The Withered Fig Tree, the Fruit of Righteousness – Rev. Dr. Javier Alanis

Rev. Dr. Javier Alanis has a special message for the first post of Latinx History Month – one grounded in his own family. Preached in chapel Mexican Independence Day (September 16, 1810), Prof. Alanis’ sermon delves into the richness of Latinx identity and what his family’s story has to say to the the story of Jesus and the fig tree. So enjoy his word, share with friends, and ¡benvenidos!

Francisco Herrera – PhD student, Interim Editor

¡Viva Mexico! 

¡Viva Mexico! 

Today is the celebration of Mexico’s Independence from Spain, a great way to kick off Hispanic History Month!  My compliments to the worship committee Y GRACIAS for inviting me to deliver today’s message.  Latinx History Month is a more inclusive term and one that I welcome even though it’s not a perfect descriptor for this month’s celebration.   So, indulge me if you will with a teaching moment.  

Back in 2000 I returned to Austin to begin teaching at LSPS.  I had just finished my doctoral exams and I had not yet started to write my dissertation.  I was invited to speak at a forum at my church on a Saturday morning with the Latinx parishioners at the church.   As I was speaking, I referred to the gathered community as Hispanic.  A parishioner raised her hand and respectfully said, “Pastor, I am not Hispanic, I am Guatemalan!  Ouch!   She taught me something that has stayed with me ever since. 

Never assume a person is Hispanic just because you know her as “Maria!” 

The term “Hispanic” was imposed on Spanish-speaking peoples by the U.S. government back at the 1970 census in order to count us and keep tabs on us!   So, I want to share with you two lessons that I have learned over the years: 

1. Never assume that someone is “Hispanic”; and…  

2. Always ask folks to self-identify so that you may learn how a people claim their own history and their own IDENTITY.   

As my colleague and professor, Dr. Eliseo Perez Alvarez who will soon join your faculty, taught me several years ago, the term Hispanic hides our indigenous, African and Asian heritage that also colors our skin, our stories and our diverse languages of all of the Americas. 

So perhaps the month should be renamed in the public forum to include all of the beautiful diversity of our creation stories. Our Latinx community is beautifully diverse and varied in its expression.  We need to hear ALL the VOICES that make up the rich fabric and mosaic of our community.   

Diversity among US Born Latinos

Enough said on naming and othering others! 

As I read the Genesis text for today, I could not help but find resonance with Joseph’s story and my own family’s story of exile and diaspora.  We have all heard the story of Joseph and his brothers; it’s a story of betrayal, of human trafficking and slavery.  The brothers sell Joseph out of spite and jealousy for their Father’s favoritism. Sort of the way my 5 older siblings treat me, their kid brother, or as the comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say back in the 20th Century when I was growing up:  “I get no respect!”  You may have to google Rodney Dangerfield to see how truly funny he was.  

 Joseph’s story is also one of redemption and forgiveness.  It’s a story of a dysfunctional family that leaves their sojourn in Canaan and flee to Egypt to escape the famine of the land. It’s a narrative full of drama; Joseph is enslaved and mistreated and then finds favor with the Pharaoh when he correctly interprets the Pharaoh’s dream about a future scarcity in the land. The Pharaoh delivers Joseph from slavery, names him the Prime Minister and puts him in charge of the granaries of the nation.  It’s a rags to riches kind of story. In today’s reading we find Joseph at the end of his life asking his family to bury him in the land of promise.  

And here is why the story makes me think of my family. 100 years ago, my parents’ family emigrated from Mexico to south Texas. 

Mi familia…

It was the time of the Mexican Revolution that lasted 10 years; my parents told me their story, an oral history that I wrote about in my dissertation when I was a student here. My grandparents did not want to leave their ancestral home, but they were forced to leave by the economic turmoil of the Mexican civil war.  My father would tell us that his family was hungry which forced them to take whatever they could on their person and cross the border into Texas.  He would also tell us:   El Pueblo tenía sed y hambre por justicia!  The people were thirsty and hungry for justice!  On the frame, my father is the young boy standing behind my grandfather Felipe.  

The U.S. Mexico border had crossed the family some sixty years before when Texas used to be Mexico.  Now they were aliens in their own land. My father was so attached to his tierra, his land of birth that he never became an American citizen; he remained a Mexican citizen until his death at 95 years. When he died my brothers and I hired a band of mariachis to play at his burial site, something not uncommon in Mexican burials.  The mariachis played the popular Mexican song, Mexico Lindo y Querido. 

The lyrics of the song go like this:  

Mexico Lindo y querido, Si muero lejos de ti, 

diles que estoy dormido y que me traigan aquí.  

Mexico, dear and beloved, If I die far from you,

tell them that I am asleep and bring me back here to rest in Mexico.”  

The song was a moving tribute for a man who had lived his life and raised his family in a land where his native language was subjected to a more powerful one.   

My mother on the far left…

My mother was born in south Texas in 1913 just three months after her parents came across from Mexico.  She too would tell us how her family was forced to emigrate because of the famine and the danger of violence to the family.  Se va poner feo, the people would say.  It’s going to get ugly.  So, they joined the many other Mexicans who crossed the border during that period to join family members who were already living in south Texas.  If you are looking at the frame, my mother is the 2 year- old standing on the chair.  She lived to be 102 and was the church’s and the town’s oral historian.  

