Proper 6B 2018 RCL
Rev. Dr. Adam T. Trambley
June 17, 2018, St. John’s Sharon
Over the past few days, much of our national discourse has revolved around recent border policy changes that have resulted in children being separated from their parents, including in cases when their parents are seeking asylum. These policies have been condemned by a broad range of Christians across the political spectrum, from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to Franklin Graham. You can find out more about the details of this policy in any number of places, and I’m sure some of you know more about it than I do this morning. Given the discussion, however, I want to look at two things today. The first are some underlying principles that we need to keep in mind when making policies around admittedly complicated issues like immigration. The second is to look at the impact of own community’s history and attitudes around this issue.
In looking at underlying principles concerning immigration, the two areas I want to explore are “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger.”
“Do not be afraid” is probably the most helpful guideline for any of our activities, whether personal, social, or national. Angels in scripture say it more than anything else, and maybe we need to hear it. Christians need not ever be afraid. We know that “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He makes me lie down in green pastures; beside restful waters he leads me,” and that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus rose from the dead, we need not fear even death. “O death, where is thy sting?”
We also know that “perfect love casts out fear.” We are called to love our neighbor, and even to love our enemy, but sometimes we can have a hard time figuring out the most loving action. Love is often hard to operationalize amid the conflicting needs of our family, our friends, and others. Yet a good sign that we are not acting out of love is when we are afraid of something. The loving action may be a difficult one to determine, but we are never thinking about how to love others when we are afraid.
One of our biggest fears can be the fear of scarcity. We are often afraid that there will not be enough. Enough food, enough jobs, enough space, enough whatever. Yet God is a God of abundance. God gave the Israelites manna in the desert and fed the 5,000 on the hillside. Our lunch servers have their own stories of God’s abundance, as does this parish as a whole, because when we need things, God keeps showing up again and again. Whenever we make decisions, whether in our family life or our national life, based on the idea that we only have so much and we need to protect it, we shortchange our loving Father, the giver of all good gifts, who is perfectly capable of taking care of all his children. Policies promulgated by instilling fear should always be suspect. Much of our current political life on all sides is increasing based on fear because fear whips people up into a much more controllable frenzy than the hard work of deepening love does.
A second underlying principle comes from Deuteronomy 10:18. “God loves the stranger.” Other translations use the word “foreigner”. God’s care and protection for the alien, for the stranger, for the foreigner is described throughout both the Old and the New Testament. First and foremost, the foreigners are usually in some need, given that they lack the family connections, the land, the jobs, and maybe even the language of the larger society. God says time and again that they must be given what they need. In Matthew 25, in the parable of the last judgment, Jesus even says that whatever you do for the stranger, you do for him, and you will be judged on that activity. People will ask, “when were you a stranger and we welcomed you?” Those who welcome the stranger, welcome Jesus and are given their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. Those who don’t welcome the stranger, well, it doesn’t turn out well for them.
Beyond just caring for their basic needs, the Bible says two other things about strangers, which may influence our behaviors, if Jesus direct instructions are insufficient. First, foreigners are the people we are supposed to evangelize. Jesus says we are to be witnesses of the gospel in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Jewish Christians were called to go to the gentiles, and we are still called to go to our gentiles. I’m going to tell you that it is much easier to evangelize people who come to you, whom you care for, whom you love, and who are nearby, then it is to evangelize people who live half-way around the world that you have never met. If we are doing our job, we need to be in contact with foreigners of all sorts. Churches in this country where foreigners have been welcomed are finding themselves making connections in their members’ countries of origin and starting churches and evangelizing there. Another trend within our own denomination is that Latina women are one of the most likely demographics to become Episcopalian. These trends may not directly influence border policy, but if we can learn to think about people as potential church members, we have a better chance of overcoming whatever fear-based stereotypes that we might otherwise think about them. Removing our fear of them will allow us to make a better policies concerning them.
The Bible also makes it clear that we need foreigners. Even in a society beset by enemies like the ancient Jewish people, foreigners play an essential role in their history, which is also our history. Ruth, the Moabite, becomes the grandmother of King David. The Egyptians take in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph when they become refugees. Perhaps most striking, however, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. We often read it as a parable of why we should be nice to foreigners, but when we read it most literally, we see a foreigner in the Jewish homeland taking care of a Jewish person. When we are at our most desperate, Jesus seems to be saying, we may require help from a foreigner or a stranger. Our own country is filled with examples of when we have relied on foreigners at a national level, from the Marquis de Lafayette to Albert Einstein. On a more local and personal level, many of the only medical specialists that are willing to work in smaller communities like Western Pennsylvania are foreign-born. In many ways these doctors are the contemporary embodiment of the Good Samaritan that Jesus spoke about.
So we want to remember “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger” in all of our dealings. Before I close, I want to look at some of the consequences locally of those principles not being put into place.
Obviously, we are a community of immigrants. Very few of us living in this region are Native American. Most of the area is a variety of Western, Central, and Eastern European immigrants that arrived long enough in the past that English is not only our first language, but also the language we talk to our parents and grandparents in. (Joe’s Hungarian being perhaps the only exception). We have a decided lack of Hispanic immigrants, however, especially when compared with other areas of the country. While some of this is accidental – we aren’t a short boat ride from Cuba or bordering the Rio Grande – some is also intentional. Western Pennsylvania’s union shops kept Hispanic immigrants from getting jobs in this area and settling here. They took care of their own, which is commendable and part of why this community has the strengths it does. Yet, the people in these communities were also afraid – sometimes for their jobs and sometimes of what they thought immigrants would do to their communities --, and they did not offer a welcome to the stranger.
This lack of recent immigration has had a couple of pretty profound effects. First, in an increasingly globalized economy and society, our children only speak one language. Just walking around this area, we don’t see that as an issue, but spending any time in a big city or a multinational company demonstrates what a weakness it is. Even the Episcopal Church, the US branch of the Church of England, wants all its seminarians to be bilingual by the time they graduate. We also look at the empty buildings, the blight, and the housing and other infrastructure designed for much larger populations than we have now. First and second generation immigrants could be living in our otherwise crumbling houses and working in the low skilled jobs that our area is having an increasingly difficult time filling. If we had more workers, we could actually see more economic growth in this area. When we look at surrounding rust belt communities like Erie and Detroit, we can understand the benefits that their more recent immigrant communities have provided. I’m not trying to point fingers or assign historical blame, nor am I proposing an economic or immigration plan for the Shenango Valley. I just want to note that there have been consequences, even very close to home, when we have made decisions on factors beyond “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger.”
The United States of America remains the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world. We espouse high ideals, even if we are not always able to live up to them. As a nation, we have nothing to fear, except, to quote one of our great Presidents, “fear itself,” because when we are afraid, we make bad decisions. When we aren’t afraid we can make lives better for people all over the world, and welcome people to our shores who become the next generation of great Americans. I know immigration is a complicated issue, and our borders serve an important purpose. If we start with “Do not be afraid” and “God loves the stranger” we are much more likely to find the right answers that are also good ones – good for the strangers at our boarders and good for us, as well.