Rev. Scott Summerville

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…” Isaiah 61:1

Yesterday was International Migrants Day. Some of you are immigrants to this country. All of us are descendants of immigrants to this country. Every one of our lives is affected every single day by the services provided by recent immigrants.

They serve at every level of society, and the newest and poorest immigrants serve at the bottom of the economic ladder: they wash the dishes and the clothes, they provide child care, they sweep up the leaves, cut the grass, dig the trenches, and paint the houses; often they take on work that is dangerous or would be considered unpleasant to those who have other choices. Even when we speak of illegal immigrants, the vast majority of these individuals are not criminals or threats to wider society; the vast majority are desperate and hard-working. They are often so desperate and so hard-working that they become victims of exploitation. When they are taken advantage of or abused, they are less likely and less able to seek justice.

In the story that is about to be told in the Christmas pageants of countless churches, we will remember that Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus, were themselves immigrants for a time; dwelling in the land of Egypt when King Herod threatened the life of the Christ Child. They found sanctuary in Egypt; they were refugees. They remained there until Herod died and they could return safely to Israel. Fortunately they were not deported, or the Christian story would have had a very different ending.
In our church and in most Christian churches the words of the prophet Isaiah are read throughout the season of Advent.
Isaiah 7:14 … the Lord … will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’uel.
Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah 40: [1] Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.[2] Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. [3] A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. [4] Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. [5] And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

We connect the words of Isaiah to the way that we understand Jesus as Messiah, as savior. We usually focus on the words of Isaiah that sound soothing to our ears; the words of comfort, the words of peace. But along with the words of comfort and peace spoken by the prophet there is the word of justice. In fact, in Jewish tradition, which we embrace as our tradition, the main thing that the Messiah brings is justice. In the tradition of the prophets of Israel the Messiah’s main purpose is to set things right in this world, with particular emphasis on securing justice for the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah 11:
[1] There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [2] And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. [3] And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.

The Messiah does not bring gifts. The Messiah brings justice.
Yesterday our church conducted its annual meeting, which is normally presided over by our District Superintendent. This year the Superintendent sent a substitute and asked to be excused from our meeting, so that he could join our bishop, in a vigil in lower Manhattan, at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Varick Federal Detention Facility on Houston Street. Methodists were there from our annual conference, and from the Methodist Board of Church and Society, from the women’s division, the Korean caucus and others groups. The vigil called for a moratorium on the raids, detentions and deportations that have disrupted families and terrified the lives of countless immigrants.

We must find a way to resolve justly the condition of illegal immigrants in this country, those held in detention and those who live on fear of arrest in the night; and we need to do so in a way that recognizes the need for proper security at our national borders, but recognizes that these people are here largely because they provide a service in our complex economic system – they are paid to be here. Enormous profits are made from their labor. They are not the enemy.

Today we heard these words from the book of the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 61:1, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”

Christmas is about the comfort of God – the good news of God- for hurting people; and it is about the justice of God- the good news of God for those who have the short end of the stick in this world. There is a second vigil taking place this weekend: Two young men, Rommel and José Sucuzhanay, were on their way home from a bar in Brooklyn a week ago, when they were suddenly set upon by a car load of strangers. Rommel and José were walking arm in arm as brothers; according to Rommel who survived the attack. He said the men shouted anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs, as they descended upon them. Until yesterday José was on life support, declared to be brain dead, as his parents were en route from Ecuador. Last night the family announced that he had died. His brother is lucky to be alive.

The police are investigating the crime against these two brothers as a hate crime. This afternoon in Brooklyn a coalition of organizations will hold a vigil for José and for all who are victims of hate crimes. One of the groups participating in the vigil will be Methodists In New Directions, also known as MIND, an organization which members of our congregation helped to establish two years ago.

Intolerance breeds violence.

Prejudice breeds violence.

The path to shalom, the way to God’s peace, is the path of knowledge and understanding. It is a good thing that church leaders are standing up and speaking out for immigrants in this country. This helps to break down the atmosphere of prejudice and intolerance. When churches condemn gay people and deny them their rights, the church is contributing to an atmosphere in which some will turn to violence. Our church leaders need to be just as strong in working against prejudice against people based on their sexual orientation.

Next Sunday the children will act out for us the story of Jesus’ birth. Seeing the pageant and then gathering on Christmas Eve in candlelight and singing the songs of the Savior’s birth- this is for many of us the sweetest time. As we drink in all that is sweet and that is hopeful in this time, as we taste the comfort of God in the celebration of Christmas, we also remember that the Savior comes to bring bread for the hungry, to restore rights to the victims of injustice, and to remember those whom the world forgets.
The first sermon Jesus gave that we have any record of, is described in chapter four of the gospel of Luke, where it is written:
Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

That is the savior whose birth we proclaim.

Shalom, salaam, Grace and peace to you.