The Ultimate Immigration Handbook
By the Rev. Michael Mulberry
September 30, 2007
Text: Genesis 18:1-15
Other preachers, as I have, have made Abraham and Sarah and their life as sojourners in the world Bible stories that beg for comparisons to the family vacation. All of that, of course, is to help congregants find themselves in the story, to remember how hard it is to leave home. These comparisons to the fun-filled, 24 hour drive to Florida, no matter how adroitly they may follow the Scriptural story, cannot possibly understand what it must mean to wonder if there is a next meal in the horizon, not just a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell that is open that late. Very few of us have been placed in a position where we must throw ourselves on the mercy of the world for the one meal we might receive for a few days.
Rev. Joan M. Maruskin, a Washington, D.C. representative for Church World Service’s Immigration and Refugee program, refers to the Bible as the “Ultimate Immigration Handbook.” She states, “The Bible begins with the migration of God’s Spirit and ends with John in exile on the Isle of Patmos. Between those two events, the uprooted people of God seek safety, sanctuary, and refuge, and the living God gives directions for welcoming the stranger.” (1)
Indeed, the infamous story of Sodom and Gomorrah is often ripped from its context to provide a vindictive against the LGBTQ community. Following the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham sends his servant back to “his” people to find a fitting partner for his son, Isaac. All the way to Abraham’s homeland, the servant wonders how he shall know who is truly one of Abraham’s people, part of the family. He comes up with the answer when he arrives at the community well. The servant decides that the one who provides not only food and drink and cares for the well-being for not only me but also my camels . . . that person is the fitting partner for Isaac.
And before the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah story we have the story read for us today.
God arrives in a group of three at Abraham’s tent. Before the Living God once again makes the promise of descendants to Abraham and Sarah, Abraham washes their feet, gives them a little shade, a little bread, tells Sarah to make cakes for them, kills the fatted calf with a little milk and cheese. This promise becomes real because Abraham provides hospitality to the stranger.
Jewish rabbis have written, “Hospitality is a form of worship.” (2)
In four century Rome, the Emperor Julian sought to undercut the enthusiasm that had grown throughout the Roman Empire. Pagan spirituality only extended hospitality to its own kind—Sicilians to Sicilians, people of Gaul to others of Gaul. Julian sought to cut Christianity off at its knees by having his pagan priests adopt their model of hospitality to the stranger. Since Julian died in battle not long after he sent out this imperial decree, we do not know whether his plan and program would have robbed Christianity of its claim for a counter-cultural practice. (3) As Benedictine sister Joan Chittister has said, hospitality for the stranger, and not just a bed and meal, but care for the whole person, was the primary way monastic Christianity defined itself over and against the Roman Empire.
With the continuing stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, we know that these are not only values of early Christian monasticism over and against Empire, but also the values within Abraham’s family and Sarah’s circle as nomads, sojourners, migrants, refugees, and pilgrims themselves. The story teaches that as we offer hospitality we may find that we are communing with the divine, sharing with the very people who might bring about our own salvation.
Many of you know that I am actively trying to facilitate and lead out our church and community on the New Sanctuary movement. In mid-October I will present at the fifth Roots of Migration House Party held in our community. I am so thankful and deeply indebted to many folk for the incredible meal and space members and friends of this church made for me in the Fellowship Hall and in their homes so I could talk about the incredible need to once again offer hospitality so that we might have a forum to talk about the brokenness of our national immigration policy.
At the end of each of these Roots of Migration House Parties, I always share the story of Virgilio Vicente and his family who, as a catechist in the Catholic Church, fled his native Guatemala seeking sanctuary in the 1980s because he was marked for death for organizing workers. Virgilio escaped with his wife, Isabel, but his parents were killed by Guatemalan troops who burned their village to the ground. Those troops were trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Virgilio and Isabel found sanctuary at University Church in Chicago, Illinois, a joint UCC/Disciples of Christ congregation pastored by Rev. Don and Ann Marie Coleman. Here Isabel, Virgilio and their family were granted hospitalty and raised their four children underneath the wings of University Church.
Two years ago Rev. Don Coleman watched as Virgilio posted pictures of his parents on the fence at the School of the Americas Vigil in November 2005. He began to feel the pull to intentionally cross the line at the School of the Americas knowing that action would probably result in a fine and a prison term. With the support of his wife, his church community, and the Vicente family, Don did intentionally cross the line and was incarcerated for two months in a Chicago’s municipal jail.
Not too long from now, one of those Vicente daughters, who is now in her twenties, will leave for Guatemala. There she is hoping to learn the Mayan language, the first language of her mother and father, Cakchiquel. She goes to Guatemala as a missionary for the Common Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ and as a relationship partner with Guatemala Cultural Action, the religious wing of refugees who returned to Guatemala after the violence in the 1980s.
From my heart of hearts, I really do believe this is how God acts in the world. Our stories teach us this. To those we extend hospitality in the world, we welcome the divine promise, we break bread with the Christ, we greet angels unawares. Such stories and practices call into question the policies and programs that advocate for hate and discrimination within our world. As Joan Chittister has written, hospitality too often has become making connections at cocktail parties when we don’t know our neighbors, don’t dare communicate with others in elevators, or even know the service employee’s name. Chittister goes on to write,
Hospitality for us may as much involve a change of attitudes and perspectives as it does a handout. To practice hospitality in our world, it may be necessary to evaluate all the laws and all the promotions and all the invitation lists of corporate and political society from the point of view of people who never make the lists. Then hospitality may demand that we change things. (4)
Then hospitality may demand that we change things.
At the very least, hospitality should put us in relationship with people who can then tell us their stories. And as we spread our broad wings to cover them, we may find that their stories bring about our own salvation—we welcome the divine, we break bread with the Christ, and we greet angels unawares. Amen.
(1) “Sermon Notes: Welcoming the Stranger,” Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod, Ainsworth United Church of Christ, April 22, 2007, quoting Rev. Joan Maruskin, “The Bible as the Ultimate Immigration Handbook.”
(2) Joan Chittester, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1997), p. 140.
(3) Michael Bernstein, “The Oldest New Deal,” The Yale Free Press, April 2000. http://www.yale.edu/yfp/archives/00_4_julian.html
(4) Chittister, “The Rule,” p. 142.