One of the dearest ladies on the planet used to live at Jan Hus. Her name was Miss Esther Viola Rance. Some of you remember her by name. Nearly all of us would recognize her by face. Miss Essie was a Jamaican lady who came to the United States in 1960-something. Not too long after she arrived, she landed at Jan Hus. She lived here for 40 years before she passed away last February. Miss Essie was 94 years old.
Every weekday morning until close to the day she died, there was Miss Essie on the stairs. Carefully balanced against the railing, she would navigate four flights to the lobby where she would stop for a while and talk with Gerard or Josephine or Rob or Derrick or Jordan. Laughing. Always with bright eyes laughing as she headed out to volunteer, go to the post office, walk to the bank or pick up something to eat.
Every single afternoon, the scene would reverse. Coming back from her day around neighborhood, Miss Essie would stop in the lobby and sit. Jordan, Josephine, Derrick, Gerard, Rob weaving in and out in their day-to-day work in the Urban Outreach Center would stop and sit, too. There was always time to talk.
On Tuesdays, they’d share a meal –Miss Essie and Gerard, sometimes Derrick and Josephine and Jacquie. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, enjoying a piece of chicken. She would close her eyes and lick her fingers with a wide smile. It was always. “So good, pastor.”
But on Sundays, Miss Essie would stop. In between her comings and goings from her small room upstairs, in between her walks around the neighborhood and her loving conversations with everyone she saw, Miss Essie would stop in the sanctuary and tend to the house of the Lord. She cleaned the candlesticks; she set the communion table; she moved the chairs if they needed a nudge; she put some dollars in her offering envelope. Then she would sit. After the work was complete, she would sit and wait for worship.
Miss Essie is a saint who loved this church that was her family and her home: the people, the food, the sanctuary, the worship services: the hymns, the prayers, the communion every time it was served.
It’s this image of a lovely, faithful, hard-working Jamaican immigrant that’s pressed against my heart this last couple of weeks as we’ve been subjected to persistent, vitriolic commentary on immigrants from our nation’s elected officials and the voters that support them.---those hideous, damnable comments that have flashed across the newswires and twitter feeds, feeding American as well as international hate for people who are in places of despair.
As pastor of this church founded by immigrants, saints that they were to persevere in this City and build a church today that has saved thousands of saints from despair; a congregation founded by immigrants, and tended by immigrants and still helped to thrive by the work and dedication of immigrants who are turning the lights on certain mornings so others can live a better life, the nationalist commentary that put me over the top in the past week was President Trump’s announcement that US troops would treat rock-throwing immigrants as if they were carrying guns.
You heard it too, right? “Anybody throwing stones, rocks, like they did to Mexico and the Mexican military and Mexican police and where they badly hurt police and soldiers of Mexico, we will consider that a firearm.” (11/1/18). It was this speech that emboldened the Nigerian Prime Minister to unleash hell over the weekend, killing hundreds of his adversaries for, well, throwing rocks.
In our gospel reading today (John 11: 32-44), Jesus went to Bethany where Lazarus had been entombed for four days. Weeping, Jesus approached the tomb of his dear friend, the one dead, bound and buried.
He commanded that the stone the front of Lazarus’ tomb be thrown aside. We’ve just heard the story:
Jesus called for Lazarus to come out and he did. Jesus called for his bindings to be removed, and they did. Lazarus was resurrected – enabled to live by the mercy of the Lord, so that all who are feeling bound by their circumstances might be enabled to live freely today.
Just as Jesus commanded the people gathered to remove the stone so Lazarus could freely walk across the barrier to new life, Jesus is calling all his followers today to participate in the release of those who are entombed by their circumstances so that they may be free to live in safety and good health, clothed, fed, satiated with love as well as fresh, clean water.
The truth of Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus transforms the question of whether those who throw stones should face death into a new and bolder question for us all. The question for us now becomes, “How many people can we gather together to roll the heaviest, most difficult stones away?
Sometimes, that looks like millions of voters pulling the lever for what is right. Sometimes, that looks like a united front of Jesus followers who’re reassuring new immigrants that we will not enable our nation’s elected officials’ words to engage weapons of human destruction. Sometimes, that looks a lot like Miss Essie, a happy and loving Jamaican immigrant saint of our congregation who forward the cause of peace with her everyday walks around the neighborhood.
Someone’s Miss Essie is walking up from Guatemala right now. She went to church every Sunday and several days in between. She owned a beauty shop there like Miss Essie owned a beauty shop in Jamaica and now she wants to trim the unruly hair of the often-unruly people of the United States.
Someone’s Miss Essie is walking up from Nicaragua now. She is a nurse and she loves little children. She can’t wait to put her gifts to good use to help some kids in America.
Someone’s Miss Essie is walking up from Mexico right now. She dreams of a free and well stocked library where she can learn English and get the kind of education that will help the people who need her most – wherever they are; wherever they’re going.
A church founded by God and immigrants must not tolerate nationalist commentary that damns the saints and condemns those bound by their circumstances to be left for dead. A church founded by and enabled to thrive by immigrants making progress toward the mission of Jesus Christ must embolden a nation founded under God to act like God would act or not claim the privilege of being God’s people.
May we understand our privilege as the church of Jesus Christ living in this painfully challenging place and time. May we claim our responsibility to help those who are bound by circumstances. May we work for a day when the stones are rolled away and all people will know freedom and goodness, peace, security, health and love.
With thanks to God.
Pastor Beverly Dempsey
November 6, 2018