Inheriting the Land


Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

July 5, 2020


Texts: Amos 6:1–8; Matthew 11:16–19

     This month will be a test, a real test as to who can claim – or live and farm in the Jordan Valley. The Valley is a 620-square-mile region that buffers the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan and moves westward toward Hebron, a city with a fractured past and present, like much of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley accounts for about a third of the land under the Palestinian Authority. 

      Netanyahu said he would begin annexation this month but wants the approval of his Defense Minister Benny Gantz who opposes unilateral annexation and wants the approval of King Abdullah II who says that such annexation would result in a “massive conflict” with Israel. 

       “I was born on this land,” said 71-year old Abdel Rahman Bisharat, a Bedouin, who lives in a tent at the end of a rocky road because Israeli authorities refuse him and other Bedouins building permits. He fears being driven out with the rest of his family. From his tent he can see a new settlement holding 6500 units. They have electricity and water but his water is so limited that he can just barely keep his herd of sheep watered and fed. Israel does not recognize Bedouin “unorganized villages.” 

      Amos was never one to mince words. “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion . . . who lie on beds of ivory and eat lambs from the flock.” When one nation occupies land, it also occupies people. The Israeli Army has already set up concrete blocks and gates so that people from the West Bank cannot access the Valley that includes people who have farms there. Each group says I was here first. When do we measure “first?”

      In some sense, we are the second children. We came to this land inhabited by others and seized what we considered to be our birthright. Whether it was John Winthrop speaking of a city on a hill or Jefferson writing on the rights given us by nature, we have taken the idea of birthright as granted to us as citizens of the United States. We even have a term to describe our rights: birthright citizenship. It is encapsulated in the ditty, “My mom’s a Pole, my Dad’s a Swede, but I was born here; that’s all that I need.” 

      This concept of birthright citizenship actually was first expressed by our English ancestors in the year 1010. It then became enshrined in the Magna Carta, and codified in the Constitution. There are some no-nothing groups that now want to destroy that right, claiming that the U.S. born children of so-called “illegals” should not be considered citizens. Long before the 14th Amendment, anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen.

      That would take away over a thousand years of tradition and law, derived in part because of the insanity of what happens when citizenship is separated from birthright, such as in Germany and France so that people born in a country even to the third generation are not citizens of that country. 

Scripture tells us we can lose our birthright, as in the case of Reuben, firstborn of Jacob, who because he “defiled his father’s bed” by laying with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. John Winthrop in his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” also tells us how we can lose the birthright we claim as Americans. 

      We will be a city on a hill, he told the new colonists, for all the eyes of the world to see. In order to meet our grave responsibilities, we must follow the counsel of Micah, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. “Before us is set life,” Winthrop continued, so let us choose life that we and our seed may live, by obeying God’s voice and cleaving to God.” To do less will destroy our claim to birthright.

      Keeping our birthright, the one we claim and celebrated yesterday is not an easy task. We must struggle to keep it. If we but look at the document signed two hundred and forty-four years ago, we read certain complaints against King George, including the following: obstructing the administration of justice, endeavoring to “prevent the population of these States . . . [by] obstructing the laws for the Naturalization of Foreigners,” entering houses without warrants, transporting people beyond the seas to be tried for pretended offenses, in many cases abolishing trial by jury, and, of course, the infamous act of quartering troops. Unfortunately, among these complaints we see certain similarities today. 

      If we look at the creeping expansion of government power over our lives, ostensibly in the name of national security, especially since September 11, we have little choice but to realize that many of our cherished birthright freedoms are at risk. Just look at the Patriot Act, now called the USA Freedom Act, reauthorized by Congress this past May. Sixteen Senators had the courage to vote against it. They came from such diverse places as Hawaii, Oregon, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Washington, and Massachusetts. Neither of our two New Jersey Senators had the courage to vote against it. 

      Just look at what can be done under the Patriot Act: without a warrant and without your knowledge, your home or business can be searched. You can be charged for a crime and if the charging authority decides it is in the interest of national security, you will never even see the evidence against you. You can be held indefinitely if you are determined to be an enemy combatant, a term so loose that it could include anyone who opposes any aspect of government policy.  But, we say, these are measures to be used against those who would harm us, not against us. But who makes that determination?

       In the musical 1776, John Adams sings: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” in response to General Washington’s plaintive letter to the Continental Congress. Fortunately, Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia was not the only one to care; the brave souls who met in Philadelphia to frame the statement of independence were in many ways like you and me, but they responded to a crisis of their time and in many cases, rose above their own concerns for life and property. They cared enough to struggle for what they saw as their birthright. We must do the same. 

       Let us pray: Eternal God, Creator and Author of liberty, help us to rise above our fears and our overwhelming concern for safety so we do not betray the very principles on which our Nation was founded, thus betraying ourselves. Amen.