September 20, 2021
17th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Two summers ago, our denomination became the country’s first “sanctuary church body.” It happened at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s triennial Churchwide Assembly, which was held that year in Milwaukee, and the vote immediately thrust the ELCA into the national spotlight. Everyone wanted to know, what does it mean to say that the ELCA is a “sanctuary church body”? Lutherans responded that “becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.” With that vote, the “Churchwide Assembly, the highest legislative authority of the ELCA, declared that when we preach on Sunday that Jesus told us to welcome, we will use our hands and voices on Monday to make sure it happens.”
The same day that the Churchwide Assembly took that vote, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton led 700 of the voting members in attendance on a march to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Milwaukee office, where they held a prayer vigil. Along the way, they held signs that said things like, “We put the protest back in Protestant” and chanted, “This is what the love of God looks like.” Upon their arrival at the ICE facility, following the example of Martin Luther 500 years ago, two Lutherans taped 9.5 theses to the door of the building. Bishop Paul Erickson of the Greater Milwaukee Synod opened the vigil in prayer to “Jesus Christ, immigrant and savior.” Presiding Bishop Eaton spoke to the press afterward. She said, “However you understand immigration law or if people are breaking the law or not, it’s un-American to deny asylum to those seeking asylum. And if this country had not been available for my grandparents to come, I wouldn’t be standing here now.”
For decades, Lutherans have held a core conviction that “hospitality for the uprooted is a way to live out the biblical call to love the neighbor in response to God’s love in Jesus Christ.” In a social policy resolution adopted in 2009, the ELCA declared that “human beings are created ‘in God’s image’ (Genesis 1:27) as social beings whose dignity, worth, and value are conferred by God. We are created to live together with God and one another in love and freedom, reflecting or imaging God’s perfect love and freedom. Therefore,” the resolution declared, “this church seeks to oppose anything that disables or destroys a person’s capacity to relate to God and others in this way.”
So often, the world tries to make us believe lies about ourselves and others—lies that deny people’s dignity, worth, and value, lies that corrode our humanity, turn us in on ourselves, and keep us divided from one another. The world tells us that people who struggle to get by are lazy and worthless; that some people—criminals, addicts, poor or homeless people, among others—are nothing more than a drain on society. The world tells us that undocumented immigrants who have fled their homelands out of fear for their personal safety are “illegal.”
Maybe the biggest lie the world tells us—the lie underneath all these other lies—is that some lives matter less than others, that some people are expendable or disposable. That is a lie that makes so much inhumanity possible. It makes it possible for us to elevate some above others and completely abandon those who find themselves at the bottom of our man-made hierarchy. This is the fundamental lie the world wants us to believe, that some lives lack worth.
Jesus’ entire ministry is about exposing these lies and telling us a different story. Today’s gospel reading is a good example. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Capernaum, and as they go the twelve argue with one another about which of them is the greatest. Jesus has just told them that he will be betrayed and killed—and rather than asking questions about that or expressing alarm or concern, the disciples continue on their way, fighting over who among them is the greatest. It’s actually sort of a ridiculous scene. And maybe that’s the point. It highlights the absurdity of the lie the world wants them to believe, that there must be some sort of hierarchy that elevates some of them above the others and keeps them all divided from one another.
Jesus responds by telling the twelve that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And then he sets before them a little child. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This reminds me of the scene in the next chapter of Mark where people are bringing children to Jesus and the disciples try to keep them away. Jesus says, in words our congregation knows well, “Let the children come. Don’t stop them. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
These scenes with children are sort of sweet and tender when we read them today. But when Jesus tells his disciples to welcome children, he’s actually doing something radical. In Jesus’ time children were basically non-persons. They belonged at home with their mothers, who themselves had no status and certainly weren’t supposed to be out in public interacting with men. When Jesus brings a little one before the disciples and tells them to welcome children in his name, he’s making a powerful statement that has significant social and political implications. We are not meant to be divided, he says, between the greatest and the least, between VIPs and non-persons. If you want to be great and powerful, you must welcome the least. A child makes it possible for God to be known as one who overturns social hierarchies, who pays special attention to those with no social status.
Jesus is trying to tear down the walls that keep us divided from one another. He’s actually describing a world where there is no greatest or least, or lives that matter and lives that don’t, but where each person has God-given dignity and everyone finds a welcome. He is rejecting the lies the world wants us to believe and telling us a different story.
At the vigil outside the ICE facility in Milwaukee, Bishop Paul Erickson told the crowd, “Marching is fun, words are great, but action makes a difference.”
Here at Gloria Dei, our Immigrant Justice Team is taking action.
In early 2017, when the change in presidential administrations led to a flurry of executive orders targeting immigrants in our country, a call went out for congregations to become places of sanctuary for immigrants at risk of deportation. “Sanctuary” is a term that grew out of the faith community and its commitment to welcoming immigrants. In the 1980s, when people were fleeing violence in Central America, churches in the United States began offering “sanctuary” to protect vulnerable people from being returned to violence. While there is no legal definition of sanctuary, its overall purpose is to faithfully and openly act to ensure that all people feel safe and welcomed, regardless of their immigration status. Churches have been providing sanctuary for centuries.
Four years ago, we voted as a congregation to be a church that provides support for other congregations in our community providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. In recent years, even as we’ve experienced yet another presidential transition, our Immigrant Justice Team has learned that there remains an enormous need for housing for refugees and asylum seekers making their way through the backlogged and burdensome immigration process. We’ve learned that, in order to deter people from immigrating to the United States, those in this country making their way through that process are legally prohibited from working or receiving any public benefits, putting them in an impossible situation. Think about that: You’re told you can’t work, but you also can’t access any of the housing subsidies or public benefits that would make it possible to find a place to live. It’s an intentional and cruel way to try to prevent people from seeking a welcome in the United States. Without the extraordinary effort of nonprofits and faith communities, there is almost no way for those coming to this country to secure safe and stable housing.
In recent months, we’ve taken action as a congregation to be part of the solution. We voted to renovate a seldom-used classroom, Room 99, into an efficiency apartment that will house an immigrant family. Construction will begin next month in conjunction with the Rise, O Church sanctuary renovation, but there are still a number of ways in which we need your help to bring this project to completion. You’ll hear more about these opportunity in a Temple Talk in just a few minutes.
As we welcome those who will live in Room 99 and share this building with us, we will be changed. For one thing, a controversial and too often abstract “issue” will take on names and faces, and our understanding of immigration policy will be filtered through the lived experience of people we will come to know and love. And in the process, we will learn to reject the lies the world would have us believe. As we welcome new neighbors into our building, we will be reminded that we worship a God who assigns worth and importance to each and every person. That’s the truth.
Daniel Burke, “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America just became the country’s first ‘sanctuary church body’,” CNN, published August 8, 2019, accessed September 17, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/08/us/lutheran-sanctuary-church/index.html.
Emily McFarlan Miller, “ELCA declares self a ‘sanctuary church body,’ marches to ICE building in Milwaukee,” Religion News Service, published August 7, 2019, accessed September 17, 2021, https://religionnews.com/2019/08/07/elca-declares-self-a-sanctuary-church-body-marches-to-ice-building-in-milwaukee/.
Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Mark 9:30-37: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis), 2008.
Pheme Perkins, “Mark” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
Sharon H. Ringe, “Mark 9:30-37: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Sanctuary Denomination Talking Points,” accessed September 17, 2021, https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/ELCA_SanctuaryDenomination_TalkingPoints.pdf.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform,” accessed September 17, 2021, http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Immigration_ReformSPR09.pdf.