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Gratitude, immigrants, and our brother Jeff Sessions

As a final case study from our small church, I would like to present a sermon I gave on June 17th, 2018. Our fellowship observes communion about once a month, and this was given right before communion. The greater context was the news of that week: President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had hardened their immigration policy on the US-Mexico border, and begun detaining immigrants, even those guilty of the misdemeanor of entering U.S. soil for the first time, separating the children of these immigrants, and taking the children into custodial care, and removing them far from the parents, in some cases. Attorney General Sessions attempted to justify this action to his fellow church members as an application of Romans 13.

This is an unusual sermon for me, in that it’s a bit more “political” (that is, in this case, responding to a political issue in the news) and much less exegetical (we usually follow the lectionary, and I usually preach from one of the lectionary passages). But Sessions’s use of Scripture to justify his actions, and the acts of separating children from their parents seemed to call out for a response.

Gratitude, immigrants, and our brother Jeff Sessions

Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship
Will Fitzgerald
June 17, 2018

I want to talk to you this morning about three things: Gratitude, immigration, and our brother Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States.

Let’s start with Brother Jeff. I call him “brother” because he is my, our, brother in Christ. He is a member in good standing at the Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile. Alabama. He professes to follow Jesus, and it’s always been important to me to take, at least usually, people at their word.

As attorney general, Brother Jeff has cracked down hard on what he sees as violations of immigration laws and policies. Most recently, he has led the effort to detain adults crossing into the United States without permission, and even the detainment of adults who are seeking asylum in the US. He’s also come out strongly in favor of limiting which kinds of asylum seekers will be even have their cases heard. The detainment of adults has meant that children who have come with those adults have been separated from their families. We have reliable news reports that over 2000 children have been taken away from their parents in a recent six-week period, and this is ongoing. This happened to some extent even under the previous administration, but previously, asylum seekers especially were allowed to remain in the community, with their children, while they awaited hearings. That policy has been derided by the current administration as “catch and release,” and stricter, harsher policies put in place.

Brother Jeff justified the taking of children away from their parents by quoting the “wise words” of the apostle Paul in Romans 13 were that we should “obey the government.” In Brother Jeff’s mind, it seems to be a fairly simple argument: people should not seek to enter the United States illegally, or perhaps even to seek asylum here. We don’t want ‘em, if they come, they’ll suffer the consequences of being separated from their children. It’s not our fault, but theirs. If they would just do the right and lawful thing, they would be ok. (The attorney general and the president blames the Democrats, for what it’s worth).

Well.

There are so many things wrong with Brother Jeff’s exegesis. First, it is apparently against international law to threaten people to not seek asylum. Note: I am not an expert in international law. So, is he being disobedient to the Paul’s wise words? I’m sure he’d say no, and fight vigorously for the rights of the United States in international court. This is how the law, in the twenty-first century, works. Obedience to the government in these days is to follow, but also to challenge, through the court systems, the laws of government.

And second, to think that Paul’s “wise words” are a statement to obey the government in all cases is ridiculous on its face. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, but it’s important to remember that many of his letters were written from Rome, while under arrest from Rome. Even Paul didn’t heed Paul’s wise words. Which is to say, they can’t mean what Brother Jeff claimed they mean. Elsewhere, Paul says we should try to live peaceably if we are able, and he and the other early Christians showed, by their example, the importance of disobedience at times. And, as we saw in the example of Jesus a few weeks ago, Jesus broke the law by “working” on the Sabbath. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. And I think it’s a good natural extension to say that laws and government are made for humanity, not humanity for laws and government.

Thirdly, when Brother Jeff was asked to justify the government’s actions, he did not justify the government’s actions, but put the burden on immigrants to obey. He is the policy maker and policy enforcer. Even if it were the case that we should always obey the government (and, as we have seen, it is not), if one is in a position to set policy and set enforcement, the question really is to ask whether those policies and enforcement actions are justified. Brother Jeff, like us, seek to serve a Lord who was wrongly crucified under cruel enforcement of government policy. Jesus was “obedient unto death,” but woe to those who set the policies and enforced those policies that led to his death! But also: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Now, oddly, I want to talk about gratitude.

