National Refugee Shabbat

ShabbatHere is a slightly edited version of the sermon I preached on October 19 at Temple Israel, a neighboring synagogue led by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jack Romberg.  The occasion is National Refugee Shabbat. 

Shabbat Shalom

As-salamu alaykum

Pax Vobiscum

Peace, Y’all

Thank you for the kind invitation to stand on this bema and attempt to preach the Word of God. I grateful for your hospitality and your partnership through the years.

Tonight, I invite all of us to exercise our faithful imagination and to remember who we are as people whose faith is informed by the scriptures.  For most of you, that means the Hebrew scriptures, and for us Christians, that means the Hebrew scriptures as well as what we tend to call the New Testament.

I ask you to do this – to imagine and to recall – because people of faith in our nation are facing a crisis regarding refugees and immigrants – a crisis of both moral and theological dimensions.  At the root of that crisis, I have come to believe, is a failure of both sacred imagination and sacred memory.

To begin, I invite you to picture your home.  (Not your home right now.  Your home before Hurricane Michael.  No trees on your roof.) You are sitting on the porch or patio, it’s a nice spring day, and your kids are playing in the yard with their neighborhood friends.  As you enjoy your favorite craft beer or sweet ice tea or whatever it is you drink on a lovely spring day, you notice an odd humming in the air.  The sound grows louder, and you’re curious, but not alarmed.  You look up and see some eerie white planes in the distant sky.

In the next instant your world stops.  There is no sound but a ringing in your ears.  As you look around. Everything is in slow motion; your street has been transformed into a scene out of a post-apocalyptic horror film.  Disoriented, you look for your young children and spot them on the road, staring down at a pool of red.  As you run over, the closer you get, the more you can make out the figure on the ground; it’s the neighbor boy.  His leg is severed, blood is everywhere, but he is still conscious.

He holds out his small arms. You see the fear in his eyes as you run over.  You pick him up, but there is nothing you can do.  Your children stand in shock as their friend bleeds out.  You look for a safe place to turn, someone to help you, but your world is now vacant, there is no one, as his small body goes limp in your hands.

This is only the beginning. This scene becomes your norm, and there is nothing you can do but flee from everything you have ever known.  But where will you go?  There many outside your own nation who have the means to help, but they withhold their aid.  They think helping you and your people would cost too much or hurt their party’s chances in the next election.

There are places you can go to find some sort of refuge, but you’d be confined in a tent camp, and you have heard the horror stories of the sex traffickers who flock to those camps.  It could be incredibly dangerous, especially for your children, who have already lost their childhood.  You could try to find safety in a neighboring country, bypassing the refugee camps, but then you would not be allowed to work – how would you survive?

Your reality is now darkness as far as you can see.[1]

Can you see yourself in that scenario?  Can you see yourself as a modern refugee?  If you can’t, try looking through the lens of your faith.  Exercise your sacred imagination.

Or imagine this.  Your skin is black, and you come from a country that the CIA describes as a hotbed for human trafficking and slavery of its black minority residents.  Slavery wasn’t made illegal in your country until 1981, but the practice lives on.  Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt of which the holy scriptures speak, you are subject to a tradition of enslavement that goes back many generations.  You and your children are forced to work without pay as cattle herders and domestic servants.  You are treated as less than human.  You have no rights.  No dignity.  No freedom.

Somehow you have managed to escape and come to the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  The agency called ICE is fully aware of what you would face should you be forced to return to your country – so aware that from 2014 to 2017, an average of only 7 of your countrymen were deported back to your home country.

But a new leader has arisen in the land to which you have fled, in much the same way that a new leader arose in biblical Egypt – a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph.

At a White House gathering just last week, this leader pledged to do everything in the federal government’s power to stop human trafficking and modern-day slavery.  “Our country will not rest until we have put these vile organizations out of business and rescued every last victim,” the leader told officials.

And yet, under that same leader’s administration, in fiscal 2018, seventy-nine of your fellow Mauritanians have been deported back to Mauritania, and twenty-two are in custody awaiting deportation. Four of them were to be deported this week.

That leader is, of course, President Trump, the darling of self-proclaimed evangelical Christians, that great lover of scripture – especially “Two Corinthians.”

Can you imagine yourself as a black Mauritanian awaiting deportation?  If not, try looking through the lens of your faith, and if that doesn’t work, check out Wednesday’s edition of USA Today.

Here is the existential crisis you and I face: We “People of the Book” have allowed our fear of the other and our political allegiances to anesthetize us, to dull our sacred imagination.  We are losing the capacity for compassion and empathy.  Led by a narcissistic xenophobe who holds the highest office in the land, we are slipping into an unholy solipsism.  We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, and we are fast forgetting who we are.

Over the clamor of the partisan rallies and the chants of “Build that Wall,” scripture still speaks, if only we had ears to hear:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien… (Deut 26:5).

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Ex 23:9).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 24:22)

I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . .  (Matt. 25: 31-46)

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:22)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matt. 22:40)

The sacred scriptures of the faiths of Jews and Christians are a compendium of migration stories. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, their homeland. Noah and family become boat people adrift without a destination. Sarah and Abraham are mandated to migrate and, for generations upon generations, God’s people are nomads. The meta-narrative we share is one of exodus, migration, and settlement into a promised land.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary fled with their newborn son Jesus from Judea into Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of King Herod.  Jesus himself was a refugee – a dark-skinned refugee from the region of Palestine.  If Jesus were to apply for admission to the United States today, he’d be turned down flat.

As a Christian, I ask myself, when did our sacred memory begin to atrophy?  When did Bible-believing Christians lose track of what the Bible actually says?

Was it in the fourth century when we cast our lot with Emperor Constantine and bowed in homage to the Holy Roman Empire?  Was it when we arrived on the shores of America and christened ourselves “A City on a Hill?”

Was it when we became so focused on a vacancy on the Supreme Court that vices suddenly became virtues?  Lying, avarice, adultery, braggadocio, misogyny, ripping children from their mother’s arms and putting them in cages hundreds of miles away – somewhere along the line, righteousness has acquired a new definition.  Greed is good.  Dark-skinned people are bad. Truth is an matter of personal whim.  Facts no longer matter.

No matter that crime tends to be lower in immigrant communities than in the broader culture.  No matter that the vast majority of immigrants – documented or not — work hard and pay billions in taxes.  No matter that America can never be great so long as we ignore the voices of what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.”

So, tonight, I urge you to exercise your sacred imagination.  Imagine yourself packing up your possessions with Abraham and Sarah and leaving home for Canaan.  Imagine yourself wandering with Moses in the wilderness, on your way to the land of promise.  Imagine yourself leaving your home in Somalia, or Burundi, or Rwanda to come to live in Tallahassee.

Exercise your sacred imagination, and then listen to scripture.  Heed the Torah.  Embrace the Gospel.  Remember who you are.  Remember who created you.  Remember who taught you how to walk.  Remember who brought you with a great and mighty arm into the land of milk and honey.  Remember who promised never to let you go.

And then, heeding the call your better angels, live out the faith you have been given.


[1] Adapted from Sheri Faye Rosendahl, Not Your White Jesus: Following the Radical, Refugee Messiah, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) 31-33.