Home‎ > ‎Sermons‎ > ‎

"Why I Support Immigrant Rights" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 6, 2018

posted May 7, 2018, 12:48 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated May 9, 2018, 1:44 PM ]

I’m wondering: has anyone here visited the house where Anne Frank tried to hide from the Nazis? And how many more have read her diary? Thanks; but even if we haven’t seen her house or read her journal, almost all of us know the basics of her story. Anne Frank’s family sought refuge from the rising violence in Germany. They fled to Holland and were safe for a while; but when the fascists invaded, they hid in the attic of a house, the secret annex. But after two years in secret, they were discovered and sent to concentration camps, where Anne Frank and most of her family died.

In recent years new information about Anne Frank’s family came to light. Anne Frank’s father had sought to leave Holland for America. He wrote a series of desperate letters to American friends in the government. In one he said, “It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”

But, American officials refused him entry. They claimed Europeans fleeing the Nazis could really be secret fascist spies, who would be “sleeper agents” of a hostile ideology. We could have made a difference in the life of Anne Frank, but we allowed fear to deafen our ears to the cries of her family.

As our country debates immigration, I can’t help but wonder: how many children we turn away are writing diaries our descendants will read? A boy in Aleppo? A girl separated from her mother by a government preparing to deport them both? A child on a caravan fleeing gang violence in their home country told they could not come here?

Over the last year, our congregation raised and reflected on issues of immigration during worship, adult education, and through advocacy events. In two weeks, following the lead of the Wisconsin Conference of our Christian movement, we’re going to consider a resolution to become an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation that works with Voces de la Frontera to support immigrants, documented and undocumented.

Questions about immigration touch on both politics and faith. Each of us needs to wrestle with this in our own hearts. Today, I want to share with you why I support our “Immigrant Welcoming” move; to share how I’ve come to think about these questions both as an American and as a Christian. You will need to discern these questions in your own heart.

First, I know a sermon ought not to be a patriotic speech, but I can’t figure out how to think about the question of immigration solely as a Christian. I am both an American and a Christian, identities that do not always go well together. And yet I need to think about this question both ways.

In speaking about immigration, some say that we can’t have a country without borders. But I think, we can’t have a country without a Dream. Our American Dream shapes our country far more than our borders do.

And so, I remember the founding of our country. The British Generals imagined the revolution as a battle for territory. They invaded Boston, controlled New York, and captured Philadelphia. They were winning the battle for borders. But Washington knew all he needed to win was the idea of America. Even at the lowest moments of the revolution, with only the Dream to keep him warm, Washington knew that the idea of America mattered more than control of territory. And ever since, our nation has depended not on tough borders but enduring Dreams.

President Ronald Reagan, nearly forty years ago, several years before he granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants, spoke to this when he said, “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.” And later in that same speech he said, “[Undocumented] immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our workforce. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status.”

Reagan, for all I might disagree with him, reflected a long-standing insight into the nature of political society. A view long ago articulated by Augustine, who said, “a kingdom without justice is nothing more that a great robbery, a pompous gang of bandits.” Gangs and warlords can have territory; gangs and warlords can set up checkpoints and borders; but gangs and warlords do not nurture Dreams. Our American Dream defines our nation, not borders or language or skin color.

Second, as a Christian, I think about the content of our Dream.  James Cone, a leading African-American theologian who passed away last Saturday, shaped my Christian understanding of our American Dream. He once said, “I still regard Jesus Christ today as the chief focus of my perspective on God but not to the exclusion of other religious perspectives. God's reality is not bound by one manifestation of the divine in Jesus but can be found wherever people are being empowered to fight for freedom. Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed is the primary criterion that we must use to judge the adequacy of our theology, not abstract concepts.”

Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed; Cone’s criteria caused him to understand our Christian story within the experience of the poor and oppressed in our country. And so, he once wrote about the birth of Jesus, saying that if Jesus were born today in America it would then instead of a manger in a barn he’d be placed in “a beer case in a ghetto alley.” And when he wanted to understand the Cross of Jesus, he looked to the lynching of African-Americans. James Cone understood our faith as a promise to those who can’t sleep for trouble, those who can’t dream for want.

This focus by James Cone on looking at God’s word for the poor and oppressed caused me to hear in a new way the classic story of God speaking to Moses. Two things stand out to me: God heard the cries of the Israelites; and God remained elusively undocumented, “I am who I am.”

The Israelites had long lived in Egypt - four hundred years according to scripture. While once they were welcomed in, later Pharaohs turned against them, first enslaving them and then trying to persecute them to death. The Israelites groaned under the injustice they suffered.

So God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

God heard the cries of the Israelites. And just as surely, that same God hears the cries of people today. Those who wonder: where will my help come from? Those who feel stuck, “lost in [their] own world without a map or a guide.”

And knowing this about God haunts me. God hears these cries; but do we? We didn’t hear the cries of Anne Frank. Are we covering our ears even now to the very people God listens to?

But God heard the cries. And, as one scholar said, God invited Moses to join in a conspiracy of freedom. God wanted Moses to join in an unlikely plan to free the Israelites: return to Egypt, tell Pharaoh to let my people go, lead them through the desert, and make a new home in a land of milk and honey.

Moses had fled Egypt when he broke the law. Now God wanted him to return; and to break even more laws by helping people “steal themselves to freedom.” Pharaoh said, “there is no authorization for this migration” but God commissioned Moses to commit a crime of freedom.

God’s conspiracies for freedom make for America’s greatest moments too. I’m proudest of Americans who conspired for the freedom of those enslaved. Proudest of those who conspired for women’s equality. Those who conspired to recognize same-sex couples when the state called them undocumented marriages. And I can’t help but see that our church has joined all those earlier conspiracies for freedom; and we did so because we dream of freedom for those who cry in the night of oppression.

An elusively undocumented God commissioned Moses. We’ve heard it so often that we might miss the uniqueness of how God discloses an identity: “I am who I am.”

Moses on the mountain met a wilderness God, one who lived beyond the boundaries of countries and empires, a God without a name (or a God who refused to give a name). The ancient gods and goddess all lived in specific places; they had homes, temples. The Egyptian gods and goddess lived on the Nile. The Greek gods and goddess lived on Olympus. But Moses met a wilderness God, a God who wandered, without a known address, no documented home. I am who I am. I will be were I will be.

Even when the Israelites settled in Jerusalem, and built a Temple, they knew God didn’t really live there. They just saw it as the footstool for God, a place a wandering God might rest weary feet.

Jesus came as the embodiment of this elusively undocumented God. And so I’m not surprised to hear him say, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” And that same Jesus who didn’t have a home, sent his same disciples out abroad, “Go therefore and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them into my conspiracy of freedom.”

Believing in an elusively undocumented God changes how I think about our current questions. God did not embody privilege but vulnerability. God did not have security but uncertainty. And so I think I will find God among the vulnerable and the uncertain. For God said as much, telling Moses, “I am the God of Abraham” - the man who left his home for the far country, “I am the God of Isaac” - the man who snuck into the land of King Abimelech because of a famine in his own land, “and the God of Jacob” - the man who ran from family conflict and moved from place to place. Our God is a God of the refugee, immigrant, and exhile. And so, I think God not only hears the cries of the vulnerable but can be found among them.

I hear such faith echoed in the famous words Emma Lazarus ascribed to the Mother of Exiles in the harbor of New York:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

All of which is why, as an American and a Christian, I support immigrant rights. I believe in an elusively undocumented God who calls us to join in a conspiracy of freedom to help those who cry out help amid the suffering of poverty and oppression.

Alleluia and Amen.


  • Myer, Ched and Matthew Colwell, Our God is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (p. 57 shaped my reading of Ex. 3).

  • Reagan, Ronald: "Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy ," July 30, 1981. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=44128.