I have been reading Diana Butler Bass’s new book, called Gratitude, and it’s helped me to understand some things about our current administration and it has evoked some thoughts about ways to live under this administration. Like Bass, gratitude is not the first thing I think of when I think about the current chaotic and divided state of our society. But Bass has written some very interesting and useful things, some of which can help us to understand the Roman Empire under which Paul lived, and can help us to understand the current empire under which we live.

I hope I can do justice to what she says. In the days of the Romans, the top of the heap, of course, was the Caesar. He was uniquely blessed, and from him would flow all the blessings. The closer you were to the top of the heap, the more blessed and valued you were, deriving your blessings from those above you, and flowing down to those below you. And you were required to be grateful. And gratitude wasn’t a matter of just saying “thank you.” It meant cold, hard cash. To not pay your taxes made you an ingrate. As Bass writes, “Gratitude was not an attitude. It was a political requirement.”

Of course, with blessings flowing down (meaning favors that resulted in some kind of benefit) and gratitude flowing up (meaning taxes being paid), people were skimming those benefits along the way. Someone like Zacchaeus in the gospel story is a perfect example. He extracted taxes from those around him in return for a cut of the collection and a higher standing in the empire.

And there is something like this happening with President Trump. The son of a rich man grown even richer, he expects gratitude both in words and benefits. As a modern American Caesar, he expects praise, and sees it as his right to decide where largess flows. It’s why he can praise the Korean dictator Kim for having people obey and respect him. They have both successfully achieved the top spot, and he thinks we owe him the gratitude of obedience. This is not the only thing going on of course (I’m pretty sure he also wants to open hotels in North Korea), but Brother Jeff’s statements make more sense in this light. President Trump will set the rules, and we owe him this kind of gratitude.

But Jesus says (and Bass reminds us) that the ones who are blessed are actually the poor and the mournful. (You know as soon as she started talking about the Beatitudes, I would sit up and pay attention). In God’s economy, in God’s kingdom, privilege belongs to people like that, not people whom we call privileged.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel crying for her children” (Jeremiah 31). And voices are heard in Texas, Raquel and Maria and Carlos crying for their children, torn away from them by agents of the United States, agents who represent us. We, far away, see their poverty and their mourning, and we should ask, how can we be God’s blessing to them? Because we surely want to be part of God’s work and welcome and healing in the world. And God’s promise is also for us: when we make peace or hunger and thirst for righteousness, we too are privileged.

One small thing we can do is to simply state, as a church, that we stand with immigrant parents and children, and against those who would tear them apart.

Another set of things we can do is to contact our representatives in Congress, and the White House, and state our position to them. I have a sheet of paper to pass out with steps you can take, if you are interested.

Another thing we might do is explore taking some more steps, as a church, to welcome and stand with immigrants. I have some ideas about that, in particular contacting our friends at Bethany Christian Services and perhaps the local organization called Moviemento Consecha to see what kind of monetary support might be useful to flow through them. If anyone has time and energy and a vision for this, please let me know.

We also can pray for the children and parents who have been caught in this terrible situation. And we should pray for our brother, Jeff Sessions, and for the president for a change of heart. Honestly, I don’t have much faith in doing so (it’s not even mustard-seed sized), but we are called to do so anyway.

And we can be a community of gratitude. Truly grateful people are protected, at least somewhat, from the despair of living in a terribly broken world. Truly grateful people can open themselves up in welcome to neighbors and strangers in need because they know they will be cared for. Truly grateful people provide an alternative to the fears of missing out, of being cheated, of not getting what we need.

As we go into communion, I am reminded of a phrase often used in a communion service: “the gifts of God for the people of God.” Let us receive God’s gifts with grateful hearts, remembering our communion is with the poor and the mourning, and communion with our Lord who was poor and mournful himself. And, afterwards, let us remember to carry that communion and sense of gratitude into the rest of our lives.

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