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"Here Is Your Mother." A sermon on immigration, May 13, 2012


 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

I recently read a story of a young man who grew up in Florida. As a child he was noticed as one of t he brightest in his class. Throughout middle school and high school he attended honors classes. He finished college and then went to Florida State University for his law degree. He passed the bar this past year. His case is now before the Florida Supreme Court. Here's the thing: he was not born here. He came to the US when he was seven. His parents dame here legally on a visa but never went home. What will become of this young lawyer? 

Millions of young people find themselves in a similar situation. The DREAM Act, now stalled in Congress once again, once had bipartisan support. It would allow children of immigrants to go to college and serve in the military. They would receive an expedited green card process- it could take only six years. When the DREAM Act came up for a vote last year in the Senate, I emailed both of our senators, offering some sound biblical support for the DREAM Act. Didn't happen. They both voted against. Now I am on John Cornyn's email list, which was unexpected.
 Our recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to support the DREAM Act, a rare act of unity in an otherwise lost two weeks.

Last Sunday, the family our was present at the consecration of the new building at Christ's Foundry United Methodist Mission, near Love Field.
 Foundry is a vision realized, due to the hard work of its pastor, the Rev. Owen Ross, and the faithfulness of the North Texas Conference members, who generously supported it from the very beginning 12 years ago. It literally started with this guy with an East Texas accent and a cell phone. Over the years, many donors and partner churches have pooled funds to make the vision a reality. Even my wife Christy worked for Foundry for a couple of years, managing its capital campaign and operating expenses. The church’s primary audience are immigrants. Services are in Spanish. There is a sense of joy about the place, even from the days of meeting above an apartment complex’s laundry room. Today Christ’s Foundry meets for the first time in its new building for Sunday worship.

The issue of the day, immigration, is a difficult one. We see it played out in politics and the media in a variety of ways, and emotionally many of us become exhausted. Some feel immigrants are here to steal American jobs, then turn around and send their income home, not even bothering to spend it here to support our own economy—that they benefit from. Others see immigrants as those leaving their home country in search of a better life for themselves and their family, often at tremendous risk. Immigration is sure to be a hotly discussed topic in this Fall’s election. During the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry all faced the ire of primary voters for expressing compassionate views toward immigrants. One could argue the end of Governor Perry’s run began, not with the “oops” moment in a debate or the commercial about President Obama’s “war of religion”—his words, not mine, but at an early debate, Mr Perry was booed by the audience after defending a policy in Texas which gave tuition discounts at colleges for children of immigrants. He said, “If you don’t support this, you don’t have a heart.” He was booed for defending tuition discounts.

In your study guide you’ll find an interesting chart created by the Pew Hispanic Center which illustrates a drop in immigration recently. Over the last five years, we’ve seen a net downturn in the number of immigrants in our country. This is due to a variety of reasons, from a weak economy to stronger enforcement to more deportations. We’ve actually seen a net loss to Mexico among immigrants—more are returning home than staying here. It’s estimated that 5-35% of those returning home were deported. Many of these deportations are the unjust division of families. Imagine the heartbreak: a child, born in this country, is allowed to stay, while a parent, born elsewhere, is forced to leave. How can anyone support such a terrible practice?

Immigration is not just an issue in the US. Many are concerned about the rising of extreme right groups in Europe—some even identifying as Neo-Nazis—using hate toward immigrants as a way of advancing their beliefs. I read of the struggles of immigrants from Nepal seeking work in the Middle East in places like Kuwait and Dubai. They are considered to have less worth than cattle. Often they leave their home country unsure whether they’ll find decent work or end up in forced labor camps. Yet conditions in Nepal are so bad, with little opportunity, that some 25,000 leave every month for work. So immigration issues are not only focused on America, but the reality is we have a unique perspective on the issue. Roughly 12 million immigrants from Mexico are here. The population of Mexican-born residents of the U.S. is larger than the population of most countries or states. Among Mexican-born people worldwide, one-in-ten lives in the United States.

