It is a delight to be among you today. Pastor Brian invited me to come and be among you and I jumped at the opportunity. We have something big that connects us together. Both of us—Cal Lutheran and Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church are both institutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Over the years, 42 years in fact, SOTH supported Cal Lutheran and its seminary, PLTS with 84,000 to fuel its mission and work. In addition, you have supported students from your congregation with scholarship support through the Congregational Partner in Education award. Thank you!
Years ago, 60 years ago in fact, members of the Lutheran community and churches within the southwest like yours would come to campus and literally help us to turn chicken coops into classrooms. That is exactly what happened. I thank you for this support which has fueled our mission.
On behalf of Chris Kimball, our President, I thank you for your partnership in the gospel and for your prayers and advocacy for all the colleges and universities of the ELCA. Your Lutheran university’s serve best when we labor to raise up leaders who are strong in character and judgment, confident in their identity and vocation, and committed to service and justice.
It is good to be among you.
“The heart cannot feel what the eye cannot see.”
These were his words to us as we prepared to venture into Tijuana the following morning. Twenty-two students and staff from Cal Lutheran were traveling to the San Diego for a Justice at the Border event sponsored by Campus Ministry. We met with ELCA Pastor Bill Bruggeman on Friday night to prepare for all that we might see and feel the following day.
“The heart cannot feel what the eye cannot see”, Bill said. “You will see a lot tomorrow when you cross the border”.
It was a promise that he kept. Our eyes could scarcely take it all in.
We saw two business men roast 12 pounds of organic, fair trade coffee and serve it to us as if we were royalty. They were committed to coffee with justice—giving Mexican workers fair wages for their products in the hopes of improving coffee farmers lives.
We saw a garbage dump where women and young children would scrounge around looking for anything they could recycle and sell to make a few dollars. A nun saw that and had compassion. She developed a day care center for the children. She brought in cosmetologists to teach the women how to cut, style, and color hair. She opened a beauty parlor for the women and eventually a bakery so they could have an income and a business and a future.
We saw a shelter for men who had been deported from the US back to Mexico. It was easy to have conversations with the men who would be housed there for up to two weeks because most of them spoke English having lived in the United States for years, some of them decades. Each of them had illegally entered the states. Some of them entered legally but overstayed their time frame of their work cards. All of them entered hoping for a better life and daily work.
We saw a protest march of people calling for the end of corruption within the Mexican police, an end to bribery, and a start of a fair judicial system. They marched with signs and placards, their leader calling out his opinions on a bullhorn for all to hear.
We saw lots more than I can share this morning. The students left the border knowing the issues related to immigration were more complex than we had thought. We were less able to arrive at an easy sound bite answer that would end this public debate. All of it was far beyond the lines that we draw up today about liberals and conservatives and right and left wing and politics. Yet more than that, Bill’s words to us came true. The heart cannot feel what the eye cannot see.
In this morning’s gospel reading recorded in the first chapter of John, we encounter John the Baptist. However, in this portion of the reading, we meet John not as he is baptizing his community but as he is testifying, or witnessing, to Jesus. Maybe in this story from the New Testament we could rename John as John the Witness.
In this gospel story we meet John the Witness, with his community just as Jesus is walking towards them. John perks up. Oh my gosh. It is a celebrity sighting of sorts. John the Witness tells everyone within earshot of his voice what he has seen. “Here is the Lamb of God!”
“This is the one I have been telling you about. This is the one who takes away the sin of the world. People. Look. There he is.”
“Remember how I told you that I saw the Holy Spirit descend upon from up above like a dove lighting upon his head. The Spirit remained there. It didn’t leave him. This is the one who baptizes with the Spirit itself. I have seen this. Believe me. This is the Lamb of God, the Son of God!”
It happens again the very next day. John and two of his disciples are talking together and Jesus walks by. Oh my gosh. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John is testifying to what he knows as true. John is a witness.
