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A Father’s Day Call to End ‘Zero Tolerance’ and the Separation of Migrant Families

June 18, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018

Ezekiel 17:22-26          Mark 4:26-34

I want to begin by thanking you, Will [Summers], for interpreting Jesus’ parables today with the children and sharing your joy in farming and the wisdom that comes from growing your own food at Stony Point. You share a language with the neighbors to whom Jesus first announced God’s kingdom. I will be focusing on a different aspect of these parables today. So, let’s get right into it.

Today is Father’s Day. More than anything else, I hope to spend this day with my son August, taking a long hike in the woods free from electronics, and phones, and other obligations. To spend time, just the two of us, talking and walking together. Building the bond of father and son, parent and child, cannot be taken for granted. As August enters adolescents, these times together are precious, and there is nothing in the world I would trade for them. I love my son.

Yesterday House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted, “My life changed the day I became a father. Liza, Charlie, and Sam are my highest priority. Wising all the dads out there a happy early #FathersDay.”

Well, I have no doubt Mr. Ryan’s love for his children is like mine for my own son.

But how the $#^*% [I swallowed the expletive]? . . . how does he square his love for his own children, and his experience as a parent, with the fact that

Under the Trump administration’s extreme “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which was officially announced on May 7, more than 1,300 immigrant children have been ripped from their parents while attempting to cross into the U.S. The stories from the border [as you know] are horrifying: federal agents allegedly taking away a mother’s baby as she was breastfeeding, asylum seekers listening to their children scream from another room, and a [father] killing himself after being separated from his wife and child.[i]


The photograph in the New York Times of a two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker about to be taken from her mother and placed in a facility where the staff (according to an interview) were “not allowed to comfort her” made my heart rage. I can hardly speak when I think of these parents not knowing where their children are being held or what they are experiencing, or the lifetime of trauma faced by these children housed in Walmarts and tent cities and in some cases cages that resemble dog kennels.

I will hold my own child close today, you better believe I will, and I hope you will attend to your family ties; but that is not an adequate response to the staggering crisis of our government separating immigrant families and placing isolated young children in detention camps. What we are witnessing a violation of human rights that demands our full attention. The administration is not just ‘enforcing the law,’ and extending the horrific deportation trends that were already in place during the Obama administration. It is changing the rules. The United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced ten days ago that domestic abuse or gang violence will no longer be considered legal grounds for asylum in the US, a decision that will endanger thousands of people attempting to seek safety from one of the most violent regions in the world.

In a press statement earlier this week, Jason Cone, the Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders said,

Every day along the migration route we treat and counsel patients from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who have survived the types of violence our organization usually sees in war zones. These people are legitimately in fear for their lives and cannot safely go back to their home countries. For many of the patients we’re treating along the migration route, [this] decision by the US Attorney General is a death sentence.

This policy is an extension of a ruthless pattern by the Trump Administration of targeting neglected and at-risk people, such as refugees, unaccompanied minors fleeing forced gang conscription, and women in need of lifesaving reproductive health services.

Cloaked in the rhetoric of national security, these policies are nothing more than callous acts that ignore international law and dehumanize people in need of assistance. They offer no greater safety for Americans. And they increase the dangers for many women, children, and men who will be driven back to face violence and abuse.”[ii]

“What has this nation become?” asked The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) during the opening of the General Assembly in St. Louis yesterday.

How have we wandered so far from Jesus’ kind admonition, “Let the little children come to me … for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”? How can this be happening in a nation in which so many claim the traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and the critical importance of families to the fabric of our lives together?

