Rev. Ellen Jennings
Will you be my refuge,
My haven in the storm,
Will you keep the embers warm
When my fire’s all but gone?
Will you remember
And bring me sprigs of rosemary
Be my sanctuary
‘Til I can carry on
In a state of true believers,
On streets called us and them,
It’s gonna take some time
‘Til the world feels safe again.
~ from Sanctuary, Carrie Newcomer
And from Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis, Senior Minister of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City:
We are called, in our pain, to be in solidarity with each other, a place of sanctuary for each other, a place of refuge and healing. Our broken hearts drive us out into the world to heal it, and in healing it we heal ourselves.
Which reminds me of the word, Ubuntu, from the Zulu/Bantu cultures of southern Africa. It’s a beautiful concept that offers the following relational understanding of selfhood: “I am who I am because of who we all are.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains it like this: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others… for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that she belongs within a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed… you can’t be human all by yourself.”
No, we can’t. And for those of us who wish to better understand and act upon this relational understanding of selfhood that echoes the biblical mandates of welcome and hospitality, it is important not only to read the many individual scriptures that implore, even command, us to welcome the stranger or foreigner but also to look at the meta themes of the bible. For, again and again, the Hebrew people are forced from their homes, become strangers or foreigners in a new land, are mistreated and persecuted (though, at times, welcomed and hospitably treated), and then asked to remember, and be welcoming and hospitable in turn. Which, very often they are not. At which points God is, justifiably, outraged.
As Joel Baden, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School writes:
…The book of Genesis narrates the journey of Abraham from his homeland in Canaan, a land that is already occupied by other people, and recounts the story of how he and his family make their way in a territory and society that is not their own, where they have neither land nor kin.
The Exodus story reinforces the status of Israel as strangers in a land not their own. Pharaoh’s oppression of Israelites is grounded in an attitude that might sound eerily familiar: “The Israelite people are too numerous for us,” he tells his subjects, “let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase, otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.”
In the New Testament, Jesus and his family become political refugees, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Perhaps the most salient biblical narrative on this topic is the book of Ruth, which tells the story of a foreigner who comes to Israel, working as a laborer in the fields, hoping for a better life. And it is this foreigner, immigrant and stranger, who turns out to become the ancestor of King David, and, through him, Jesus.
… Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are clear and consistent when it comes to how we are to treat the stranger. Across both testaments, in narrative, law, prophecy, poetry and parable, the Bible consistently spells out that it is the responsibility of the citizen to ensure that the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, is respected, welcomed and cared for. It is what God wants us to do, but it also recognizes that we too were immigrants — and immigrants we remain. “Like my forebears, I am an alien, resident with you,” says Psalm 39.
Such a compelling narrative and message! And yet, it seems that so many U.S. citizens who claim the Bible as their scripture, miss it.
The news accounts ever since the executive order on immigration have been a combination of outrageous and heartbreaking: outrageous because they make a mockery of both biblical and civil justice, heartbreaking because they affect real, human lives.
In Chicago, two UCC churches have been preparing for the past year to host two refugee families. From Connie Larkham:
Both embraced the same mission in 2016: to welcome the stranger. And both have spent many hours over several months immersed in preparations to help a Syrian refugee family find a new life in the United States. Today, St. Paul’s is engaged in assisting a family of six, with children ages 10-19, assimilate into their new community, while Epiphany is trying to determine what do with a fully furnished rented apartment that its family of four may never see.
Diane Witkowski at Epiphany UCC said: Many, many people at Epiphany and St. Paul’s have worked so hard to bring families fleeing Syria to Chicago. The family that arrived safely at St. Paul’s several months ago is settling in, going to school, learning English, looking for work. And the family that was to arrive at Epiphany on February 6 did not make it. This is such a heartbreaking situation for all involved. I can’t imagine how the family left behind must feel, the devastating fact that they are still in limbo with no idea what the future will bring. And the heartache felt by everyone at both churches— because the church’s mission is not complete.
“The church’s missions is not complete!” This is how we should all feel. Because the work we’ve been called to do is so very far from being done.
From Deuteronomy 10:17-19—The LORD your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites… This God enacts justice for orphans and widows, loves immigrants, and gives them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.
And from Leviticus 19:33-34—When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
From Numbers 15:15-16— The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you…. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.
And from Ezekiel 47:21-22—You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.
As we already heard from Professor Baden, the Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and refugees, foreigners and strangers. In fact, the Hebrew word ger, the closest to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible alone!
And what does God have to say about us— when we’re not welcoming?
From Malachi 3:5—I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against… those who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and cheat the wage earner; and against those who deny justice to the foreigner…
And from Ezekiel 22:4,7—You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited amongst you…
And, again, from Professor Baden:
No passage in either testament is as compelling or as clear on this subject as the vision of the final judgment in Matthew 25, in which Jesus will separate the righteous and the accursed based on how they treated him: for the righteous, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”; for the accursed, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” When the judged ask when they ever treated Jesus in such a manner, he responds: “Just as you did to the least of these, you did to me.”
Now, as you know, I am not a hell fire preacher. In fact, I don’t believe in a God who damns anyone to hell. But I do believe we’re capable of creating both our own and each other’s hell. As Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans: If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt… If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
So, when will we humans understand this?! When will we understand that God’s radical hospitality and extravagant love is how we are meant to treat one another? And that there’s no better metaphor or living example of this than the way we treat the outsider, the other, the stranger: whether that person is an outcast within a community, an outcast not allowed to enter the community, or an outcast who is, literally, cast out of the community.
