Sermon by Bishop Kammerer at United Methodist Day at the General Assembly

Text: Matthew 25: 42 – 46

Pope Francis has been participating with the Worldwide EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH in recognition services. These services commemorate the 500th Anniversary of priest Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenburg, Germany church. Out of this history began the birth of Protestantism on the European continent.

In one such gathering recently, Pope Francis spoke directly to the Christian world beyond Rome and the Vatican. He declared: “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help… if I say I am a Christian but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.” He spoke these words in public as the draft statements were being leaked regarding President Trump’s imminent Executive Order on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Many of us are rediscovering Hannah Arendt’s 1967 essay titled “Truth and Politics.” Hannah asked, “is not impotent truth just as despicable as power that gives no heed to truth?” The question at this moment of our national life and the new administration is how can we make truth potent or more powerful than lies or distortion. Ms. Arendt observed that image-producing politicians try to create an alternative reality with which to deceive or
manipulate the public. This fictional alternative reality has to be countered with people “who manage to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image.” We now know what “alternative facts” are as espoused by President Trump and his inner circle of advisors. They are falsehoods and lies, not facts at all.

In the midst of feeling despair since our Presidential Inauguration and the first days of governing, I have also been listening deeply and praying without ceasing. I have been exercising self-care, pausing, rejuvenating my spiritual life, and playing with friends.I am genuinely seeking a higher response to the challenges and distortions of the almost daily attacks on the beliefs and values of our Christian faith. We cannot quake in fear and remain silent about our civil and constitutional rights in this country. We cannot just dread what our elected officials will do next, or fail to do. We must pray, organize, stay together in community, and act for justice and mercy for all people and groups in this our country. I have found heartening this suggestion from a wise older Christian friend.  First we pray without ceasing as communities. We pray for divine Wisdom
and a new heart to come to President Trump and his team of leaders. Words matter. Actions matter. Behavior matters. When the President of the United States speaks, the world does indeed listen.

Pray for discernment of what specific part of the faith-based RESISTANCE movement can involve me. Then I am called to concentrate on that specific area, whether, economic justice, care of our fragile environment, eliminating poverty, immigration, racial equality, protecting vulnerable women and children, or whatever the issue may be.

I find it helpful to pause and listen to my own life and remember my faith journey when I want to be clear on a passion for an issue. I feel called to continue to speak out on immigration and refugees until our communities, our states and our nation has just laws and policies that literally affect the life and death of these our neighbors.

When I was in elementary school in Winter Garden, Florida, our church, First UMC, sponsored a Cuban refugee family. This wonderful Martinez family escaped political oppression and fled from Havana with literally the clothes upon their backs. Jose Martinez had been a physician. His wife, Marta, had been a teacher. They had three children, Nena, Charlene, and Pepe. My small town and my medium sized church had never been involved with refugee resettlement. I had no real understanding of what desperation this family had lived until their escape. I was very aware as a child that my church was reaching out and providing basic needs and caring for each family member. I was a part of that effort as I helped babysit the children after-school at home when both their parents worked. They lived close to me and I could walk there and back. They lived in a concrete block house, cracker box sized, surely not big enough for five persons. Soon enough, both parents had minimum wage jobs. The children all went to school and excelled. English skills were picked up quickly. Soon, exotic and delicious foods appeared at our church’s pot luck suppers — enchiladas, flan, guava jelly rolls. The mother was an excellent seamstress and made beautiful clothes for the children. They were always impeccably dressed for church and had perfect manners. The children were polite. They lived in our community for 10 years. The parents earned more advanced degrees and both became college professors. The children all made friends and went to college on scholarships. They became a Headmistress at a private school, a general physician and a pediatrician.

It wasn’t until later, much later, that I learned from the oldest daughter, more of what their struggle had been like. She was a member of the St. Paul’s congregation when I was appointed their Sr. Pastor. The stares in public, the teasing of what they bought at the grocery store, the bullying by some at school, the racial taunting of their parents by some in our small town.
And on and on it went. Here was a family, through no fault of its own, who fled a repressive regime and found new life on the shores of Florida. Their story better mirrors most stories of refugees who come to the United States seeking a new life, safety, and opportunities for all.

As a newly wed seminary student, my husband Leigh and I joined a UM church in Evanston, Illinois, that was housing El Salvadorean refugees in our church basement. I saw how a congregation could work “underground” and help people fleeing war and cruelty to find employment, have a place to sleep, be fed, be given English tutoring, and kept safe until such time the individuals could get their own apartment, and tend to the needs of immediate family members. This was Holy work: this was living the Gospel lesson in Matthew 25. We were there five years and witnessed what it meant to minister to soul and body. We had the joy of making new friends who taught us much about their culture and joy in life, in spite of grave difficulties.

