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Deuteronomy 10:12-21, from The Message
Isaiah 58:6-12, from The Message
1 Timothy 6:18-19, adapted
It had been a long day—in distance as well as hours. It was a day long in loss and change and uncertainty.
By the time Lucio Perez walked through the church doors Wednesday evening, his request for a stay of deportation having been denied, he had lost his home with his wife and children, his right even to be in this country, his identity as a breadwinner, and the capacity to walk around outside, to go from place to place.
When Lucio walked through our doors, he gave all that up. He sacrificed the life he had known not so he could pass his days and spend his nights in a converted meeting room, not to become a poster child for a cause or make a bunch of open-hearted church people feel good, but because he is determined to hold on to the life that really is life—the life God wants for him.
For all that Lucio lost on Wednesday evening, he had not lost his faith. He had not stopped trusting that he was in God’s hands, that God was with him in this hard struggle against the most powerful government on Earth.
After a small group of us gave him a quick tour of his new home—four walls with a door, a bathroom down one hall, and a kitchen down another hall and around the corner—we returned to his room. He was not feeling well, and some of us had still more work to do, but we wanted to pray together; we wanted to pray for Lucio and his family before going our separate ways.
And so we circled up. We joined hands and bowed our heads. And Lucio began to pray. I wish I could recite his prayer for you, but I don’t remember all the words. What I can tell you is that unlike most of my prayers, which tend to be short on thanks and long on petition, short on God and long on me, Lucio’s prayer was all about praise. Lucio’s prayer was all about what God has done for him and what he trusts God to do still. Lucio’s prayer was humble and faith-filled; in an extremely sad and uncertain situation, it was overflowing with gratitude. It revealed to me more of the character of this courageous and faithful man, this beloved child of God, and it made me weep.
On Thursday, when Lucio and Russ and I faced the media, I was not at all surprised to hear Lucio say to the world, “Pray with me.”
And so we did, and so we do, and so we will continue to pray without ceasing for justice for Lucio and his family, that they might be reunited in their own home, that he might receive the life that really is life—the full freedom of life in God.
God has brought us a long way from February 5. If you were here then, you may remember some elements from that worship service: It was just over a week after the new president had issued what would be the first version of his so-called “travel ban” to keep largely Muslim immigrants out of our country. We called one another to worship by watching a video of a blindfolded Muslim man standing across from Trump Tower in New York, with a sign expressing his fears and asking people to hug him. Then we heard 18 different scripture readings—18 out of more than 40—that command us to love the stranger as God does, to remember that we, too, were once strangers, to protect the foreigners among us and provide refuge for them, to remember that whatever we do to the least of these we do to Christ.
In my sermon that day, which was titled “Let My People In,” I quoted a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” it says, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
“Beyond that,” I said, “we know that justice-making heals us, peace-making blesses us, and it is through the cracks in our hearts, the shortcomings in our systems, and, yes, even the injustices of our government that the transforming Light of Love comes into the world.”
After sharing some of the immigrant-protection and sanctuary-network events I had been attending, after reflecting on commands about strangers and promises about angels, I asked us all some questions:
“How will we as First Church show hospitality?” I asked. “How will we welcome the strangers—angels, perhaps!—in our midst? How can we participate in a network of sanctuary and solidarity?”
My response that day was this: “The Spirit will lead us. Time will tell.”
Well, time has told. Despite—or perhaps because of—our stumbling and bumbling, poor process and hurt feelings and general cluelessness about what we were getting ourselves into, Spirit has led us.
And here we are—in a place we did not plan to be, in a place we were not prepared to be, in a place of much uncertainty and some risk. Here we are, and here we stand: by God’s grace, on God’s promises, with Lucio and his family, with one another. Here we stand, trusting that Spirit power, hard work, selfless hearts, and the support of faith communities and others, we see us and Lucio through. Here we stand, learning anew what it means to love the stranger and love one another. Here we stand, figuring it out as we go. Here we stand, praying and working together, remembering that in all things we are seeking to follow Jesus.
