Sermon, April 10, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
We have now come to the climax of Lent. Weeks ago, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, brave and resolute, despite the danger that would confront him there. He knew that, in Jerusalem, they had a vested interest in they way things have always been and would not be as open to his teaching. He knew that Jerusalem had a history of killing its prophets. He knew that Jerusalem was the capital of religion, the home of the temple where the holiest of holies resided, the place where everything and everyone was guarded. He knew that Jerusalem was where the religious authority had jurisdiction over the people and allegiance with the Roman Guard. And yet he perseveres, brave and resolute, through the gates of Jerusalem. He knew what he had to do.
On the other side of the city, a very different procession entered through the opposite gates, one that more closely resembled what the people were used to. According to theologian Justo Gonzalez,
“Since time immemorial, conquerors claiming a city would enter it in a procession. In Rome, generals returning from exceptional victories were celebrated with a triumphus, a solemn procession where the victor exhibited the spoils of war, surrounded by the leaders of his armies, as well as by conquered kings and rulers and by numerous captives destined to slavery. The victor, wearing a crown of laurel, would ride on a chariot pulled by white horses (white being the color of victory) and would finally go to the temple of Jupiter to offer sacrifice. All along the way, soldiers and the citizenry in general would shout out acclimation and sing hymns in honor of the conqueror.”
Pilate, the icon of imperial power, rode through the gates into Jerusalem with his usual chariots, horses, and gleaming armor, making a statement to all he passed. He moved into Jerusalem in the beginning of Passover week to make sure the Jews’ celebrations or insurrectionist patriotism didn’t cause a ruckus - the image for strength, pride, and success in our culture. That is what we admire. That is what we have been conditioned to look up to. And yet, we follow the man on the donkey - the one who enters unarmed, without protection, offering only himself and proclaiming his inherent worth greater than all the trappings of war or power.
We’ve been on this journey with Jesus. We’ve been learning about those who are marginalized and outcast. We’ve been sympathizing with those who risk their lives for survival in a new place. We’ve been talking about journeys and entries into through real and metaphorical gates into cities, states, countries that hold the life you hope to live. We’ve been walking the way of the oppressed, putting ourselves in their shoes during their long and demoralizing journey. Sometimes the journey begins with running for your life or fighting past crowds at a mobbed airport, making your claim for sanctuary. Sometimes it involves a train ride across a border, the first step in a years long wait to restart your life. Sometimes you arrive by air, sometimes you arrive by water, sometimes you arrive by car, and sometimes you arrive by foot, through a desert.
Last week we finished watching Immigration Nation with the 6th episode which introduces a new aspect of our immigration situation: the Arizona desert. Since the Clinton Era, long before the Trump ‘wall’, border enforcement has strategically narrowed the border crossing options to the mighty dangerous waters of the Rio Grande River, or the deadly dehydration and disorientation of Arizona’s Sonora Desert. Those desperate enough to try entering the country this way must spend 8 to 10 days walking 75-80 miles across a rugged terrain of cacti and underbrush. The heat climbs to 110 degrees and there’s no way to carry as much water as you need for the journey, not to mention the other harm to your body. In 2010, while I was organizing with the immigration group ICIRR in Illinois, we organized a journey - a pilgrimage - to bring attention and garner sympathy for those who make this journey. Our walk began at a Catholic church on the Northwest side of Chicago and went for 53 miles to the Immigrant Detention Center in Woodstock, Illinois, just a few miles away from where I grew up. Over the course of 3 days, we walked along the roadside of Route 14, sleeping on mats in churches and stopping for meals in open fields. A band of travelers walking with only what we could carry on our backs, within 12 hours worn through the comfort of my shoes and my blisters had turned into open sores. On Day 2 we were between destinations, dodging cars on state highways not meant for pedestrians and wondering if we were still on the correct route. Our caravan dwindled to near or under a dozen sojourners. My parents arrived with a softer pair of shoes for my now painful feet. By Day 3, I was so emotionally exhausted that the only thing I could do was keep going. When we arrived at our destination later that afternoon, sunbaked, salty and not smelling all that pleasant, we were cheered to find hundreds gathered for our rally. We shouted into microphones about the inhumanity of the immigration system, hoping to be heard by all those incarcerated at the Detention Center - some of whom that had made a more harrowing journey, only to be pursued, arrested, and detained in handcuffs until they can be deported. At the end of my 3-day journey, when the rally concluded, my mother came and whisked me away from my fellow wrought and wrinkled walkers, in an air-conditioned car to a hot shower, a delicious meal and a soft bed - and most importantly, I didn’t have to walk much more for several days. Few who make such a journey have a similar plush ending.
