“Called and Covenanted to Care”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
4 November, 2018
I’m occasionally told that some of you would prefer that I not talk about politics from the pulpit. Others of you have made it clear that you wish I would tackle political issues more directly head-on, even naming and shaming certain leaders. This says at least two things to me. First, that we are a politically mixed congregation, which I think is good. And second, that we need regular reminders that our identity is notfirst and foremost situated in our political affiliation. Before national citizenship or political party attachments, we are children of God: creatures made in God’s own image, called and covenanted to care for this world that God has fashioned usfor, and has created forus.
Faith is about how God intends for life to be lived in community. And politics is about how we structure and organize communal life. So a well-formed, integrated faith will express itself in and through the politics we espouse. The votes we cast. The candidates we support. And the ways we hold our leaders accountable to the principles and values we believe God designed the entire world to live by in order to thrive.
God’s politics—the politics revealed through Scripture, and through Jesus’ life; the politics of the kingdom we pray for each Sunday when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—recognizes that this world has been created with an abundance, with plentyfor all to flourish, when each of us lives (and encourages others to live) faithfully according to God’s commandments. God’s politics is about unity and an ever-expanding welcome.
But, there’s the rub: the politics of our society generally operates from a belief that there is not enough for everyone, and we must guard what we understand as “ours”—whether power or material resources (food, commodities, money)—at all costs. This zero-sum approach sees the other as a threat, and pits us against each other, using various strategies to instill fear and mistrust of the other as wedges to establish tribes, divide, and conquer.
The role of the preacher has always included the prophetic task, which is to call God’s people to a deeper faithfulness, to a closer adherence to the biblical principles and traditional values that have shaped our Judeo-Christian faith. As you read through the Bible, you’ll see that prophets have never been super-popular or appreciated. So, when I occasionally see advice from a layperson to pastors or preachers, I’m curious.
As I was preparing for this Sunday’s sermon, I came across an article by Matthew Soerens, published on Sept. 4th in Faith and Leadershipmagazine entitled, “How Pastors Can Help Their Congregations Address the Issue of Immigration.” Given the centrality and divisiveness of the issue in our current landscape of social concerns, I was hooked. You can tell me whether you think it’s good advice.
“For much of my life as a Christian,” he begins, “I thought about immigration primarily as a political, cultural, economic and security matter—and rarely if ever as a biblical or missiological [i.e., part of our Christian mission] concern. My views on the subject mostly reflected those of my preferred cable news commentators; it never occurred to me that my faith might be relevant to the issue.
I’m not unique in that regard. Among evangelical Christians like me, for example, a 2015 LifeWay Research poll found that just 12 percent identify the Bible as the primary influence on their beliefs about immigration. In another 2015 survey, white evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians were the most likely religious subgroups to regard immigrants as a threat to American values. And while most Americans believe that the United States has a responsibility to admit refugees, most white Protestants do not.
But in my experience [he continues], those views are not shared by most pastors. In a 2016 LifeWay Research poll, 86 percent of Protestant senior pastors agreed that Christians should ‘care sacrificially for refugees and foreigners.’ Though pastors may be troubled by the hostility that some of their members feel toward immigrants, many steer clear of the issue, fearing that it could splinter their congregations, pushing some members to withhold tithes and offerings or even to leave. For those pastors—especially in a time of declining church attendance and budgets—the easiest path is to avoid the subject of immigration altogether. But that only perpetuates a deficit of discipleship, leaving formation on this critical issue to Fox News, MSNBC, and social media.
Soerens goes on to relate how his own perspective on immigration changed dramatically after he began to work for the World Relief organization. As he prepared to interface with local churches, he “began to research what, if anything, the Bible has to say on the topic of immigration.” He discovered far more than he’d imagined. “Most of the prominent heroes of our faith—Abraham [& Sarah], Joseph, Ruth, David, even Jesus—crossed borders into another country at some point,” he explains. “Furthermore, the Hebrew word that most closely describes immigrants . . . appears 92 times in the Old Testament, often mentioned alongside orphans and widows as uniquely vulnerable groups whom God expressly loves and commands his people to love as well. . . . In the New Testament, hospitality—from the Greek philoxenia(literally, ‘the love of strangers’)—is mandated for Christ followers.”
A few people made it clear that they didn’t appreciate his message—not because of the scriptural perspectives, but rather because of what he called “extrabiblical concerns such as assimilation, legal status, economics, and safety. That’s why,” he concludes, “in addition to understanding the biblical perspective on immigration, pastors and their congregations also need to know the facts. In an era of ‘fake news,’ it’s vital that we provide accurate information from unbiased, nonpartisan sources.”
