Sermon: Sanctuary Church (1/1/2017)

A sermon preached by Gregory Stevens
Matthew 2:13-23

In April of 2013 Octavio Nava Cabrera was pulled over by Illinois police for running a stop sign. He had arrived in the state in 1986, at the age of 13, and most of his family still live there. Octavio did not have a proper driving license and had an immigration violation from 16 years ago, that when he was stopped at the border after a trip to Mexico. He was sent to prison for seven months and then deported, having to leave his only son behind. He’s now sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Mexico City and baffled by the whole experience. “I don’t know anything about Mexico,” he says.

President Barack Obama has deported immigrants at nine times the rate of 20 years ago, over 2.5 million people, easily overshadowing former President George W. Bush. One journalist writes, “Border patrol agents no longer just patrol the border; they scour the country for illegals to eject. The deportation machine costs more than all other areas of federal criminal law-enforcement combined. It tears families apart and impoverishes America.”

And if that’s what Obama has done we’ve got a lot more to fear and resist with the new presidential administration.

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best” Trump declares. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”

Now just to be clear: “Half of those who earn science and technology PhDs at American universities are foreign-born, as are the authors or co-authors of four-fifths of medical drug patents.” Most of the technological brilliance coming out of the Silicon Valley is from foreign born immigrants.

And those without money to earn the fancy degrees that some have also pay their taxes and work jobs the native-born citizens shun: manual labor, farming, hotel hospitality, and restaurant service.

And if the racist remarks aren’t bad enough, then there’s Trump’s policy proposals:

“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Rather than a wall of separation, todays scripture story tells of an angry authoritarian leader who commissions the death of all the newborn male babies in attempts to kill Jesus’ family. So Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to find sanctuary somewhere in Egypt.

You can’t make this up! The holiest of families are refugees.

People often ask me how I enjoy reading the Bible so much – and this is exactly why. The story of authoritarian leadership, of domination and oppression, is nothing new. It’s not even new to the Christian Testament but is apart of the ancient stories our Jewish forbears have passed down to us in the Hebrew scriptures.

The story of lusting for power and then shaping one’s life around gaining more and more power begins in the Garden of Eden, continues on to the tower of babel, to the Kings and Emperors of old, and to the prophets who call their wicked ways out in the name of God.

Our ancient stories are packed full of meaning offering viable alternatives to the systems of domination today. In this way, our past connects us to the future. Learning from history is one of the best ways not to repeat the same old mistakes, mistakes that costs people their lives, their families, and the very Earth, the ecosystems they inhabit.

Our Christian story is so scandalous because of where it locates God. In Mary, the lower-class poor teenage girl, in a stable with hay, wild animals and astrologists, and now just a few pages into the New Testament story, the gospel writers up the anti: God is now on the side of a family running away to find sanctuary in Egypt because a wild authoritarian leader is hunting them down.

The first century outcasts: lepers, women, immigrants, and the poor, are those God choses to bless.

To learn from this story is to bless those our culture and authoritarian leaders outcast: like, women of color who still make 62c on the male dolor, like immigrants who are considered murders and rapists, and like the poor who are thought to just be lazy no-good drug addicts.

It is those who have been kicked out and abused that our Christmas story locates God.

When we read the bible this way it become very clear: as people of faith and conscience, we must resist racist rhetoric and policy proposals that target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and discriminate against marginalized communities. The doors of our hearts and the doors of this church must remain open, creating sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate. We must work alongside our friends, families, and neighbors to ensure the dignity and humanity of all people. Much like Egypt opened its doors to Jesus’ family on the run from Herod, we must open our doors and provide sanctuary for those suffering the violence of scary politicians.

This is the strategy the Sanctuary Movement here in the US has adopted as their own. Our banner out front comes from this movement.

In many ways this welcoming identity is something we have been working on for a while, it’s not a fixed identity as if “we have arrived” but it is something we work hard at, it’s something we practice to make perfect.

So, in a city that privileges the rich over the poor and has even made it illegal to live in your car if left with no option: we say, you are welcome here.

In a denomination that predominantly discriminates against us queer people: we say, you are welcome here.

In a country whose elected leaders refer to immigrants as aliens, illegals, and a rapists: we say, you are welcome here!

But not only are you welcome, you are invited to join us in the journey of collective liberation. May we help one another with mutual aid in the creation of the world we know is possible. Our work is not only one of welcome but it is the work of incarnation, of showing up and being with, of accompaniment.

In this incarnational welcome, we join over 400 congregations in solidarity the Sanctuary Movement. Since May 2014, the movement has been able to stop 15 deportation orders through public cases wherein an undocumented person has lived in a church until they were able to win a stay of removal or other deportation relief. In addition, the Sanctuary Movement has helped stop dozens of deportation cases before physical Sanctuary became necessary.

As a Christian community, we must continue to amplify the moral imperative to stop deportations by lifting up the stories of sanctuary churches and their brave work to ensure the prophetic witness is heard at the national level. Here are some of the ways we might join the Sanctuary Movement:

  • Defend administrative policies such as Prosecutorial Discretion so that we can still win stays of deportation case by case and keep sacred spaces and schools protected under the Sensitive Locations guidelines.
  • Work alongside undocumented students to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program (DACA).
  • Support the local work being done to defend Sanctuary cities – and pressure Palo Alto to become a fully realized sanctuary city.
  • Participate in the co-creation of protection networks to provide “know your rights” education, sanctuary space, legal assistance, housing assistance, family planning and bail support funds
  • Stop the Trump border wall and any attempt to increase criminalization or mandatory sentencing for immigrants
  • And defend asylum seekers by pushing back against expedited removal and helping provide critical resources such as legal assistance so they can defend and win their case.

This is what it means to be a Sanctuary Church. This is what it means to be like Egypt was to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus when they ran to escape a murderous regime.

This is also the Christmas story for today. In a world, not so different than Jesus’ with tyrannical emperors and their atrocious policies, we are called to create safe space for refugees and immigrants of all kind. We are called to discover and proclaim the divinity in these marginalized and oppressed places.

Let us join the Sanctuary Movement and act, let us bring God’s realm to Earth here and now!

In Jesus name.


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