Love: One Georgia Mayor’s Response to Immigrants

Came across a story on CNN about Paul Bridges, the “conservative Republican” mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, who’s been speaking out against the new Georgia law that makes it a crime to provide humanitarian aid to undocumented immigrants. Bridges is just a laid-back Christian guy from the country who happened to bump into a Hispanic couple outside a grocery store 12 years ago. He saw them carrying heavy grocery bags on foot so he offered them a lift to their house in his pickup truck. When he saw that 30 people were living in two broken-down trailer where they lived, he decided to go back with some lasagna to share with them. One thing led to another until he ended up visiting his immigrant friends in Mexico and then coming back to get trained as an English as a Second Language teacher. Now they call him Don Pablo and he’s part of their community.

This guy reminds me a lot of my great-uncle Walter who used to have a watermelon farm down in Premont, south Texas where he employed undocumented immigrants almost exclusively. Walter has spoken so much Spanish in his life that on the rare occasion he talks in English like when his brother Ralph and great-nephew Morgan come to visit, he has a thick Mexican accent. I remember going to see him one summer a few years ago when Texas was contemplating an anti-humanitarian-aid law. Walter kind of teared up talking about it and said, “I don’t give a damn if I go to jail. How’s the law going to tell me I can’t help them?”

Being a pastor in one of the few churches I know about where conservatives and liberals are able to worship together side by side, I really want to be careful about how I talk about controversial issues like this in public. I can totally understand where people are coming from who are angered by a government that doesn’t enforce its laws. Their anger at governmental dysfunction is absolutely legitimate and it’s completely unfair to call that racism. I also understand people saying that we need to have tightly regulated borders both for security reasons and for economic reasons. That’s perfectly reasonable.

Having studied the issue extensively, I do have to confess that I feel pretty strongly that the current immigration system is unfair (check out this helpful illustration of the current process if you’re interested). It also has been frustrating to me to see the statistics of how the US trade agreement NAFTA destroyed millions of jobs in the Mexican agricultural industry and pushed workers into migrating (see article). To be fair, there are reasons why we’re stuck with the immigration system we have and they’re not completely cynical (a fair immigration system would require a lot more overhead on the part of the government, for instance). Also some economists challenge the argument that NAFTA caused illegal immigration. So I can respect the fact that decent people are going to disagree with me on this issue.

However, just like Paul Bridges and my uncle Walter, I have spent enough time among undocumented immigrants to view some of them as part of my family. That’s why I cannot accept the way some people try to moralize this issue and say that undocumented immigrants are evil and sinful. It would be profoundly ungrateful for me to say that it’s sinful for people born on the south side of a river in the desert to cross that river to the side that I was born on so their children could have the same chance of a decent life that I do. I have privileges that I did not earn, so who am I to say that another person doesn’t deserve them because of where they were born?

As with a lot of other issues, you feel differently when you actually know people whom the issue concerns instead of thinking about it completely according to abstract principles. It’s very natural and entirely Christian to wish for the well-being of people you care about, even if they’ve broken the law. God’s law is to love your neighbor as yourself. When God’s law conflicts with human law, we should follow God’s law. Whatever else is true, I know that as a Christian, I belong first and foremost to the kingdom of God. My allegiance to American laws is subordinate to my allegiance to God and is only relevant insofar as it serves the purposes of God’s kingdom. I follow the law of the land because to do otherwise in most cases would be to blaspheme the name of the God I’m supposed to represent and harm my witness to others as a Christian.

With respect to God’s kingdom, I am an illegal alien washed clean by the Rio Grande of my baptism and legalized only by the unmerited amnesty of Christ’s blood, which is my green-card. None of us are not illegal aliens in God’s kingdom because none of us deserve to be there, but the only way to forfeit the heavenly citizenship God freely offers us is to live as though we are the kingdom’s rightful citizens and don’t need Christ’s amnesty. When I judge undocumented immigrants for chasing after privileges I have that I do not deserve any more than they, I am acting like the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable and cultivating a presumptuously ungrateful attitude that is eternally hazardous.

God bless Paul Bridges for his beautiful Christian witness! I disagree with the current immigration laws myself, but you don’t have to abandon your belief in even those laws to love unconditionally the people that break them.

Chasing the Seat of Honor

Sermon for 8/25/2010
Text: Luke 14:1, 7-11

Raise your hand if you like riding shotgun. When you’re out riding around with a bunch of teenagers, “Shotgun!” is the first thing they shout out when walking out of a restaurant or ice-cream parlor. Once somebody has called shotgun, the next thing that gets yelled is “Window seat!” The seat of dishonor is the middle seat. We had a name for it when I was a teenager that I can’t say in church.

Shotgun is the first thing that came to mind when I thought about the “seat of honor” Jesus is talking about in his parable. With the exception of wedding receptions, our culture doesn’t pay a lot of attention to where our guests sit when we have them over for dinner. We’re so busy that it’s an ordeal even to invite people over for dinner in the first place. Maybe some people have enough chairs in their households to call one of them the seat of honor, but when Cheryl and I have people over, everybody just walks around grazing and mingling.

In ancient Roman culture, the seat of honor at a banquet of the most prominent local leader was the highest social prize that could be achieved. Honor was the reason to be a brave soldier, to be honest in your business, to be easygoing at parties but firm in enforcing the law. Honor was the goal of all of Rome’s public virtues. And it makes sense that Romans would center their lives around honor: in a world without the grace of Jesus Christ, what else is there to live for?

It wasn’t enough in the Roman world to be rich and powerful, because if you had these things without honor, then people wouldn’t invite you to their banquets and, if it got bad enough, they’d plot against you like they did to Julius Caesar. Honor meant that nobody from the top to the bottom of society could think of anything bad to say about you. As an honorable paterfamilias, you were expected to be generous to your servants and the other poor, not to raise them up to your level but to care for them as a father would his children. Generosity was central to
Roman virtue, but it was generosity with an agenda. You built power by lavishing gifts on powerful people and throwing parties in their honor.

In some ways, our culture is more Roman than the Romans themselves were. The reason we don’t have time for banquets is because we spend all our time pursuing an abstract seat of honor without even realizing that’s what we’re after. In a world without banquets and lavish gift-giving, what we pursue is not so much a good rapport with our neighbors but achievement measured by objective markers such as our career ladders and which colleges our kids get into. When our lives are divided between our kids and our careers, there’s not a whole lot of time left for loving God and loving our neighbors. In fact, it’s easy for church attendance to become just another achievement, part of what we’re supposed to do to raise our children right and live respectable, middle-class lives.

Add to our achievement-oriented culture the fact that the visible seats of honor in our world go to those who live inside the screens we look at every day on the Internet or television: in other words, the rock stars, the supermodels, and the professional rabble-rousers. This creates some very unhealthy phenomena, particularly for people my age and younger. Growing up in the MTV generation, I and so many other people my age have always thought that we were supposed to be rock stars when we grow up. When we end up just being regular people with regular jobs, it feels like we’ve failed somehow.

Younger generations have it even worse. With reality TV, American Idol, myspace, and facebook, the obsession with celebrity has escalated exponentially. Our pop culture spins out the lie that anyone can be a celebrity and everyone should live like one, so young people walk around with oppressive checklists in their brain: Are the clothes I wear sexy enough? Are my jokes funny enough? Do I sprinkle just the right amount of sarcasm into my conversations? Do people think I’m too needy to be their friend?

In short, Jesus’ advice is even more relevant today than it was in Roman times. We live in a culture whose defining characteristic is chasing after seats of honor. What’s your seat of honor? Are you still hoping to be a rock star one day? Perhaps you’ve grown up a little more than I have. Maybe it’s time the army made you a major. Maybe your law firm needs to make you a partner. Maybe your daughter needs a seat of honor in next year’s freshman class at UVA (or Virginia Tech if she doesn’t get in). I’ve got a seat of honor for my son Matthew. It’s called the potty! And if he’s going to Burke preschool next month, he’s going to have to sit on it.

