Immigrants, All

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Christ The King
November 20, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: When it comes to the reign of Christ, we are all immigrants.

It happened in New York City in 1996. Phones started ringing all over the city, in the wee hours of the morning. They were ringing in the apartments of undocumented aliens: those silent, nearly invisible people who empty the city's wastebaskets, bus the city's restaurant tables and sit at droning sewing-machines in the garment-district sweatshops. These were people who had come to New York to follow a dream: the beautiful, alluring dream of citizenship in the United States of America.

Some of these people had come on tourist visas; they simply never went home. Others had paid - handsomely - for a smuggler to convey them in - perhaps in a small boat, or wading across the Rio Grande, or crouching in the damp darkness of a shipping container.

They'd been working long hours, those undocumented laborers - and for very small salaries, always in cash. But they were thankful. Rarely did it occur to them that this was unfair, that they were being exploited, for they were in America, after all! They were working. They were saving their money. One day, they might even receive the greatest prize of all: a green card, the immigration document that would make them permanent residents - legal immigrants, at last.

Hossain had a business degree from a university in Bangladesh. He'd been working in New York as a bartender, all the while dreaming of the day when he could get financial aid to study computer science in an American college.

Uddin was a 32-year-old chef, also from Bangladesh. His plan was to save his money so he could open his own Indian restaurant.

Julie was a 42-year-old housekeeper from Trinidad. She dreamed of going home and seeing her five children for the first time in six years. Without a green card, though, she would never risk leaving the country, for she couldn't be sure that she could get back in.

That's what those frantic phone calls were all about, that January night in 1996. At the other end of those telephone lines were friends. "Come quickly!" each friend was saying. "Come to the immigration office. They're giving away green cards: 10,000 of them. Only 2,000 are left. If you don't come quickly, they'll be all gone."

And so it happened that, at 2, and 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning, great numbers of people turned up on street corners in all five New York City boroughs, frantically flagging down taxis. A veritable fleet of yellow cabs converged at the U.S. immigration offices in Manhattan.

When the would-be immigrants stepped out of their cabs, they found a huge line of over a thousand people snaking around the block. Those people looked like they'd come from every nation on earth. In truth, they had. Undocumented workers from all over the city had heard of the amnesty offer.

There was but one problem: there was not a single green card to be had. It was all a hoax, a wild rumor that had gotten out of control.

Like most rumors, there was a grain of truth to it. That very morning, the INS had been planning to take sign-ups for its annual lottery. There was plenty of time for aspiring green-card holders to put their names in. No particular need for haste, and certainly not for lines stretching around the block.

Representatives from the mayor's office showed up. They tried to tell the crowd they could go home: that it wasn't an emergency, that they could apply for the green-card lottery some other time.

But that was slow going. Undocumented workers are not noted for their high level of trust of government officials. Nor do most of them speak the language very well. It took the mayor's aides most of the morning to explain the real story: to convince that excited but highly suspicious crowd to believe them.

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," wrote the poet Alexander Pope. To an aspiring U.S. citizen, no hope croons more compellingly than the hope of a green card. Few things in life appear more attractive than the vision of themselves, some day in the future, taking the oath of citizenship.

A transfer of citizenship

It's a story that was played out in the lives of many of our ancestors. Most of the masses of immigrants processed through Ellis Island arrived in this country with no papers. They carried with them little more than a battered suitcase or a sack slung over their back - and not much money at all. Many had yet to learn English.

But still they came; so eager were they to have their citizenship transferred from one country to another.

Paul, in Colossians, chapter one, speaks of another sort of transfer of citizenship:

"[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

By the saving power of Jesus Christ, we have been transferred into God's kingdom. In so doing, we leave the kingdom of this world behind. Yes, we continue to dwell here in a bodily sense - and to make our mark on this world for good, the best we know how - but our true citizenship is elsewhere.

