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"Finding our North Star on Immigration" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 3, 2017

posted Dec 12, 2017, 8:06 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

This past Friday I gathered with teens from our congregation and other UCC churches for a retreat called “What Star Is This?”  After some games at the church, we went over to the UWM Planetarium for a show.  Dr. Jean Creighton, the director, spoke to our youth about the stars we can hardly see because of the city lights.  The planetarium ceiling came alive with thousands of stars we can’t normally see.  


Of course, the stars always shine in the sky; we just can’t see them.  Dr. Creighton helped reveal what was already there, present throughout our lives, but often hidden from our view: a sky of stars.  Which seems to be an apt description of spirituality: learning to see the hidden reality around us.  Our life as Christians means learning to see and know and understand all the hidden reality in our world.


This Sunday, our Immigration Task Force begins a new education series, one designed to help us see and know the hidden stories of immigrants.  Immigrants and the issue of immigration can be seen on the news but the personal stories of actual immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, remains hidden.  And the story of immigrants in the Bible also remains largely hidden, obscured like stars by the bright lights of political controversy.


All of which is surprising because we’re in the midst of the largest displacement of people since World War II.  Millions remain displaced within their home countries; millions more leave their home country for safety somewhere else; about 3% of humans around the world live displaced.


As we talk about immigration, I want to make clear the centrality of immigration questions to our particular kind of Christianity.  As congregationalists, we trace our roots back to John Calvin and the early Protestants gathered with him in Geneva, Switzerland.  Calvin grew up in France but fled to Geneva; the city swelled with people fleeing persecution around Europe; a city of immigrants.  Let me be clear: a city of immigrants gave birth to our kind of Christianity.  


The followers of John Calvin in England embodied this migratory reality - moving first from England to the Netherlands and then from the Netherlands to Plymouth; a people on the move.  The very name of our church reminds us: immigration deeply shaped our spiritual ancestors.


Followers of Calvin in France fought to gain their religious freedom, something the king granted in the Edict of Nantes.  The Huguenots, as they were known, lived for a hundred years as French Protestants.  But a new king arose who rescinded the Edict and started persecuting the Huguenots.  They fled around the world - to every part of Europe, to Canada, and to Louisiana in the US.  As they fled, the Huguenots created a new word in French to refer to themselves: refugees, people who flee to safety.  


Questions of immigration and refugees go to the heart of our spiritual tradition as congregationalists; ours is faith whose story couldn’t be told without people immigrating.  


Dr Creighton, in teaching our youth about the stars, taught them how to use the constellations to find Polaris, the North Star.  The North Star guided travelers for millennia; the star helped people track their movement in the darkness.  The youth learned to find Polaris by tracing down the back of the Little Dipper or by following the path up from the cup of the Big Dipper.  We need a north star in our immigration debate.  A point to guide us as we traverse the night.  


Juan Martinez, an evangelical theologian, recently reflected on how people get stuck in debates about immigration, particularly the status of undocumented immigrants.  He noted that our rhetoric about immigration often gets locked into two simplistic extremes: obedience to the law vs mercy to the vulnerable, the rule of law vs the rule of the heart.  We need a north star to chart our way through the immigration terrain so that we don’t get trapped in the tug between law and heart.


Just as one can use the Little and Big Dippers to find Polaris, I think baptism and communion can help us find our moral north star.  I guess baptism is the little dipper; the cup of communion the big.


When baptizing Noah and Noel this morning, I repeated some key words about baptism.  “Through baptism we celebrate publicly what is always true: God loves every person, God treasures every life, God rejoices over our nearest relative and the most distant person.”  Baptism reveals God’s love, makes it visible - helps us see the Polaris of the moral universe - God loves every person, from our nearest relative to the most distant.


Communion, like baptism, reveals and discloses a spiritual reality we might not always see.  We often emphasize communion as an experience of community: we come together at one table.  And that meaning of communion can matter for our moral vision.  But from the earliest times communion pointed Christians to remember something more: the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And why did he die?  Because, as Dr. King taught us, there is no length to which God will not go to restore broken community.  And why did he rise?  Because love triumphs.


So like the constellations, these sacraments point us to the eternal north star, the Polaris of our moral universe: God’s love for every person, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.  When we do not know what to think or believe or do about immigration, then look to this north star: God’s love.


Earlier I said we’re in the midst of the greatest migration of people since WWII.  A story from that time speaks to why God’s love for all people matters as our north star.  In the build up and during the war, thousands of Jews sought refuge in America.  But often they were turned away.  