We did many other things during those 6 months of pressing elected officials for some pathway, some hope, some sort of resolution for the 11.8 million people who were here, living, growing, studying, and undocumented. We kicked off with a press conference and launch of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, led by the fact that immigrants are twice as likely as native born Americans to start their own business. We brought thousands of people to DC by bus for a massive immigration march on the capital, bringing our voices directly to the halls of Government. And we held side by side suburban May Day Marches in the suburbs, mirroring the annual May Day Immigrant March in Chicago, to remind people in the suburbs that these immigrants were their neighbors, classmates and friends.
In the northwest suburbs, our rally was keynoted by a young woman who was the Valedictorian of her class. She led her entire class in academic achievement, and was offered a full scholarship based on her merit but couldn't go to the college of her choice because of her immigration status. And yet, in Illinois, we were lucky. In the early 2000’s, Illinois passed a law allowing students without citizenship who grew up in Illinois to get in-state tuition; prior to that, the tuition would be the international student rate - which would likely be impossible without the proper education visa. During that campaign I had 2 coworkers, incredibly hard working and smart leaders in this movement - who were undocumented, working full time as unpaid interns to raise awareness of their life situation.
Growing up undocumented in the US is a nearly normal life. You go to school and learn, play, grow like all the other kids. But at some point, there are limitations, there are shadows and omissions. There are field trips you make excuses about, traveling sports that you pretend you aren’t interested in. You sit through Drivers Ed, even when you learn that there’s no chance for you to get a drivers license. You learn how to manage this secret life, how to casually misdirect people in order to keep your secret hidden, playing it off with small lies and vagueries... The kind of shading and shadowboxing a young person might do when they flip the pronoun of their love interest to conform to the prevailing culture.
My two coworkers were two of the most hardworking and inspiring people I’ve ever worked with. They were brilliant, tireless, and American in every sense except their sense of entitlement. They lived in a state of uncertainty that darkened their hopes and dreams, and haunted their family gatherings. At any moment, a friend, cousin, or family member might disappear, caught up in the opaque web of detention and deportation. Your father might be picked up in a workplace raid; your mother might be pulled over for a broken taillight; your brother finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s it. You get a phone call that says, “I’ve been picked up by ICE” and not much more. ICE is infamous for not communicating the whereabouts of its detainees or their departure days. Once your loved one is in the bowels of the immigration system, you might not hear from them again until they are calling from Mexico or Guatemala or Honduras. And for some of these deported, those who came as children, they may have no memory, no support system or even poor language skills for the country of their birth. For these young people, we are the ones forcibly relocating them to a place they’ve never been in their memory.
For those deported, the only chance there is for reunification to try to cross, through the desert or the Rio Grande. And many who try, many more these days than in days past, perish in the attempt. This is the very real danger they live with every day; the danger of knowing that with every step they take, every journey they make, every gate they pass through, there is a chance that the machinery of Empire, the imperial powers of the state are a threat to their future.
By the end of my 6 months with the Immigration group, another campaign was brewing, one that took me by surprise. A coming out of the closet of sorts. Those young people, the ones known as Dreamers, the ones who have hardly known any home besides America, chose to take the risk. They set their faces towards a safer future, a future where they could have hopes, and dreams, and a family; a future they could build upon; a future where they didn’t have to live in fear. They began declaring themselves ‘Undocumented and Unafraid’; braving the actions of the state, determined to put everything on the line. Thousands of young people across the country rode into Jerusalem, into the arena of the Empire, offering themselves up, proclaiming their inherent worth to this country.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem, offering only himself. “He rides no war horse; just a lowly colt. He chooses to enter a deadly situation without force or protection. He gives himself freely and without reservation. This is his prophetic act, a sign of God’s vulnerable love, which risks everything and promises to gain all.” This is how God reaches out to the humanity of all - through the bravery and determination required to make oneself vulnerable. In contrast to all the imperial power and might that surrounds us, Jesus rides in on a donkey, showing us the fragility of human life. In contrast to the machinations of Empire that surrounds us, he takes the risk to lure us into the vulnerable humility of God. In contrast to all the powers of the state that surrounds us, these young people chose to make themselves vulnerable to show us their undeniable humanity and inherent worth. They knew what they had to do, and they took the risk.
Today, after service, we will have guest speakers who will offer some of their own personal experience of living undocumented in the US. If you can, I hope you will stay and listen to their experiences. The immigration situation has plagued our country for many generations, and I pray we find a way to compromise soon. But to know the names and faces of those caught in the crosshairs of our inhumane system is to turn our prayers into actions to bring about this change. Let us turn our faces towards Jerusalem and offer ourselves up for the betterment of God’s beloved people. Amen.