Sermon, March 27, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
The church calendar plays tricks on us, sometimes, with the way it’s laid out. It feels like just yesterday I was pulling these three gifts out to talk about the wise men. And now here we are, according to scripture, signaling to the end Jesus’ life.
This passage from John is inserted into the gospel of Luke to give us a few hints and a little symmetry. First of all, Jesus and his company are, again, on the move, just like Mary and Joseph were on the move in the beginning of his life. But this time, they have lodging with a welcoming and grateful host. Jesus stays here with the family of Lazarus, whom he was raised from the dead, an act that in the book of John begins the fervor that leads to his own death sentence while foreshadowing his own resurrection. And then Mary breaks the jar of fragrant ointment - most likely Frankincense or Myrrh - and anoints his feet, only somewhat prematurely signaling his upcoming death. The fragrant gift of frankincense and myrrh bookend the life of Jesus.
But John, in his gospel, is not subtle about what he thinks of Judas. In other gospel renditions of this passage, it’s all the disciples who are concerned about the waste - and in Matthew, a Pharisee casts suspicion on the woman’s morality - in John, we get this sidebar about Judas and his motives. He is a thief and therefore eager to name a scapegoat to disguise his true nature. It is a trick that still works well to this day.
As we traveled with Joseph and Mary just a few months ago in that Advent story, still reeling from the images and reality of the Afghani evacuation, and in anticipation of this immigration focus, I was struck by the statement by another theologian that Mary and Joseph were not protagonists in their own story. I was tickled when it was repeated just a few weeks ago here by Sister Jean, as it is the undercurrent of all these stories. Mary and Joseph were not protagonists in their own story. Just like so many others in our world today. We have had a front row seat recently for the devastation that human cruelty can cause. It’s not difficult to stretch our minds around what causes refugees. Vietnam; Syria; Afghanistan; Ukraine. All of those are clear examples in our heads and hearts about how people become refugees; how it is to be in the way when the elephants dance.
The Lenten season, we’ve been expanding our compassion for those who are not protagonists in their own lives. We are seeing how throughout history, and yet still today, the fortunes of so many resemble that of the book of Job. Job holds has some of the best poetry in the Bible to describe what sometimes feels like the futility of human life. It also has some of the best poetry to describe the sweeping story of creation. But in times of turmoil it can be a comfort to read, "mortals, born of woman, are few in days and full of trouble". We've all viscerally watched how quickly people can become collateral damage and a madman's war, how people’s normality, taken for granted, is suddenly upended. How like Job, each of these new refugees is searching for the meaning to make sense of it all.
But - are we also talking about those immigrants who are not victims of war?
For the last few weeks we’ve been mostly speaking about refugees, but as of today we will be shifting to talk more about people we usually call ‘undocumented’ or ‘illegal’ immigrants. These two different labels - refugees verses immigrants - bring up different images in our heads about their life circumstances. One group seems like the very examples of people who are not protagonists of their own story - and the other group seems like it has a choice. And it is often that choice that is vilified.
But there are other forces in the world that can feel just as violent as war. I wanted to share with you some things that I have learned about immigrants over the years.
In 2010, I was briefly employed to organize with the Illinois Coalition for immigrant and Refugee Rights. We were engaged in an hail mary effort to pass some sort of pathway to citizenship for the 11.8 undocumented American residents before the TEA party took over Congress. It was only a 6 month campaign - a very intense 6 months. I knew where I stood going into the work - in my opinion, people are people and no person is ‘illegal’ - but in those 6 months I learned about some bigger forces that changed my view. I always assumed that people came here to work because our wages were higher or our economy was stronger. But I didn’t realize our hand in weakening that economy.
During the work with ICIRR, I learned a lot about NAFTA. Prior to the first North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico had a protectionist economy that out rivaled most of its Central and South American neighbors. Even for those Mexicans that worked in border plants manufacturing washing machines for export had manual machines at home, because Mexico did not import goods, rather relied on their own economy. Their economy was strong and attractive to global business. Once NAFTA passed, it opened up the pathways for American businesses to manufacture and sell in Mexico. But, like all things, it had unintended consequences. American corn flooded the Mexican market. Mexico had its own corn growers, but American corn was cheaper because American corn is subsidized by taxpayer dollars. And so, the bottom dropped out of the Mexican corn market, putting thousands of Mexican farmers out of work. And those farmers flooded into the cities to look for work, and when those jobs filled up, they had no choice but to look north of the border to feed their families. Free Trade was good for America, so we were told - we opened borders for goods but not for the people who needed those goods. The roaring wave of global capitalism washed over the Mexican worker, rolling them in its depths and washing them out.
Free trade and open markets remain heralded forces in our language, while the border-crossing worker is scapegoated as ‘illegal.’
