TEXT: Ruth 2:5-13; John 4:4-14
It was October, 1981, and we were all gathered at my mother’s. I was sewing stars on a wizard’s robe…which is another story entirely…when the phone rang. I got up to answer it and couldn’t have been more surprised. It was Milos, my pen pal from what was then Czechoslovakia. We had been writing to each other since we were 12 years old. Now we were 22. He had never called before.
He wasn’t just calling to chat. And he wasn’t calling from Czechoslovakia. He and his wife were in the Philadelphia train station. They had fled political persecution in their Communist homeland. They had overstayed a work visa in America and had gotten work at a resort in the Poconos that promised them room and board, but no paycheck, for their labor. The work hours got longer and longer and while they still had the room, the “board” part of the agreement was taken away and they ate only what they could scavenge. When Milos' wife, Ivana, fainted on the job for lack of food, they fled that place and managed to get to Philadelphia. So he called the only person in America that he knew. He said to me, “We can be in Providence in 6 hours. Can we live with you?”
Well, that’s a heck of a thing to lay on your mother right after dinner. There wasn’t room in the small apartments where my brother and I lived with our spouses, and my mother already had two other people in need that she was boarding. There were no more bedrooms. But my mother quickly took the phone. Yes. Come. It would be after midnight when they arrived, but we would meet them at the train station and bring them home.
We scrambled in the intervening hours to turn part of the living room into a bedroom, and then we all went off to Providence. There really was no question in any of our minds. We were harboring what were by then illegal immigrants, but they had left their own country under desperate circumstances, they had been exploited for their labor when they got here, and they were in need. No one suggested we turn them away. No one suggested that we turn them in. They arrived and were received with hugs and tears and food.
Milos and Ivana lived with my mother many years. My mother was constantly on the phone with the offices of our Rhode Island senators, engaging the battle to get them political asylum. She went with them to meetings with immigration officials and was appalled at what was said to them. When asylum was finally granted, she lobbied for green cards and she did all the leg work to help them get into Masters’ Degree programs at Brown University. Seven years after they received their green cards, we celebrated the day they became American citizens. They became family. Their children still call my mother “Grandma,” and in 2003 when Milos took his own life, we mourned as we would for one of our own. Ivana and the boys are part of every holiday in our family.
And so in these past few weeks, as debates and demonstrations about illegal immigration surged, I had at least some point of connection. And I am talking about it this morning because I have heard things that give me cause for concern.
Citizenship is a political construct and not a moral category; and while we all hope that there is at least some overlap between what is legal and what is moral, history has shown that such is not always the case. Milos and Ivana were in this country illegally and we gave them shelter. Was that a sin either on their part or on ours? Maybe…I don’t know. But I do know that God has never nudged me to ask forgiveness for it, and every one of us standing on the train platform that October night felt that we were making the world a better place.
I also know that we are becoming overwhelmed by the influx. We have very real security concerns with smuggling, terrorism, and gangs waltzing too easily across our borders; and all solutions have a large economic cost. I know there are real problems, and I’m not here to advocate for a particular political solution.
But in the past few weeks, I have begun to hear a shift in the language surrounding the debate away from policy and toward both racism and hatred. If we don’t nip that in the bud, we are headed toward the same kinds of race riots across this country that so harmed the soul of our country during the Civil Rights movement. Unlike citizenship, racism and hatred ARE moral categories, and those responses are forbidden to those who take on the name of Christ.
As you are learning from doing the Daily Walk Bible readings, the Bible is full of comings and goings, migrations and conquests. Throughout the Law of Moses there is the refrain for Israel to remember their own roots as slaves in Egypt and to have compassion on what the Bible calls “the alien living in your towns.” A concern for the racial purity of the Jews comes up in several places, as well as the condemnation of certain nations, but then sitting in the midst of it is the book of Ruth.
