One of the gifts our congregation gives to their ministers is an occasional sabbatical—a time to get away and rest and recover. That is what I am doing January-February. It is a wonderful time to just be, to read books that don’t have anything to do with a sermon, to think about things that I don’t have time to think about during “normal” time.
But these are not normal times. This past week my daughter texted me wondering if I was glad or relieved that I wasn’t preaching this week. I said, “Yes.”
I didn’t preach this week. Instead I worshipped with the congregation of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham and heard a wonderful sermon from my friend Dorisanne Cooper.
But the events of this past week, especially with the immigration ban, got me thinking about what I would have said if I had been preaching. It isn’t complete, but here is what I think I would have said.
The fall of 1978 I had the privilege of studying in London. During our break a group of us traveled around Europe—Cologne, Munich, Interlaken, Rome. I left the group to visit some friends who were studying in Venice, but then had the task of making my way across Europe, to London, alone.
Now remember that I am an American, which means I speak English. Only English. For several days I had the chore of trying to read menus, find restrooms, get directions. You can only imagine my relief when I finally boarded the ferry in Calais that would take me across the English Channel to England.
In the words of that famous author, Snoopy, “It was a dark and storm night!” All night long the ferry was being tossed to and fro making sleep impossible. To ward off the tossing and turning of my stomach I walked the deck. It was one of those where even the most sober looked drunk! It was about 45 minutes from arrival when suddenly, the clouds parted and a full moon was shining on the white cliffs of Dover. Even now I remember the feeling, that feeling of, If I can just get there! If I can just get there I will be able to read the signs; I will be able to understand; if I can just get there I will be home!
I was just a student trying to get back to a dorm. But I have thought about that experience in these days, thinking about those families arriving at JFK airport in New York, just a few feet away from being in their new home, in the United States, the land of freedom where the Statue of Liberty proclaims, “give me your tired, your poor your huddled masses yearning to be free,” What would it be like being that close, and being turned away.
That was the case for countless men and women and children last night as a result of the presidential order issued by President Trump Friday. Basically the order severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely. It has been met with protest around the country because many have received this as being an anti-Muslim ban. But it also raises questions for us about what it means to be Baptist, about what it means to be Christian.
You see, if we are Baptist, really Baptist, this is rule that we must reject, oppose, protest. We must because it goes against the very core of who we are! It goes against our history, our beginning.
Roger Williams was exiled from the Massachusetts colony by the Puritans for his religious beliefs. He was driven into the “howling winter” and would have died if not for the hospitality of the native Americans. Later he bought land from them and established the colony of Rhode Island which he was was a colony for those distressed of conscience, a place where everyone was free to worship, or not worship, in the manner they saw fit.
At our best that is who Baptists have always been. We have been the defenders of religious liberty, not only for ourselves but for everyone! Even if their beliefs have run opposite from ours. We have done so because of our deep belief in soul competency, the right and responsibility of ever person to deal with God. The government has no right to come between, nor to discriminate against any religion or faith! That has been the hallmark of Baptists. It has been the shining American light.
On Friday night that light was dimmed. How will we respond? Will we just sit back and say nothing? Will we be more concerned with who wins the Pro Bowl? Will we see this as just another political dispute that really doesn’t concern us? Or will we say that our history, our heritage, who we are as Baptists demand that we reject this discriminatory ruling? This really is a “Who are we” moment. We can say nothing, but then integrity demands that we remove the name Baptist from our sign!
It is an important question, an urgent question. But it isn’t the most important. The most important question is one of our faith. Are we going to be followers of Christ?
The Bible is clear! “The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. In fact, the Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone.” We claim to be “People of the Book.” So hear some of what the scripture has to say to us, today!
“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!” (Zechariah 7:10)
“You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you” (Ezekiel 22:4, 7)
“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)
“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3)
“The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9)
“‘I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and cheat the wage earner; and against those who deny justice to the foreigner. They do not fear Me,’ says the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 3:5)
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)
“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11)
“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40)
So much of the time we live an easy faith. We live a nice faith. We live what has been called moral deism—just be good people, nice people, polite people. And most of the time, in our nice, polite, Southern Christian culture, that really comes close to passing for Christian.
But there are times….Times when we need to decide who we are; time when we have to decide. I want to suggest that this is one of those times. This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Baptist. This is one of those times when we have to decide if we are Jesus people. This is one of those times.
Last fall Anita and I had the opportunity to visit Boston. Our last afternoon, totally by accident we stumbled upon the Boston Holocaust Memorial. It is very simple, just some glass panels over a subway grate where heat and steam push up. On the glass panels are images of the concentration camps. But what struck me was the inscriptions on the ground—quotes from survivors, ministers, rabbis, historians. One in particular caught my attention and my soul. It read, “While most people aided the Nazis or looked the other way, there were some courageous individuals in Germany and throughout Europe who risked their life to save the Jews.”
50 years from now when the Muslim Holocaust memorial is built, where will we stand? With those who aided the oppressors, or looked the other way? Or will we counted among the courageous, the faithful, the Baptists?