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of this policy is the willingness of the highest legal official of our nation to suggest that if a mother has fled violence in her own country to save herself and her children but has not had a chance to make a proper petition for safety in the U.S., she should be taught a lesson by having her children taken from her. It is almost incomprehensible that these acts should be used as a warning to others who would come.[iii]

The lesson we all ought to learn is that while we are treating these children like trash, God favors them. While Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites Romans 13 telling us to just shut up and behave for the authorities (which is a bad reading of that text anyway), he ignores the following verse where the Apostle Paul declares that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Throughout the Old Testament, our Bible pleads with us to care for the wandering aliens — that is, the undocumented migrants — precisely because they are defenseless. Exodus 23:9 says “You must not oppress an undocumented person; you know the heart of the undocumented, for you yourself are undocumented” and Leviticus 19:33-34 says “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” God promises to be the defender and avenger of the defenseless people: Sessions and Trump are literally fighting against God.[iv]

The New Testament is very similar: welcoming the vulnerable is welcoming Jesus himself. Not only is Jesus a descendent of a foreign refugee (Mathew 1:5), he himself was a refugee in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23). If the point isn’t clear enough, Matthew 25:37-40 hammers it home: God is present especially in the vulnerable, including the needy stranger, and when you refuse them, you are refusing Jesus himself (see also Hebrews 13:2).[v]

What is happening is illegal,[vi] it is immoral, it is cruel and unconscionable, it is evil. And to this administration we must say

In the name of God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Stop![vii]

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Jesus is drawing here from a deep well of political prophecy when he speaks of ‘trees’ and ‘the birds of the air that make their nests in branches. In Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4, the ancient empires of Assyria and Egypt are imagined as ancient cedars who provide rest for and home for all manner of birds. They are also reminded that if they fail to provide shelter and refuge to ‘the birds of the air,’ God will cut them down and the birds will make their nests in the rotting roots and fallen limbs of the once mighty trees. This, according to Ezekiel 31:14, to teach a lesson to arrogant rulers who abrogate their responsibilities. Ezekiel 17, our passage today, imagines an idealized ancient Israel as a sapling, a transplanted tree, which will grow into God’s people forming a just nation where the birds of the air can make their nests, where all people, all people, can find a home, safety, peace, and life. Psalm 104 imagines a time when a renewed creation itself will be filled with trees for the birds of air.[viii]

This week a cartoon circulated of the Statue of Liberty, with the caption:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
and I will put them in cages.”[ix]


The Presbyterian Church acknowledges that “The crisis of tens of thousands of desperate people coming to the United States for relief seems almost overwhelming. But as the officials of our government attempt to address the crisis, we cannot afford to tarnish the highest values of our nation. We must not punish desperate parents by tearing their children away from them, leaving the parents without access to the children or assurance of their welfare.”[x]

I finished by urging everyone to take immediate action by writing the Dept. of Justice demanding it rescind the ‘zero tolerance’ policy and the separation of families. This link was provided. We then sang, with conviction, hymn 100, “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout, for the World is About to Turn.”


[i] Amanda Arnold, “What you can do right now to help immigrant families separated at the border.” The Cut, June 14, 2018.

[ii] Doctors Without Borders, “New Asylum Restrictions a Death Sentence for Central Americans Fleeing Violence.” Accessed on Saturday, June 16, 2018.

[iii] The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, “Stated Clerk Issues Statement on Separated Immigrant Families.” Accessed on Saturday, June 16, 2018.

[iv] The previous two paragraphs are adapted from a Facebook post by Brennan Breed, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Columbian Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, in which he urged all pastors to preach on this topic today. With thanks.

[v] I added to Prof. Breed’s Facebook post this paragraph from an earlier article, “’Love the Alien as Yourself’: Trumps Refugee Ban and the Bible.” Huffington Post, Jan. 30, 2017.  

[vi] Joe McCarthy, “UN Accuses US of Human Rights Violations for Separating Migrant Families.” For Global Citizen. June 6, 2018.

[vii] The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA).

[viii] See “Political Prophecy (Mark 4:22-34)” in Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus (Fortress Press, 2006). See also Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Insurrection of the Crucified: The ‘Gospel of Mark’ as Theological Manifesto. (Exploration Press, The University of Chicago, 2003).  

[ix] There were many images like this circulating. The text I cite was circulating with another image, but I reproduce this one because it includes the sentiment in the photo itself.

[x] The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 18, 2018 1:44 pm

    Congress can and should act to change the law. They can override a veto and stop this quickly.

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