Having taken a giant leap of faith, here we are, trusting that we will grow wings.
And we are not alone. We have received so many offers of help and expressions of support in recent days, both informal and formal, from siblings in faith here and across the country, and from complete strangers here and everywhere.
Friday night we received an emailed statement of support from the Jewish Community of Amherst. It reads, in part:
“In accordance with our spiritual commitment to help protect “the stranger as we were once strangers” we will stand with the First Congregational Church of Amherst in this courageous action and offer our support to them, Mr. Perez and his family as their needs become clear over the next days and weeks. It is within our living memory that our own families were separated, harbored by non-Jewish allies, turned away from US shores, and murdered. Our support for this action stems from our moral obligation to stand up against racially motivated actions against immigrants locally and afar, and add our voice to the struggle for justice.”
We have heard also from many churches who want to help us support Lucio, and we are coming up with plans to help them do that. Many churches across Massachusetts and around the country are praying for us this morning in their serves.
Yes, we have also received some hateful and even profane messages, but they have been far outnumbered by messages of support and donations to the new “Sanctuary Fund” we have set up to cover our expenses and help support Lucio’s family. Every expression of support humbles me and moves me.
Yesterday afternoon, I took Scout for a short walk down our street. Coming back, one of my neighbors stopped her leaf-blowing, took off her safety glasses, and prepared to speak to me. I said something banal about the weather.
“How is Mr. Perez doing?” she asked.
Lucio is not alone. We are not alone.
As some of you know, for decades this congregation has struggled with this big, old building of ours. It is expensive and time-consuming to maintain; it is both more and less than we need. At different times we have seriously considered selling it or even tearing it down.
But what if this building were not here right now? What if it had been sold and converted to condos? I’ll tell you what: There would be no place for Not Bread Alone and our hungry and homeless neighbors. There would be no sanctuary for Lucio; federal immigration authorities do not recognize condominiums or office buildings as “sensitive locations” they will stay out of. If this building were not here, if we as a community of faith were not here, where would Lucio be?
This was supposed to be a sermon about generosity and giving, part of our annual Loaves and Fishes campaign to raise pledges of financial support for the church, part of our humble walk together with our most generous God.
But you have been living that sermon all week long. I have seen it in retired folks giving of their time and belongings to convert a meeting room into a bedroom and sitting area. I have seen that sermon in a church member graciously sharing his connections as a town employee. I have heard it when one person after another responding to a need with a hearty, “I can do that,” even when it involves sleeping (or not) overnight on a cot in the Hawley Room, even when disrupts plans. I have seen that sermon lived out again and again as people prepare meals and coordinate offers of help, as we reach out to Lucio and try to learn what it means to accompany an angel through the wilderness, as we trust that, with God’s help, we can do this hard thing, as we take a big leap of faith, hoping that we will grow wings. I have even tasted that sermon—in a boatload of food you prepared for an exhausted pastor.
(And still we need your pledges—to keep the lights and heat on, to keep our doors open, to pay our staff, and support all our ministries.)
It is, perhaps, one of the oldest and truest and most life-giving sermons of all. It is the sermon Isaiah preached when he said,
If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness . . .
Generosity that builds community and giving that promotes justice is the sermon Isaiah preached when he spoke for God, saying,
If you are generous with the stranger, I will show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places. You’ll be like a well-watered garden. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew. You’ll be known as those who can restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.
The apostle Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, put it this way:
Be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that you may take hold of the life that really is life.
Beloveds, along with Lucio, in recent days we have taken hold of life in a new way. This is the ministry, this is the life, that has come to us. So let us continue to open our grateful hearts and share what we have, to give thanks to God and to support God’s work here in this place with all kinds of gifts. Let us continue to leap in faith and walk in love.
God promises to do more for us than we can ask or imagine. That is Lucio’s faith; may it also be ours.