A sermon on the topic of immigration.
In our Old Testament lesson from 2 Kings, one man has “twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack” and Elisha wants to use it to feed a hundred people. Elisha’s servant has strong doubts about Elisha’s mathematical skills - "How can I set this before a hundred people?" he said. Elisha replied, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, `They shall eat and have some left.'" And it was so.
Our gospel lesson from John tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand. A huge crowd had followed Jesus and now Jesus wanted to feed them. The disciples questioned this plan. Philip said, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." Andrew said, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" The details of this story are a little different from the one in 2 Kings, but the overall story is very much the same. People were hungry, there didn’t seem to be enough for everyone, but in the end all had more than enough.
Both of these stories speak about the ability of God to provide. These readings also touch on people’s fear of not having enough. Elisha’s servant and Jesus’ disciples saw the limited amount of food that they had and could not imagine any possible way of it feeding so many people. They must have been hungry themselves, I can picture them worried about giving away all their food. It’s not that they didn’t care about the other people, but that they couldn’t see how they could help themselves while being generous to the crowd.
This is a common human failing, and it does great damage to other people. Throughout history, people have placed many barriers up, intending to protect themselves and what they have by keeping other people down or far away.
In July 1938, the Évian Conference was held in order to discuss the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Representatives from 32 countries and 24 voluntary organizations met for 8 days in Évian-les-Bains, France. Jews in Germany and Austria were hopeful that countries would agree to accept more immigrants. Hitler even said that he would help the Jews leave if there were countries that would accept them.
The United States, despite having called for the conference, refused to increase its immigration quotas to admit more refugees. Other nations at the conference followed suit. State department correspondence reveals the US government’s cynical motive in calling the conference was specifically to forestall political pressure to liberalize immigration law.
In 1979, Walter Mondale described the hope represented by the Evian conference:
"At stake at Evian were both human lives – and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved. As one American observer wrote, 'It is heartbreaking to think of the ...desperate human beings ... waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian ... it is a test of civilization.'" (New York Times: Evian and Geneva by Walter F. Mondale)
Civilization failed the Jews. The Nazis viewed the outcome of the conference as justifying their own treatment of Jews, and it may even have contributed to shifting Nazi policy away from deportation and towards their horrific “Final Solution." With no place to go European Jews were trapped in their native countries, forced into concentration camps, and then slaughtered.
Why wouldn’t other countries accept more Jewish refugees? Undoubtedly, many people were bigoted against Jews. Many people disliked people of a different race and religion than their own. Many people were fearful of competition for jobs and resources, or assumed that the refugees, destitute after being robbed by the Nazis, would somehow drag them down. Today things aren’t very different. People are still fearful of letting in all the refugees who want to come. Millions of desperate people are trapped in their countries, not allowed to leave for a safer and better life.