The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Joshua 5: 9-12
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you share with me a moment of prayer? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God of the refugee, the migrant, and the immigrant. Amen.
The members of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, Fort Collins, Colorado hear God’s Call to care for and welcome with compassion and justice the widowed, the orphaned and the alienated who are living in our community. We follow Jesus, the Christ, who lives among the “least of these” in our communities. We affirm that each and every person is a Child of God welcome in the Realm of God’s Love. Our refugee-immigrant ancestors fled persecution; upon arriving in Colorado they established the German Evangelical Congregational Church that laid the foundation for Plymouth Congregational UCC. Therefore, Plymouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Fort Collins, CO declares itself an “Immigrant Welcoming Congregation” to encourage the development of policies and activities within Plymouth UCC dedicated to facilitating respectful, compassionate welcome and inclusion of immigrants in our midst. (Enacted by Unanimous Vote of the Congregation, January 2018)
Since 2005, long before I was a minister here, I have been a member of Plymouth. Since that time, the telling and retelling of this congregation’s storied history is to me a Poetic Epic of heroism and hope for refugees. It is a story that has become for me a “scripture” (lower case “s”) of a sort—a sacred tale that can help us remember where our values and call to assist the migrant and refugee come from in this context.
If you know about the history of the City of Fort Collins and immigration to our city, you know that it is a pretty sweet story! Sweet, that is, in terms of sugar beets as the “produce of the land” in this region in the early 20th century. The sugar beet industry, a common alternative for sugar cane in the wake of the Spanish-American War, came to Fort Collins at the same time as a large wave of ethnic Germans from Russia. That wave of refugees escaping persecution were resettled in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Northern Colorado by the US Government and church groups like the Congregational and Lutheran Church.
Now, sugar beet farming and processing, which happened at the time in the Andersonville area, isn’t for the faint of heart. It is hard, unglamorous work! But the sugar beets were a source of empowerment and a status change from refugees to fabric of our community. The sugar beets were a source of hope in a new land.
The founders of this congregation were of a large group of poor, ethnic Germans whose ancestors had moved to the Volga River Valley region of Russia under Catherine the Great in the 18th Century. They did this with a promise that they could keep their language, culture, religion, and not be conscripted into the military. By the late 19th Century, Russia was undoing those promises and persecuting the German minority. This forced a mass refugee migration to the United States, Canada, and Argentina. Those who chose to remain behind in the Volga Region, were mostly murdered by the Russian military during World War II—accused of being German spies.
While this is a story that many of us know by heart, I try and repeat it in a sermon at least once a year to remind us, as a congregation, where this place, these walls, our story comes from. To me it is a great saga, a tale of courage and faith, and it bears repeating, especially today as our Scripture points us to the plight of refugees once again.
If you go to the website for city history at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, there is a title called, “Factory worker churches.” In this section it describes our congregation: “Earliest church services for immigrant workers were conducted in private homes in Andersonville or Buckingham. The German Evangelical Congregational Church held services in the G. A. R. hall. In 1904 there were enough German Russians to employ Montezuma Fuller in the design of the German Congregational church at the southwest corner of Whedbee and Oak. The church was designed in a Gothic style with a fifty-foot tower and pointed arch windows and was composed of a red stone foundation with Fort Collins pressed brick walls and red stone trim.” [https://history.fcgov.com/contexts/sugar] The fruit, the produce of the land was now, again, sustaining them in this new place—a third place of refuge in only a couple generations. (Trinity ELCA, Shephard of the Hills ELCA, and Immanuel Reformed are also Russian-German Congregations in Fort Collins.)
It wasn’t always easy here in “Fort Fun.” This church would later have to change its name to Plymouth Congregational Church during World War II. While they were Russian-Germans, the locals began attacking them again, here in their place of refuge, for being German of all things.
