Aliens Among Us

In today’s gospel, Luke takes us farther along in the story we heard last week:

Jesus is in the synagogue and has read some passages from the prophet Isaiah. The people were initially “amazed at the  gracious words that came from his mouth.” They seemed particularly happy that a local fellow, Joseph’s son, was so talented.

Things were going well, but then Jesus begins to taunt them saying things that don’t make much sense—at least, to me they don’t, on the surface.

He says they’ll ask him why he won’t do for them the things they’ve heard he has done in Capernaum (another town in Galilee). He then goes on with a tirade about how the prophets Elijah and Elisha had been sent by God to heal a widow in Sidon and a leper in Syria and NOT in Israel.

It is perplexing to hear all this if one doesn’t have some context:

First, Jesus has returned to his hometown. He’s back in Galilee (the province where he grew up) after being baptized in the Jordan and then spending 40 days in the desert. So he is going back to the people he knew and who had known him growing up to launch his career. But what an odd way to do it! Right?

Second, the people in Nazareth are well pleased with one of their own being a good teacher and a healer who works wonders. So, it’s shocking to to see how abruptly things go down hill. What happened? Why this sudden change?

Well, for one, we have to understand that the people in Nazareth don’t know what we know. (They haven’t read Luke!) Unlike us, they don’t know that Jesus was baptized and has been sent on a mission by God. It’s as if the author has set this scene on purpose for Jesus to deliver his message to Luke’s audience, and to us, against the backdrop of a synagogue in his hometown.

His message was quite harsh. What Jesus is telling his fellow townspeople is that he has come to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed, but not necessarily to them. Back in Jesus’ time, the poor were not only those who had no money, but also those who were the underprivileged minorities of first century Palestine—the widows, the lepers, the aliens…

So, when Jesus tells his fellow Nazarenes, “Doubtless, you will quote me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” what he means is that he senses his fellow townsmen want to keep him for themselves. They are excited to have a healer and miracle worker who’s one of their own. But he disabuses them of this notion before they can even utter the words by telling them that no prophet is accepted in his own land.  Going further, maybe too far for what his people could swallow, Jesus equates himself with the prophets of old.

And this was just the last straw: the crowd loses it –they want to kill Jesus right then and there. You see, in first-century Palestine, proclaiming oneself a prophet was a crime punishable with death by stoning!

One way we can interpret this story is by understanding that Luke wanted to tell his audience, who were probably non Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine, and by extension to us, that Jesus’ mission went way beyond his small town of Nazareth.

Jesus became an alien to his own people. He alienated his hometown folks, and he seems to have done it on purpose to challenge them to their core, to make them understand that his ministry was all-inclusive and that the good news he was bringing was for everyone, and not just for a few chosen ones..

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Being an alien is not easy.  When you’re an Alien you are the Other, an Outsider, a Foreigner, a Stranger; in sum, you are one of  THEM and not one of US.  Being the other is scary for the alien but sometimes even scarier for the one who looks at that stranger from the other side. I know, because I have been an alien many times in my life.

I came to this country first and foremost because I loved the idea of the US, a country of opportunity—the land of the free and home of the brave. I also came in search of a more peaceful atmosphere for me, and especially for my young daughter. My case was not dire as those of so many people whose tragic stories we constantly hear and see in the news—people seeking asylum, those in imminent danger of losing their life and their livelihood. And yet, when I came here, my country, Colombia, was in the midst of a wave of drug-related violence in one of the worst episodes of a country riddled with internal strife for decades. I was a professional and made a good living and in a stroke of luck was hired to work as a graduate professor in Monterrey, California.

I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. It was awesome to live in quiet Monterrey. I could barely believe that we had made it—that my daughter and I were living in the US, at last!

Being an alien in those early days wasn’t a matter of not knowing the language or the culture. I spoke English and, as a worldly person, I fit right in with the people around me—students and fellow professors who came not only from all over the States but also from all over the world. We were all aliens, and that made us kin.

Living the day to day didn’t feel strange. Ironically, I had always felt more of an alien in my own country because I grew up in Bogota, but my family was from Medellin where people talked and acted very differently. Also, growing up, I was the tallest girl in my school—an only child who wore glasses and preferred reading and philosophizing to going out. My parents encouraged me to think critically and to draw my own conclusions. One of the first decisions I made as a very young adult was to leave the Catholic Church of my childhood, which was unheard of in a country where 99% of the population is Roman Catholic.

