The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Immigrant Rights Sunday: May 6, 2018 (Lectionary)
Will you pray with me? May the humble words of my mouth, the meditations of our collective hearts, and the call to justice we all feel be good and pleasing to you, O God, our freedom-maker and liberator. Amen
Before I really preach this morning on one of the most pressing, alarming, and hurtful subjects of our era, that of Immigrant Rights and Justice, I want to first reflect briefly on the delicate art of being an ally. It takes a lot of intentional work to be in solidarity with a community of the oppressed, from a position of privilege, without speaking over or for that community. The risk is to overshadow those whose voices are already marginalized.
As a parallel to illuminate what I mean by the art of being an “ally,” let me offer an example of a time a place when privilege wasn’t checked.
One day back in seminary, the school I attended decided to have “dialogues” on the issue of LGBTQ rights in the church. Sounds straight forward enough on the surface, right? They brought in panelists from what they termed as “fair and balanced” on both “sides” of the “issue.” [I always love being an issue.] The person they brought in to speak on behalf of the LGBTQ community, however, wasn’t an LGBTQ community member himself, but rather a well-meaning retired United Methodist Bishop who had a strange warming of the heart after his retirement towards his disenfranchised gay church members. He spoke so beautifully from the heart (not to take that away from him) and maybe, I must admit, related better as an advocate to the mostly straight, conservative audience than one of us out people like me might have been able to do; but something did not feel right. You know that feeling that something isn’t right in your gut? It is the feeling you get when someone does not name that they are simply an ally, a co-traveler who, while speaking, doesn’t have the first-person experience of the oppressed community. I never forgot that feeling and promised myself to never do the same to others in oppressed communities. It was a hard lesson on social justice advocacy to always stop and check privilege. He forgot to check his privilege at the door.
So today, I want to start by checking my own privilege. While I am the son of an immigrant from Canada (certainly not a difficult story… although we struggle to find good Maple Syrup in this country), the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (a distant story), and I married a beautiful man with his own harrowing immigration story to tell from Venezuela, my efforts to speak on this issue, as passionate as I am, are that of ally and solidarity force. Even Gerhard’s story isn’t mind to tell. It is his alone.
I know I am preaching to the choir today, so if you remember nothing else from this sermon remember to be careful as an ally not to silence or overshadow. As the church working on this issue, that is one of the most important reminders we all need as advocates. We are there to support the community, but not to take over the justice movement. The UCC is particularly guilty of this.
The most powerful stories don’t come from us allies (even if we are necessary for the struggle), but from those whose immigration stories are their own. It is only the immigrants themselves who can share the experience the horrors of injustice, the palpable and real impacts of racism and cultural supremacy wrapped in the light veneer of “immigration policy,” and the experiences of indignity, suspicion, fear, micro-aggressions, and overt racism that continue even after citizenship ceremonies are well in the rearview mirror.
Having said that, let me see if by relying on Scripture today, I might do a little more than simply preach to you as a progressive choir.
Anyone remember CliffsNotes? They were these little pamphlets that summarized books for those students that… well didn’t want to do all of the reading. Do CliffsNotes still exist? I remember being the student who would get so upset when others would use CliffsNotes instead of reading the whole book. I was sort of the teachers’ pet. So, given my dislike of CliffsNotes, what I am doing to say today might surprise you! Our Scripture except for today is basically Jesus’ CliffsNotes (JesusNotes) to the entire Bible and Christian faith! Yes, today, we just read a CliffsNotes summary of the point of all of this religion business! Let’s hear it again:
“As the Father [The Creator] has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. I do not call you servants[a] any longer, because the servant[b] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from [the Creator]. “This is my commandment [note the singular rather than plural tense], that you love one another as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
What is the main message here if this is Jesus’ shortcut to Christian faith and living? Yes, love each other already, people, and don’t treat anyone as a servant. Amen?
Now, I am not the only one who has seen this Scripture and seen God’s CliffsNotes in it for the Bible. Love each other already, people, and don’t treat anyone as a servant. A whole movement of Black, LGBT/Queer, and Latinx Liberation theologians have been saying this is the point of it all for decades. The arc of the universe bends towards love, towards freedom/ liberation, and towards justice for the oppressed: the migrant, the immigrant, the poor.
Between all of the complexities and contradictions of the Bible (and there are countless of them), if we really look at the driving force of Scripture—it always comes back to the least of these, the forgotten, the excluded. God has a preference for the poor and the oppressed. This is an undeniable common thread through all of Scripture. Our religion is a religion of and for the oppressed, the migrant, the immigrant, the depressed, and the lonely. Our job is to align and support.