Both in our immigrant story and our adopted Pilgrim story, as a congregation and a denomination, we have a rootedness in refugee stories. By becoming members of this church—these stories of refugee past, bravery, political uncertainty, urgent changing of a name for salvation sake, and hope become our story as well. That is the magic of joining a church community—we are now part of that legacy. Likewise, the responsibility to support new refugees with the “produce of the land” and resources here in Colorado comes with assuming that membership. These walls demand justice for refugees.
This brings me to our Scripture today. Our reading comes to us from an early part of the Book of Joshua. Joshua is part of what many scholars call the Hebrew Bible’s Deuteronomistic History—meaning second or history or law. Moses leads the people out of Egypt, out of slavery and death, and into the desert of wandering. That is the “first history,” categorized and told through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
The “first history” ends when Moses dies without reaching the promised land. When Moses dies, a new leader is appointed named Joshua. The Book of Joshua picks-up where the Moses story ends in the desert. While Moses’ story is a tale of being refugees, we can see the Joshua story (the second history) as the story of being resettled.
The fact that in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament it takes two leaders and two whole histories to get us from the state of refugee status to a state of finding home evidences that throughout history immemorial becoming a refugee happens quickly, instantaneously based on external factors, but the process to resettle again, to claim stability is long and hard. Resettlement can take generations, it can require changes in law (as we see in the Bible with two laws), and it requires people of faith and vision like Moses and Joshua to lead.
We also find ancient language for a green card, for safety, resettlement, for hope, and for fulfillment of blessing in the repeated phrase, produce or crops of the land.
Let us hear the Scripture again:
10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal, they kept the Passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11 On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
Whenever something is repeated three times, it means we should pay attention. This reference to produce of the land, tevua in Hebrew, is found 40 times in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Importantly, almost every place where this word for “produce of the land” is found (and I looked at them all) in the Bible signs of peace and a sense of hope and community exists as well.
Psalm 107 “They sowed fields, and planted vineyards that yielded a fruitful produce.”
Proverbs 3:9 “Honor the Lord with your wealth with the first produce.”
Our story this morning is the story of a change in resident status in the land. This is an ancient green card story in Joshua, Chapter 5. This is the moment when they no longer have to reply on the manna—the symbol of being refugees without a home. This is the moment when the people, after a generation of living in the unknown, are able to claim a sense of hope again. The ability to grow food, we forget in our modern supermarket and click-list lives, is the difference in the ancient world between having a place to call home and hope and being afraid of starvation, consumed by despair.
The produce of the land is a synonym for stability, for shelter, and the moment when refugees become residents. There are other ways to read the Joshua story and what the arrival of the Israelites means, but today I think we should focus on this moment. Joshua, Chapter 5, Verse 12 is perhaps the most important verse in the whole story of the Exodus when “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land.”
I was able to bear witness to a produce of the land moment myself two years ago when my husband, Gerhard, was selected to be part of the once annual naturalization citizenship ceremony to take place in Rocky Mountain National Park. There, at the foot of Long’s Peak in Moraine Park Amphitheater, the Superintendent of RMNP, a jolly man dressed like Yogi Bear in a green ranger panama hat, spoke. He told the new immigrants, many refugees, that the great mountain before us, and it was a blue bird Colorado day, now belonged to them. It was theirs to take care of and a symbol of hope. This was a generous offer of the produce of the land that will always stick with us.
In our church story, the same moment comes when the produce of the land, in their case sugar beets, allowed our ancestors in 1904 to finally build a new place of worship in Fort Collins and to claim their place in our city. It is also notable that they didn’t just hire any architect, but they hired the best architect in our city’s history—a sign of pride! That sugar beet foundation, the cornerstone of which we brought with us to this site, is allowing refugees the opportunity to become settled, home, and connected to community roots again.
