For the last three weeks at Westfield, we’ve been in a sermon series entitled Voting Faithfully. The idea was this: so often we relegate our political conversations to traditional media, social media, and the kitchen table. But it’s clear to us that the church has a responsibility to comment on political realities through the lens of scripture and tradition. So, we’re engaging some of the hottest topics on the political scene in worship. After worship, we have a time for discussion and response. It’s been a gift to listen to folks faithfully reflect on their own views, the views of others, and the state of our political system. To be clear, no candidates are endorsed or defamed during these sermons and the opinions expressed are my own, not my church’s.
There were six hundred thousand men alone, Exodus tells us. That didn’t count the women and children traveling. They had lived in Egypt for fourteen generations—that’s four hundred and thirty years. The Israelites were at a turning point. They were finally at the end of it, at the end of those four hundred and thirty long, arduous, enslaved years—the very day, the scriptures tell us—that “all the companies of the Lord went out from Egypt.” (Exodus 12:41)
Despite lasting a couple of verses, this moment is seismic in the story of the Israelites, who, for so long were strangers in a strange land. They had the stories of their ancestors in faith—of Noah and Abraham, Sarah and Naamah. But it was a clear the story that they had long held as theirs was still being written, that the page had turned. And deep in that tale, new characters were emerging: Moses, Aaron, Miriam. You’ve heard their names before. The Israelites had been held captive under Pharaoh’s hardened heart for so long. They had struggled through centuries of trying to stay alive, of trying to keep their faith alive. And all of it was leading up to this moment—to the moment they were leaving Egypt, a land that had brought them nothing but suffering.
Now in the thirty minute cartoon version of this story I grew up with that was broadcast in Sunday School classrooms across the country, the Israelites leave Egypt and cross into Canaan, the long hoped for Promised Land. But you don’t leave 430 years of torment and enslavement in half an hour. In just a few verses, we see the Israelites leave Egypt and head into the unknown and the unexpected. You see, before they made it to Canaan, before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, they had to wander for a while. They knew who they were as slaves. They knew who the ancient stories of their faith told them they were. They thought they knew who they were called to be. But it was that in between time, the time between the already—what has been and the not yet—what’s coming—that the Israelites were facing. You know the rest of the story: they wander in the wilderness for 40 years, a symbolic number indicating, you guessed it, a long, long, long time.
And after years of wandering and years of doubting and hope, searching and finding, they make it to the river—the place that divides the nearly 500 years of enslavement and searching from the Land of Milk and Honey.
Fifteen hundred years later, a young family is returning from Egypt, their own mini-version of the Exodus story. They left a small town called Bethlehem when the father had a dream warning him to flee. Do you remember this story? It follows one of the most beloved in our scriptures—the story of Jesus’ birth. And it, along with the story that unfolds in the book of Exodus are two of the greatest stories about immigrants and immigration ever told.
They’re stories about people longing for a better life, for safety. They’re stories about desperation, about circumstances that push people so far that they are willing to leave everything they know, everything they love just for a shot at more whole and complete and fulfilling life. They’re stories about faith, about faith in God—that God can and will provide for them. And they’re stories we see playing out over and over again today.
Immigration, while lingering on the American political radar for decades now, has become one of the hot button issues of this year’s election cycle. One candidate’s campaign promise to build a wall along the US’s southern border with Mexico catapulted the issue into the national conscience. And with that promise came lots of questions: Can a wall that long be built? Who would pay for it? What’s the point?
Now, I want to once again be clear (as I have been every week of this series) that I’m not endorsing or defaming any candidate. But I am asking questions—just different ones than the Media has been pondering. It’s the church’s responsibility to ask one question in particular: What would Jesus think of this? Or, in nineties pop-culture terms: What Would Jesus Do?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that Jesus wouldn’t build a wall to keep anyone out. Because Jesus’ fundamental promise to us is one that draws the circle wider and makes room for everyone, everyone, everyone—even the outcast, even the stranger, even the immigrant.
And no where is this commitment to inclusivity and justice more apparent than in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus has been teaching, again, and he begins to tell those listening what the judgement of the nations will be like. Here’s how Matthew tells it:
And Jesus said, ’When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25: 31-46)
It’s not the easiest passage to read because it makes demands on us that we aren’t entirely happy with. And it lays before us grim outcomes if we fall short. This isn’t the happy-go-lucky Jesus we tend to fawn over. This is the “I-ain’t-messing-around-get-right-with-me” Jesus who means business. In fifteen verses, Jesus tells us how to live, who to prioritize, what our work should be and who we should be loyal to (and who, by omission, we shouldn’t be).
Before we go any further, I think we need to talk about allegiance, that is—who we are loyal to. We hear it most when we talk about our Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. But it’s at the crux of this passage. What Jesus is really asking is, who is our allegiance to: ourselves or to Christ? Our country or our faith? Put another way: are we American first or are we Christian first? Someone will say, “It’s not an either/or—it’s a both/and.” To which, I’d say, “mmmmm….maybe. But when the cards are down, one takes priority.” The question for us is, which one will?
I know that’s not the most comfortable thing to hear, is it? But Jesus couldn’t be more clear: that which we do to the least of these, we are doing to him. So, in the case of immigration, when we build a wall to keep immigrants out in an effort to buoy the economy and American safety, we’re also building a wall to keep Jesus out. He was, after all, an immigrant. Ours is, in truth, a faith built on immigration—that is, the journey toward something better.
The irony, of course, is that many people immigrate to America because of the American dream—a long-heralded dream that we more and more want to keep to ourselves. They find themselves living in desperate situations and places and longing for something better, something more. And you know, sometimes, and I know this won’t be popular, but it has to be acknowledged—sometimes, we—our country—has contributed to the hardship they are encountering. Who can blame them for wanting safety or food or healthcare or hope?
And you know, there was a time when we didn’t just put up with the “least of these,” we were a beacon to them. Did you have to learn this poem in school? Many of us had to memorize it:
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 lightning, 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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It’s on that greatest of statues, the Statue of Liberty—a symbol we take such pride in, and yet the fact we are even considering keeping people who who are simply yearning to breathe free isn’t just politically sinful, it’s a mockery of our faith. Jesus didn’t say to us, “for I was hungry and it you had some free time, so you gave me food, I was thirsty and since the stock market had a good year, you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and my background check came back clear, and you welcomed me.” He didn’t say the kingdom would be an inheritance of convenience. Did you hear that? He didn’t say the kingdom would be an inheritance of convenience.
It’s not always easy, this holy work of making room for the least of these. It’s not tidy or glamorous or safe. And it’s not always popular. Sometimes it’s risky; sometimes its messy. Sometimes it’s mundane, sometimes it’s profound. Always, it’s holy.
So this election day, I’m not going to vote for the economic plan that will benefit me the most. Nor will I vote for protection or loyalty to political party. Instead, I’m going to vote my allegiance—which isn’t to a flag or country or party or even myself, but to Jesus—the one who made room for outcast, for the least of these, even for me. May God be our help. Amen.