But the problem with worrying so much about the seats of honor we seek for ourselves and our kids is we forget what’s really important – when I get all bent out of shape about keeping my sons on-track with all their pediatric milestones, I forgot to be Daddy. When I’m focused on making sure my son does the things that will bring me honor, I’m distracted from doing the things that give him honor so that he can grow up in self-confidence and emotional security.

See, honor isn’t a bad thing in and of itself any more than banquets are. What Jesus does in his parable is to lay out a completely different understanding of how honor should be used and whom we should invite to our banquets. To his audience of Jewish aristocrats living under the same basic social rules as the Roman Empire, you honor people at your banquets so that they’ll honor you at their banquets. And Jesus says, “Not in My kingdom!

Instead of inviting socially useful people to your banquets, invite people whose friendship will gain you nothing in the world – the poor, crippled, and lame, even if they say and do things that embarrass you. Why does Jesus say it will bless us to hang out with rejects and outsiders? Perhaps because spending time with people who grate against our social sensibilities can liberate us from worldly concerns that we don’t need to have.

I need to confess that this is an area where God really took a shot at me this week. Two Thursdays ago, I went to a local homeless shelter called the Lamb Center to preach a sermon. I always get pumped up about hanging out with homeless people because theirs is a world of really raw spiritual conversations we don’t often get to have in “our” world. In the course of one of these raw conversations, one of the homeless guys asked me for my business card, saying that he was going to organize a revival for me to preach at.

It felt harmless to give him my card, but then he started calling me last week and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. I worried that I had agreed to something that would cause me embarrassment. I wanted my homeless friend to stay in his world, and let me have my mission experience on my terms, leaving me alone in my world when I was done. But God confronted me and told me I’d better call my homeless friend back if I wanted to preach this sermon. So I called him, but only after realizing how far I still have to go in letting go of worldly concerns.

God used my struggle to show me that my need for the world’s honor is what prevents me from honoring others the Jesus way. We cannot follow Jesus’ way if we use our honor strategically like investors looking for a good return. Jesus commands us to honor people not because they deserve it or if they can be useful to us but simply when they need affirmation to know how much God loves them.

When we look at what Jesus has to say about honor, it helps us better understand his declaration that “the greatest among us must be the servant of all.” He’s not saying that the greatest person is the one who logs the most community service hours. If I go to the homeless shelter to get my mission fix and treat people there in a condescending way, I’m doing nothing to help them or myself.

When Jesus says we must be like servants, he’s not talking in terms of what we do for others but the attitude we have towards others. Servants had no dignity in the Roman social hierarchy. The greater a Christian I am, the less I care about my own dignity, which frees me up to honor others who have lost their dignity. If I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, that means I trust that His death on the cross is good enough and I don’t need to prove that I deserve the world’s honor. Jesus put Himself through the world’s dishonor to show me that whatever dishonor I face, He is standing right there with me, and every piece of dirt that gets kicked in my face is kicked in His face also. The further into God’s kingdom we grow, the less we care about the dirt the world kicks in our face and the more we care about honoring the people the world has kicked into the dirt.

There was a point in my life when I needed the seat of honor. In October of 2003, I left Saginaw, Michigan, to go back to my parents in North Carolina a broken man. I didn’t think I had a future. For months, I barely even left my room except for once a day when my mother and I would take a walk around our neighborhood. Every day, we had the same conversation. She gave me the seat of honor with her patient listening, and God used her to put me back on my feet and to show me what grace means. Now what I want to do with my life is walk around the neighborhood with people who think their life is over, and give them the seat of honor by listening to the same conversation over and over again until they get strong enough to go out and do the same thing for other people.

If you need my seat of honor, you call me anytime. Jesus died so we wouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help. However, if you’re stuck in the habit of chasing after the world’s honor, trying to be a rock star or have the perfect career or raise the perfect kids, step back from that world and into the kingdom of mercy where you can live without all that pressure and become the person God created you to be.

If you’re ready to experience the amazing fulfillment of letting God use you to honor the people God wants to love, then what Jesus says is “the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few.” There’s plenty of room in the fields to sow the gospel, and God wants you to feel the joy of doing it. The true seat of honor belongs to God alone, without whom no good that we do is even possible. What a gift that our God is willing to use even us to share this honor with all who need it. Amen.