In my first pastoral appointment, my congregation sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family. The family was comprised of a young married couple, and the husband’s aunt. The three young adults had been in a refugee camp in Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas, for many months. Our church worked with Lutheran Relief which was very effective with placing refugee families in faith-based communities. Leigh and I were part of a small team who coordinated every detail of providing the short and long term needs of these three people. All three lived in our parsonage for three months, then with another family for three months, until the family unit was able to manage an apt. It is hard work for everyone involved, but most especially for the Vietnamese family who gave up everything for the chance of a new life. The husband had been a military officer and was on a hit list by the Viet Cong. He could not go back. We learned so much, from English classes, to grocery store visits, to
doctors and job placement centers, worship in our setting when all three had Roman Catholic and Buddhist backgrounds. We shared cooking, told family stories, laughed and cried together. We saw three children being born over time, jobs secured and lost and new work found, moves to Texas and California so that our “family” could be with other family members who had made their way to the US. We are forever grateful for the gifts they brought us — of hope, of trust in us and our church, of a thirst to make a new home and life, of failures and successes, all mourned or celebrated together.

We have a brother-in-law who is Japanese-American and he and his family live in Blacksburg. Andy’s parents were interred in a camp in Arizona as a young married couple when our country rounded up Japanese-American citizens and held them indefinitely. His father was an American Baptist pastor, his mother a teacher. That experience profoundly shaped Andy and his brother as they were growing up, even though they were not yet born. We are blessed with a brother-in-law who is a community organizer, an alum of the Peace Corps, and a wonderful husband, father, and Oji — grandfather. We remember, along with him, our country’s past painful chapter.

In addition to our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, we have a “son” and his wife and toddler daughter from Mozambique. Here is a young family where the father and mother lived through a civil war of 15 years and survived. They are faithful Christians in the Methodist Church of Mozambique.They have a difficult life and live on very little. While both parents have a job they get little pay. They worry for their daughter and what opportunities she will have to grow up and be educated and have a good life. We see them infrequently but have joyful reunions. We SKYPE and stay in touch, encouraging, blessing, listening and praying. They are baffled and horrified about how the USA got to where it is now. The world is watching us.

Listen to your own life. What is it you are being called to address? The number of issues are overwhelming! But engaging in one or two is possible at the local level.

Here are some guidelines that are helping me use my Christian voice and giving me hope for engagement in the kind of country I want and will work for, for the sake of my children and grandchildren, and for the sake of those who cannot lift a voice or who remain invisible in their needs.

In the December 21, 2016, issue of Christian Century magazine, I found on the editorial page a listing of actions that will help me “resist the spell” of a master manipulator who is now president. Perhaps this list will help you to be alert in these areas as well:
— Protecting constitutional rights and being alert to occasions when freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are in jeopardy.
–Defending stewardship of the environment. Almost all scientists agree that abandoning limits on greenhouse gas emissions and watering down environmental regulations will imperil the planet and its most vulnerable citizens.
–Encouraging policies that narrow income inequalities and provide genuine economic opportunity to all workers – and that don’t pit one segment against another
–Keeping an eye on where the money goes. As a businessman with financial dealings around the globe, President Trump needs to distance himself in office and adjusting policies to serve his interests — Speaking up alongside immigrants and their families those who are targets of hate crimes, and all those whose voices are rarely heard by decision makers.
–Building up diverse coalitions that work to meet the needs of people at the local level, thereby strengthening the basis for more truthful political discourse
–Call out sexism, racism, homophobia, misogony , antisemitism, ,Islamaphobia, and all isms that seek to destroy the beautiful diversity of citizens in this country and in our faith communities.

Finally, I would like to lift up a recent comment by Jesuit priest and author, James Martin. He spoke out against the President’s Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees. He speaks to my heart and I hope yours as well: “This is an issue of life or death. Migrants flee from profound poverty which causes suffering and can lead to death. Refugees flee from persecution, terror and war, out of fear for their lives. Jesus himself is speaking to us from the Gospels. It is Jesus whom we turn away when we build walls. It is Christ whom we reject when we slash quotas for refugees. It is Jesus Christ whom we are killing, by letting our neighbors die in poverty and war rather than opening our doors….”

LORD, HAVE MERCY. CHRIST, HAVE MERCY. LORD, HAVE MERCY.
(-Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer, former United Methodist Bishop of the Virginia Conference. Delivered at Bon Air United Methodist Church, Feb. 2, 2017, as the keynote of United Methodist Day at the General Assembly)