“El obrero merece su salario.”
A Sermon for the
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
July 7, 2019
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us
grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace
with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom,
help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our
communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy
Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
In the summer of 1985, I had completed my first year as a seminarian for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and was assigned to serve as the Director of the Greensboro Vicariate Migrant Ministry Program. I lived at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro, but the office was located at Holy Infant Church in Reidsville. It was an amazing experience—in so many ways a life-changing one. I spent a good deal of time driving in a beat-up car along the back roads visiting the migrants and learning about their lives.
Each Sunday afternoon, there was a Spanish Mass at Holy Infant. Various Priests from the Vicariate would come and preside and preach. In many cases, the parish in which they served would also come and bring a collection of food and clothing which the parish had assembled. And, they would provide a home-cooked meal for the migrants. It was a mini weekly fiesta. They were always a lot of fun.
Early one week, I received a surprise call from the Priest who planned to come that Sunday. In a very humble conversation, he shared with me that he was going to come that week because no one else was available. He admitted that his Spanish was pretty bad. He was willing to make an effort to “say the Mass” in Spanish, but thought that there was no point in even attempting to preach. He recognized that the needs of the migrants would not be served by having a sermon in English. So, he said, “I am willing to make you a deal. I will come and preside if you will preach.”
It was the last thing on earth I ever expected to hear! In those days, the formation program required five years of study–one year of philosophy and four years of theology. I had just completed the year of philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. I had not even had any “official” classes in Scripture or Homiletics. I felt completely unprepared! Then too, I had no idea what to say. I felt comfortable that I would be understood in Spanish but was not sure that I had anything to offer that was really worth hearing. The kind priest told me to give it a try. And so, I did.
God often surprises me by working things out in ways that I do not expect. The sermon for that day was from the tenth chapter of Luke. I honestly can not remember a single word that I said that day. I will never forget what happened during that inaugural sermon, though. All at once I saw that congregation in a shockingly different way. As I looked out at those familiar faces which I had come to know over the few weeks that I had served in that community, I heard those words from the Gospel and they spoke to me in a most powerful way: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”
It was as if my eyes were almost literally opened. I suddenly realized that those words, to me, were speaking about these people whom I had come to know, to admire, to love, and to respect. Many of them had shared horror stories of their journey from the middle of nowhere in Mexico to the middle of nowhere in the Piedmont of North Carolina.
They had shared stories of leaving behind everything and everyone they knew. They came to a new place—a place where they did not speak the language, were treated as sub-human, worked exhausting hours under the burning sun working in fields from sunrise to sunset. They took jobs which no one else wanted, lived in horrible conditions, and were paid very little. They did this to escape even worse situations at home—because they had to provide for their family. Or, because there was not work where they had lived before.
I suddenly realized that they were people of amazing and incredible faith. My own faith paled by comparison with theirs. They had literally done what the Lord said. They were able to bring nothing with them on a dangerous journey. And somehow, even without “purse, bag, or sandals,” they trusted that God would protect them and give them what they needed. I did not have that kind of trust in God. It was one of those transformative moments which completely changed my understanding of what ministry was all about.
I also realized that these were my Sisters and Brothers in Christ. They were members of my church—of my family. They had as much right to be present in that congregation on that day as I did—or as anyone else did—it was their church too! For them it was perhaps even more important to be there than it was for me. This was the one place where they were truly welcome and at home. Here they were not strangers, or aliens or foreigners. The fact that they were born in another country did not matter at all. I had a much clearer understanding of the universality, inclusiveness, and diversity of the “kingdom of God.” Suddenly things like national borders and boundaries seemed irrelevant and insignificant in God’s eyes—and in my own eyes as well.
As the summer progressed, I reflected on that gospel passage so many times! As I visited with the migrants—often in the evenings after the workday was over, I learned important lessons about hospitality and generosity. I was shocked to discover that my coming to see someone was a “big deal.” I was used to thinking that I was not all that important. For the migrants, though, I was “Padrecito,” or “el gordo.” And both of those terms were spoken with love—an endearment of the best kind because it was spoken with love.