So when I came to this country I really couldn’t be more of an alien than I had been in Colombia. Here I felt free to be whoever I was meant to be—a feeling I still treasure to this day.

However, the road from being a lawfully documented alien to a naturalized citizen was a long affair. Even if I felt I belonged in this country, there were all the legal hoops to go through—the alphabet soup of working visas and the trips to what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Jose. There was fear and longing in the eyes of my fellow aliens which mirrored my own anxiety at the (hopefully remote) possibility of being denied the next visa for a reason beyond my control. There was the feeling of guilt and suspicion for being Colombian and the dread that the INS officer might decide that I had overstayed my welcome.

That’s all in the remote past now, but there are moments when I am reminded that I’m still an alien, especially at this time in our history where we’re seeing an increase in xenophobia, racism and intolerance.

When I was going to seminary a fellow student and good friend said to me once, “I think we’re very lucky, you and me, because we PASS!”

What she meant was that while she was a lesbian, she looked very girly and liked dresses and makeup, and I was white, so on the surface people didn’t detect us as ALIENS.

However, that is a myth because, ultimately, we are who we are and we all have to live with that reality for better or for worse. I consider myself bilingual, bicultural, binational. I am American to the core but also Colombian in the deepest recesses of my being. This is part of who I am, but I am many other things as well, as is everybody else.

It still catches me off guard when a person I may have known for a while discovers that I am not from the US, and they immediately begin to treat me as the other – “the alien.” There’ve been a couple of times when someone has started to speak more slowly to make sure I’m following the gist of what they’re saying; this regardless of the fact that 5 minutes before we were chatting away like old pals!

And I understand; I do. I myself am not free from bias and prejudice. I also am guilty of sometimes treating others who are different from me like aliens. We humans have a vestigial fear of the stranger. Our prehistoric ancestors had a tough time surviving, so they had to make sure their clan was there for support and protection. Foreigners coming to their turf could spell disaster and doom for their group, so genes were passed from generation to generation that promoted cooperation inside the clan and aggression toward outsiders.

So it’s little wonder that our normal reaction to strangers is rejection!

Which is why Jesus’ challenge to his own people was so shocking and dramatic.

He came back to his town of Nazareth to give them notice: God belongs to everyone, and sometimes even more so to those who are not US—to the aliens!

Jesus’ message shocked his own people, but I wonder how the folks for whom Luke wrote felt? As we know they were mostly non Jewish and probably not living in Palestine. So the message for them may have felt like validation that the good news of Jesus was (and continues to be) universal.

The challenge for us today in our crazy and complex world is to beware of our tendency to alienate those whom we perceive as different. I’m not talking necessarily about literal foreigners, because I know that the greater challenge may be in dealing with those closest to us who, for one reason or another, become strangers, alien to us, and whom we choose to reject and despise.

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Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has asked us to follow his Way of Love, and this week’s word is GO. In his vision, the way to GO is by crossing boundaries, listening deeply, and living like Jesus.

The boundaries I’m inviting us to cross are not physical but mental. Let us be open to the Other, to the Stranger, to the one who’s different from us for whatever reason—country of origin, level of education, sexual orientation or political conviction, you name it. And let us remember to be open to the stranger in ourselves.

So how do you accomplish this, you ask. Well, by listening deeply—with an open heart. This allows us to see the humanity in the other and in ourselves. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “love is patient, love is kind: love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

Yes, kindness is the secret: loving-kindness. If we treat everyone, absolutely everyone with respect, if we truly see the other—whoever they may be—as our fellow human being, if we truly listen, we will be well on our way to live like Jesus did.

Another thing that Jesus did, which is a worthy example for us to follow, was to GO in search of solitude and quiet to pray. If you remember, before returning to Galilee to launch his ministry, he went to the desert to be alone and in silence for 40 days.

I imagine that after his baptismal experience he needed some time to process what had happened and to digest the good news he was commissioned to deliver.

So I urge us too to do as he did: Let’s GO out into the world and live like Jesus did by challenging our preconceived ideas of who is an alien. But also GO into your inner silence. It is through this work of sitting and quietly listening to our inner guide that we learn to know ourselves as we really are; we begin to let go of the false ego and the deluded notions about ourselves and others and truly embrace compassion for all of human kind.

I am reminded of Thomas Merton, the great American thinker who in his very human contradictions was a monk who lived as a hermit in a monastery, but who also longed to be out in the world. One day while in the streets of Louisville he had a moment of enlightenment and wrote about it in his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people. They were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness and of spurious self-isolation.”

This is my prayer.