Sermon for June 30, 2019
The great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth counselled preachers in the early 20th century to “take your bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible”. This morning, as we head into a holiday week and the marking of the July 4th celebration of our Declaration of Independence, I’m going to reflect on the news of the past week using the lens of our scripture readings that we have just heard, and will invite us to consider what this might mean for us, as we consider the newspaper in the week ahead.
The news that most caught my attention, unsettled my stomach and invaded my prayer life this week was about the living conditions of children who have been separated from their parents at the border.
I thought that we were no longer separating children from their parents because there was an authoritative court order requiring the reunification of those who had been separated. This week’s reports that we still have hundreds, if not thousands of children living with no soap, no toothpaste, no blankets, no lights out and no beds to sleep on….no privacy, no activities, no parents and not enough adult supervision or caregivers came as unwelcome and dispiriting news.
The original reporting of these squalid conditions was in the New Yorker, and caught my attention because I was one of an enormous group of immigration attorneys who had volunteered to participate in the inspections that were conducted at these border facilities. Within 48 hours of making the request, inspection team organizers had so many volunteers that most of us were placed on a waiting list – a development from which I drew great comfort.
To be clear, there is so much room for faithful debate and discussion about how to fix our broken immigration system, which policies would be most effective and what corrections need to be made. Faithful people can debate the root causes, responsibilities and policy effects. But as people of God, people guided by scripture and the example set by Jesus, there is no room for debate about the care and feeding of God’s children.
We will be spending months reading the gospel of Luke, and benefitting from Luke’s narrative and focus on some of the marginalized and mistreated. Luke is the gospel writer who often emphasizes Christ’s call to love and associate with outcasts.
In this morning’s gospel we have Jesus as a refugee, walking from town to town. Being turned away at a village on his journey to Jerusalem. At his rejection by the village of Samaritans his disciples suggest that they should invoke the fire and fury of the Lord to punish the people, but Jesus scolds them for their human, clearly not divine response. Jesus requires that the disciples’ beliefs dictate their actions.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, read by Tom this morning, we are given a list of do’s and don’t to dictate our own actions. We are told that we must live by the Spirit and not the flesh. No naughty stuff like drunkenness, licentiousness or dividing into factions. Lots of lovely stuff like joy, peace, patience and kindness. All good, and all easily seen as missing from the facilities created to detain and deter as part of our current immigration deterrence strategy.
How can we knit those together and what are we, individually and faithfully supposed to do?
How can we live into the requirement that our faith and religious beliefs dictate our actions?
I am so grateful that we are part of a national Episcopal family that is responding to the immigration crisis in myriad ways, from providing shelter, food and accompaniment for people struggling to cross the border, to making policy and setting agendas in Washington. From guaranteeing a right to counsel on the west coast to providing rides for undocumented men and women in Boston.
In between we are millions of fellow Episcopalians wondering what we should do – whether we CAN do anything to help alleviate the suffering of this crisis. Grappling with how our own actions are faithful to what Jesus asks of us – Jesus whose example is both challenging and so clear on this point.
This week I sought out an Episcopal response from our southern border and found the wise words of the Bishop of West Texas, Bishop David Reed, whom I do not know, but whose experience and wisdom I respect. I found his reflections to be instructive. He wrote –
“A simple solution to this crisis does not exist, but we can be instruments of God’s grace and peace. We cannot do everything, but for Christ’s sake, we can do something.”
I would like to make suggestions about the ways in which you might get involved closer to home. There are organizations creating opportunities for witnessing the effects of our current immigration policies. From sitting in a court room – which is how I initially became directly involved, to standing as part of a vigil at one of our local detention centers.
There will be a group assembling at the South Bay Detention Center at 2 pm this afternoon for an interfaith prayer vigil. Some in this community have already participated in one of these gatherings. Please know that while you may not be able to see the ICE detainees during the vigil, your presence is a gift for them, and makes a difference to the guards and prison leaders. Most detainees receive no visitors during their period of incarceration and can feel isolated and completely forgotten. Those regular vigils are reminders that they are not languishing in prison anonymously.
