please note: this is my sermon from last sunday.
Today we begin a new sermon series, or, more accurately, continue one from last spring: "Ripped from the Headlines.” We’ll call this one Part II. Christians face difficult questions in everyday life, but do not know how to address them. They know their faith is a tool, but they do not know how to use it. The goal of that series last April/May, and the goal of this one, is to help us learn to use our faith as a sort of viewfinder to understand these issues. It is not the responsibility of pastors or 24-hour cable news talk-shows to help us think about moral questions. Too often the only voices speaking to these issues within the Christian Church are those from the extreme fundamentalist end of the spectrum. While no one is saying they are wrong, I am saying that there are other points of view to consider. My goal is to help each of us use the Bible, our experience, the tradition of the Church, and our intellect to make a decision. And to do it in a way that is respectful to others who may disagree.
This series will focus on four issues: Immigration, the Environment, being a public Christian, and the role of God in human suffering. Two issues I chose; two issues were chosen from an online survey I sent around last spring after the initial series. I will not espouse any political ideology, nor will I endorse any candidate for President. If at the end of the series you think I have done that, then I have made a mistake in my speaking or you have made a mistake in your hearing. Yes, there is always a chance someone will be upset in a series like this. No, that is not an excuse to avoid preaching the series. The Bible is filled with individuals who were chosen by God to speak to moral questions. Many of them suffered for it. I believe we have the ability to transcend the emotional responses and seriously consider the morality of what we believe.
The issue of Immigration is a real hot-button pusher. It always has been, especially in the United States. Throughout our history as new waves of people came here from other countries, places like Ireland, Italy, or Mexico, they have often been greeted with hostility. The debate we have in this country always fascinates me: we talk of ourselves as a nation of immigrants, the place where anyone can come with a dream and ability and achieve great things. We create myths like “the melting pot” mentality, which says we are somehow blended together in one American soup, losing our individual flavor in the process. Yet while those are common American themes we like to convince ourselves are true, the reality often shows in hateful ways. Riots broke out in New York City in the latter nineteenth century over immigrants taking over American jobs, often for lower wages—sound familiar? The Ku Klux Klan was formed in the 1920s as a response to immigrants, mostly Catholic, coming to America from Eastern Europe. We are now in another time of cultural reaction in our country, but thankfully outright violence and hate have been kept under control.
A couple of years ago Hispanic-Americans marched in thousands of numbers to protest what they considered unfair and racist laws and attitudes in this country. They were met by thousands of counter-protestors, whose argument basically boiled down to, “If you don’t like it, go back where you came from” (nevermind that the great majority of protestors were American citizens). Congress was actively debating the issue, calling for a total overhaul of the immigration system, which everyone agrees is broken. The President offered a plan that was unpopular with his own party. After several proposals, ultimately the efforts failed. After all, it was an election year, and careers were on the line. What passed was the construction of a massive wall along the US-Mexican border, which just about no one ever expects to see completed. At best, it is a huge, 700-mile band-aid.
It is estimated that in the United States there are 12 million illegal immigrants. More than half are from Mexico. They come here to work, knowing that even $5/hour is much more than they could earn at home. Part of the issue is Mexico’s failure to build many plants on its side of the border, called for by the NAFTA agreement. While Mexico dragged its feet, China busily built those same factories, so now it is cheaper to ship supplies to manufacturing plants all the way to China than to Mexico. The immigrants come here to better their chances at a real life. They come to support family, in this country and at home. Mexican immigrants sent $25 billion home to family last year alone. It is estimated that half to ¾ of the six million immigrants in the work force file returns and pay taxes—approximately $7 million a year to Social Security. And they are ineligible to receive Social Security benefits—even if they have a Permanent Resident (“Green”) Card.
Why do so many choose come here illegally and stay here illegally? Because the government gives them little incentive to obtain Green Cards or become citizens. Did you know it takes an average of three years and 45 hours of waiting in line to obtain a Residency Card? And 8-10 years for citizenship? That’s not even counting the financial costs, which are in the thousands. Just this week USA Today reported the number of those seeking citizenship dropped 59% in 2007, after the application cost nearly doubled. The President’s plan for immigration in 2006 included a way to help long-term illegals obtain citizenship, but it never made it through Congress. What are we to do? Do we expect law enforcement to send away 12 million people—5% of the US workforce? There are already 13,000 children who are US citizens who have had at least one parent deported to their home country. Is that what we want? Children separated from their parents?