I received an urgent email from the UCC and the Church World Service this week. It read like this, “We have a moral responsibility to hold the administration accountable, for slashing the refugee program by 75 percent. This is the worst refugee crisis in history. With global need at its highest, the [administration] has dismantled the refugee resettlement program and reversed our nation’s history as a world leader in refugee protection… The administration set a new record-low refugee admissions goal for fiscal year 2019 at 30,000, and what’s worse, we are only on track to resettle 21,000 refugees this year -- not even meeting this abysmally low goal.” [“Where R The Refugees Worship Toolkit”]
God isn’t subtle. I want you all to know that. That same day, I received the email from the Church World Service, a copy of The Seventh-Day Adventist Magazine, Liberty, arrived in my mailbox with the cover article, “A Refugee Crisis.” It reads, “The world today is in the midst of mass migrations, reminiscent of the period encompassing the run-up to World War II, the war itself, and its aftermath…Today we have the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing government action in Myanmar. In Ukraine there is again flight from the Russians…In Syria there is massive dislocation of communities…And, less in the headlines, climate change and consequent loss of crops is driving desperate people north from Africa…Aside from Germany and Scandinavian countries, developed countries have not felt the weight of the crisis. Canada is doing moderately, and the United States is doing very little. The question of just how to balance security and charity remains,” and the article ends with the question, “Just how can the lamp at the golden door be relit?” [Amdur, Reuel S. “A Refugee Crisis: A Canadian Perspective,” Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Freedom. March-April 2019.]
Later, that same day, a Facebook friend from PCUSA posted this article from the Christian Century: “Over the past two years, the nation’s refugee resettlement system has been slowly dismantled. The process started after…the president temporarily suspended the entire refugee program in the United States and issued the first version of a ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries. That dismantling has led to layoffs and office closings for resettlement groups. The nine agencies authorized by the federal government to resettle refugees in the United States—six of which are faith-based—also saw reduced funding for fiscal year 2018. Cuts to the refugee resettlement program will have lasting consequences, said Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy for the immigration and refugee program with Church World Service. 'You’re not just changing policy for a couple of years; you’re dismantling decades of work and relationships that will be nearly impossible to rebuild.'”
Did I mention that God hasn’t been subtle this week about what needed to be preached? “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land.” The produce of the land is a symbol throughout the Bible of what all humans hope to have and deserve to obtain by the laws of the Bible and by principles of basic Human Rights—to live without fear of starvation, to be able to grow and put down roots of community, and to connect to earth and to Creator.
Our passage from Joshua reminds us of our own refugee, not just immigrant, saga as a congregation. Guided by our story and by the call of the Holy Bible, we must hear the signs of God calling us to work harder for advocacy, pay attention to funding bills in FY2020 that cut the produce of the land even greater and the possibility of safety and welcome. The moment when the refugees go from eating manna to eating from the land is the moment when they have a change in residency status and are offered new hope in a new home. It isn’t fast, it isn’t easy (as the next chapters in Joshua would reveal), and the politics aren’t always clear… but it is right.
Let us work harder to live into our call claimed and affirmed in 2018 to be an immigrant and refugee welcoming congregation and to help plant the seeds of the produce of the land for those most in need. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Poem Response to Sermon
Anne Thompson writes a weekly poem based on her hearing of the sermon. Here is her poem this week in response to Jake's "Produce of the Land" Sermon. 3/31/19
Produce of the land
can become a source of hope
to those who migrate.
There is a story
of immigrants in these walls -
tales of sugar beets.
This is our story.
We assume the legacy
of those refugees.
can happen very quickly
and can be painful –
leaving behind home,
family and heritage,
risking death and worse.
and status of belonging
can take a long time.
“Produce of the land”
is a symbol for safety
from hunger and fear.
Refugee crises -
Where is charity?
How can the lamplight
be relit, and the closed door
be open again?
For those who made it
over seas and over walls,
the manna will cease.
It is up to us
to offer food and shelter
with our open hands.
Those of us who now
are nourished by fertile land –
how to be worthy?
We can help plant seeds,
connect Earth with Creator,
open minds and doors.
Plant the seeds of hope,
for the produce of the land –
our future and theirs.
A wilderness cry –
tired, feeble voices as one –
“Will you let me in?”