to focus on how we as a nation have gotten to this point. 
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
    I want to let you all in on a little secret. The similarities between the Gospel today, and the quote on the Statute of Liberty, those similarities are absolutely intentional. There are a lot of reasons for this, and believe it or not, Christianity is not one of them, but being a savior to the world, that is an identity that the United States has had for a long time. It does not mean that everyone in America is to be a Christian, the author of the quote on the Statute of Liberty, Emma Lazarus, was actually Jewish. But what it does mean is that America, historically, views itself as a savior to those in need. 

I believe, honestly, that Scripture calls us to take an honest look at ourselves and how we got to where we are. Today, I’d like to do that, or at least attempt to start that conversation. 

    This is not going to be a sermon that causes political division in this congregation, at least, I hope not. Instead, I’d like this to be a few moments where we can think about how different those words are heard by the different people in this room.

    In this room and in this congregation, there are people who chose to immigrate here. People whose parents chose to immigrate here. There are people whose ancestors chose to immigrate here. Escaping religious persecution brought some here. And there are people whose ancestors were forced here in the belly of ships, and for generations were not here by choice.

    And yet all of our identities mix together is the wonderful, complicated, and often confused nation that we call home. This nation who welcomes citizen, neighbor, and stranger alike with these words:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

     I cannot, and will not even begin to attempt to explain what these words mean to an immigrant. Especially someone who is coming to these shores not with the goal of a better life, but with the goal of a life. Just the opportunity at living.

    I also cannot, and will not even begin to attempt to explain what these words mean to the great-great grandchild of a slave. Especially when science now shows that the trauma of our ancestors, their yearning to breathe free, is captured in the very DNA of a person for generations to follow.

    What I can tell you about, and what I’d like to talk about today, are what those words mean to me, and, how those words are impacted by my understanding of the Gospel. In full disclosure, I heard those words on the Statute of Liberty long before I read the Gospel of Matthew. I was actually in law school the first time I read the Gospel of Matthew.

    So it is through my lens, as a white, well educated, woman from a suburb of DC, that I read the Gospel for today. And honestly, the first time I read “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The first time I read those words, I was immediately struck by how similar those words are to the words that for more than 125 years have greeted immigrants entering New York harbor.

    I also read those words as the descendent of people who came here willingly. My ancestors had a choice in coming to America. My cousin actually did a ton of research on our family for a class project, and the Rockhills have been in America since almost the very beginning. It was by choice that my ancestors came here.

    I grew up learning about how awesome America is. Patriotism is practically taught in schools, at least it was when I was growing up. Slavery was discussed, but as an economic system on which this nation was built. The ramifications of slavery today, those are rarely discussed.

    But they are felt.

    At times I’ve found myself considering this very Scripture in terms of slavery. How different the words “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” must sound to a person who had to take a yoke upon their neck. 

    A yoke, for those of you who don’t know, is a piece of farming equipment that goes around the neck of an Ox, horse, or person, and it pulls the plow through a field. It can also be used to pull a cart.

    A yoke is heavy, and forces you to pull exceptionally heavy equipment through dirt, rocks, mud.

    The people that Jesus spoke to would almost certainly have known the weight and burden of a yoke. In addition to many people farming to survive, woven into their DNA would have been the hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. The metaphor would not have been lost, and the idea of carrying a lighter burden would have been a welcome message. Just as it would have been to the ears of a slave in America.

    The power, beauty, and comfort of these words is a bit lost today, at least on me. As a person who hasn’t pulled the weight and burden of a yoke, and whose ancestors haven’t in many, many years either.

    But when I hear the words of this Gospel, held against the words on the Statute of Liberty, those words come to life in an incredible way. Especially today. In the light of our current world, with its famine, fear, violence, terror, racism, and tendency towards isolationism.

    This is a nation who needs to learn what to do with our own history. We are a nation built on the words that all are welcome. But all didn’t mean then what we mean by all now. All meant all heterosexual, white, men. White meant Western European, but not Irish or Italian, or Spanish, or anyone with any pigment in their skin. White was a far more narrow term in the 1800’s. Some of the founders of this nation meant all as we understand it today. America was meant to be a place where all are welcome and treated equally.

    But some meant all should be limited to only those who fit into a narrow set of criteria. Yet, just as the term “white” has evolved into a much larger group, I would argue so has the term all.

Today, we are a nation that might open the door to the stranger, the immigrant, but we don’t and have never done a very good job of being welcoming once someone is here. And as a church, we need to work on this too.

    Caring for friend, neighbor, and stranger alike is grounded in the very fiber of the message of Christ. Christ calls for us to love, welcome, and care for all. Just as the words on the Statute of Liberty call us to do as well.

    The burdens of today are vastly different than the burdens of 2,000 years ago. The burdens of today are vastly different than they were in 1875, when those words were etched onto the Statute of Liberty.

    As Christians, we stand at a point where we need to decide if we actually believe in the words of the man we profess to follow. And then we must consider if we are willing to incorporate the words of Christ into how we live out our lives as Christians and citizens of this nation. And as a nation, we stand at a point where we need to decide if we mean what we said in 1875. 

    I encourage all of us to talk. And I intentionally include myself in this.

    Let’s talk about what those words mean to us. How we can live into the words of Christ. What the words of the Statute of Liberty mean to each of us.

    We have an incredible opportunity to learn from and with one another. Let us take that opportunity. Let us understand the burdens we all carry. The burdens that brought us to this church, today. Talk to someone that you didn’t come with today. When you leave, talk to someone you did come with. Or a friend, neighbor, or stranger, about them and their story. 

    Our yokes won’t seem as heavy when we shoulder them together. Let us rest together in the Golden Light of Christ’s lamp.

And let us learn together what it means to be a Christian in America today. 

Amen

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