As Soerens did that research himself, he came to a deeper understanding of the immigrants’ and asylum-seekers’ plight, making him a more compassionate, Christ-like neighbor. He admits, “…[I]t seems only intuitive—and fair—to tell would-be immigrants to simply come ‘the legal way’ or, for those already here illegally, to go back home and then come ‘the legal way.’ . . . But I suspect that most Americans do not realize (as I did not) that our legal system generally makes legal immigration impossible for anyone who does not fit any of the four visa categories.”
He continues, “Christians can debate whether or not breaking U.S. immigration law is biblically justified by particular circumstances, such as fleeing violence or extreme poverty. But knowing the facts about immigration at least helps us understand why so many people decide to immigrate or to overstay a visa illegally. So often, their choice is not between immigrating legally or illegally but between immigrating illegally or staying put in challenging, even brutal, circumstances that none of us would willingly endure.”
And finally, Soerens got to know some immigrants personally, and acknowledged that it made all the difference. He concluded his article with this observation: “[W]hile the Bible and the facts are important, it usually takes a relationship to convert someone from xenophobia (fear or dislike of people from other countries) to philoxenia (love of the stranger). For me, it was friendship with two families . . . who shared their food and their stories with me and demonstrated with their lives the falsehood of the stereotypes I’d previously believed.”
These combined actions transformed his thinking about immigration. It humanized an issue he had previously understood as purely partisan, or this-worldly political. It clarified the personal and relationship aspects of this rising global challenge in terms of his and the immigrants’ identity as equally-cherished children of God, neighbors called to minister to one another. Most importantly, the connection between faith and daily life was strengthened for him, because he saw how biblical stories guide a faithful attitude and commitment to advocate for the “other”, even if they don’t always neatly define how to solve the problem. For that, we need ongoing prayer, discernment, and creative thinking.
Naomi’s family members were Israelites from Judah. As we heard, the four of them migrated to Moab in order to survive during a famine. Because they were welcomed into Moab despite being foreigners, their experience was one that affirmed God’s faithfulness: it made it clear that God was with them, and had even been there ahead of them preparing a place for them, although the culture, customs, and prayers were different. They settled in, and the sons took Moabite women as life partners.
They lived in a time when women relied on the men in their life to ensure their physical and material security, while the women were to bear children and keep hearth and home. When all the men of this family died, the women were vulnerable, most of all Naomi. Orpah and Ruth knew they could marry again—there would be Moabite men who would take them as wives for the children they could bear. But Naomi was beyond childbearing years, and the only men who might be hoped for to recognize a responsibility for her were back in Judah. The famine had lifted, so Naomi knew what she had to do. She packed up what she could and encouraged her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families so that their security could be certain, and she would see whether anyone might take her in back in Judah.
Orpah complied, but Ruth insisted on embracing the immigrant by becoming an immigrant herself. It was an act of faithfulness to Naomi. Ruth was intentionally sacrificing for the sake of another, leaving behind all that was familiar and comfortable to her in order to help someone more vulnerable. But here’s what the audience doesn’t know yet: Ruth the Moabite, an outsider to Israel, eventually becomes great-grandmother to David, Israel’s greatest king. Had Ruth not undertaken her journey, the whole of history would have been different.
The point is this: we simply do not know how God will work through the stranger and the web of relationships that develop around them. But no blessing can possibly come if the stranger is not welcomed in the first place.
Parker Palmer—an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change—recently said in an interview I watched:
“The stranger has a very special role in Scripture, as one who gives us another angle on the news—the Good News, and all the news. Because the stranger comes from a different place than we have, has seen different things than we have, heard different things, and is able to give us a bigger picture of who we are and where we are than we could possibly get all by ourselves. If we stay within our own lifestyle enclave, or who we think our family is or isn’t, then we keep getting the news from the same sources, keep recycling it, keep breathing the same air, which can get very stale after a while. But if we reach out to the stranger, we begin to pick up different messages—and, again, our view of the world becomes larger. And because we’re taking in the ‘otherness’ that we know is out there but we’re always a little afraid of, and we’re learning that we don’t need to be afraid of it—that it can actually expand and deepen our lives, we feel more at home in the world through acts of hospitality to the stranger.”
So, embracing the immigrant—even thousands of immigrants—is an act of faith and true discipleship. It’s what we’re called and covenanted to do as students of Jesus striving to follow his instruction to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Today, as we give thanks for the saints who have inspired our lives, or paved the way for our presence here by their faithfulness in prayer and in politics; this week, as we set ourselves to vote for leaders who might influence our local, state, and national government in ways consistent with God’s own politics; as we pray continuously for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, let us remember our call and our covenant promise to care in every way possible for all God’s children. Amen.