Human Rights Shabbat Sermon

December 9, 2017
Human Rights Sabbath at the Jewish Community of Amherst
Rev. Vicki Kemper, First Church Amherst

It is Written

Torah portion: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

Shabbat shalom.

It is written that when Jacob wanted to know how his older sons were doing as they shepherded his flocks, he summoned his son Joseph.

It is written that Joseph answered his father’s call and left his home, traveling far into the wilderness to seek after his brothers’ welfare. When one of the locals saw him wandering in the fields, Joseph said, “I am seeking my brothers”.

It is written that when Joseph finally found his brothers, they plotted to kill him. Ultimately they sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, but they told their father he had been killed by a wild animal.

That should have been the end of the story, if not the end of Joseph. But it is written that Yahweh accompanied Joseph and showed him steadfast love. And so it was that many years later Israel and his sons and their families survived a severe famine and flourished, generation after generation—all thanks to the merciful intervention of the one they had despised and cast out.

Or so it is written.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[i], it is written that all human beings are siblings, that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It is written that no one should be held in slavery or involuntary servitude, that no one should be subjected to torture or cruel punishment, that no one should suffer arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. The declaration goes on to enumerate specific human rights and protections, but the gist of it is that every human being is worthy and that we are all responsible for ensuring that basic rights are upheld and freedoms guaranteed for all. In a world of great suffering, unending violence, and untold cruelty inflicted by siblings against siblings, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seeks to establish a common understanding of, and commitment to, the welfare of all humanity.

The United Nations proclaimed the declaration in 1948, and it has since been translated into more than 500 different languages. But long before the Declaration of Human Rights was put forth, several thousand years earlier, similar guidelines were written in the Torah and proclaimed by the prophets.

Your Hebrew Bible contains no fewer than 36 different commands to extend hospitality to the stranger, and still other passages spell out what that means. It was, as you know, because the Israelites had themselves been aliens in Egypt, because they had been delivered from slavery, that they were commanded to have compassion on the strangers in their midst, to create a society based on love and justice, a system that included entire cities of refuge for people on the run.

So it is written.

I thank you, Rabbi Ben and all of you, for welcoming this stranger into your Human Rights Sabbath. I am honored and blessed to be here with you on this holy day.

I also want to thank the Jewish Community of Amherst for your support of First Church Amherst as we provide physical sanctuary to Lucio Perez. Thank you for your moral support, your public support, your financial and logistical support. I am grateful to all of you who have provided meals to Lucio and the many of you who are accompanying Lucio with your physical presence—sometimes for four-hour stretches during the day, other times for 12-hour shifts overnight.

While we at First Church are providing a physical space for Lucio, and we bear the ultimate responsibility for his safety and well-being, sanctuary is both a community effort and a community-building enterprise.

Thank you so much for being part of it and making it possible. We couldn’t do it without you.

It has been 53 days since Lucio left his family and took sanctuary at First Church. I want to tell you a little bit about Lucio and what the sanctuary experience has been like for all of us, and I will also try to answer some of your questions. After almost two months, the logistical challenges are significant, and I feel like every day is a new learning.

But first let’s try to put what is happening in some context. We live in a world where 60 million people have been forced from their homes by war, violence, drought, or other natural or human-made disasters. The number of refugees around the world is now greater than the populations of California and Florida combined—and that doesn’t include the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our own country. We live in a country founded by immigrants who persecuted the natives nearly unto extinction. We live in a time in which entire categories of people are being thrown away, rejected, cast out, sold into suffering and slavery, consigned to poverty and disease, deported to danger. We live in a political environment that drives many of us to despair, and we live in a Happy Valley filled with salt-of-the-earth progressive people raring to resist, desperate to make a difference, hungry for heroes in the struggle.

I understand and share those feelings. And yet the more I learn about offering sanctuary, the more I learn about Lucio and his family and their lives, the more I am convinced that sanctuary is not, and must not be, about us. An announcement of sanctuary is less to be celebrated than mourned; it represents a gross moral and political failure to uphold human rights. Even as sanctuary seeks to create refuge, even as it seeks to provide time and pressure for a different outcome, it breaks up a family and virtually imprisons an immigrant within the four walls of a religious institution. It is heartbreaking.

Now, don’t get me wrong. For those of us with citizenship, papers, and privilege, those of us able to walk out the church doors into sunshine or snow, providing sanctuary has been an energizing, empowering, and relationship- and community-building experience. Some of the people involved tell me they have never felt more alive. It is a mitzvah of the highest order. It is a critical moral and political response to the injustices of our time. But sanctuary is not about us.

Our sanctuary is about Lucio and his family, about their deep love for one another and their simple lives, about their basic and universal human rights to live together with security and without fear. Lucio has chosen love over freedom. He lives by faith and puts his hope in God. He is forced to depend on strangers and trust that a new lawyer will somehow be able to wring some justice out of the very system that put him in his situation.

It is hard. Very hard. And we work every day to make the situation better for Lucio and his family, to provide them with more opportunities to be together, to give them more financial support, and, perhaps hardest of all, to give them choices about how to navigate this difficult time.

In preparing to be with you today, I struggled with whether to bring an angry political word or an inspiring moral word. In the end, considering that you know far more than I do about the sanctity of human rights and the slippery slope that leads from persecution to genocide, I chose simply to give you some things to think about. Even as we at First Church remain committed to providing sanctuary as a faithful response to the evils and injustices of our world, even as we delight in getting to know Lucio and his family, we feel an awesome responsibility for the well-being of our brother.

And relationship, in the end, is what must drive us. More than politics, more than history, more than law or policies or declarations, we are brothers, sisters, siblings, all. My faith tells me that the highest, most powerful, form of resistance is love: love of God, love of our neighbors and ourselves, love of our enemies, love in action. My faith tells me that it is in loving the stranger that I will encounter the holy and divine, that I will be transformed and healed.

If we offer sanctuary for some in-your-face political gratification, we will be disappointed. If we jump on board the latest activist bandwagon looking for excitement or glory, we will burn out. Only love and faith and community will sustain this holy work.

A few nights ago the church hosted a simple supper and reflection time to mark the beginning of the Christian season of Advent. It is a time of waiting and preparation for something good and new and holy to break into the world and into our lives. It is a season that honors our longings, and we spent some time reflecting on and sharing our hopes for ourselves and the world.

Lucio, the brother whom our country would cast out, the brother who longs for family and home, freedom and security, work and the capacity to care for his loved ones, listened intently to our sharing. He encouraged the man living with Alzheimer’s to have faith, he made the woman longing for joy burst into laughter, he amazed us all with his testimony about a marvelous God.

It is written that God loves the stranger. It is written that after God accompanied Joseph with a steadfast love, the brother who had been rejected went on to save his people. It is written that love and faithfulness will meet, that justice and peace will kiss each other.

We don’t know how Lucio’s story will end but we are writing it as we go. Longing for justice, working for dignity and human rights, we are writing in hope, writing with love and faith, writing together.

[i] You can read it and read about it here: