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This is America

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jun 17

Text:  Isaiah 56: 1-8

      Good morning, First Church. As I said last Sunday, it feels great to be back. Truth to tell, when I chose our passage from Isaiah last week, I wasn’t thinking about immigration or the crisis at our border. Instead, I was taken by its general message of justice and inclusion and especially verse 6: “For those who keep my Sabbath and hold fast to my covenant, I will give a monument... and an everlasting name that shall never be cut off.”  I was thinking of the 39 names of enslaved persons printed in your bulletins today who were baptized in this congregation and who “owned the covenant” between 1698 and 1783. For a long time these names seem to have been “cut off” from recollections of First Church history, but as many of you know, we’ve recently begun to look more deeply into this part of our story. I’ve just returned from an intensely rich four months of sabbatical research and travel, and of course time for rest and family too. A good amount of my research focused on these names, of both enslaved persons and slaveholders. I tried to learn what I could of their stories. Some of the names on that list are already marked on street signs and landmarks all around us - names like Brattle, Appleton, Danforth, Wadsworth, Vassall, and Trowbridge...but what of those who were enslaved by them? What of Phillip, Scipio and Cicely, Philicia, Pompey, Cuffy, Cuba, Venus and York?  What of these men, women and children who lived their own lives, had their own stories and who in no small ways made it possible for their “masters” to achieve the accomplishments for which they are remembered?  And what about the fact that we rarely talk about their connection to the disturbing history of slavery in the North?

Seriously, how many times have you walked Brattle Street in Harvard Square and never realized that the Brattle family, including our 5th minister, owned slaves?

 As part of my sabbatical studies, I visited communities in our American South, in Germany, and in Poland where the work of public remembrance of racial terror and injustice have taken hold in powerful ways, whether through full blown memorials or museums, or through makeshift installations or public art projects. Though the historical contexts of these sites were wrenching, the work of truth-telling, confrontation and compunction was awe-inspiring. The human capacity for evil was on full display in the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, or at the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, in the exhibits at Auschwitz. These sites would sometimes leave me speechless or profoundly disoriented. But I also found myself marveling at the human capacity for hope and at the courage it takes to stare down past sins and traumas to rise up again in faithful anticipation of a better future. They offer a palpable and restorative sense of hope, healing, and in some cases even beauty.  And many of the memorial sites I encountered were powerfully focused on names and stories. They were often set on sites where people had lived, worked or died. I chose the Isaiah scripture and the poem I just read thinking I would share some of what I learned about the names and people in our story. I wanted to preach about the power of naming names and especially those everlasting names given to us by God!  And what a perfect day, I thought, to honor the names and memories of our fathers.

 But, there is another line in this scripture that has been glaring at me since Thursday night alongside the headlines about our nation’s current immigration policies and our Attorney General’s efforts to defend them. Our whole passage from Isaiah is about God pressing for a wider spirit of inclusion beyond the tribe of Israel. This is the context for the line about the monuments and everlasting names in verse 6. But hear again what it says in verse 3: “Thus says the Lord: Do not let the immigrant say: God will surely separate me from the people.” 

 Back to Sessions, Stephen Colbert offered this choice commentary in his monologue on Thursday night:

“Jeff Sessions has instituted a new policy to separate immigrant kids from their parents at the border. So far 1,358 children have reportedly been ripped from their families at the U.S. border. Now, if it sounds evil, then good news: Your ears are working! Here’s the bad news: the United States? That’s you and me, who are putting up with our government saying to immigrants, ‘If you come to the United States, the worst thing imaginable will happen to you. We will take your children away from you with no guarantee you’ll see them again.’ That is using cruelty as a deterrent. That’s not my interpretation — that is our stated intention. Three government officials said, ‘Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children’ [To which Colbert replies]  The other part is just recreational racism.”

 Ouch! And did you catch that Sessions defended the government’s actions by appealing to scripture? On Thursday, he said: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”  Let that sink in for a moment if it hasn’t already.

 As has been widely reported, this move was eerily reminiscent of other times when governing authorities have invoked Romans 13. The Loyalists used it in trying to suppress the American Revolution. Slaveholders used it in trying to suppress abolitionists and especially in helping to create the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Pro-Nazi German clergy used it to advise allegiance to Hitler. By the way, both the domestic slave trade and the Nazi regime systemically participated in that “worst thing imaginable,” the practice of separating children from parents. And this is the tradition that the highest ranking law enforcement officer in our country was stepping into by citing Romans 13.