They would so often stop whatever they were doing and throw together a meal. It might have been very simple—sometimes rice and beans served with fresh tortillas. But it was delicious! And they always made sure that I was served first—and had an ample serving. They had nothing! And yet, they delighted in welcoming me and in sharing whatever they had.
I came to realize that there was another passage from that Gospel that was just as important: “Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid”
These loving lambs, working among wolves in rural North Carolina and being shamelessly exploited—because they had no legal protection at all—were the very embodiment of peace. But that last line, continued to haunt me—I remember the words in Spanish, “el obrero merece su salario,” “the worker deserves his wage.” It was at that point that I really began to understand the reality of injustice and exploitation. It was at that moment that I became convinced of the need to work for justice! These long-suffering, hard-working women and men (in a few cases, families traveled together), were not receiving a just, fair, or equitable wage. And that was wrong. That was a violation of the Gospel as I heard Jesus speak those words to me so clearly.
As I advanced in my theological studies, I was exposed to the rich history of work for social justice in the Roman Catholic Church. I read several encyclicals from various Popes, written over a period of more than one hundred years. I read some of the writings of John Paul II. He spoke about the need for families to earn a “living wage.” In his vision, each family would find work that they were qualified to do, which allowed them to use their gifts and talents, and which would pay them enough for adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care and education for the family. They would not have to work two jobs or three jobs. They would have time to rest and to spend with the family. They would be treated with dignity and respect—and especially if it was a less than desirable job which no one else wanted to do. I got it. I knew that he was speaking about my migrants!
I completely understand that we live in the tensest political world that I can ever recall. People in our country are divided in a way that I have never seen before. The lack of civility and actual viciousness and “meanness of discourse” is unprecedented. I am not here today to speak about partisan politics. The Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, though—as Saint Paul might say, “impels me” to share with you what I hear God saying about the reality of migrants on our borders and in our country. To love you and to be sincere with you, I have to share that truth. You are free to disagree with me—and I respect that. But here is what I have come to believe to be true.
Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael Curry recently expressed his understanding of what God is saying to the Episcopal Church in these words: “’We are children of the one God who is the Creator of us all. It is our sisters, our brothers, our siblings who are seeking protection and asylum, fleeing violence and danger to children, searching for a better life for themselves and their children. The crisis at the border is not simply a challenge of partisan politics but a test of our personal and public morality and human decency.’
Even as I am preparing this text (on Wednesday evening) our own Bishop Kevin just sent us a letter in which he wrote:
“I write to you this day broken-hearted. Vulnerable people, especially children are being mistreated, neglected, and are, tragically, even dying at our nation’s border. What is happening at detention centers is inhumane, deplorable and counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who tells us, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Since being called as your bishop, I have gathered with so many of you. As we have renewed our baptismal promises, I am often indicted by the words “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” I have been struck by your commitment to the communities you serve and your generosity of spirit. I imagine as you see news of these tragedies occurring within our own country that you may be confused, hurt, and seeking ways to ensure all people, and especially vulnerable children, are safe, secure, and receiving the care that they need.”
He goes on to provide simple and direct ways in which we can individually and collectively make a difference:
- Partner with the Diocese of Texas to send supplies to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX.
- Support Immigration Ministries in the Diocese of West Texas.
- Join Partners in Welcome, an online learning and networking community from Episcopal Migration Ministries that works to support refugees and asylum-seekers.
- Learn more about immigration and refugee resettlement from the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations.
Bishop Kevin concludes with this appeal: “And I also encourage you to pray–pray for the people who are being detained, especially the children. Pray for those who are entrusted with providing care. Pray for the people who are ministering to them. Pray for our country and its leaders.
Let us continue to reach out in love and strengthen the bonds that unite us.”
Dear friends, let us truly be a community of prayer. Let us also be a community of action. The worker deserves a fair and just wage. The migrant deserves to be treated with love and respect—and with welcome! This is Wisdom. May we be truly attentive.