I am sure that many of you have similar stories that you have collected from your families of origin; your ancestors may have come through Ellis Island or Angel Island on the West Coast, or perhaps Galveston Island or other places of entry or conquest as in the case of the borderlands, Puerto Rico and Hawaii as a Hawaiian student at the Episcopal Seminary taught me.   He carries the painful memory of that conquest and unjust takeover of the islands wherever he goes.  Many of us can relate to that kind of existential angst as we try to figure out who we are in our own country of origin, or what space we can safely inhabit without being subjected to deportation or family separation.  Joseph’s story is intriguing to me because it contains the elements of family and community trauma that finds resonance in many of our own stories.

site of detention centers in Texas – very close to where I grew up

In Texas where I live there are detention centers that keep people unjustly enslaved much like Joseph was when he was in Egypt; There is family separation at the border that keep mothers and children apart from each other.  They are placed in cages similar to what Joseph may have experienced when his alienness was a mark of shameful otherness.  It would take trust in God and a gift of holy visionary discernment to free Joseph from his cage.  It would take a condition of food insecurity to bring about the reconciliation with his family.  But Joseph can somehow see the good out of bad situation. As he indicates to his brothers in the narrative, what they meant for harm, God intended to use for the salvation of many; that is to say, God takes a bad situation and turns it around for good.  

God redeems the tragic dysfunctional family system because that is the nature of holy redemption.  God redeems what humans intend for harm; we see the fruit of it when Joseph forgives his brothers and provides for his family in Goshen where they will multiply and be fruitful in Egypt, the powerful nation of the day.  

I hope that one day soon we can say the same for the asylum seekers at the U.S. Mexico border, our siblings in Christ who are suffering the condition of criminalized otherness for being poor, for fleeing violence in their native countries and for being fearful of their persecution from organized criminal gangs.  Many people of faith reach out to them with food, medicines, hygiene care kits, and advocacy for humane treatment as a human right.  There is a group at the border called:  Angry Tías and Abuelas, Angry Aunties and Grandmothers

…a group of justice-oriented women who meet the asylum seekers in the middle of the bridge between the two countries and take food and supplies to the many who wait for a chance to enter the promise land of the north. These women and the men who help them are the signs of hope-filled redemption; they gather with people of different faith traditions; they band together to form communities of conscience who speak truth to power by their presence at the bridge.  These are folks who are willing to use their bodies as protest signs before the bulldozers that tear up sacred ancestral land in order to construct border walls to keep the asylum seekers out.  These women and men are visionaries who see and hear the holy in the most squalid of conditions and interpret for the church and the nation what Holy redemption looks like at the border.  

The Mellenbruch family.

100 years ago, my family received this same kind of care from a German family who reached out to them with their healing arts during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, just like the one we are going through only worse.

The Mellenbruch family reached out to the Alanís and Treviño families to nurse them back to health; the Mellenbruchs were the holy visionaries compelled by the Gospel to cross borders of cultural and linguistic difference in the name of the Crucified and Risen Christ.  

They were the faithful visionaries bearing fruits of righteous action in the name of the Gospel.  They brought salvific healing to Mexican families in exile and founded the church where I was baptized and confirmed, ordained and installed as a professor at the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest.   

Joseph has Been Recognized by His Brothers – Marc Chagall

The Joseph story contains the fruitful figs of forgiveness, redemption, healing, and reconciliation that Jesus was referring to in the Gospel when he cursed the tree that would not bear fruit.  Joseph desired to be buried in a land of promise, a land of rich soil where fig trees do not dry up but bear much fruit such as the fig trees of achievement and contribution to the common good.  We the church bring our own Gospel figs of love, forgiveness, acceptance and healing arts to people of faith harmed by the rhetoric of unwelcomed alienness.  

We follow the Crucified and Risen One who forgave and redeemed our own alienness from ourselves and from each other and made us a Familia en Cristo, one family with many names who heal others and bear the Gospel figs of justice in His Name. 

So here is my final lesson:  If there is one thing that I have learned from the Joseph story and the Gospel over the many years of my ministry at the border, it is this:  The land of promise of the north is what we make of it in His name by God’s grace and the bread and tortillas that we share at the table are the work of a people of faith who till the soil of justice living so that no one goes hungry and all eat from the walls that have been turned into tables of welcome.  

May the people of God join me in saying, Amen.  

Rev. Dr. Javier Alanis

After his graduation from LSPS in May, 1992, Jay was ordained and served Trinity Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas for four years.  During that time he chaired the Multicultural Committee of the Southwest Texas Synod and also served on the board of the Multicultural Commission of the ELCA. He was then invited to pursue doctoral studies at LSTC and graduated with a Ph.D. in June, 2002.  Jay joined the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago at its extension program in Austin in January of 2000, a program in partnership with Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.

Jay’s academic interests include contextual borderland theology, Latino/a spirituality and the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.  His doctoral dissertation focused on the history of the imago Dei (image of God) construct as a venue for welcoming the stranger in an alien land.  In 2006 and 2019, he was invited to be a part of a panel that examined the subject of border walls at an international conference held in Berlin and at the Lutheran center in Wittenberg, Germany.  He was a keynote speaker at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly in April, 2009 and the guest preacher at the Southwestern Texas Synod Assembly in May, 2009.   He has been a presenter and preacher at various church forums and assemblies.  He has also taught from his dissertation topic at ISEDET seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina and at Holden Village in Washington State.  He has been appointed to serve on the board of Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, Texas. For a more comprehensive view of his bio, you are invited to visit the LSPS website or his personal website.