Worth Fighting For

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 26, 2018.

Ephesians 6:10-20

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl named Lola who was born on a sugar plantation in the Philippines. Lola remembers some aspects of her childhood fondly, playing kick-the-can with friends, favorite foods prepared by her mother, getting into mischief with her eight siblings, gathering mangoes off the ground in the middle of a typhoon! But Lola also experienced many hardships in her early life, hardships beyond what most of us will ever know. Sometimes all the family would have to eat was a small serving of rice flavored with a little fish sauce. Lola remembers that hunger. And she and her family were also impacted by many of the social ills that often accompany such poverty including alcoholism and abuse.

From a young age, Lola dreamed of getting out and making a better life for herself. At eighteen, she met her knight in shining armor, a young U. S. Marine, at a softball game. They fell in love, married, and moved, first to Japan and then to Hawaii. Not entirely surprisingly given their youth, the separation required by the military, and other challenges, their marriage ended after six years. But Lola held fast to her dreams and set about making that better life for herself in Honolulu.

After working and supporting herself for another ten years or so, never receiving any public assistance, she would again meet a man, this one’s armor creaky and a bit tarnished, and fell in love… with me! I know many of you had already figured out that Lola is my dear wife, Lourdes.

As a result of her first marriage, Lourdes had a “green card” giving her status as a permanent legal resident of the United States. Lourdes and I had been dating a couple years when terrorists brought down the twin towers. You may remember that these attacks almost immediately prompted fresh scrutiny of immigrants in the United States. My mother was worried that Lourdes could be deported. To be clear, as a permanent legal resident, by law she could not. But my mother insisted that Lourdes become a citizen. So she did, she went over the 100 questions for the citizenship exam again and again, having her customers at the Waikiki hotel where she worked quiz her until she could get them all right. It was a proud day indeed when she took the oath to become a U.S. citizen.

I share Lourdes’ story because in my experience, she is a typical immigrant in at least three ways. She has a burning desire for a better life, she works tirelessly to achieve that life for herself and her family, and she loves the United States. Lourdes is living the American Dream.

Despite these admirable qualities, in the nineteen years we have been together, I have known Lourdes to experience any number of slights and disparagements as a result of her brown skin and accented English. These are often in the form of what are known as micro-aggressions, diminishing, stereotyping assumptions about her as an immigrant from the Philippines. But none of these has been quite as obvious or hurtful as what Lourdes recently experienced right here in Simsbury.

Many of you know that my daughter Abby plays ice hockey. Not long ago, at the ISCC rink down the road, Lourdes had been talking to one of the hockey dads, someone she has always had a warm relationship with. He kids Lourdes about her reputation as one of the loudest parents at every game. Lourdes had just left the rink, and saw this dad exiting behind her. She playfully held the glass door closed as he reached for it. He, apparently joking, said, “You better let me out, or I’ll send you back to where you came from!”

Now, these very words are often used to threaten immigrants and communicate that they do not belong in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. Lourdes responded immediately, “Wow! That’s really racist!” She was deeply hurt and troubled by this exchange, made an angry post on Facebook (while not naming the offender) and, when she saw the dad a few weeks later confronted him about what he had said. He apologized.

Let me make a few observations about this incident. In addition to communicating that Lourdes doesn’t really belong here, that this is not her home, his words wield power, suggesting that as a white American, he has legitimacy and therefore power to forcibly eject her from the only home she has known for almost her entire adult life, her country, where she has earned her citizenship. One might be inclined to dismiss the threat of violence and fear evoked by his words, after all, it was “just a joke.” He couldn’t really deport her. But think about it, to have these words ready on his lips to emerge spontaneously in a relaxed and happy moment means that he buys into a set of beliefs about immigrants that normalize such a comment. Though it might be hard for an average white person to understand, for many immigrants, even citizens, fear of encounters like the one Lourdes experienced is real.

Women, imagine if that was you holding the door, and the man had said, “jokingly,” “You better let me out or I will rape you!” Not at all funny, and a violent assertion of power evoking fear. That a man would presume to make such a “joke” would say a lot about his views on women, just as the hockey dad’s joke said a lot about his views on immigrants.

None of this is meant to condemn this guy. As I said, Lourdes took the initiative to name the offense and seek reconciliation, and she still considers him a friend, as do I. Rather, it is to point out how pervasive such beliefs are about immigrants.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” This means that the enemy is not the flesh and blood hockey dad, but that the forces of evil live in systems and institutions that have the power to promote, perpetuate, and enforce such beliefs.

Theologian Walter Wink writes that, “so formidable a phalanx demands spiritual weaponry…It is the suprahuman dimension of power in institution and the cosmos which must be fought, not the mere human agent.”

Christians in Ephesus knew all about the power of such oppressive institutions. They were a religious minority who faced daily discrimination and persecution by the Roman Empire. This was more than hurtful jokes; Ephesian Christians were likely required to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of the emperor Domitian to test their allegiance.

Of course Paul’s is not a literal call to arms; he is not encouraging Christians to violently resist their persecutors. But he does draw upon the martial metaphor of armor to call upon Christians to oppose the evil systems that oppress them with weapons of truth, justice, a gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God! A sword! Not just protection against harm, but an offensive weapon. Make no mistake, Paul is urging Christians in Ephesus to prepare themselves for spiritual warfare!

As for the treatment of immigrants? Some of you know that I have been rereading the Bible, “cover to cover.” I am reminded that the Old Testament is thick with commands to treat immigrants fairly. These verses from Leviticus are typical: “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”

Just as it was after September 11th, immigration is again much in the news. To be sure, there are always reasoned debates to be had about immigration policy, but this is not what I am talking about.

I am talking about principalities and powers, systems of belief that diminish immigrants, and the institutions that nurture and enforce such beliefs. Politicians refer to immigrants as rapists, drug dealers and murderers. News stations give disproportionate attention to an undocumented immigrant who commits a murder while portraying a white man who kills his wife and children as a good family man. Immigrants fleeing poverty and violence seeking a better life for themselves and their children are said to be seeking welfare. And immigrant parents are forcibly separated from their children at the border.

This is no joking matter.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The systemic persecution of immigrants directed by rulers and authorities is evil.

Paul is calling us to respond to the biblical imperative, to stand and fight forces of injustice. Not to sit on the sidelines with our convictions, but to put on our armor, take up our sword, and enter the battle. Or, as one scholar writes, “Paul is calling the church to aggressively enter the market and challenge the hold of evil in the marketplace of life. Take the fight to the enemy. The church is a phalanx penetrating the powers of darkness as a wedge of light.”

May it be so.



Anchor Baby Jesus

Was Jesus the first “anchor baby?”  This offensive term is being used by the right in accusing immigrant women of coming to the United States to “drop” their babies just so they can become citizens and “anchor” their family here.  This language is cruel and offensive on many levels, not least in that it completely dehumanizes both the mother and the child. 

But it occurs to me that Mary could be accused of this same alleged practice.  After all, she was a single mother (“engaged” but never married) from Nazareth who travels to Bethlehem to register herself and her baby as citizens of Rome.  Emperor Augustus’ purpose in conducting this census was to make sure that everyone paid their taxes.  But it is also true that by registering in this way, Mary claimed all the rights and benefits of citizenship for herself and her child.

Jesus was born a Roman citizen.  But instead of anchoring his family to Rome, Jesus anchors all humanity to a love and justice that transcends all borders.  Instead of inflicting a cruel and offensive dehumanization, Jesus allows all of us “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb 11:13) to be fully human.

Published in: on August 11, 2010 at 8:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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