Friday, July 12th there will be vigils all across Massachusetts and Episcopal City Mission is working hard to connect interested people to their local efforts. Saturday, July 13th there will be a March for Immigrant Lives, and we will gather on the Common. In between each of those events, and if demonstrating and public prayer vigils are not your thing, I would encourage you to join the letter writing effort. You can write to our elected representatives, and you can also write a personal letter to a detainee.
Boston Immigrant Justice Advocacy Network – BIJAN – is working to reduce the isolation of those who are detained and occasionally has letter writing sessions. A simple note saying that you are keeping someone in your prayers, and then praying for that detainee is powerful.
I would also recommend that you read a recent Boston Globe Editorial entitled “The Migrant Crisis: Yes, you can help” The editorial does not recommend raining down God’s fire and fury, but has several terrific resources and suggestions for ways in which you might be engaged in making a difference in this work.
On Thursday, July 4th, many of us are fortunate enough to have time off — a bit of mid-week sabbath. And on Thursday, the Boston Globe will continue its tradition of reprinting the Declaration of Independence on its Editorial Page. It is my annual practice to read it through, giving thanks for the courage and wisdom that helped create our country’s founding document. This year, I invite you to join this tradition and to read the Declaration as Karl Barth proposed. With the newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other.
Fun Fact: thirty-two of the men who signed the Declaration were Episcopalian or Anglicans…if you’ve lost count of the overall number of signers – Episcopalians accounted for 57% of all who signed the original, world-changing document.
I hope that your reading will include gratitude and pride for the truths that the writers found to be self-evident. That “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”. These concepts, as founding principles of a new nation were unique, bold and gloriously aspirational.
And when you read the reference to, “the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” I hope that you will pause and consider scripture. Perhaps you will be surprised to read such offensive notions included in this civic, sacred text. The contrast is part of the tension our modern selves must grapple with and understand to be included in this historic declaration.
Our founding fathers aspired to be a nation set apart by the expectation of liberty for all, but all in 1776 meant the pursuit of happiness was sacred and reserved for a group that looked and acted like the revolutionary writers.
Would these same inalienable rights be ascribed to the Samaritans who rejected Jesus in today’s gospel? Would they be reserved for the people seeking a safe haven here today?
And still, people come to this country seeking the life described in the Declaration, to find a place in this land where God’s people practice the summary of the law that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. That is the promise that still draws people here, every minute of every day. People seeking a better life, to escape poverty or hopelessness, to seek safety and to perhaps find happiness.
This week, the haunting photograph of the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramires and his nearly 2 year old daughter Valeria lying dead on the banks of the Rio Grande – remind us of what people will risk and how desperate they are to come. Theirs was a public grave and warning of a failed attempt to reach the safety of the shores and promise they hoped to find in Brownsville.
The photograph was discussed in the presidential debates this week to try to score political points and minimized by some at the border. What I have wondered since seeing that unforgettable photograph is what desperation had Oscar experienced in El Salvador that would cause anyone to enter a dangerous river carrying an infant daughter. What life were they fleeing so awful, hopeless, unsafe and scary that Oscar would risk his life and the life of his child – literally his future, to swim to our shores?
I don’t think that we will ever know. We do know that neither the US nor El Salvador nor any nation will have the benefit of the full lives or potential that God meant for Oscar or Valeria. What we do know, with the heaviest heart, is that the Ramireses were not the first nor will they be the last to perish trying to reach our shores and the promise proscribed in the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution.
On this precipice of Independence Day, as we revisit the story of the founding of this country and review the policies being carried out in our name, reading the newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other, I want to close with a bit more wisdom from our Episcopal brother in the Diocese of West Texas, Bishop Reed who reminds us:
“To be angry and resentful is easy, a reaction that takes little imagination. To become cynical is to reject the hope of Christ. To love and to care is much harder, requiring that we extend grace and mercy to one another and to our selves, but acting in love and choosing to care is the life into which we’ve been baptized. To love and to care is the Way of Christ, and the way of the Kingdom.”
This week as we try to live and act according to our faithful beliefs, let us do the hard work of love and actively choose to care. Because those are the actions that will lead us to the fruits of Living by the Spirit. Those are the actions that produce Love, Joy, and Peace. And Jesus teaches us that being guided by the Spirit is what is required and expected of each of us.
The Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
Sermon for Sunday 10:30 am service, June 30, 2019 || All Saints Parish Brookline || Year C || 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77; 1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62 || The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.