I Kings 19:1-15a
No Human Is Illegal
23 June 2019
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
With thanks to a June 22 post on Presbyterians for Just Immigration that helped jump start this sermon.
If you are like me, you may need some context to understand what is happening in our passage from I Kings. It is story about politics and faith that comes as a part of a longer story about politics and faith.
One point to begin the story of Ahab and Jezebel and Elijah is in Egypt. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, had been sold into slavery by his brothers. Then hunger came. As it so often does, hunger people from their homes. In this case, Jacob and his sons.
Because he could interpret dreams, Joseph had risen from his beginnings to a position of authority in the Pharaoh’s court. He had responsibility for storing and managing food. After Joseph messed with his brothers a bit, they reunited, and the family moved to Egypt.
The came to be called the Hebrews, the name for the people came from an Egyptian word meaning “outsider” or “nomad” or “workers of inferior status.” Still, life went well for the people.
Then Joseph died. And a new Pharaoh came to power. He feared the Hebrew people. They had become numerous and he saw them as a threat. He tried several ways to eliminate them. But God heard their cry and sent Moses to deliver the Hebrew people.
They made their way to Canaan, after forty-years of wandering. There they settled. For a time, judges ruled them. But the Hebrew people wanted a king. A king like all the other peoples.
“Bad idea,” said Samuel the prophet. “Really bad idea.” The people pushed. Following prayer, Samuel relented. Guided by God, he anointed Saul as the first king. Saul ruled over all twelve tribes of Israel – one for each of Jacob’s son.
Saul disobeyed commands from God given to him by Samuel. Guided by God, Samuel anointed the shepherd musician David to be King. Conflict follows. Saul dies. David becomes king.
David is recognized as the greatest king of Israel. Of course, he was not a perfect king. He stole Uriah’s wife and arranged to have Uriah killed. Like virtually every other servant of God in or out of the Bible, God did not choose David because he was worthy; God made David worthy because he chose him.
David’s son Solomon follows his father as the king. When Solomon’s son succeeds his father, the kingdom breaks into two parts. Israel in the north with nine tribes. Judah in the south with two. The tribe of Levi had taken on religious duties. Competition and conflict prevailed between the two kingdoms. Each had its own king.
After time, a king named Ahab came to rule in the Northern Kingdom. He married a woman named Jezebel. It seems likely this was an arranged marriage designed to strengthen ties between the kingdom of Israel and Phoenicia – Jezebel’s home country.
Jezebel worshiped a god named Baal. Ahab had a place of worship built for Baal and an altar to Baal erected there.
Not only did Jezebel promote the worship of Baal, she suppressed the worship of Yahweh, the God who appeared to Moses and proclaimed, “I am who I am.” The God who led the Hebrew people to freedom. The God of Jesus.
Jezebel had the prophets of Yahweh killed. Altars to Yahweh were destroyed. When a famine came, Jezebel used royal provisions to feed and support the prophets of Baal.
Elijah, faithful to Yahweh God, noticed a fracture in the community. Worship of Baal was increasing. Called by God, Elijah acted. He challenged the prophets of Baal to determine the true God.
They met on Mt. Carmel. Two altars were made. A bull sacrificed and placed on each. The prophets of Baal called upon Baal to send fire and consume their sacrifice. Nothing happened. Elijah called on Yahweh God. Fire came from heaven to burn up the sacrifice. Elijah ordered the people to seize and kill the prophets of Baal and other false gods. It was done.
Jezebel was a wee bit irked at this. With her husband Ahab, she still controlled the power of the state. She called for Elijah’s death. She told Elijah so. And he fled.
In fear and confusion and despair, Elijah fled. That’s where our reading for this morning picks up. With Jezebel’s death squads looking for him, Elijah ran for his life.
Into the wilderness Elijah went. He hid under a tree and asked God to take his life. But an angel appeared and told Elijah to eat and drink. Elijah found strength to continue his flight.
After forty days and nights, Elijah hid again. In a cave. This time, God visited him. God spoke to him. Not in wind or earthquake or fire. No special effects for God this time. God spoke to Elijah in the voice that pierced through the silence.
Elijah heard God say, “There is work for you to do.” “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.” Yet again, God does not call someone who is worthy. God calls frightened, confused, despairing Elijah and makes him worthy.
As I look at what is happening to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in our country, I experience some confusion about policies that are being put into place. I fear for my sisters, brothers, and family members who have come to the United States fleeing violence and poverty. I sometimes teeter on despair.
I am confused to see families separated. I understand that if I had been arrested and sent to prison thirty years ago when Sean and Eric were young, they would not have gone with me. But they had their mother and their church community and their schools. They had roots. They would not have ended up with other children in a cage.
I am confused about why we cannot provide enough attorneys and personnel to process asylum requests efficiently and quickly. People have the right to apply for asylum. It is not automatically guaranteed. But it appears that steps are being taken to make the process more difficult to traverse and to drag it out in terms of time.
I read of overcrowded facilities where children and adults are held. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found “standing room only conditions” at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center, which has a maximum capacity of 125 migrants. On May 7 and 8, logs indicated that there were “approximately 750 and 900 detainees, respectively … We also observed detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space.” I learn that many of the detention centers are run for profit. As the Equal Justice Initiative reports, “Private detention companies are paid a set fee per detainee per night, and they negotiate contracts that guarantee a minimum daily headcount. Many run notoriously dangerous facilities with horrific conditions that operate far outside federal oversight.” And I hear that the government, my government, “went to federal court this week to argue that it shouldn’t be required to give detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels, showers or even half a night’s sleep inside Border Patrol detention facilities.” I teeter on despair.
Immigration raids were announced to take place today in cities across the country. The planned raids raised fear in me and many others that “some immigrant children — many of whom are American citizens because they were born in the United States — would have faced the possibility of being forcibly separated from their families when ICE agents arrived to arrest and deport their undocumented parents.” Yesterday afternoon, the New York Times reported that the plans have been delayed. Still the fear remains. Fear that, whether it happens in an organized series of raids or it happens on a case-by-case basis, friends, people for whom I care deeply, and people I do not know may face separation and deportation. And that deportation may lead to death in their home countries.
I am in an Elijah moment facing the issue of immigration. I am confused. I am fearful. I teeter on despair. I wish I could hide hid in a cave. Maybe you do too.
I am in an Elijah moment. And I know that God has work for me to do. God has work for you too. God calls us. Not because we are certain. Not because we are free from fear. Not because we are far from despair. God calls us as we are. And God will grant us clarity and courage and hope and everything to leave the cave and follow where God leads.
What might that look like?
It begins with prayer. God will offer us the opportunity to pray. To pray for people who have fled their homes and those who care for them. To pray for those who work on the border both to provide humanitarian aid and to enforce laws. To pray for leaders in government. To pray that God’s love will be shared.
God will call us to challenge the language that is used in the discussion. We need to proclaim again and again that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. No human is illegal.
People can be fat. People can be bald. Peopled can be bearded. Heck, you may even know a fat, bald, bearded person. But people cannot be illegal.
People can do illegal things. A person may get a speeding ticket or two or more. That does not make the person an “illegal driver.” It makes the person a “person who breaks driving laws.” There are laws governing immigration, which people can break. That makes them people who have broken immigration laws or people who have entered the country illegally.
No human is illegal. The phrase originates with Elie Wiesel. Wiesel survived the Holocaust. He knows the absolute horror that can happen when language dehumanizes and demonizes and divide people. Once we accept that some people are “illegal”, there is no end to the abuse those people might be forced to endure and we might tolerate.
The Wakes are a band from Scotland. Their sound is described as traditional Celtic punk rock and funk. They have created a song with the title “No Human Is Illegal.” It is an upbeat melody with a powerful message that brings tears of hope to my eyes every time I hear it. Its lyrics contain a colorful metaphor or two or I would play it for us this morning. But here’s a couple important lines:
No human is illegal
And everybody has their worth
Everybody has their worth. Those who follow Jesus know that worth comes because everybody is made in God’s image. Everybody is a beloved child of God. Everybody is someone for whom Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead.
“The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.” That affirmation of the worth of every person comes from a truly radical source. The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Book of Order, G-1.0302.
A step out of the cave of fear, confusion, and despair involves a refusal to dehumanize and consistent persistent insistent affirmation of all people. Other steps may follow.
Maybe God will urge us to learn more about issues surrounding migration and human movement. A list of sources of information may be found in Fellmann Hall after service.
Maybe God will ask us to call our government to work with other nations to address the circumstances that cause people to leave their homes and make dangerous journeys to places they perceive as safe. Of course, some people migrate who are criminal; some people migrate to commit crime. There are always such people in any group.
But the vast majority of people migrate for safety or because they cannot sustain themselves in their home places. Joseph’s family journeyed to Egypt because of famine. Mary and Joseph took their baby Jesus to Egypt to escape the soldiers of Herod who sought to kill him. As the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes:
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
Clearly the immigration system in our country needs corrections. But the solution to immigration lies not in reforming detention centers or keeping families together or speeding up the processing. All those and more need to happen. The poverty and violence that drives people from their homes must be overcome. A postcard to send to Congress and a sample script to call Congress are available in Fellmann Hall. You may fill it in and leave it and I will see it gets mailed or you may take it home and send yourself.
Maybe God will invite us to prepare family care plans for our own families or to share them with friends and community members who are at risk. Examples are available in Fellmann Hall.
Maybe God will nudge us to use a part of the treasure we have received to care for people in need. The Deacons have made a gift to Angry Tias and Abuelas, a group that provides care and advocates for people on the border from Brownsville to McAllen, Texas. Our One Great Hour of Sharing Offering supports the ministry of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance with refugees and immigrants. There are other organizations to which we could give if we choose. Fellman Hall.
God will ask us to take care of ourselves in times of fear, confusion, and despair. Elijah took a nap. The angel gave him something to eat and drink. Anne Lamott reminds us that “Radical self-care is the secret of joy, resistance, freedom. When we care for ourselves as our very own beloved—with naps, healthy food, clean sheets, a lovely cup of tea—we can begin to give in wildly generous ways to the world, from abundance.”
And God will ask us to listen. God is still with us and, if we keep listening, God will remind us that the love that binds us all together is stronger than any fear. Any confusion. Any despair. God’s love is stronger, and it is in that love that we will find our way. May it be so. Amen.