Our Sermon for January 29, 2016: What Is Required and Who is Blessed? Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12
What is Required and Who is Blessed? Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12
On Friday, I noticed something as I refreshed the list of comments from people I follow on Twitter. I kept seeing people share comments from an account called The St. Louis Manifest. So many people were sharing things from this account that I had to see what they were talking about. I learned that the USS St. Louis was a cruise-liner on which more than 900 Jews attempted to escape Nazi Germany in 1939. Many had secured visas for Cuba, the ship's first destination. For some, the ultimate goal was to go to the US. In my research, I learned that once the ship arrived in Cuba, the Cuban government decided to cancel most of the visas. After several days of fruitless negotiation, the people realized that Cuban was not going to let them off the ship. The captian went on to the US port of Miami, hoping that the US would take these refugees. The US also said no. Officals refused to allow the 937 people into the United States because, in part, they were afraid that there might be spies hidden among the refugees. The government said that they just couldn't take the risk to national security. With little other choice, the captain turned and began the trip back to Europe.
While the people on the ship were eventually welcomed to Belgium, Holland, France, and the UK, as the Nazis swept across Europe, they once again found themselves in danger. By the end of the war, 254 of the original 937 passengers were murdered by the Nazis. Remember those comments I was reading on Twitter? They were the names of the people who had died. Each comment was a variation of the following:
My name is Fritz Zweigenthal. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in France.
My name is Regina Blumenstein. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.
My name is Walter Velman. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Golleschau.
My name is Irmgard Köppel. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.
The story of the USS St. Louis is particularly disheartening because it was an occasion where it seems like it would have been so simple to save more that 900 people from the horrors of the Holocaust with relative ease, but we chose not to. As a nation, we were afraid, and allowed our fear and our anti-Semitism to overcome our compassion. In fact, throughout the majority of the war, even after our government had ample evidence that the Nazis were committing mass murder in their so-called "work camps," our government would not allow more immigration, repeatedly citing, as though it were true, that refugees are dangerous. They might be spies. It took a Treasury Department report, written in 1944, calling out the cruelty of ignoring the plight of Jews across Europe to change our official stance on immigration during the war and allow more people to find refuge here during the war. By that point, millions of Jews, Romani, LGBT, Jehovah's Witnesses, and people with physical and developmental differences had been murdered. At the end of the war, despite all the shouting about refugees and spies, barely a handful of immigrants to this country would ever actually be accused.
The names from the St. Louis Manifest scrolled across my memory the news announced on late Friday afternoon that that once again, refugees from a dangerous warzone, this time in the Middle East instead of Europe, are being forbidden from finding safety in our country. Once again, we are hearing the rationale that refugees are dangerous and that there might be spies hidden among them. Once again, people are being turned away right on the border of safety, though this time it is in airports across the world, and not a cruise ship in Florida. We, people of faith, find ourselves looking at a humanitarian crisis in Syria, a crisis that has only been eclipsed in recent history by the refugee crisis of World War II, and we are being told to be afraid of the refugees instead of the people who are harming them. As I remember the St. Louis and think of our modern-day refugees, I don't think fear is what we are being called to. I think we are being called to mercy.
Now, mercy is not easy. The world is a dangerous place, or, at least all the danger in the world is shown to us over, and over again on TV and through our computers. But, this week, I watched a video of the Rev. William Barber, a preacher and activist based out of North Carolina. Rev. Barber reminded me that this isn't the only time in history that we as a nation, we as a whole world, have lived in fear. This is not the first time that we have had to collectively discern what it means to live out what he called a morally defensible agenda in regards to how we treat our neighbors. The prophet Micah lived in a dangerous world and so did Jesus. And, I bet their words can give us some guidance about how we are supposed to be treating our neighbors.
First, let us turn to Micah. The prophet Micah was active during an exceptionally dangerous period in history, when Israel was facing devastation at the hands of the Assyrian Empire. Micah was trying to help people figure out how to reorient their priorities to God's priorities in order to survive such terror. In this part of scripture, the first thing Micah did was to remind people what God really wanted from them. Some wondered if God required wealth and tributes from the people, just as powerful emperors required from the people. But, Micah said God and humanity's relationship wasn't based in that kind of quid pro quo power dynamic. No, God and humanity's relationship was about something greater.
Micah asked the people to remember how they usually interacted with God. Notice a theme in the actions he reminds them about? God rescued them from the dangers of Egypt. God brought them out of slavery. God gave them leaders who took them somewhere safe and bountiful, somewhere where their community could flourish. Every one of these actions is rooted in life, liberation, and abundance. Micah talked about what God did in order to make a claim about what God thinks is good. Apparently, God thinks liberation and safety and abundance are good. And, these good things are what God wants for God's people. Now, this new life doesn't come without expectations on behalf of the receivers. Humanity and God have an agreement after all, a covenant. God's part of that covenant is to bring humanity into life and liberation. Micah said that humanity's part of that covenant is to pass that life and liberation forward, acting as agents of God's mercy in this world. Micah calls on God's people to remember that they were once were once shown justice and mercy and kindness. That memory should humble people into action, extending that Divine justice and mercy even farther out into the world. Micah said that fear of evil isn't what should be driving your actions. Thanksgiving is what should be driving your actions. Living out your thanks in justice and mercy is the best way to resist evil.
You know that Jesus also wanted to help his disciples live in a time of terror and fear, disciples who, we should note, were from Syria. He had to help his followers survive the violence of Rome. The very first thing he taught his followers in Matthew was how God would sustain them. That's what blessedness means here: being sustained. Being blessed is being aware that they were being sustained through the difficulties of life. Setting out his moral agenda for the rest of his ministry in the book of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples that God would pay particular attention to those who mourn, to those who are in the lowest social caste, and to those who are disheartened. In the midst of an empire that loved to make people afraid, Jesus upheld kindness as central to a life of faith. He said that sincerity and mercy helps us see God. He said that we all rejoin God's family when we build peace. He said the persecution is not a sign that you are evil and deserve punishment. It is a sign that you are threatening the status quo.
I think both Jesus and Micah recognized that fear can tempt us away from God's calling to mercy and kindness. But, it seems to me that both of them thought love can be stronger than fear. Seventy years ago, when their government wouldn't help a boat full of refugees, a group of American Jews didn't let fear of spies prevent them from doing the right thing. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee put up enough money, what would be millions of dollars today, to help resettle the Jewish refugees of the St. Louis in countries that would take them in. Their generosity helped to save many of the people on the ship (though not everyone). As Rev. Barber reminded me this week, now is our time to stand up as the JDC stood up before us. We can push through the fear, into the compassion to which we are called. We are already supporting immigrant and the stranger through our participation with the Basic Essentials Pantry in Augusta, a ministry that serves many immigrants and refugees in our own county. I bet that there's more ways that we can pay God's justice and mercy forward right here in our community. We don't have to be guided by fear. We can be guided by grace. May we find a way to pay our sustaining blessings forward even when our own world seems upside down.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Rev. William Barber: http://www.breachrepairers.org/
For more information on the USS St. Louis please go to:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.