Ruth is from the condemned country of Moab and she follows her widowed mother-in-law to Israel. Remembering the command to care for both the alien and the poor, the Israelite Boaz instructs his farm workers to be inefficient in their harvest, so that Ruth can walk behind and glean what they have left and so provide for herself and her family. Long story short, this illegal immigrant from a nation God has already condemned ends up marrying Boaz and thereby becoming part of the genealogy of Jesus.
And then, in the New Testament, there are the Samaritans. By Jesus day, the Jews and the Samaritans hate each other with a perfect hatred. They don’t talk, they don’t trade, and Jews walk miles and miles out of their way to avoid going through Samaria. Not Jesus. Jesus enters Samaria and talks with a woman at a well…the longest conversation he has with anyone in all of recorded Scripture. He takes a drink from her hand.
Jesus does not participate in either the racial hatreds or the religious wars of his time. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah. He hasn’t even told his disciples that yet. She is the first, showing that Jesus doesn’t buy into the gender discrimination of his day, either. Notice that when the disciples come back, they aren’t astounded that he is talking with a Samaritan, they are amazed that he is talking to a woman! That was even worse.
Jesus came to show us that God’s agenda, indeed God’s very nature, is love. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself…even love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, says Jesus. Whether you see illegal immigrants as your enemies, your neighbors, your flesh and blood, or as Christ himself hidden in “the least of these,” the call of the Christian is to love them.
Now love takes many forms, and loving a person doesn’t mean that laws can’t be enforced. But it does mean that the cry I heard on one news report of “The only good Mexican is a dead Mexican” should never, ever come from the lips of a Christian. It does mean that blaming the poor who have literally risked their lives to support a family back south of the border is sliding down a slippery slope toward the hatred of an already abused and exploited people.
The blame here lies in many places, but least of all, I think, with them. Blame lies with corrupt governments in many places to our south that do not provide for their people and care only for the greased palm. Blame lies with our own government for not reforming legislation, securing borders, and putting as much pressure on those governments to our south to clean up their act as we do on governments who control oil reserves.
Blame also lies with private companies who exploit illegal workers, knowing they have no rights and no recourse, knowing they are desperate, so that they can make a bigger profit and gain market share. Blame lies with those of us who simply seek the cheapest product, no matter who made it or under what conditions. Only after all of them…all of us…are held accountable should we be turning to those whose only intent in coming here is survival.
It’s time to wake up, and at this critical time in the history of our nation, the prophetic voice of the Christian faith must speak out or watch our nation fall into deserved ruin. I don’t care whether you are advocating a fence on the border or complete amnesty…good Christians can be on all sides of the policy. Where good Christians can’t be is involved in hate…either by what we say (or sometimes don’t say), or by what we do.
This is not about Mexicans trying to take over. This is about an impoverished nation living on the border of the richest nation in the world and about how that incredibly rich nation should respond when the poor neighbor would like some of the crumbs that fall from the rich nation’s table. It is not about the Spanish language. It is not about Latinos. It is a complex problem that will not be solved easily or overnight. Don’t let your anger over the problem get dumped on the easy targets of race or ethnicity. Be careful what you say in front of your children.
We are a nation of immigrants. Some were dragged here forcibly as slaves. Some were sent here as punishment for crimes. Some sought adventure and wealth. Some fled religious persecution. Some sought political refuge. Millions came because we put a statue in New York harbor with a poem on its base that reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The huddled masses believed our invitation was sincere, and they came. They are still coming, and I don’t blame them. I would come, too.
Jesus did not teach us to shut out Samaria. He taught us to walk in and have long conversations, and to offer living water. He taught us that there is not “us and them.” There is only us, all of us together in the human family, stewards of God’s resources on God’s earth. Now is the time for Christians to speak out…speak for whatever political solution seems best to you, but most importantly, be part of shifting the conversation away from hatred and blame toward any race or nationality or political status.
Shift it back to where it belongs--to an honest examination of race and class, wealth and privilege, corruption and greed and political advantage. John Wesley and the early Methodists kept the focus there and their reforms prevented revolution in 18th century England. Dare we do the same? Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson