Sunday, March 17, 2019 “Remember Where You Came From”
The message for Sunday, March 17, 2019 “Remember Where You Came From” by Pastor Erik Goehner heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.
Remember Where You Came From Deuteronomy 10:12-19 and Luke 10, March 17, 2019
I was excited as I stepped off the ferry boat onto Ellis Island. It was our last full day in New York City, and this iconic symbol of immigration was one of the places I had really hoped to visit while we were there last summer. Between 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island was declared as an official immigration station. During this time period, over 12 million people are believed to have crossed the threshold at that location to begin a new life in the US. They came looking for an avenue to escape the atrocities of war, drought, famine and religious discrimination.
I was eager to visit the island because I wanted to learn more about this history, partly due to the immigration issues facing our country today, but also because I wanted to learn more about my own history. I wanted to remember where my ancestors had come from. I wanted to feel something of their experience. Over 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots back to a relative who came through Ellis Island and I’m one of them because that is how my Great grandparents on my dad’s side came to this country.
As I walked into the great hall where rows and rows of people would have sat waiting to be processed I imagined what it would have been like for my Great grandfather Frederick and his wife, Christina. My Great grandfather would have been holding the hand of Great uncle Christ who would have been around two or three years old and Great grandma would have been holding Great Uncle John who was born on the ship ride over. They had been farmers around the Black Sea, along with others of German descent, but many of their neighbors had been forced to join the Russian army and they had fled to the US for safety and a new life.
Walking through the building on Ellis Island that is now a museum, you can wear headphones that take you through the whole process as if you were an immigrant in those days. One of the rooms was the medical room. If you were examined and found to have certain illnesses you could be immediately deported. There were stories of families being separated as some of the members would check out as healthy, but one might not and be sent back after the long journey. I could imagine how heart rending that must have felt for families. My visit to Ellis Island increased my empathy for what immigrants endure. It reminded me of where I had come from and made me feel grateful, for if my Great grandparents had not been allowed into this country my life and the lives of my children would have been completely different.
Remembering where you came from is a huge theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in the Bible, Moses and the prophets speak for God and consistently remind the people not to forget where they come from. Thirty different verses, spanning the Old and New Testament, talk directly about welcoming the stranger and taking care of the foreigner.
In our First Reading from Exodus we heard Moses tell the people of Israel, “Remember your agreement with the LORD… The LORD defends the rights of orphans and widows. He cares for foreigners and gives them food and clothing. And you should also care for them, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 23:19 says something similar, “Don’t oppress a foreigner in your land, because you yourselves know what it feels like to be a foreigner.” In other words, “Don’t forget where you come from—don’t forget that you were aliens and immigrants enslaved in the foreign land so that you might treat the aliens and immigrants in your midst with care because you understand what they are going through.”
This is not hard to do when we ourselves are still in a position of vulnerability and struggling. It is easier at that point to still feel sense of solidarity with those who are also struggling to make it. It becomes much more difficult to empathize once you have arrived at a level of acceptance and comfort in a new land. It becomes much more difficult when you arrived at new level of economic and social standing. At that point, previous generations can often forget where they came from and join in putting down the newcomers as they feel their own sense of security and safety being threatened.
One example of this in American history is what the Irish immigrants went through. Today we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as if it were an American holiday, but originally it was an Irish celebration connected to the holy day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. The big wave of Irish immigrants who came in the mid 1800s were actually refugees seeking haven in America because of a horrible famine in Ireland which was made worse by centuries of oppression by the British.
These refugees were poor and disease-ridden. People felt as if they threatened to take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They were seen by Protestant Americans as practicing an alien religion and pledging allegiance to a foreign leader because they were Catholic and listened to the Pope. They were perceived to be bringing with them crime. They were accused of being rapists. The Irish filled the most menial and dangerous jobs, often at low pay. There were conspiracy theories that the Pope wanted to invade America and was going to use the Irish to take over the country.
This prejudice fueled political movements such as the Know-Nothings and the American Party which supported Protestant-only candidates and whose slogan was, “Americans must rule America!” These movements could often turn deadly. Anti-Catholic, anti-Irish mobs in Philadelphia destroyed houses and torched churches in the deadly Bible Riots of 1844. In Louisville, Kentucky, in August 1855 armed Know-Nothing members guarding polling stations on an election day launched street fights against German and Irish Catholics. Immigrant homes were ransacked and torched. Between 20 and 100 people, were killed. Thousands of Catholics fled the city in the riot’s aftermath.
Despite the initial prejudice and persecutions they faced, the Irish eventually became more accepted into American society and began to run for political office themselves. A generation after the Great Famine, the Irish controlled powerful political machines in cities across the United States and were moving up the social ladder into the middle class as an influx of immigrants from China and Southern and Eastern Europe took hold in the 1880s and 1890s. Being from the British Isles, the Irish were now considered acceptable.
No longer embedded on the lowest rung of American society, the Irish unfortunately gained acceptance in the mainstream by dishing out the same bigotry toward newcomers that they had experienced. For example, Denis Kearney, a man born in County Cork Ireland became the Workingmen’s Party leader and would close his speeches to American laborers with his rhetorical signature: “Whatever happens, the Chinese must go.”
When will we learn to remember where we came from? When will we learn that the foreigner is not automatically the enemy? When will we remind ourselves that at one point our families were foreigners as well? When will we learn not to cast blame on some other group just because they are different? When will we realize that language is powerful and hate-filled rhetoric can lead to real world consequences?
This last Friday morning we woke up to the tragic news of a shooting in New Zealand. There were 50 people killed and dozens injured while they were just worshipping at a mosque. The rampage was fueled by anti-immigrant hatred, conspiracy theories, and twisted religious beliefs.
From what investigators know there seems to be a 74-page manifesto connected to the suspect of the shooting titled “The Great Replacement”. It was posted online before the event and matched several known details about the suspect and the attack. It contains a sprawling array of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and white-supremacist references. To me it sounds eerily similar to what the man wrote who was convicted of the shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It highlights once again how our twisted fears of the “other”, the foreigner, those who are different, can so quickly lead to violence. It highlights once again that those who stir up such fears may gain political supporters, but they do so at the peril of peace in our society.
Jesus calls us to a different path today in story of the Good Samaritan. It is a parable that illustrates and reminds us that those who might be hated and feared by “our” people, those who we might stereotype and have prejudice against, those we would consider foreigners, might actually turn out to be the ones who help us. Jesus tells the story in response to the question “who is my neighbor?” At the beginning of the story, the man who asked the question would not have thought of the Samaritan character as his neighbor, but by the end he has to admit that the Samaritan is the character who actually showed love.
The parable is a stark reminder that those who are different from us are also our neighbors and we are called to love them too. Jesus is reminding us of where we come from. He is reminding us that we come from a common humanity, with vulnerabilities and struggles that are ultimately connected and woven together by the common thread of God’s love. Remembering this is what can finally set us free from the bonds of fear that drive us to hatred. Remembering this is what can finally set us free from the never-ending cycles of violence that continually capture each new generation.
When Jesus asks the man who in the story acted like the neighbor the man responds by saying it is the one who showed pity or another way to say it would be “ it is the one who showed compassion”. Jesus says to the man in the story, and Jesus says to us today, to you and to me, “Go, and do same.”
-Pastor Erik Goehner