Kriss: Once we were the ones who knocked

Dec 17, 2018 by

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This is the great seriousness of the Advent message and its great blessing. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of people around us. Will you therefore leave the door locked for your protection, or will you open the door?
— from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermon for the first Sunday in Advent of 1928 in Barcelona

Stephen Kriss


As I write this in the earliest days of Advent, thousands of migrants are stranded at Tijuana, one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities. At times they are within shouting distance of peaceful and prosperous San Diego County, Calif. There are jobs across the frontera, generated by a booming economy with low taxes and high expectations. And relative safety. They’re fleeing violence and grinding poverty. God only knows what will happen to them by the time you read this.

I’ve seen refugees before. In Rome, at St. Paul’s in the Walls, straggling in from small boats that made it across the Mediterranean with hopes of prosperity and work. At Calais, young men who trudged across Central Asia and some fleeing East African violence waiting to hitch a ride on a lorry to jobs at restaurants and with family and friends in the United Kingdom. And one time in a cadre, clutching what seemed like all that they had through Barajas airport at Madrid with bags marked UNCHR, the kind I’d use to carry my groceries.

And in Mennonite churches —where the presence of refugees from Myanmar has boosted the futures of dwindling congregations, new congregations with Indonesians fleeing violence and seeking asylum, Nepalis suddenly dislodged from Bhutan, Vietnamese and Cambodians who arrived a generation ago.

Those who knock at the door and come inside change us, deepening our gratitude and generosity, enriching the possibilities of our future.

We as Mennonites have been these folks as well, fleeing the Ukraine and adrift in the Atlantic until someone unlocked the door to Paraguay. Or streaming to new possibilities in North America by homesteading land to lay foundations for colonizing empires by pushing back indigenous people. It’s not always a pretty entrance.

We have become afraid. We have forgotten ourselves and our wandering stories. We have at times found the doors locked ourselves. We have been fearful and hopeful, at the end of our rope, the one seeking loving kindness and mercy. We have been running from slaveholders and the legacy of white supremacy, running from abusers, persecution and poverty. We have been outsiders, too.

What keeps us from recognizing ourselves in the story of the one who knocks? Is the fear that drove shooters to a black church in Charleston and a synagogue in Pittsburgh a manifestation of the worst of ourselves and our insularity, hiding behind security and the rule of law? Guns, walls and security systems separate us from our culpability in normalizing the idea that “it would have been better had they had an armed guard.”

With an armed guard, the stranger never makes it to the door. The bellicose one who seeks to destroy is destroyed before he or she destroys us. We survive but become a shell of ourselves, shrouded in fear. We do not hear the knock of the One who seeks shelter, to be born again, in this season of love and light.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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