The irony of all this is that America prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, while many states are enacting rules regarding immigration, which make things difficult for everyone. You’ve probably heard of the law in Arizona which imposed harsh consequences on immigrants, and also everyone assumed to harbor them. It forces police to investigate anyone they assume is here illegally, and anyone giving aid to an undocumented person violates the law as well. Arizona law is before the Supreme Court now. Alabama enacted a similar law, which supporters and opponents both regard as the toughest of all. Alabama farmers have seen a steep decline in their labor force as a result of the law. Religious leaders on all sides of the theological spectrum—from liberals to evangelicals—fought against the laws in both states. Why have religious groups, including United Methodists, been opposed to them? What are the theological/moral issues of immigration? Well, the first is that these laws make it illegal to transport an undocumented person anywhere. What if there was a Bible study and someone had to go to the hospital? How can Christians share the gospel of Jesus, which is clearly for all people, if it is illegal to congregate with undocumented folk? Think again to Christ’s Foundry here in Dallas. How many times could my friend Owen have been arrested in Arizona or Alabama for doing the work God called him to do?

In addition to these practical concerns, there is a deeper theological issue at play here: one of memory. Remembering is one of the major themes of the Bible, especially throughout the first books of the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, God charge the Israelites to remember their circumstances in Egypt, where they were once slaves. They observe their laws and rituals as a perpetual remembrance of God’s deliverance. 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. God is 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). The Hebrew prophets constantly spoke against the kings of Israel for forgetting their covenant to be a people of justice, to care for the poor, the widow, the alien. 

If you’ve never read the wonderful Book of Ruth, it’s a story of immigrants. Naomi and her husband travel to a neighboring country, Moab, to find food. Her sons marry Moabite women, one of whom was Ruth. Then tragedy strikes: Naomi’s husband and sons all die. She decides to return to Israel, but warns her daughters-in-law to stay here. She wishes to be alone in her bitterness. Yet Ruth is determined to go with her. Now Ruth is the immigrant in a foreign country. She gleans in the fields after they have been harvested. This was an actual law of Israel: aliens were allowed to gather, for free, any crops that fell to the ground during the harvest. She is noticed by Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi, and a romance begins. Ultimately they marry and have a son, Obed. One of the most touching episodes of the Bible is when Ruth gives the boy to his grandmother Naomi. She experiences redemption from her bitterness and tragedy. Ruth is so important to the Christian tradition that the Gospel of Matthew lists her name in the genealogy of Jesus. An immigrant woman.

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. Technically that makes the Holy Family refugees, not immigrants, but you see the point—hospitality to those from different cultures is valued in societies that live and breathe justice. Jesus not only taught us this way to live, he lived it himself. We are part of that tradition—it is our story too. We must remember. And we must act justly. The text from Romans today recalls the story of Abraham, himself a wandering nomadic person, travelling from country to country according to God’s direction. Abraham himself once offered kindness to travelers in his midst. They were angels who announced the coming birth of his long-promised son Isaac. So the Book of Hebrews challenges each of us to practice hospitality, because others have hosted angels unawares. Abraham’s story is remembered by Paul as one of great faith. He heard God’s call on his life and set out to an undisclosed future. This, Paul says, was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” He goes on: “It will also be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus, from the cross, looks upon his mother and the “beloved disciple” and says these words: “Here is your mother. Here is your son.” His concern is not just for his mother and his friend. Jesus creates community—church—by bringing these two together. “Here is your son, here is your mother” creates a relationship that did not exist before, bound by the love and grace of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to see him. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” What are the implications here for the church with respect to immigration? Well, Jesus understood that people need each other. Whatever our stories, whatever our histories, whatever baggage we carry, whatever fears abide in us. The church is the place where all of that stuff is honored and given value. It’s a safe place for everyone to be who they are in the presence of a loving, forgiving family. This is the foundational issue for many in the struggles for a just immigration policy. We are part of a tradition rooted in memory. We claim as sacred those stories of travelers with great faith, who struggled to follow God on a new path. We participate in practices that remember the struggles of our ancestors and the faithfulness of God of justice, who raises no barriers, builds no walls, but creates space for all to call home. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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