I think the argument is valid that illegal immigrants tend to take low-wage, low-skill work from Americans. The idea that Americans do not want these jobs is silly. The difference is that Americans are not willing to work under the same conditions are illegal immigrants. Americans will not live in substandard housing in California in order to pick vegetables and fruit for a few dollars an hour. They would demand fair housing and fair wages. Americans will not work at a Con-Agra food processing plant in Nebraska for minimum wage, risking health every shift. They would demand modern equipment and premium health coverage. Illegal immigrants are in no place to demand these basic human rights, because they are under constant threat from their employers to turn them in to the INS. We hear people rightly complain about free health care and education for immigrants and their children, but the bigger issue of fairness has nothing to do with immigration status: every person rightfully deserves cheap, excellent healthcare. Every child deserves an excellent education. When we begin to pull the layers away, we see the real frustrations folk have when it comes to immigration are ones that apply to all of us. All of us should hold the government accountable for not insuring 45 million Americans and passing that cost on to us. All of us should demand the world’s best education system for our kids.
We tend to forget our own stories. We forget our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents who came from other countries to find a better way of life in the USA. We forget their struggles against prejudice and hatred. We forget the unfair practices by employers throughout our country’s history, and how the government has always been slow to step in for the least powerful. Anyone read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle recently? Not a fun book—it chronicles the oppressed lives of mostly immigrants in the meatpacking houses of Chicago in the nineteenth century. Today those struggling with the same issues speak a different native language, their skin is a different color, but they would see much of themselves in The Jungle. We need to remember our stories, remember our connection to history. Remembering is one of the major themes of the Bible, especially throughout the first books of the Old Testament. Exodus 23:9 says, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” I love that phrase: you know the heart of an alien. You were there once. Don’t forget what that was like. Remember the whips of the taskmasters. Remember the cries of those who were beaten unjustly. Remember. The text for today champions the one true God as the one“…who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). Then this imperative: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). We are part of that tradition—it is our story too. We must remember. And we must act justly.
In one of the most powerful scriptures of the Bible, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what judgment will look like:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his throne of glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord when was it [that we did those things]…?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ And he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you did not give me food, I was thirsty and you did not give me something to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, I was naked and you did not give me clothing, I was sick and you did not took care of me, I was in prison and did not you visit me.’ Then they will answer ‘Lord when was it [that we did not do those things]…?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did not do it to me’” (Matthew 25:31-46).
Notice that the reaction of the sheep and the goats is exactly the same: “When was it…?” “I was a stranger,” Jesus said. Earlier in the same gospel we read about the young Jesus and his parents fleeing to a foreign nation—Egypt—in order to survive oppression. Jesus not only taught us this way to live, he lived it himself. Is there a message there for us? We never know who it is that we are serving, we do not know if they are deserving of the care or not. We do not know their history, their secrets, their motivations. We never know if it is Jesus himself we are serving—or not serving. All we know is their needs. As persons of faith, the Bible is very clear that we are to accept all of God’s people—regardless of their earthly citizenship. This is not a political agenda, it is a commanded ethic of life.
So let us lay aside the politics of fear and prejudice. As persons of faith, let us address the real issues in our society and fix them, with an eye on justice and mercy for all people, instead of blaming the easy targets, those different from us. Together, we can remember our own stories of America as a beacon of hope and opportunity for all, even if it is a culturally-created myth. Some of us have lived that existence of oppression ourselves, or we have relatives of friends who have endured it. Even if it is not our individual story, it is our collective story, and we must remember. The Israelites were commanded to remember their history, even if it was not their experience. Memory is a powerful thing. Long after the generations that endured slavery in Egypt died, their descendants respected the rights of legal and illegal aliens—the immigrants—among them, providing for them, caring for them, as members of their society. We can do the same in 2008. We can streamline the process of obtaining Green Cards. We can make it cheaper and easier to obtain citizenship. We can work out circumstances for those who want to work here and freely travel home to be with family. We can stop the unjust separation of parents and children, where absolutely no one benefits. We can fight to make work environments safe and just for all workers, domestic and foreign. Raising those standards benefits everyone. Some of those changes can happen pretty quickly, beginning with our attitudes towards those who are different. Other changes take a very long time and lots of political will. But when people of faith put their hearts, minds, and action to a common cause, great things can happen. America can truly live up to the words etched on the Statue of Liberty, our most enduring symbol of freedom: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Those beautiful words were written in 1883, and are just as vital 125 years later! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.