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A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, March 28, 2010

The Immigrant Dream and the Quest for a Promised Land

The spirit of God ahs sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release for prisoners, to comfort all who mourn, to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations, the devastations of many generations. They, you, shall be named ministers of our God.

—Isaiah 61 adapted

When I entered seminary, all those ages ago, it was my conceit I knew my way around spiritual literature, certainly better than most. That was, until I found I barely recognized the writers on my various reading lists. It turned out that for the most part I knew the popular literature moderately well. But I barely had a sense of the scholarly stuff.

It’s like there are two worlds in the realm of religious literature. That’s why when religious scholarship, totally mainstream in the academy, makes its way onto the general market; it can seem big time shocking. John Shelby Spong’s books, for instance, whose most recent title, I believe is Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell, is shocking as it may be, particularly as it comes from the pen of an Episcopalian bishop, simply reflects a meditation out of mainstream contemporary religious scholarship. Another example would be Bart Ehrman’s books, the most recent of which is Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). One wag describes Ehrman’s books as a series on the theme “how I lost my faith in God by becoming a Biblical scholar.” Well, that’s what tends to happen.

This is why when I was sitting in my New Testament survey course with a renowned scholar on the subject he could say, “Be careful. Know for everyone here.” He paused and cast a gimlet eye in my direction. “Well, everyone here, but Mr. Ford.” I was the lone Unitarian Universalist in a class that consisted eighty percent of candidates for the Episcopal ministry, and the balance, excepting me, were Lutherans, Congregationalists and Catholics, all seminarians. He cleared his throat. “For everyone here, with that exception, everything for which you will be rewarded in this classroom, you will be punished for when you go out into the parish.”

Sadly, I fear, he meant critical thinking, close examination of the matter at hand and following it through to its logical conclusions, no matter what the official pronouncements of Hierarchy or popular sentiment might be. Perhaps Spong and Ehrman are at the radical end of the scholarly spectrum, okay they are; but, really, not by all that much. The fact is the mainstream current of religious scholarship challenges the very foundations of orthodox Christian and Jewish faith. Actually we could just say challenges the foundations of pretty much any orthodox faith. Once there is a received truth that must be believed whatever the evidence might be, troubles begin.

Turns out what we were taught in Sunday school, few academic Biblical scholars believe. Possibly there is no more dramatic example than the early history of the Jewish people. When I arrived at seminary I had thought Biblical scholarship challenged miracles like the parting of the Red Sea; you know it was actually the reed sea and was shallow. Or, a bit later when Joshua’s army marched around Jericho blasting those horns and God causing the city’s walls to collapse; well, really just luck with a timely earthquake. That sort of thing.

But, actually, the scholarly community has a rather more radical consensus. So, right at the beginning, no Abraham. Okay, perhaps not such a big surprise. But, also, no Moses, no Passover, no Exodus, no invasion of the Promised Land. Rather more likely small bands of what for lack of a better term can be called Semitic peoples who for various reasons came to live in the hilly country of what is now Israel and Palestine, began to develop customs and stories, some of which were influenced by people who had escaped slavery in Egypt as individuals and small bands. Their stories would remain oral and have several currents until Babylon conquered the area and carried away the intelligencia, who while in that captivity put the stories together into what we now call the Pentateuch, which taken together, the Babylonian, not Egyptian captivity and the book they began to put together, more or less created a Jewish identity.

Actually everyone who has a religious agenda that collapses a “sacred history” into history is living in a glass house. I recall in my adolescence reading a science fiction story in which someone invented a device that could look into the past. One consequences was the death of every religion but Buddhism, and it was seriously, seriously reformed. It turns out scholars of religion have a rough version of that time scope, have had it for some years. And, yet, for various reasons their findings don’t tend to make it into the cultural mainstream.

The point here is that likely, probably, almost certainly there is no historical figure named Moses, no Egyptian captivity, and no Exodus. At this point there is no corroborative evidence for him or the story beyond the stories we find in the Bible. And these events are sufficiently large and there is sufficient history written down, it’s hard to come up with any other inference than what I’ve already described. As they say, deal with it.

That said we are at the eve of the most holy Jewish celebration, the Passover feast, celebrating the heart of that story. And, here we are, inheritors of that tradition, and we are celebrating it, today. And, and, and let me tell you, in my bones, how I identify with that story. The whole thing. That sense of subjugation, oh that sense of being under the heel of forces beyond me. Then that call from God to our liberation, personal and communal. And, how hesitant, fearful, backsliding, though they, though I might be; responding to that call, picking up everything we’ve got, and going for it. Going for the Promised Land. I learned that story at my grandmother’s knee. And I’ve never forgotten it. It is a map of liberation. It is, in the most important sense, true. Truest, true. We just need the eyes to see and the ears to hear. It’s not about history. Rather it’s about our lives, yours and mine. It’s about us as individuals, and us as we gather together into communities.