Three more stories jump to mind from this past week, two involving houses of worship. In the first, six men who spent the night in an Alexandrian church’s hypothermia shelter were arrested by ICE as they crossed the street the next morning. In the second, a Colorado mother of four and long-time activist for immigrant rights, who’s lived in the US for twenty years, was given sanctuary by a Unitarian Universalist church, rather than go to her annual deportation hearing (at which her lawyer was told the stay of deportation had been denied). This took place after another mother and long-time Arizona resident attempted to do the right thing and attend her annual hearing, only to be arrested and deported that day. In the third, a family in northern Virginia, who say they know dozens like them, have their belongings in plastic bags and keep food in the refrigerator for only one day— because they fear both parents being seized. If this happens, the 16 and 17 year-old daughter and son, both citizens, will be left to care for their siblings.
Welcome the stranger. Treat justly the foreigner.
Just as you do to the least of these, you do to me.
Are these biblical mandates unclear? Did Jesus not tell us again and again who are “the least of these?” Are they not the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the sick, the poor, the outcast, the stranger? And yet, we grasp at justifications for our mistreatment of them.
There is no justification.
A fourth story: Over the freezing and snow-covered US/Canadian border of New York and Quebec, there has been a constant flow of desperate crossings this week. Men, women, children, the elderly and the disabled come in rented taxis and vans, carrying their belongings in suitcases, backpacks and bags, and are dropped off at the end of icy, dirt roads with no official border crossing. As I share the following vignette, you tell me where you see the humanity. You tell me where you see sanctuary. You tell me where you see people who are living out the biblical mandate to welcome— who understand that “I am who I am because of who we all are.”
From Kathleen Masterton on NPR:
On one side of the border are US immigration agents trying to stop people from crossing. On the other, Canadian border patrol officers. At the road’s end, a young woman with an infant gets out of the taxi. She doesn’t want to talk and seems to have limited English. It is cold.
She hugs the baby to her chest and, with her free hand, pulls a black suitcase on wheels. As she moves toward the ditch, several Canadian police officers approach on their side.
One officer speaks out, saying, “You have to go through the customs, the border — but if you do cross here, you’ll be arrested and then we’ll take you in charge, OK?”
The woman nods and steps toward them. The Canadian policeman offers to carry her baby as she makes her way through the slippery snow path. She hands the child to him and then takes the hand of another officer who helps her to the road on the Canadian side.
The police bring out a child car seat and place it in their cruiser. The woman is arrested, and she and her child are driven away from the border. The whole thing takes about six minutes.
People who work with immigrants in Canada say these border-jumpers would rather be arrested in Canada than live in fear of how U.S. officials might handle their cases.
They are desperate. They are lonely. They are human. They are no more terrorists than any current US citizen has the potential to be. Statistically. And yet they are vilified. Feared. Loathed. Cast out.
The sad truth is: we’ve been here before. We’ve been here before, and we haven’t learned. 75 years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order that consigned over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during WWII. Meanwhile, desperate Jews, for reasons I needn’t explain, were trying by the thousands to gain entry to the United States. And they were refused. You know what happened to them.
As Professor Frederick Mayer of Duke University writes in the Charlotte Observer:
My grandfather, Friedrich “Fritz” Mayer, was a Jewish merchant in Frankfurt. A veteran of WWI, he married a Christian woman, started a small dry-goods store, and did well enough to sponsor his son’s youth soccer team.
Then, in 1933, Hitler came to power. In 1935, Friedrich’s store was confiscated. … he was forced to sweep the streets of Frankfurt wearing the Star of David. Like so many Jews in Germany, Fritz had found it impossible to believe what was about to happen. But now he knew and sought refuge for his family in America.
In the United States, though, there was strong opposition to letting in Jewish refugees. At the forefront was the America First movement, embodied by the anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh. President Roosevelt, for complicated reasons, chose not to take them on, and America closed its doors.
In 1943, unable to escape, my grandfather was rounded up by the Gestapo, shipped to Auschwitz, and murdered in the gas chambers.
Never Forget. For this is a cautionary tale. Never Forget! And yet, here we are, again, and our country seems to have forgotten.
But we don’t have to! Our mandate as Christians, as humans, as people of good conscience, our mandate is to Welcome. To open our arms in extravagant embrace. To err on the side of Love.
So, this morning we welcome Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea, Director of Disciples of Christ Refugee and Immigration Ministries. Last year we worked with Sharon to collect supplies for Syrian families immigrating to the US, and now, as we face an even greater challenge, I believe Sharon can help us understand and think through the possibilities for response. There are many options, and each church (just as each individual) will have its own unique call. Our job is to open ourselves to this call and to discern our response in conversation with one another and God. So, I ask that you please participate in this conversation after worship today, for it is in community that our best work is done.
As I conclude this rather long sermon, I return to Professor Frederick Mayer, whose family has another story— the reason he’s here. It’s the story of what happens when America opens its doors, when we humans welcome each other as the brothers and sisters we are:
My father, Paul Mayer, arrived in the United States in the summer of 1947, a refugee from Frankfurt, Germany, a half-Jewish Holocaust survivor who spoke little English and possessed no money. He lacked even a high school education because the Nazis had not allowed him to go to school. All he had was a dream.
America welcomed my father and he embraced America. Generous people in Cincinnati took him in and gave him a job. The University of Cincinnati overlooked his lack of a high school degree and admitted him. When he graduated, Cornell University offered him a graduate scholarship, and, 10 years after arriving in America, Paul completed a PhD in civil engineering.
In 1959 he took a job teaching at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, where he became a much-loved professor. There is a small park at the heart of the campus dedicated to his memory. At his funeral, hundreds whose lives he touched joined in singing God Bless America.
In his own conclusion, Professor Mayer writes: Here are two stories of America. My father’s and my grandfather’s. One heroic, one tragic. America at its best and its most shameful. Today, we are confronted with a choice: Which story will be told of our time?