“Does it make a difference if I am Muslim?”

Mia preaching

A sermon preached by CDSP student Mia Benjamin in All Saints Chapel on January 30:

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’”

I was going to preach a very different sermon today. Right up until last Friday, that is. That’s when I learned that President Trump signed an Executive Order suspending the entry of refugees and immigrants into the United States. His order affects the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, and it’s still unclear whether that applies green card and visa holders. Perhaps you, like me, have spent this past weekend praying for friends abroad who are now suddenly unable to return home. American doctors, professors, students, and business owners facing exile from the homeland they have served and built and taught and healed.

I often wish, and perhaps you do as well, that following Jesus always means going off on a grand adventure and slaying the huge dragons of racism and poverty and all those big, sexy national issues that everyone is talking about. And the thing is sometimes it does. Sometimes following Jesus does mean leaving behind family, friends, and careers to move across the country. Sometimes it means getting arrested at Standing Rock, or shutting down an airport terminal, or even breaking the law. But then there are these other times Jesus refuses us. Times when Jesus asks us to start small and slow, right where we are. With ourselves, with our friends, with our neighbors.

The story we read today from Mark’s Gospel is about Jesus casting demons out of a suffering man. It ends with the people of his city deciding to respond with fear. After hearing what Jesus had done, and how much one man’s liberation had cost them as a community, the people beg Jesus to leave their town. And as he’s getting into his boat, the healed man begs to go with Jesus. But Jesus refuses. The man asks if he can follow Jesus, and Jesus says “no, go home.”

This past January intercession, several of us took a course in broad-based community organizing. As I sat through class, literally sitting there knitting hats for the big national, million-person Women’s March that weekend, our instructors taught us the incredible power of starting small and slow and local. The basic building blocks of community organizing, we learned, were not taking huge, dramatic, uncompromising stands about our principles, but rather the humble steps of sharing of stories, first one-on-one and then in small groups. Through those stories, we learn what our neighbors really care about, the winnable issues they have the energy to change. In other words, we learn to look for where the Holy Spirit is already agitating folks to transform their community, and we join in with them.

So what happens when big, national stuff hurts our friends and makes us angry? I struggled a lot this weekend, this whole past week really, with not knowing what actions to take. Whom do I call? What petitions do I sign? Where’s the march happening? Where can I find Jesus leading a faithful band and climb aboard? Where’s the boat, I’ll jump right in.

But Jesus refused, and said to me, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

So here’s the good news. I do have a story to tell. Many, actually. All about the ways that God has worked through Muslims and citizens of Muslim-majority countries to transform and liberate me. All about Iranian professors who taught me to write academic theses and how to make rice with saffron and potatoes. Jordanian Muslim women who taught me how to look patriarchal religious clerics in the eye and hold them to the woman-affirming words of their holy book. A young Egyptian man with a rubber bullet shard in his forehead who taught me what it really means to demand democracy. Palestinian Muslim neighbors who taught me how to love the bend my body makes when I worship God and all about the holy scent of miramiya tea.

You probably have stories, too. Stories of what God has done for you through the work of human hands. Hands that carry the wrong sort of national identification cards, or lips that use the wrong name for God. Maybe you have stories of the ways people, the ones we’re told to fear, Muslims, immigrants, and foreigners, have calmed your demons and been your neighbor. Tell those stories. To your friends, to your neighbors, to the world.

Because here’s the other good news in this passage. Like many of the other people Jesus heals in the Gospel of Mark, this man doesn’t listen to Jesus, not really. He doesn’t get in the boat with Jesus, but he also isn’t satisfied with just telling his friends. This Jesus-follower travels all around the Decapolis, the region of the ten cities, proclaiming all that God has done for him. The good news, then, is that Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That his refusal may not be a rejection at all, but a calling to the larger gifts of the spirit we never knew we had.

There are many people in this world who are afraid of the power of outcasts with second chances. There are many who have been taught only to look to what bringing a madman in from a place of death might cost us. What does Jesus ask you to do for them? What does he refuse you to do?

My answer came to me from my college professor’s daughter, and the words she asked her father to share on social media:

“Salam, Hello. I am eleven years old. I am living for a year in Iran. Me and my family were hoping that this new law would not apply to green-card holders. I was shocked when I first heard of this law. I have lived for 9 years in the U.S.A. Does that make me different from the people who are around me and are citizens? I consider myself just as American. Does it make a difference if I am Muslim? Is that wrong? I have lived and talked and laughed with the people who have supported this law. I cannot believe that they would do this to me. So I ask you to reach out. Reach out to the people and tell them our stories…I ask you all to do something about it, to help these people who have done no wrong to come home. It is not the time to stand at the sidelines and watch other people to do our work for us. And I hope with all my heart that the people that are stuck with nowhere to go, will soon find their way home.” Amen.

Mia Benjamin ’19 is an MDiv student from the Diocese of Massachusetts.