And something happens. The two disciples leave John like a hot potato and they follow after Jesus. They drop what they are doing and scamper away to see if they can get close to the One of whom John has testified.
Jesus must hear the sound of their footfall as the two men hurry to catch up to him. Jesus turns around and asks the, “What are you looking for?”
“Where are you staying?” they want to know. Jesus replies, “Come and see.” And that’s what they did. They hung out with Jesus where he was staying for the rest of the day.
Yet something more happens. One of men was Andrew. He left Jesus and went to find his brother, Simon Peter.
“Peter, you have got to come. We have met the Messiah.” And Simon Peter left what he was doing and came to see Jesus and met him face to face, eye to eye.
The heart cannot feel what the eye cannot see.
Which begs the question, doesn’t it?
What have we felt in our hearts and have come to believe in our minds because of what we have seen in Jesus?
What have we seen in the witness of who Jesus is and how he loves that makes a difference in the way we live and who we love?
Truly, if Jesus is the one who speaks the word to us saying “Come and see”, then our relationship with him is not a bystander event, is it? It is an invitation that elicits an action, a response, from us.
I think the truth here is that Jesus extends this big invitation to us to come and see. And when we do, we are to go and tell.
What might this mean? Karoline Lewis, a Lutheran pastor and professor at Luther Seminary, in reflecting on this story from John’s gospel, wrote that “Come and See” means that we have received an invitation to imagine:
That our voices might matter in the public arena.
That we might indeed believe that what we have to say can matter to the conversation about God’s work in the world.
That how we shape our congregational life might indeed move out into a world that needs to know it is loved.
Dr. Lewis is asking all of us to “point to how all of us are called—to give witness—to how God is present, to how Jesus reveals God, to how the Kingdom of God is here and now and actually makes a difference for our here and now.”
A year ago picketers from Westboro Baptist Church came to Thousand Oaks. They came because they were outraged that the Thousand Oaks High School had a LGTBQ Pride club and a Catholic club, and a mental health club. They used their voice to in essence say “come and see that God sent the shooter to Borderline Bar & Grill as a judgment upon the high school of Thousand Oaks.”
I realize that there are different ways to respond to the voice of hate that is manifested by Westboro Baptist. Each of the ways are appropriate ways to respond. Some folks may want to ignore them with conviction, to not call media attention to this voice of hatred. Some folks may want to plan alternative events at the same time as the picketers are around to share an alternative message. Some folks want to stage a counter protest, to be present alongside the picketers to voice publicly a different message of resistance and love and to make this voice heard.
When Westboro Baptist Church came to Thousand Oaks, I had to move from bystander to being a witness. How does my identity as a Christian, as a Lutheran pastor in the ELCA, inform how I voice my convictions? Who is the neighbor to which Christ calls me to advocate and support?
Spending time with Cal Lu students making posters for the counter protest and preparing them to encounter hate was holy time. Talking with members of the university PRIDE club about the ways they were reaching out and being neighbors to the high school PRIDE club was holy time. Standing with a crowd of witnesses from local churches and the university in a counter protest voicing God’s welcome and love for all was holy time.
I think these students and staff were witnessing and testifying to the truth that they came to know and see. They are, all of them, present day reformers. They have come and seen something in Jesus about God, a holy truth that is poured into them through the grace and abundant love from God that convicts then that God’s love is greater than any hate. When the world seems upside down and turned inside out, God’s people stand firm to resist division wherever it is found and work towards God’s vision of justice and welcome that brings people together to work for the common good.
I want you to know that this calling we have to walk the Jesus way is not easy. It is not easy to bring life to the places of hostility in the world. It is not easy to counter the voice of evil with the claims of how Jesus loves the world.
Indeed, the heart cannot feel what the eye cannot see.
So come and see again. There are signs of hope even now. Testify. Testify to that which heals the world and brings community together. Testify to God’s vision for our common life. Testify to the constant and disarming love of God that propels us to work for freedom, for equality, for justice for all. Amen.