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5-7-17 The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's 8am Service - 4 Easter

4 Easter Year A 5-7-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Acts 2:42-47; Ps. 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

You are our shepherd; we shall not be in want. You make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters. Revive our souls! Guide us along right pathways for your Name's sake!  AMEN.

This week, NPR’s Code Switch program highlighted an anniversary, the 135th anniversary of the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” On the Code Switch website, the article by Kat Chow opens with a truly unforgettable image:

A Chinese man stands on a pedestal surrounded by a harbor as a cartoon imitation of the Statue of Liberty. His clothes are tattered, his hair is in a long, thin tail, his eyes squint. The words "diseases," "filth," "immorality," and "ruin to white labor" float around his head. This man is the center of an iconic image from 1881 called "A Statue for Our Harbor," made by the cartoonist George Frederick Keller. The image reflects the widespread anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant sentiment of the time, and was used to drum up support for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which turns 135 on Saturday. The law limited Chinese immigration and barred them from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.”


Why would Chinese people be the target of this novel effort to limit immigration, this “exclusion law,” as it was aptly named, “the very first time in American history that immigrants were barred because of their race and class [?] Some of it was about numbers: In 1882, when Congress passed the law, there were 39,600 men and women from China who arrived in the U.S. Just three years later, there were only 22, according to early records that [Erika Lee, a professor at the University of Minnesota,] came across in her research” for her book At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During The Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chinese had been immigrating from extreme poverty in China as laborers on our railroads and in our timber and fishing industries on the West Coast.

But we were a big, brawling country with a wildly expanding industrial base. Why exclude any possible worker? Especially given that the owner class was developing a wealth unforeseen anywhere in the world, as the Gilded Age came to a glittering roar? The article’s author Chow points to “the parallels between the political climate of the exclusion era and today: a close and contentious presidential election that stirred anti-immigrant sentiment” and “the growing economic anxiety of white [especially working-class] Americans”which led to “policies that would drastically shape the country's immigration laws.”

Then she quotes scholar Erika Lee again, "Beginning in 1882, the United States stopped being a nation of immigrants that welcomed foreigners without restrictions, borders or gates. Instead, it became a ... gatekeeping nation… In the process, the very definition of what it meant to be an 'American' became even more exclusionary."

Chow goes on to write, “The 1876 presidential race between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden was a major turning point in the country's stance on immigration. Leading up to the election, the race was so close and electoral votes were so coveted, it brought California's ongoing fight to push out Chinese immigrants to the national stage, Lee said. Many Californians worried that Chinese laborers would take their jobs, and that they were sexually lecherous threats to society.

Lee said that anti-immigrant measures in the 1880s — and today — were driven by both working class people and elites, as well as those who had a "vested economic interest in border walls and detention centers." The Chinese Exclusion Act set the groundwork for immigrant detention centers and the country's first large-scale deportation of a single immigrant group. Specifically, the exclusion era brought an expansion of the federal government in terms of hiring more immigrant inspectors, whose responsibilities included working as interpreters and at the detention facilities.” [Ibid.]

In John’s Gospel today, Jesus is fresh from his encounter in Chapter 9 with “the man born blind.” Remember this from the Fourth Sunday in Lent? He’s the man who, convinced that Jesus had in fact performed the miracle of healing his eyes, stands up to the temple authorities in defense of his certainty. That earns him no credit. Instead, the authorities, feeling threatened by Jesus’ evident powers, have just ejected the man from the Temple for insolence, precisely as they had Jesus, shortly before him. John says, at the end of Chapter 9, “ Jesus heard that they had driven [the man] out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.

Can you feel how tense the atmosphere is at this point? This is very direct talk on Jesus’ part, even AFTER he has earned the ire of the authorities. And his status – as one ejected from the Temple – is very marginalized and very adversarial with respect to those authorities. It is at THIS point that our passage in Chapter 10 begins.

I tell you all this because it’s easy to let the language of Scripture lull us into thinking its primary goal is reassurance. Far from it. The goal of John’s Gospel is nothing less than to transform our souls to more nearly approximate – to literally become part of – the love of God, that love that moved Jesus to offer himself on the Cross – the instrument of his “glory” as John says, over and over. Transformation is hard work, and suffering and marginalization is threaded through the process, because we resist, we are frightened to love, we are frightened to let loose our grip on our separate identity. And the societal forces around us likewise find transformation immensely threatening to their identity.

When Jesus embarks on the language of shepherding in Chapter 10, he and the man born blind are outside the temple, knowing they cannot re-enter. When Jesus says of the “shepherd of the sheep,” “he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice,” “the verb for being thrown out of the synagogue in Chapter 9 is the same Greek verb translated in Chapter 10 verse 4 as ‘when he has brought out his own,’ and related to the verb in the phrase of 10:3, ‘and leads them out.’” [New Proclamation Year A 2011] You need to know what has just transpired in Chapter 9 to know from this verbal echo that Jesus is the good shepherd in this story, leading his sheep even out of the very Temple in Jerusalem, the den of those thieves and bandits that are sheep-stealing.

Next thing you know, in one of those dreamlike transitions so common in John, Jesus has gone from shepherd to gate. “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

John is writing at a very tense time in the evolution of both Judaism and Christianity. Like two siblings close in age, the two faiths are struggling for identity as the Romans persecute them both. Much of John’s Gospel seems forged in this struggle, as if to form Christian identity, the Jewish identity must be lessened, even belittled. When one reads these stories, one wonders, what was the threat that made the imagery of the gate so appealing to John’s hearers? What was going to intrude? What had to be “kept out?”

When our identity is threatened, we are always tempted to erect gates – and the walls that hold them. If only we could shelter behind those protections, we could hold our identity firm.

So it was when the American government erected the wall of the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” If we can just keep those strange people with their different language and their different appearance out, so the thinking went, all will be well with us. But the world was growing ever smaller then, steamships connecting continents and telegrams closing communications. And so it is today, with globalization drawing us closer and closer and closer together. There is no returning to the old days of “nationhood,” with identities kept separate by long histories of culture and experience. Our histories are being woven together. Our president Donald Trump himself is a billionaire precisely by using these global economic opportunities to their fullest. Yet we are surrounded by the language of “walls” to keep out “undesirables,” like those Chinese laborers of the late 19th century.

Today, we need no more “exclusion acts” of any kind. We need no more ejections from the temple. Instead, we need the shepherd Jesus, who leads us out from behind our self-protective walls. We need Jesus, the Gate of Love, whose protection is to CONNECT, not to separate and exclude. We need a shepherd whose loving nurture leads us right through the valley of death that is the most profound threat to our identity, so that we can be transformed from our old identities and find a NEW identity as loving “ministers of reconciliation,” open to all humankind, restoring the world to God and each other in the power of the resurrection. AMEN.