He Laughed

This sermon was originally preached by Rev. James Morasco on June 24, 2018.
We are all “neighbors.”
Our world has gotten too small for us to be anything else.
We can no longer have “us” and “them” - friends and enemies.
A person from Iraq, or Russia, or Columbia is
no more a stranger or enemy than a person from across town.
— Jonathan Lockwood Huie
Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
— Proverbs 31:8-9 (ESV)
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
— Colossians 3:11 (ESV)

What I have to say today isn’t in my usual style. It’s not my intention to upset anyone. Know that these are my truths, based on my own experience.  Like with all my sermons, I don’t expect everyone to agree. But I think I would be derelict in my responsibility as a follower of Christ’s teachings and as a minister in a denomination that prides itself on the concept of “extravagant welcome”, if I ignored the reality of what’s occurring in our country.  This past week politics hit a new low as thousands of children were separated from their parents and put in cages, under the guise of illegal immigration.  Now we can agree or disagree on immigration, but I personally don’t think that traumatizing families, especially innocent children, has anything to do with keeping me safe.  In fact, I believe it does just the opposite.

Years ago I worked as a Child Protective Worker.  It was my responsibility to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect and determine the extent to which the allegations were true.  On several occasions I had to physically remove children from their home in order to keep them safe.  One of the first things I was taught in training was that no matter what the circumstances, removing children from their families will cause psychological harm.  The type and duration depends on the situation and ages of the children.  In other words it was the last thing we would do, with the goal of reunification as soon as possible.  Anyone with children, grandchildren – anyone with feelings – intrinsically knows how wrong this is.  I don’t think the parents or the children care if it’s a policy, an executive order, or which party is responsible.  Listening to the children’s cries was enough to make me sick.

I have had the opportunity to stand in a slum in Mexicali Mexico and look across the river into the United States.  The contrast was stark from where I stood.  The river was so polluted that no fish could live in it. I could smell the stench from the raw sewage that flows into it.  Still I was told that people are so desperate to get into the United States that they risk their health and swim across.  Comparing the two sides, I concluded I would do the same if it were me.  Wouldn’t you do whatever you could to feed your family?  Desperation sometimes leads to desperate measures.

My own grandfather risked everything he had to come to this country.  Since he was a young boy, he had been crippled in one of his legs and had to use a cane to walk. He was told he would be turned back at Ellis Island because of it.  So he boarded a ship bound for South America.  He then took another ship up into Canada before illegally sneaking into the country through Niagara Falls.  Back then people from Italy were also looked down on and many in that generation were also discriminated against.  When I hear some of the arguments made for why the people have been treated the way they are at our boarders, it’s like turning back the clock.  These same arguments have been used in the past against others trying to enter.

The US (and other countries in the Western Hemisphere) could have saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. They didn't. At one point, the US literally turned away a ship of 900 German Jews named the St. Louis. Shortly afterward, it rejected a proposal to allow 20,000 Jewish children to come to the US for safety.

When the St. Louis got within a few miles of Miami's harbor, the Coast Guard started tailing the boat to underline the point.

The US could have agreed to allow the passengers of the St. Louis to land and wait in America for their visas to be processed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who a few years later would use an executive order to round up tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and put them in concentration camps, could have ordered that 900 German Jews be allowed to stay. He did not do so. FDR's defenders (like his presidential library) stress that he never issued a "specific or official order to turn them away." But he didn't have to. His government was doing that for him.

254 of the passengers on the St. Louis died in the Holocaust.  By Dara Lind.

I was appalled when I heard the Bible being quoted to justify the harsh treatment of these people. In my Child Protection days I had heard parent’s using the Bible to do unspeakable things to their children.  I naively thought that it would never happen again in this country where someone’s “Christian” beliefs are used to discriminate against others.  Historically the Christian proclamation known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” issued in the 1400’s was used to justify the taking of this land and systematically destroying the people that lived here.  In the years that followed, the Bible was used to justify slavery and to limit the rights of women and others.

I had to come to the conclusion many years ago that contrary to popular sentiment, we were not founded on Christian values.  I had to conclude we were founded on greed, where the Bible was used as a reason for genocide and slavery. Where Christian values were twisted in order to justify what mainly rich white men were really doing. 

Following Christ’s example and message is difficult in a world that values material gain.  Wealth and power have motivated behaviors from the beginning.  It’s no different now than when Jesus Christ walked the earth.

Theologian and author Richard Rohr writes:

Earlier this year, I collaborated with a group of Christian leaders in the United States to write a statement to our churches, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” I invite you to meditate on three of our affirmations:

The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

The first affirmation is:

I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel. 

II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). [I would add sexual orientation as well.] The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. When we fail to overcome these oppressive obstacles, and even perpetuate them, we have failed in our vocation to the world—to proclaim and live the reconciling gospel of Christ.

III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. “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” (Matthew 25:40). God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).

I have used the following quote from Mother Teresa here many times.  Why, because I feel it’s at the heart of what Christ was saying to us.  When it comes to interacting with others, we tend to complicate things.  This saying speaks to me of simplicity.

At the end of life we will not be judged by

How many diplomas we have received

How much money we have made

How many great things we have done.

We will be judged by:

“I was hungry and you gave me to eat,

Naked and you clothed me

I was homeless and you took me in.”

Hungry not for bread

But hungry for love

Naked not for clothing

But naked of human dignity and respect

Homeless not only for a want of a room of bricks

But homeless because of rejection.

This is Christ in distressing disguise.
— Mother Theresa

You see, welcoming the stranger, to me, is not an option but an obligation.  I have experienced being the stranger, not knowing the language, the nuances of a culture.  I have also experienced hospitality from people that live it every day.  I didn’t have to say a word but they understood because to them it’s the reality of their everyday life.

I started today by talking about the children, so maybe we need to end with where we began.  The following was written and spoken by a 16-year-old girl at the 1997 World Summit of Children:

He Laughed

He prayed – it wasn’t my religion

He ate – it wasn’t my food.

He spoke – it wasn’t my language.

He dressed – it wasn’t what I wore.

He took my hand – it wasn’t the color of mine.

But when he laughed – it was how I laughed.

And when he cried – it was how I cried.

My wish for you today is that you can see through all the arguments, the name calling, all the finger pointing and simply listen to the children.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
— Matthew 18: 1-5