 Part of me wants to school Sessions on the corrective language that’s built right into the same passage. Romans 13, verse 8: “Owe no one anything, except to love another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Or verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling compelled to address this from the pulpit. I know some of my Evangelical colleagues have been taken aback by these policies and by Sessions’ remarks and are sharing their dismay if not disgust. And yet, I worry that making it all about Sessions, Romans 13, even about the separation of church and state may distract us from the real news of what is happening right now to those immigrant children at our borders. And given where I’ve been these past four months, I can’t help but wonder how history will judge us for this cruel and entirely inhumane treatment of families.

 When I was down south, I stood on land at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the nation’s only plantation museum focused on slavery. Standing next to stone plaques that recorded names of hundreds of men, women and children who were enslaved there, I learned how entrenched was the practice and terror of separating children from families, especially after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed. In Montgomery, I was able to attend the opening of Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial to Peace and Justice and also the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which is located on the site of a former slave warehouse. Both were absolutely stunning. The Legacy Museum makes a compelling case for how slavery never fully ended but rather it evolved through several iterations, including the historic and systematic criminalization of black and brown bodies that has already had devastating multi-generational impact. The Museum powerfully names names and tells stories of past and current prisoners and their families in their own words. Later in my study leave, while traveling in Berlin, I happened upon dozens of small bronze sidewalk plaques, called Stumbling Stones, that marked the names and last known addresses of Holocaust victims and when and where they died. Stopping and standing at those stones, I would regularly encounter evidence of family separation. There are now over 50,000 such stumbling stones throughout Europe, 7,500 in Berlin alone. You can’t miss them.

 According to yesterday’s headlines, the number of children separated from their families in the last six weeks is now approaching 2000. Nearly 1500 children are being held at a former Walmart turned child detention center in Texas. To quote Donald Glover’s latest hard-hitting, racially-charged single: “This is America!” And because this is America, given our history, we need verse 3 from Isaiah even more:  “Do not let the immigrant say: God will surely separate me from the people.” God will do no such thing, says Isaiah!  God has no interest in separating immigrants from God’s people, and while we’re at it, God surely has no interest in separating immigrant fathers and mothers from their own children. This policy is a spiritual and moral abomination!  

 The numbers can be numbing. So, please, try to consider instead what are the names and the stories of those almost 1500 children who as we speak are living through the trauma of being separated from their parents, sleeping on cots next to strangers, eating prison food and getting a strictly regimented 2 hours of time outside each day. They are available if you look for them. Jairom, age 17, a refugee from violence in Honduras, is one whose story I read about this morning. Thankfully, because this is America, protests have begun to rage. Sanctuary coalitions like ours continue to be built and strengthened. The resistance is real and growing. I was moved to find out that some families are choosing to honor their fathers today by donating to immigrant justice organizations and supporting foster care as an alternative to detention centers.

 The divine vision Isaiah sets out is one of radical welcome and inclusion for all who wish to uphold the law of love.  Foreigners and eunuchs, immigrants and persons of color will be given monuments and everlasting names in love that will never be cut off.  They will be welcomed not into Casa Padre, the name of that detention center in Texas which I think translates into “Father’s House.”  They will be welcomed in love into God’s house. As it is written in Isaiah, my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people! 

 Today, on this father’s day, when we’ve also chosen to join in celebration of the emancipation of enslaved persons, I invite us to remember and name names. By all means, name your fathers and recall or ask them to share their stories. Spend some prayerful time too with the list in your bulletin. Know that we’ll be learning more together about their stories in the coming weeks and months as I have a chance to share my research and as we have a chance to share ideas about where we go from here. Look too, beyond the staggering numbers of immigrant children, for their names and stories.

 Our history of the racialization and criminalization of black and brown bodies to excuse our nation’s treatment of them is with us constantly, whether we are facing it or not. It’s part of our present moment as much as it’s part of our past and it is seeming to gain alarming strength to guide our near future. I believe we are called as a community of faith, and as a country, to join in the efforts to stop denying these toxic patterns that are woven into our American story and to begin to name and change the narrative. As Christians, we are called to remember violence and trauma, to break the cycle of victimization, to change the narrative and live into a new story. This belief guided my sabbatical, and it led me to so many profound moments, where I learned repeatedly that there can be no healing without justice, no reconciliation without truth, no truth without honest soul-searching remembrance.

 As we continue the work of remembering the names of those enslaved persons that “owned the covenant, ”I’ve wondered if we need to revisit and recommit to that covenant ourselves. In it, we share promises to “walk in the ways of Jesus” and to “show mutual love and mutual respect each to the other so near as God shall give us grace.” What’s more, by virtue of our baptisms and covenantal connections to each other, each of us has a name. Let us remember and hold and honor them all, and let us wonder together how history will remember our names! For these are not only names given by our parents, by our love, nor even by our sins. As in Isaiah, God has given us each an everlasting name as well, held in God’s love from which no one can ever be separated. Again, I’m excited to be back and grateful that we can continue on this shared journey together.

Amen.

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