We are, all of us, living in bondage. And you should ask what is that bondage? For the answer for you, look into your heart, and you will know. And with that knowing comes a whisper from even deeper within, that points to the way out, a way through, a way to some genuine promised land. We learn about how we are both Pharaoh and Moses, the whole lot of them live within our hearts. It’s who we give power to that takes our lives in the many different possible directions. There is something about our human condition that this story addresses forthrightly, profoundly, and with many lessons along the way. It is amazingly true. It is about our most personal journey from hurt to healing.

And there’s another way its true. And, for the balance of our time I want to talk about the communal aspect, the social, the societal; about our relationships as human beings. The Passover story has much to offer us in that kind of reflection, as well. It points out who we are and what we might be, in some very practical ways.

I think of the accidents of history. We live in a world where almost half of us, some three billion people, live on about two and a half dollars a day. We, here, are part of the twenty percent of the world that possesses seventy-five percent of the world’s wealth. If you’re in this Meeting House, no matter how bad your situation economically, you’re doing better than almost everyone on this globe. And so, of course, for much of the world, we are the Promised Land.

I think of us, you and me, and how we’ve benefited from the way things are. I want to suggest that while pretty much everyone here has worked hard and without a doubt has what we have through much effort, there is also little doubt the circumstances that allowed us to flourish were given to us. That is our ancestor’s, speaking collectively, made the best of some opportunities that presented themselves. Our culture is entrepreneurial, experimental, and open to possibilities that together conspired to make us rich when others stagnated or collapsed. But, it’s so important to remember this; we did not choose our birth, our family or our nation. Rather if we’re here, it means we won a lottery; we won the big-time incarnation lottery.

And so as we hear this story of passage from bondage to freedom as being about us, about you and me, and we focus it on the way things are in our lived lives, we find there some serious challenges. We are not just the children of Israel. May I suggest once we become the leaders, the owners, the better paid, and the more fortunate in the great crapshoot of life, our passport tends to shift. It ceases to read “Israel,” and it, frequently, often, reads “Egypt.” We, you and I, and all of us in this country, we are at once, for many the Promised Land, and at the very same time, Egypt. Life is like that, messy. The good and the ill sit right next to each other, right at the center of our hearts.

I think about our history. We cannot turn away from the fact the whole thing was built upon the genocide of those who were here first. We cannot turn away from the fact some were carried here as slaves. And we cannot turn away from the fact that every wave of immigrants has suffered, one way or another, at the hands of those who came before.

And yet the truth is this country has become what it is because of those who came here, starting with the indigenous populations, then Europeans and Africans and now Asians all of whom eventually found this place their home. And who together, from Native American to European American to African American to Asian American, we all become American, and have in that coming together created something that might genuinely be called a Promised Land. And there is the conundrum. We are the Promised Land, and we are Egypt. Pharaoh’s hard heart lives easily in many of us.

If you want a concrete example, look at how we treat our most recent immigrants, most fleeing horrible conditions, and willing to come at any danger to themselves, and come whether it is legal or not. We now have an underclass that we treat as barely human. They work hard at the jobs, even today, that most others won’t take. But while doing our dirty work they must live in the shadows where they are exploited in the most terrible ways. The stories are long, and can break your heart. I will spare you those gruesome details, mainly because most of us know them already. But, as we recall the Passover feast, recalling both Egypt and the Promised Land, as we open our hearts to the suffering of people and their greatest dreams, let us make the hope real. I pray we will join with those who call upon congress to enact real Immigration Reform. In the coming weeks and months our Standing on the Side of Love committee will be helping us to find ways to do this.

We need to revisit the Immigration laws that have become so oppressive to so many. We need a humane way to deal with undocumented people living in the shadows. We need laws that equally protect citizen and immigrant workers. We need to keep families together and to end the reign of terror that has been mounted against the undocumented. We need to find compassion as well as self-protection, and we need to see how in the last analysis these people are ours, are us, are our living hope for the future. This is the work the Passover story, the real one, the one about who we are and who we might be, has called us to. We need to expunge Egypt from our hearts and to become the Promised Land.

That’s the true story. Or, it can be. History will tell whether we turned out to be the Promised Land, or Egypt. But what will be written, we own it, you and I, and all the people of this blessed place. There’s a dream for tomorrow, and our work for today. So, with all who mourn and who long, let us proclaim the Passover feast, let us call out next year Jerusalem! Next year, let us walk through the gate of Peace!

That is the Passover story.