Sermons That Work

There Are Few Places…, Independence Day – 1999

July 04, 1999

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47)

There are few places left in the United States where everyone is the same. For some people this a cause for rejoicing; for others it is a troubling situation. Our nation is in the midst of a great migration of peoples “from every family, language, people and nation.” The reasons for this migration are many; the reality of it cannot be denied.

Wherever you travel this summer, you will see signs saying, “Spanish spoken here,” or, “Chinese and Korean Restaurant.” A recent article in Smithsonian magazine featured a story on the Philippines entitled Yankee, go home! And take me with you.

Small towns that never experienced minority populations are suddenly becoming permanent addresses for immigrant workers. One town in Missouri has gone from zero to 50% immigrant residents in just five years. The stresses and exploitation that accompany these changes are known to many. The pain and poverty experienced by new citizens of the United States is not.

As we celebrate our national day of independence, it is good to reflect on how we got here, and remember that many of our stories are not unlike the stories of those modern immigrants who have arrived on our shores, entered through our borders, seeking freedom, opportunity, and safety.

Jesus poses a question for us in the alternative Gospel appointed for Independence Day. He wants us to think about why it is we only show love to those who are like us, and he challenges us to think about what that means. Look around your congregation today. Are there people different from you, or is everybody pretty much alike? How is your church a reflection of your town? Are there people present who are members of other ethnic groups in your community, or is everyone from the same culture?

The roots of Jesus’ question go back to the Old Testament. In today’s Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy, we are admonished to welcome the stranger. This was not an optional choice; it was the law! And we are taught in other places that in welcoming the stranger, we are welcoming God; that we might be entertaining angels. While everyone is taught to beware of the stranger as a child, we are seldom taught the hospitality of welcoming the stranger or foreigner among us. This ancient notion is more than hospitality; it is the vitality of cultural life, it is what feeds people’s minds and hearts. The color, the passion, and the new and the different, are fundamental to the human species and a reflection of the variety God gives the Creation.

Something, however, pulls us away from this basic variety in the created order. We seem to seek out likeness instead of difference. And it’s not only our culture in America that does this. Recently the world has been swept by costly conflicts in the Balkans, Indonesia, Northern Ireland, and Africa — places where people who were alike tried and almost succeeded in wiping out those differing from them. Surely this is not what God desires; but it seems to be a human condition and wish, to dwell among those who are like us and exclude those who are different. So, neighborhoods become black or white, Greek or Italian, Catholic or Protestant, and we cut ourselves off from those who are different.

In agriculture one issue today is “monoculture,” the practice of planting only one species of trees or crops because of its desirable traits. Studies have shown that long-term monoculture is bad, because it is plant diversity that keeps insects and diseases at bay, strengthens multiple species, and through natural selection develops the best strains of a crop. So, scientists worldwide are raising alarms about monoculture. While there may be short-term gains, the long-term results could be disastrous.

Should we not raise the same question about our resistance to diversity in culture? What costs will there eventually be because we choose to keep like people together? South Africa is now paying the cost of the policy of apartheid; a deliberate attempt to exclude races from one another proved very costly to that country in terms of lives, economy, and development. It is only now, as the nation of South Africa casts off the yoke of apartheid, that it is learning what that true cost has been. It will take many years for it to recover.

For a few moments now, focus on your own community. Are there people you know about who are racially or ethnically different from you? Is there anything being done to welcome them and show more than mere tolerance to them?

One community in the Midwest recently began to address this very question. Several churches working together discovered those immigrant workers brought in to work at a nearby hog production facility were being exploited in housing. Six to 8 workers were being asked to share a small house that was netting the landlord excessive profits. Conditions for the workers were cramped and sometimes unsanitary. One person remarked, “Well, these people like living in close conditions; they’re used to it; what’s the big deal?”

The churches decided to find out how the workers felt about these conditions and discovered that they were, in fact, very unhappy. Because they knew nothing about zoning laws or health and sanitation codes, they assumed their situation was acceptable. When the churches approached the city about enforcing the codes already on the books, there was a shift in local housing practices for the better. This is one example of what we can do that goes beyond just loving those who are like us.

In another community, immigrants were arriving without any knowledge of English. There were no language programs available until a woman volunteered to organize and English as a Second Language class at her local church. She found grant money to hire a trained bilingual teacher, and now people can come after work and learn the new language. This is welcoming the stranger, this is showing love to others who are different.

Church might be the one place that everyone eventually has in common. It knows something about people which is fundamental: that God created them in God’s own image, and that in all people we see the face of God. The church also knows that it is called through its members to “Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.” Sometimes the reason we love those like us is an only an expression of love of ourselves. Godly love loves that which is different from us. We say we love God, and God is wholly other than we are. What makes us distinctive as Christians is our desire and ability to love the stranger, the person different from us, because we love God who created us all, with a variety that is vital and necessary for our common life.

Recently our churches have participated again in the resettling of refugees from Kosovo. We have done a great act of humanity in taking in the refugee, the homeless, the stranger. We have recalled that Jesus and his parents were forced to flee their home and become sojourners in a foreign land. The Kosovars have said over and over again that they never expected such kindness. Let this time be a reminder to us that one day we may be the foreigners, the strangers, the exiles welcomed in another land.

Diversity is what forged our nation and made it the great country we all celebrate today. The distinctiveness of races and tribes, languages and people is unique among cultures of the world. Now, more than ever before, we are called by God to love and serve all of those people around us. We are called to remember that whenever we do so, we are honoring the God who created us and are drawing ever closer to the one who saves us, redeems us, and will, one day, bring us home.

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Christopher Sikkema


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