I had some fun with this sermon, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. I preached this on February 19th, at St. Luke’s Bethesda. The text is Matthew 5: 38-48, and the Alice Walker short story, the Welcome Table. I’m honest here about my struggles, and quite honestly my political persuasion. But I think it’s important to be honest, and to lead with our love and vulnerabilities in this time of upheaval and uncertainty.
They sat, and waited. A mother, and her 2-year old child. They sat, waiting. For a man who wouldn’t be coming home. This isn’t a story of a guy going out to get a pack of cigarettes and just not coming back. No, this is a story of an undocumented immigrant, who filled out his paperwork as he was supposed to, checked in as Immigration and Customs Enforcement told him to. And when he went for his biannual check in, he was deported. From Alexandria, VA.
People are here, not looking for a better life but for an opportunity at life. Some of whom had no choice in whether or not they came to America. With no other home than the apartments they live in. They’re being sent back to a country that isn’t theirs, which happily dismissed them decades ago.
Of course, there are details and specifics to these stories and the laws being used to deport them. But I can’t help but think, as I read these stories of abrupt deportation, about the way this country has historically treated race, a social category we as Christians helped invent, how we have treated people who don’t look or sound like us since the beginning.
The words of Alice Walker, in her short story, the Welcoming Table, ring in my ears:
In the Welcoming Table, and older African American woman, a woman who shows in her body that her life has been spent in hard labor. This woman walks into a church near her home, in the time shortly before desegregation laws were passed. On the steps of the church, she is stopped by the minister, who gently reminds her this isn’t her church. She pushes by him, and sits on the back pew.
She begins to pray, actually, to sing a spiritual in her head. So she doesn’t hear the whispers and murmurs about her presence. She ignores the young usher who tells her to leave. She doesn’t notice when the ladies of the church turn to their husbands to encourage them to do something.
She doesn’t notice until those husbands have placed their hard fists under her arms, and flexed their muscular shoulders, expelling her back into the cold morning.
This story, the words of Alice Walker, are being lived out right now, all over this region and nation. Men and women are waiting to see if men with well muscled shoulders are going to come and physically remove them from the only home they have.
History repeats itself. Yet, to be Christian is to be more than our history. It’s not just a lofty goal, it’s an imperative of Christ. These words, this command, to love people who don’t love you; to greet and acknowledge the humanity of people who aren’t just like you; to love, just as God loves us. These commands are hard.
And this means that we must love the stranger. But we know that.
This also means that we must love those who are unwelcoming. We must love those who don’t love the stranger, or who don’t love us.
It’s easy to agree or disagree about what’s happening in our country today. It’s much harder to act out of our love. We can argue about the targeted travel ban and the change in deportation enforcement. We must be kept safe from dangerous criminals. But dangerous criminals are not who is being “rounded up” and deported. Instead, it’s people who sought to work and paid taxes. It’s people who go out in the night to buy diapers for their infants & are deemed criminals because they are caught driving without a license.
In the midst of all this, we can and must remind one another that we’re a nation of immigrants. Those of us with white skin, chances are that you or someone in your family tree willingly immigrated here.
And yet, just as in Alice Walker’s story, instead of greeting one another out of our common humanity, some of us instead place our fists under the arms of others, and expel them from our nation.
We forget that in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, in what we read for the Gospel today, Jesus calls out to us to love. Those words: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We are called to be perfect. But that word, perfect, it isn’t exactly what we with modern ears understand it to mean. In Greek, the word used here means whole. We are called to be and to love wholly. With a W, modeled after God’s Holy love, with an H.
And we are called to love the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee. But we are also called to love those who don’t love us. I find myself wondering, often, how do I love and be welcoming to someone who is unwelcoming?
How do I love the person who sends truly horrible messages to my friend Esther, who happens to be an immigration reporter at ThinkProgress, and is one of the kindest people I know? Esther was brought here as a young child; She’s a dreamer.
Her personal safety is challenged every day. She could be deported at any moment. She receives death threats. Unknown and anonymous strangers tell her to “go back to her country.” People call ICE on her daily.
It’s easy for me to love Esther. It’s a lot harder for me to love those who are unwelcoming to her. But, God calls me to welcome the stranger & the unwelcoming person too.
In this time I must set aside my personal biases, my hurt, my prejudices, in order to know and love people that often, I’d rather not. And it is hard. But I have to do it anyway.
And so do all of us.
Remembering that love doesn’t mean agreeing. Love includes protest. Love includes standing up for what’s right. Love includes seeking to know, understand, & respect everyone, regardless of political affiliation.
It’s easy to sit back and condemn actions we disagree with. We can all rest in our righteous anger. We can, and should, call our representatives, let them know what we think. We absolutely must love our neighbors, regardless of their immigration status.
But loving our neighbors isn’t limited to those who don’t look like us. Our neighbors include those who look, but don’t think like us. There is a disconnect happening now in our country. It needs to be bridged. It needs to be bridged because God tells us to. On all sides of the belief spectrum, we are called to wholly love and respect one another.
We, all of us, must wonder and talk about what we want to do, what kind of Christians we want to be. This woman, in the Alice Walker story, she’s in our church, except our church is really our nation.
She is here. Do we greet her? Do we welcome her? Do we ask what brought her to us today? Or do we assume we know? Then place our fists under her arms and let her fend for herself? Are we kind to the person throwing her out? Do we respect their humanity? Do we treat them as we would want to be treated? Do we love them, as God loves us?
I will admit to you all that I’m still struggling with this. I find it a lot easier to surround a scared immigrant in love than the person calling for her deportation. But it’s not up to me to pick and choose who I love.
It would be a lot easier to just sit back, and not love those who disagree with me. But that is not what God is calling me, and us, to do. We must figure this out. We must figure out a way to love everyone, regardless of immigration status or views on immigration.
We must find a way to look beyond politics to see the humanity in everyone. Regardless of political persuasion. Christ is commanding us to do this. So let’s do it! In conversation with one another.
I say we love.
Radically. Wholly with a W and Holy with an H.
Let us find a way to be perfect in how we love our neighbors, as God perfectly loves us.