Then again, in 2013, between my last full year of Seminary and the last class, I went to Guatemala to learn Spanish by immersion. I spent 6 weeks studying Spanish in Xela, a mountainous town in the Mayan Qui’che region of Guatemala, living with a Guatemalan family in their upper room. Guatemala is home to 21 different Mayan groups, who make up 51% of the population - even today. The women still wear traditional dress, and carry their goods to market on their heads, which could be anything from laundry to chickens to roses. Men carry the heavier goods on their back with a strong strap anchored to their forehead. My program of daily 5-hour classes included boarding and meals and cost me only $185 per week. Maria Louisa, the 78-year-old mother of the house, prepared the same meal for her extended family and myself every day - black beans, tortillas, rice, and an egg - because it is the cheapest food that will leave one feeling full. Guatemala is the third poorest country with the highest rate of malnutrition in Latin America. They have some of the best coffee in the world - but in Maria Louisa’s house, we drank instant Nescafe because Guatemalan coffee is too expensive for most Guatemalan families.
While education deficiency, high birth rates, and government corruption continue to plague the country, the main reason for Guatemala’s poverty - which I came to learn during my stay there - was their 36-year civil war that began in 1960 and only ended in 1996. I learned a lot about Guatemala while studying Spanish there. Like the classic American, I was very ignorant of the ups and downs of foreign countries or the foreign meddling of my country before visiting. So while I was there, I learned that the 36 year civil war in Guatemala was started by US intervention. Because in 1944, a government came to power in Guatemala that, for the first time in their history, bestowed equal rights to the native Mayan population. The Indians received social security, education, and labor rights for the first time since the Spanish conquest. Worker unions began to unite the Mayan Indian population with the rest of the peasant laborers in Guatemala, and their political power grew. And ten years later that same government started land reforms, attempting to force a government buy-back of land from the wealthy 2% who owned 72% of Guatemalan land. These are all things that we would cheer, today. But the largest landowner in Guatemala back then was the American-owned United Fruit Company - the company who eventually became Dole. As you might expect, the United Fruit Company complained about ‘creeping socialism’ to the US government, who subsequently orchestrated a military coup under a ‘communist threat’ that led to civil war. Over decades, a war that began with prejudice against the Mayan people became something classified as genocide, and through it all, we continued to provide military support, according to a United Nations report from 1999. My Spanish program was so very affordable because my country helped decimate the infrastructure and civil society of my host country for 36 years.
Socialism is still a word we use to scapegoat countries. And yet, when their people cross our border to have a better life, we call them law breakers.
Now, we know that Guatemala is not the only Latin American country that the US has meddled in. We can also draw lines from the American drug war to the strengthening of the weapons manufacturers and drug cartels, not to mention private prison companies and destruction of the lives of millions of Americans, mostly people of color. In 2014, in the course of working on racial justice, I learned about private prisons. Contrary to what I thought, not all prisons are operated by our government. A number of them, including immigrant detention centers, are operated by for-profit companies. And some of those companies have negotiated contracts with their state government to pay them at a certain capacity to guarantee their profit margin. The contract may say, ‘taxpayers will pay for 75% of the beds at this penal institution’, whether or not they have 75% of the beds full. And this creates an incentive to arrest, detain, convict and incarcerate more individuals, immigrants and - tragically- juveniles. This lobby for private prisons has been behind the scenes as we pass tougher and tougher crime and immigration laws. The forces that criminalize and incarcerate and detain make money - our taxpayer money - to carry out the penalties on people responding to the systemic forces we put into motion.
Our American system of law and punishment is literally letting companies make money off of human pain, trauma and carnage. And yet, we call those damaged people the criminals.
Whether it’s the communism or free trade or the drug war, a detailed look reveals how we are complicit in the forces that compel people to get up and leave their homeland today. We are unconscious participants in a system that is routinely stripping people of their livelihood, their homeland, and their dignity. If we look closely, we can see ourselves in their places. But too often, instead of a good look, we get shown a scapegoat. Just like Judas, there is an attempt to disguise the true nature of the system by blaming the individual and their ‘choice’.
Whether it’s calling them socialists when you really want to sustain your ability to profit from their land;
Or it’s calling them greedy workers when we caused their economy to collapse;
Or calling them gangsters and rapists rather than desperate people caught in a web of dangerous choices;
We are still playing the ancient game of scapegoating the innocent.
It’s Lent, so its an appropriate time to talk about when we’re complicit in the injustice in the world. Lent is the time when we examine our relationships to God, and how it is reflected in our relationships with other people and the planet. Lent is the time when we reflect, repent, and respond to our sins. So often as Americans we are given distractions, we are allowed to look away, we are encouraged to blame the scapegoat. This Lent, with the help of our guest speakers and our panelists, our readings and our documentaries, may we see more. This Lent, may our eyes be opened to see past the distractions; may we have the courage to look closer, and may we search beyond the scapegoat to the deeper truth.
And may we be compelled to respond to this truth, to respond to God, with our whole lives. May we be part of turning the world around. May we be part of the healing and reconciling with the scapegoats. May we be part of anointing the world for resurrection. Amen.