Last Saturday, Professor James H. Cone of Union Seminary in New York City died. He was part of this movement of liberation theologians who see religion and scripture as a vehicle primarily for an arc of liberation, hope for the oppressed, and God’s preferential treatment for the poor and those in most need of love. He was the guiling light in North America for this movement for decades. Dr. Cone will be very missed in the world of ministers and theological thinkers.
I want you to hear some of Cone's words on the matter today on Immigrant Justice Sunday:
“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.”
― James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power
“And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.” It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, “building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.” The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
― James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
“The scandal is that the gospel means liberation, that this liberation comes to the poor, and that it gives them the strength and the courage to break the conditions of servitude.”
― James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed
That last quote in particular should give us pause today, “The scandal is that the gospel means liberation…and it gives the poor strength to break the conditions of servitude.” I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from [the Creator].
We have all probably heard a lot of talk these past years about the doctrine of America First. It is a statement about our understanding of God and what God promises and to whom. “America First” is a theological/religious statement about how we understand the nature of God’s promises and ourselves. It is a false prosperity theology and a wicked and even evil doctrine of servitude. It does not see or understand the world, and our culturally, artistically, economically, linguistically, musically, and religiously beautiful neighbors/equals in Central and South America, in particular, as friends. It is not a theology of friends but one of servitude. But I have called you friends… I am giving you these commands, so you may love one another.
If in our passage today, the embodiment of God, Emmanuel, God-with-Us can say that we are friends… with the creative energy that sparked existence, that the love of God is for all, that common life shared is the goal (the CliffsNotes of God), then certainly we should do the same with our policies. A public policy of friendship.
With all of our wealth and privilege, the question ought to be: What more can we do to support, ally with, lift-up, check our privilege, inspire, collaborate with our neighbors?
I married a man from Venezuela—a country I have never been to and really cannot visit with him because of the violence, food shortages, and dangers. I know the struggles his family faces there, and I know the feeling of helplessness we have to do anything about it. I also know that they are proud, brilliant, educated, beautiful people with deep faith, family roots, and yet still hope. Even if we don’t see them as friends, they still see us as their neighbor.
I cannot take “America First” rhetoric seriously as a Christian. God says that all of God’s people come first—so what are we waiting for?
Why is friendship so hard? Why is selfishness so easy? Why is scarcity winning over faith? Why aren’t we doing much about it?
We are in deep theological waters, friends. With immigration policy being used as a tool of racism. With the church, most of it in America, rolling over and playing dead, yesterday almost 60,000-90,000 hard working Hondurans and Central Americans lost their protected status for no reason, we have been playing politics with the lives of young dreamers—God has a word for us…and its harsh!
“The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” -James Cone
As those called to accompany, not to overtake, may we check our privilege as individual to see if we might reawaken a Gospel of love, of mutuality, of hope, and of selflessness in our time. What an interesting word: Selflessness. This is the only Gospel we have. We can’t choose another one, and it is time to take it (even the CliffsNotes version) seriously.
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.
1 John 4:7-21
January 15, 2017
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 John 4: 7-21
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that [God] loved us and sent [God’s] Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in [God] and [God] in us, because [God] has given us of [God’s] Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent [the] Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as [God] is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because [God] first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (NRSV)
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;” or as I learned it as a child in the King James version…perfect love casteth out all fear.
I know I heard this scripture quoted in sermons while I was growing up. Never thought much about it. Until I was on to preach on this text for MLK Sunday in 2008. I had just encountered a popular cultural sentiment of the time. “Fear is the opposite of Love…not Hate, Fear is the opposite of Love.” ....And in that context I heard the words anew, “perfect love casts out all fear…”
The letters of First, Second and Third John were written out of the same community of first century believers as the Gospel of John and Revelation. During the last ten to twenty years of the first century, this little community of Jewish Christians were being persecuted and oppressed by their fellow Jews. Their exuberant faith in the Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah was getting them into trouble. They were literally being thrown out of their synagogues because of their belief in God’s new revelation through Jesus. They had reason to live in fear yet they had experienced the Living God through the stories and teachings of Jesus and of his life, death and resurrection. And this set their lives on fire with God’s love even in the midst of fear, persecution and oppression.
I ask myself and you today, “Have you ever been in trouble for your faith? Persecuted, oppressed, fearful because you were on fire with the love of God?”
We celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend. I believe today would be his actual 88th birthday. He was on fire with God’s love as he led the Civil Rights Movement in its struggle against the on-going persecution and oppression of the African American people. He kept this fire and passion going because of his own relationship with the Living God through the life and teachings and person of Jesus the Christ.
The writing of the first century community of 1 John can sound a bit narrow....only one way to God through Christ...to our pluralistic, twenty-first century ears. As a scholar, King had studied comparative religions. He knew the heart of the Christian gospel and understood the heart of all the great religions of the world. And he believed deep in his heart that God’s Biggest and most transformative and political Word was Love. “God is love “said the writer of 1 John. “Love is the key to the world’s problems,” said Dr. King.i
It is easy to nod our heads and smile and feel warm making these lovely statements about Love here in this warm sanctuary, with friends and family around, hopefully friendly faces if you are visiting. We all had the opportunity for breakfast this morning. Lunch is waiting at home or at the restaurant of our choice. We’ll go home, watch football, read a book, take a nap, be with our loved ones. It’s easy in this context to say “God is love” and “Love is the key to the world’s problems.”
But then we throw in the part about loving our brothers and sisters…that makes things harder…because sometimes our brothers and sisters do not seem so loveable. They are different from us…in culture, values, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, political persuasion, economic status. And even in the “enlightened” 21st century we are taught to fear “different.” And what happens when the people we do love, those who are not so different from us, act unloving toward us, refuse our attempts at love? Have very different political convictions? Either way, suddenly we are afraid…we are afraid we will get hurt, physically or emotionally, … its those other people, those “ acting differently people” who are the problem! They are the real challenge to saying “God is Love” and “Love is the key to the problems of the world.” If we could just fix them…Love would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?
Or does the issue goes deeper…
“God is love. We love because [God] first loved us,” says the writer of 1 John. Do we believe that God really loves us, really loves humankind, or that God is just has a sort of disinterested and indifferent, aloof, concern for the welfare of creation and humanity that God set in motion, some senile benevolent benefactor who drowsily hopes that all is going well for us? What if with that crusty, old Christian apologetics scholar, C.S. Lewis, we recognized and internalized that God loves us “with the consuming fire, [of] [God’s Self,] Himself and [Herself], [God is] the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’ love for [her] work, and despotic as a man’s love for his dog, provident and venerable as the father’s [or mother’s] love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between [two lovers].” ii
We cannot woo God with good behavior, righteous social justice action or right answers into loving us! Because God is the wooer in this love affair called Life! God is love. We love because [God] first loved us. God’s Love is free and abundant and available before we even think to ask for it! This is the ultimate Christian message, the Big Word of God, the message in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, that we are being called to share.
We are at a pivotal moment in our country. You know that and I know that. Fear is looming large in many of us. Anger is looming large in many of us. God’s Big Word of Love is once again a political word. It never ceased to be. It demanded the entire life of Jesus and of Martin Luther King, Jr. And for them even unto death. It now demands our lives, my friends. We are called to the transformative work of God’s love, to its non-violent resistance of fear and racism and bigotry and oppression. We are being called beyond ourselves to stand up and work in the name of God’s Big Word of Love for human rights in issues of healthcare for all, immigration, economic and ecological justice. And we are being called to Love, to pray for, those who seem so different from us across political lines in the midst of our work. For they, too, are God’s beloveds.
“God’s perfect love casts out all fear,” says the writer of I John 4.
“Love is the key to the world’s problems,” said Dr. King as he addressed a group called “Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam” in his speech, “Beyond Vietnam” in Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. Just a year to the very day before his untimely death, on April 4, 1968. In this speech he laid out why a civil rights activist is also a peace activist. He shows how the war in Vietnam was not just a travesty in and of itself, but also a war on the 1960’s American War on Poverty. He rallied the people of this country to with a cry to revolution that is relevant for our times.
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain. ... This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all ... . When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another; for love is of God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. He that loves not does not know God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwells in us, and [God’s} love is perfected in us.’"iii
God’s perfect love casts out all fear. Dr. King and the ancient community of 1 John were both consumed with the fiery passion of God’s love. Let us hope and work with them so that Love will become the order of the day in our fear-filled times. Amen.
i http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html, from the speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” in Riverside Church, New York City, New York, April 4, 1967.
ii A Year With C.S. Lewis; Daily Readings from His Classic Works, ed. Patricia S. Klein, “January 12, Amazing
Love, How Can It Be?” from The Problem of Pain, p 14, New York: HarperSanFransico, c2003.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Sermon podcasts (no text)