The tragic story of the St. Louis headlines this sad chapter in American history.  About 900 Jews boarded the St. Louis in Germany and set sail to Cuba.  But the Cuban government decided the Jews didn’t have the proper documentation to land; the undocumented Jews looked north to America.  But again, the undocumented Jews were turned away.


The decisions in Cuba and America grew out of anti-semitism and fear immigrants would take jobs away from others.  President Roosevelt wrapped up his concerns, his fears, in the banner of national security.  He dismissed the undocumented Jews as a national threat.  And, indeed throughout his Presidency, he repeated the fake news of Jewish Gestapo spies sent to undermine American factories.  And so FDR deported the undocumented Jews back to Germany.


Because they couldn’t imagine the undocumented Jews as their sisters and brothers, Roosevelt and American leaders at the time made an egregious moral mistake.  What moral mistakes do we make by picking our direction without looking to our Polaris?


Our reading from the Gospel of Mark spoke of a time when the very foundations of the moral universe would be shaken:

But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

  and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.


Christians speak of Jesus predicting an apocalypse, which we commonly understand as the end of the world.  But the word apocalypse really means “the revealing,” or the time when hidden things will be revealed.  


A biblical scholar pointed out that we’ve misunderstood the apocalypse as a one-time/end-time event; instead, we ought to look at it as those revealing moments.  The very content of Jesus’ words capture this.  Jesus spoke during the Roman occupation, during the tension building up and finally erupting in a rebellion that ended with the tragic destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  But Jesus echoed words from the Book of Daniel, words written during a time when Jews were persecuted and then revolted, the insurrection that gave rise to the holiday of Hannachuk.  The Book of Daniel itself looked back to a time when Jews were persecuted by the Babylonians and survived.


This leads me to hear Jesus’ words not as a prediction of the future but as a story of how to live during trying times.  When life seems to spiral out of control, remember God remains faithful.  Even the stars may fall, but God’s love remains.


Such a message matters to immigrants and refugees around the world.  


The apocalyptic reasons people immigrate become clear when we listen to their stories.  The New Yorker recently described the situation around Lake Chad in Africa.  Global warming reduced the size of Lake Chad over 95%; which would be like the entirety of Lake Michigan shrinking to the size of Milwaukee County.  With this environmental catastrophe came the rise of Boko Haram, a violent Jihadist group.  While a concerted response is needed, the area remains carved up between hostile governments led by corrupt officials.  


All of which affected people like Moussa Mainakinay, who saw the lake recede in his lifetime, fled the attacks of Boko Haram and the deprecations of corrupt officials, and struggles along as a displaced person.  No wonder people flee Lake Chad for refuge somewhere, anywhere, away from the natural disasters, violence, and human rights violations of home.


Some of the 3% of the world population migrating today moved because of major and public apocalyptic events like those around Lake Chad.  But others migrate because of more individual situations of poverty, violence, and opportunity.  


Jesus warned the disciples, “keep awake.”  Can we keep awake to the situation of migrants like Moussa Mainakinay?  Awake to an immigrant child fleeing gang violence in Central America, the family seeking opportunity, the person seeking a new life after disaster changed everything at home?


As I sought to answer that question for myself, I kept coming back to something Juan Martinez wrote, “Many have responded to migrants and refugees from a perspective of mercy but have not sufficiently addressed issues of justice or the fact that all humans were created equal by God. … We have often seen migrants and refugees as people in need of our action.  We have assumed that they are passive objects and that we have to work on their behalf.  We need to recognize that these people can be agents of God’s transformation in our world.”


Martinez echoed how God’s love gets revealed at Communion: we gather not as citizen and undocumented, not as savior and victim, but as sisters and brothers; we gather to remember Jesus’ dying commitment to justice and his undying triumph of love; we gather to celebrate that though even the stars may fall, God’s love never fails.  


While our nation debates immigration, may we stay focused on our Polaris: God’s love, keeping awake to the revealing of all people as our sisters and brothers, confident that immigrants and refugees will be agents in God’s transformation of our world.  Alleluia and Amen.



Sources

  • Gross, Daniel, “The U.S. Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugees, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies,” Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 18, 2015.

  • Martinez, Juan, “Immigration, President Trump, and Christian Visions of the United States,” Latin American Theology, Vol. 12, No. 1.

  • Noorani, Ali, “Talking Together About Immigration,” Christian Century, Aug. 16, 2017.

  • Taub, Ben, “The Emergency,” The New Yorker, Dec. 4, 2017.

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