A reflection on Luke 18:9-14 for Proper 15C, St. Mary's Crystal Lake, IL
A couple of years ago, while living in Arizona, the bishop organized our annual clergy conference to take place in a small town on the US/Mexico border. For the next 36 hours we immersed ourselves in learning about immigration and came away with a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation. Recently the House of Bishops had this experience; Bishop Lee has posted a video of that experience on the Diocesan website.
As Christians we can’t, in good faith, dismiss this as a simple legal issue, one in which we have no accountability except to arrest those crossing over without documentation. At the very least we are involved because of the interwoven global economy not to mention the coffee industry. And who knows how the drug industry and slave trade actually impact our lives without our knowing, but I suspect they do. We have a responsibility to become informed.
Our time across the border was profound and left me with much to ponder. We spent the day visiting a shelter that housed those who had recently been deported back into Mexico and learned of the blistered feet and starving bodies, of robbery, rape, and abandonment. We toured a coffee co-op where families in Mexico had joined together to change their lives by growing, roasting, and shipping fair trade coffee with the support of a Presbyterian church in Mexico and an Episcopal church across the border in Douglas. And we toured a drug and alcohol rehab center of the outskirts of Agua Prieta. It was here that I learned something about life changing compassion in the midst of extreme poverty.
The rehab center had a habit of taking in anyone who showed up at the gate. They had a housing center for women and their children, another for men and even a place for the mentally ill. These were just buildings with concrete or dirt floors, and lots of bunk beds. They had a community hall for AA meetings, a shower room, and a kitchen for co-op cooking. People could come and stay as long as they needed. Everyone participated in cleaning and cooking and running the place. It was important to the director that people leave only when they had a job and could prove that they could keep that job, and when they had found a place to live outside the facility. They offered job training and job placement, often in the local hospital, where decent jobs could be found. The director shared his own story of recovery and how he had found that place years before, had gotten sober, and stayed on working until he became the director. But the most profound story he told was about a man he found wandering in the desert.
It was the custom of this director to pick up homeless psychotic people and bring them to the center where they were housed in a special locked area. Although locked, the area for the mentally ill was in the center of facility, and everyone could engage with the mentally ill. When I was there I saw a man who walked in circles, around and around. The director told us that one time he got a call about a man wandering in the desert. The director went out and picked him up. The man could not speak, he had no sense of who he was or where he was from. He was brought to the center and treated with medication, with love, shelter, food, and clothing. Every day for four years the man was cared for.
And then one day he woke up from his stupor and remembered who he was. He gave the director his name, where he was from in California, and the phone number of his parents. The director called his parents who were astonished that their son was found, and safe. They had lost contact with him years before and had no way of locating him, not knowing where he was at all. A few days later the family came and picked up their son. It was a joyful reunion. To this day that man is well, and the family continues to send gifts of gratitude to support the cause of rehabilitation at this center.
The border experience, and especially this humble rehab center, built on dirt and concrete floors, in the desert of Mexico, is an example of the grace we hear in our Gospel reading this morning. It has helped me see the ways in which we too are both the Pharisee and the tax collector, the ways we are whole and well, and good and faithful, and the ways we can become arrogant and presume that we are better than these broken, poor addicts, in a disgustingly filthy rehab center in Mexico. That is until we learn of the profound compassion that lives in that place, and then we realize just what it means to truly be faithful to the Gospel. What it means to love others, those known and unknown, with the compelling and comprehensive compassion of Christ.
Because the good news that we learn as a people of faith is that we are not completely separate independent people – we are instead interdependent with God and one another. Our lives are interwoven with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with you, with me, with our neighbor and the stranger. We live in a web of connectedness.
When I work to enable my life to become better, and do so in a faithful manner, I am also impacting the lives of others, enabling their lives to become better. This is especially true when we are intentional in thinking about others, even as we think about ourselves. That intentionality can be as simple as the coffee we drink or the chocolate we eat. Drinking fair trade coffee supports farmers in Mexico and reduces their reliance on income from illegal drugs or illegal immigration. Eating fair trade chocolate reduces the opportunity for companies to exploit children, children who are often forced into slave labor for the production of our candy bars. There are simple ways we can become aware of the world around us. We are called to understand how we contribute, in ways we least expect to the problems.
We are good people, gathered here today, of that I have no doubt. But let us not get too full of our own goodness. Let us instead remember, that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. For it is only by the grace of God that our lives are blessed and it is for the grace of God that we strive to judge not, but rather, be a blessing to others.