Advent is just around the corner, and that reminds us how much we Christians are out of sync with the rest of the world this time of year. That's the sort of thing that can happen when your citizenship is elsewhere! When the rest of society is engaged in a frantic, materialistic rush toward Christmas, that huge secular holiday, we'll be engaged in Advent observances. When the shopping-mall sound systems are crooning "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer," we'll be singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." We'll sing the Christmas carols soon enough - and we'll still be singing them for weeks after the holiday, even as secular society is glumly waiting in line at the department store returns department.

Someone has pointed out that, on New Year's Day, the secular year begins with a hangover and ends twelve months later with overindulgence. The Christian year, on the other hand, begins with the bright hope of Advent, and ends with the all-encompassing reign of Christ. A much more uplifting vision, wouldn't you say?

No more cheese sandwiches

Here's another immigrant story: this one from the heyday of American immigration, around the turn of the twentieth century. Its outcome is significantly happier than the great green-card rumor of 1996.

The Jansen family of Norway - father and mother and two young children - had booked passage on a steamship to America. They'd used up all their savings on the tickets. Sympathetic neighbors had given them bread and cheese for the journey, which they took with them into their accommodations in steerage - the humblest part of that mighty ocean liner, the Stavanger .

The parents calculated they had enough cheese and bread to last the ten-day journey. They were grateful for the simple food they had and figured they would find much better fare in America, once they got established.

About six days into the trip, the couple's young son, Ole, let it be known that he couldn't so much as look at another cheese sandwich. His father took pity on him. He gave the boy a few coins to go to the ship's store and buy an apple.

Two hours went by. Ole did not return. His parents grew worried. Mr. Jansen set out to find his missing son. Up and up he climbed, up each successive ladder out of steerage. With each flight of stairs, the surroundings grew more luxurious. Mr. Jansen felt more and more out of place.

Finally, after a very long time, he found Ole - in the grand dining room. There he was, seated at a table, surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of food: everything good you could possibly imagine.

"Ole, Ole," the father chided, "what have you done? I can't pay for all this food. They'll arrest me for sure, and send us all back home!"

"It's all right, Father," Ole replied, as he gave back the coins. "None of this food costs a thing. They told me it's included in the price of our ticket. We could have been eating like this the whole trip!"

How very much like us is the Jansen family, when it comes to our spirituality! Scripture assures us that, in Christ, we've been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into another country, yet we hardly live as though we believe it! We sit on the edge of our bunks down in steerage, sullenly munching on week-old cheese sandwiches: when all the while a rich banquet awaits, up on the main deck.

It's so easy to let cheese-sandwich thinking dominate our decisions in life. We look around at our situation and we see so much scarcity - when in reality, we've been blessed with more riches than we can possibly imagine. Many of us actually fear that we're about to slip into poverty any day - or, at the very least, view ourselves as members of the rapidly-shrinking middle class. An impartial observer would find either insight very hard to believe, from one glance at our Thanksgiving tables this coming week.

That sort of thinking extends to the less-material aspects of our lives as well. It's so easy to fall into poor talk when it comes to our work or our families or our relationships. We look around at our neighbors and account them as so much happier than ourselves. Vaguely we fantasize about life being better in some other place. We ask ourselves the infamous "What if ...?" question way too often.

The fullness of God - in Christ

"In [Christ]," writes Paul to the Colossians, "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." The Greek word for fullness - pleroma - is a rich one. It was often used, in ancient times, to refer to merchant ships heavily laden with cargo. It's the same word Mark uses as Jesus feeds the 5,000. When the miracle was all over, Mark tells us, they had 12 baskets of leftover fragments of bread and fish. Those baskets were full: pleroma . And Jesus, as Lord over all creation, reigns with a pleroma of grace.

The proper response to all this fullness - to this powerful experience of being rescued from darkness and emigrating to the realm of the Beloved Son - is to give thanks.

Most of all, we can be thankful for the gift of Jesus Christ and for his opening to us the kingdom of God, where our ultimate citizenship lies.

Truly we can be thankful that we live under the reign of Christ!

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