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The Beatitudes, Lady Liberty, and Refugees

A sermon preached January 29, 2017
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I miss Presidents Bush.

That is a little inside joke – for those of you who were not here two Sundays ago, let me let you in on it: 

Rev. Kelly was preaching, and she began her sermon with “I’m going to miss Michelle Obama.” She quickly pointed out that was not a partisan thing to say: having been in the White House for 8 years, she was going to be leaving no matter who had been elected and Kelly was going to miss her no matter what…Kelly’s point had everything to do with the gospel of the day, John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, losing a couple of his own disciples to Jesus and not only not caring, but delighting in it, because John the Baptist new something deep down which you and I need to know deep down, and that is “IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU.” 

It’s not about you

One thing that Christianity gets right about human psychology is that selfishness – self-interest, self-centeredness – is a sure path to misery and joylessness and loneliness. 

But that conversely, and ironically, thinking of and giving credit to OTHERS, asking what is not in one’s own self-interest but what is in the best interest of others, thinking of and giving credit to others, being outward-focused, is a sure path to joy and inner peace. 

No where is that made clearer than in the Gospels, and no where in the gospels is it clearer than in Matthew, and no where in Matthew is it clearer than the Sermon on the Mount and no where in the sermon on the mount is it clearer than the beatitudes, assigned by the lectionary for this Sunday, and which we just heard. 

We hear this whole series of counter-intuitive claims: blessed are they, happy are they, favored by God are…

…and who are the blessed, who are the happy?

The rich, the strong and mighty, the full, the popular? 

No, ironically, the blessed are, happy are they, favored by God are 

they who are poor, 
the persecuted.

Now for some reason this week, as I’ve been pondering this passage and thinking about the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted, I don’t know why, but I kept thinking about the Statute of Liberty. 

Most people are familiar with a couple lines near the end of the poem that is written on a tablet within the pedestal on the Statute of Liberty in New York: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The poem is called “The New Colossus” by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. 

Here’s the whole poem:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
with conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch,
whose flame is the imprisoned lightening,
and her name
Mother of Exiles. 

From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips.

“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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

As I said before from this pulpit: 

What is the sentiment of the Statute of Liberty? 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp.”

Keep, well-established nations of the world, your well-respected, well-established people. 

Keep ‘em. We don’t want ‘em!

We don’t want your well-rested, creative, well-educated immigrants.

No – the statute of liberty, the statute of freedom, the statute of independence cries out,

“Give me your tired, your exhausted.

Give me your poor…give me those who’ve never heard, and don’t care, about the stock market because the only fluctuation they care about is the fluctuation of their empty stomachs.

Keep, ancient land, all your nicely-dressed people who might come over in Business Class.

     Give me those huddled masses in the back of the U-Haul.

     Give me the wretched refuse that is packed onto rafts. 

Send them to me: the homeless, the tempest-tossed, the frightened. Here. 

Send them here, to America. 

That sentiment – that ideal, that philosophy, that core value of – of preferring the poor, the lost, the least – of asking what is in the best interests of others, of being outward focused, has its roots  roots not only in the Bible and in the human heart, but in the public policy of this country.

The reason I said I miss Presidents Bush is that they got that. That sentiment, that core value, had been shared by every president in my lifetime, which doesn’t go as far back as some of you, but does go all the way back to Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about how to fight and protect American interests in a dangerous world.  

The Executive Order signed Friday and – late-breaking news, to some degree has been stayed by two different Federal judges -- is a four month moratorium on the entire U.S. refugee-resettlement program. 

It indefinitely bars Syrians from entering the U.S., and for at least 3 months, suspends visas for individuals from predominately Muslim countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, although case-by-case exceptions can be made for people from “minority religions” in those countries, which pretty much means Christians. 

The President, who has the authority to determine how many refugees the U.S. admits, slashed, from 110,000 to 50,000 the number of displaced persons our nation will accept in the current fiscal year. 

To be considered a refugee, migrants must show they have been persecuted or fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group.

Like with the family that this church and Lutheran Social Services and Homestretch is sponsoring, and who thank God arrived before Inauguration Day, it typically takes between 18 and 24 months for someone to be screened by government officials before they can be granted part of the program. 

