For 17 years, 70-year-old grandmother Maria Ochoa has been wandering the Arizona desert providing humanitarian aid to those crossing the border from Mexico. She can check in on folks and give them water, but it’s not legal for her to transport migrants on their journey, so her heart often breaks when she has to leave someone behind or go call for help. Every time she sees vultures circling, she walks closer to check whether what they’re circling is a dead animal or an injured human. Maria says she’ll never forget one young 19-year-old woman named Grecia who was 7 months pregnant and needed help. The group they were traveling with left Grecia and her husband behind because they couldn’t keep up. Her husband left her under a shady tree to go get help from a border patrol officer, but Grecia was gone when they returned. Maria and other members of the Tucson Samaritans searched for over a month but never found her. The mission of the Samaritans group is to “provide a healing presence along the border.” Maria and so many others are trying their best to live out the call to discipleship described in today’s gospel — “follow me” — and the commandment set forth in our reading from Galatians: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Love your neighbor as yourself. So seemingly straightforward yet painfully difficult to abide by. And let’s not forget how it’s made even more difficult by folks on all sides of the political spectrum claiming they know best how to love and trying to define neighbor. As Christians, our call is not to argue with one another around why our side is right and the other side is wrong. Writer Anne Lamott reminds us, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
But what we are called to do is uphold the gospel: the good news of God in Christ. This week, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said:
What Jesus ultimately worried about goes back to the Way of Love. Did you feed people when they needed food, clothe them when they were naked, did you visit them when they were in prison. Did you take care of each other? That’s what God is passionate about. Love knows no borders.
Somewhere along the way, people around the world have gotten the impression that the United States holds the promise of freedom. Perhaps it’s from the words of that beacon, Lady Liberty:
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!
Surely those attempting to cross onto U.S. soil have heard stories of the bleak conditions at our borders, but for some reason they’re willing to risk that because what they’re fleeing is so bad that they cannot imagine a worse fate. You’ve probably seen the horrific photo that’s left an impression on the nation this week: migrant father from El Salvador, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria. Valeria is tucked into her dad’s shirt, arm wrapped around his neck, and they are both face down in the Rio Grande. They were trying to cross into the United States to seek asylum, and decided to swim across the river when they found out the bridge was closed. But they didn’t make it.
That’s when my phone started ringing. That’s when people started asking me, “What can we do for the children on the border? How can we help them?” People from all sides, including the Republican chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, were moved to tears by the photo and said that this fate shouldn’t befall anyone.
Paul writes to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Not for strife and anger and factions. Those things won’t set us free. Our job as followers of Jesus is to live out the gospel, the gospel of love and peace and generosity and kindness. In our baptismal covenant, we vow to respect the dignity of every human being. Those who have come seeking our help are our fellow humans. They have names and stories. Many of them are not entering the country illegally, but through the official asylum seeking process, and yet children are separated from parents and given a concrete floor to sleep on. This, my friends, is not gospel. This is not the good news.
Even if we’re still struggling with how best to define neighbor or what constitutes love, we cannot look past the children living in fear. Most children panic when they lose their parent in a large store for a few minutes, but these children are spending nights apart from the person who shows them love and security. God has entrusted us — communally — with children and Jesus is clear about his stance on them: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And when the disciples argued over who was greatest, Jesus took a child and said, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
Loving our neighbor as ourself is not singing kumbaya around a campfire with folks who don’t look like us. It is giving our voice to the voiceless, protecting the vulnerable, and caring for our children. Loving our neighbor as ourself means that we must also love ourselves. We are called to look in the mirror and see a person created imago dei — in the image of God — and to look out at our siblings around the world and see that they, too, are created imago dei.
In our gospel passage from Luke, there’s a lot that the disciples don’t seem to get right. There’s a lot that we don’t get right. But there’s no point at which Jesus exasperatedly cries, “You know what? Never mind! I don’t need help from any of y’all. Why don’t you just head on home and I’ll take it from here.” Jesus continues inviting us to try again and again, to follow him and to live out God’s commandments. Despite that ongoing invitation, today’s message bears some urgency. Jesus is saying, “No more excuses. No more chances to act tomorrow. The time is now!”
We are a people grounded in community and led by the Holy Spirit. We don’t simply jump to action without first prayerfully considering that to which God is calling us. But after we take the time to center and listen for God’s voice, we must heed the call: Follow me. Prayer, followed by action, followed by prayer. We can lift our voices, we can educate ourselves, we can share our resources of time and money, and we can join others in lament and hope. With us in all of these things is God, just as God is with God’s children at the border and just as God will be with us in the hills and valleys of life.
Let us love one another with the liberating love of Jesus. For freedom Christ has set us free. Come along now; follow me.