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the program allowed 85,000 people to settle in the U.S., and 72% of them were women and children. 

Refugees are the most vetted, the most carefully screened people of any category of traveller. 

Banning the refugee program out of a fear that immigrants endanger this nation is like banning AA meetings out of a fear that people in recovery endanger their families.

The stance of "let's review the process until we can figure out what's going on" is in the category of politically-motivated fear-mongering. 

It's a classic enemy-based, "let's scare people about immigrant, refugees and 'others'" so we can distract ourselves from ourselves." 

It's a "look over there, so we don't have to look at our own internal proclivities to glorify violence" stance. 

Even in the aftermath of 9-11, President Bush was very careful – took pains -- to make a distinction between Muslims and terrorists; this ban (on predominantly Muslim-majority nations, this defacto ban on Muslims) dangerously blurs the line. 

It is also cruel to those in the process, many of whom jeopardized their lives by helping Americans and American allies, which is why they got into trouble and became refugees in the first place.

We are turning our back on vulnerable people. 

We are undermining our core values. 

We are discriminating against Muslims. 

In his Pastoral address to the Diocese on Friday, Bishop Johnston said, 

“I’m raising the bar for my Christian voice because it is now apparent to me that here in the United States (although certainly not limited to our country) a fear-driven, isolationist nationalism seriously threatens the Gospel’s vision for human life and community by propping up self-interest as nothing short of an idol.”

Hear that again:
“a fear-driven, isolationist nationalism seriously threatens the Gospel’s vision for human life and community by propping up self-interest as nothing short of an idol.”

Jesus never said or exemplified “self first” Quite the contrary. We follow a lord who said, “love one another as I have loved you.” 

What can we do? 

What can we do? 

I'm reminded of the story told about someone who made an appointment to see his pastor, and said he'd noticed all these homeless people downtown, and everyone was ignoring them, and no one was helping them, so he decided to make eye contact with each one. He spoke with several. He took some to lunch. He said to the pastor, "why doesn't the church do something about these homeless people?" The pastor said, "sounds to me like the church just did do something."  

as a great example, in response to my e-vangelon post, a parishioner who teaches at a community college teacher emailed me. 

With their permission, I want to read you part of what their email said, because it's a great example of "the church doing something" --  

"If only folks could see and hear what I do EVERY  day from my students (the majority of whom are Muslim and immigrants - over 100 nations are represented on my campus) - there is fear, shame (young women removing their hijabs and a young man telling me not to call him Mohammad in the classroom), undocumented students and immigrants who believe they or their parents will be hauled off and sent back to their home countries, regardless of how long they have lived here.  It brings me to tears to see these lovely, peaceful young people living in a world of fear and shame based on their religion and ethnicity - it is truly heartbreaking.

I have decided to reach out to some of my Muslim students and ask to pray with them and I hope they will join me at church one Sunday too. 

Thanks again and keep speaking out - some of us need to hear it  Since you quoted Bonhoeffer, I will end my note with another quote by him   “Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.”

Now again, as Bishop Wright of Atlanta reminded the diocese, this is not partisan. He said he’s been preaching long enough to know that people hear things that are not said.  “We are more than red or blue, conservative or liberal: we are a Royal Priesthood.” These are baptismal covenant values; they are Gospel values. 

What can we do? Well, it’s true that sometimes silence is wisdom; sometimes silence is cowardice. Spend time discerning, in prayer and conversation, the difference. 

What can we do? Get involved in a ministry. Or consider that your involvement with a helping organization to be your ministry -- the work God has sent you out to do -- because the vast majority of Christian ministry happens not under the roof of the church, but by the auspices of the church in your daily life.

What can we do? 

Again, thank God, the refugees we welcomed last Tuesday got here just under the wire, but our ministry with them -- and with others who are our society's most vulnerable members -- is far from over. 

Obeying our Lord, and --  as Easter people who are confident that God's love always wins in the end -- we will continue to do everything in our power to help and protect them and others who seek our help and protection. 

And as long as we are outwardly focused, God's power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine -- thanks be to God. 



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