Sunday, September 20, 2015

On refuges and refugees

MWC Peace Sunday 2015
Jeremiah 29:1-7; Numbers 35:9-15; Isaiah 16:1-5; Luke 14:12-14; James 2:1-17

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Much earlier this year,
    long before the current refugee crisis made banner headlines,
    Mennonite World Conference developed worship resources
        for this annual Peace Sunday on September 20.
    They decided on the topic of how we as followers of Jesus
        are called to respond to refugees seeking safe shelter.

    That might look like a beautiful coincidence.
        It is not.
    It might look like the Holy Spirit inspired them to choose a topic
        that, unknown to them,
        would become relevant in September 2015.
        It’s not that, either.
    Not saying the Holy Spirit wasn’t at work.
        But the planners chose this topic a long time ago,
            because it was relevant then.
            It was a major humanitarian crisis then.
            It’s just that media outlets in the West,
                weren’t making a huge deal of it then,
                because the refugees weren’t crossing borders into
                    Western countries at the rate they are now.
            It wasn’t hitting the front page of the big papers,
                or leading the stories on the evening news,
                or sending news alerts to our smart phones.

But believe me,
    the refugees knew this was a crisis long ago.
    So did people on the ground working to relieve the crisis.
    So did just about everyone in the countries
        immediately surrounding Syria.
    Even we knew it.
        It’s been in our bulletin prayer list, repeatedly, off and on,
            for the last three years and more.
        In February 2013 we mentioned the refugees leaving Syria
            at the rate of 5,000 persons a day.
            That number adds up awfully quick.
            Where do you think they were piling up?
        Neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey.
    For years now, these countries, and more,
        have been trying to give safe shelter to Syrians
            fleeing for their lives from war in their homeland.

But let’s rejoice it’s finally getting some global attention,
    and global resources.
And let’s educate ourselves,
    and step up our own response and commitment.
We will all have a chance to do that, at the end of my sermon.

But first, before we just jump into action mode,
    and do what we are already good at,
    that is, doing good . . .
        let’s do some thinking and reflecting about God,
        who is the source of all that is good.

What is God’s commitment to refugees?
    And how might getting closer to the God
        who is our refuge and strength,
        make our response to refugees
            one that has more integrity,
            is not motivated by political expediency,
            and creates a space
                for the Reign of God to appear among us?

We just heard a series of scripture readings
    that shed light on the question of God’s commitment to refugees.

God, who is the creator of all things,
    and who especially loves and is devoted to us human creatures,
        never leaves us guessing
    about God’s special love and commitment to
        those whose lives are in jeopardy.

In Numbers, we heard God instruct the Israelites to establish
    six cities of refuge,
    so that if someone accidentally killed a person,
        they could flee to a city of refuge,
        and be safe from those who would otherwise want to kill them,
        to take blood vengeance,
            an acceptable practice in that culture.
    But God says, wait a minute.
        Not everyone who has a price on their head is guilty.
        Some people’s lives are in jeopardy
            without any moral failing on their part.
            You are obligated to give them refuge and safety.
    In fact, apparently God went to great lengths
        to give the refugees a special advantage over their pursuers.

    Deuteronomy 19 tells them to build roads leading to these cities.
        Other ancient Jewish sources go even further.
            They say these roads were to made very broad—
                thirty-two cubits wide—
                twice the normal width,
                and they were to be kept in good repair.
            For the sake of someone running for their life,
                their way should be made as easy as possible,
                there should be nothing to hinder them.
_____________________

And in Isaiah 16, we heard God instruct the pagan nation, Moab—
    “Hide the fugitives,
        do not betray the refugees.
    Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you;
        be their shelter from the destroyer.”

Matthew Henry, an English Presbyterian minister,
    wrote a set of Bible commentaries over 300 years ago.
    Not the best source for contemporary scholarship,
        but he had a way with words.
    I found his comments on this passage quite moving,
        written long before our modern debates over immigration,
            and all our talk about immigrants
            being a drain on national resources.

    Here’s what he wrote in the early 1700s, responding to Isaiah 16,
    “Nay, do not only hide them for a time, but, if there be occasion,
        let them be naturalized:
        Let my outcasts dwell with thee, Moab;
            find a lodging for them and be thou a covert to them.
        Let them be taken under the protection of the government,
            though they are but poor, and likely to be a charge to thee.
        They are outcasts, but they are my outcasts.
        God will find a rest and shelter for his outcasts;
            for, though they are persecuted, they are not forsaken.
        God can, when he pleases, raise up friends for his people
            even among Moabites, when they can find none
            in all the land of Israel that can and dare shelter them.”

That commentary has enough to ponder,
    without any further commentary on my part.
_____________________

And Israelites themselves knew what it meant
    to be outcast, to be refugees and immigrants.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon,
    giving them a word from the Lord,
    “Build houses and settle down;
        plant gardens and eat what they produce.
    Marry and have sons and daughters;
        find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage,
        so that they too may have sons and daughters.
    Increase in number there; do not decrease.
    Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city
        to which I have carried you into exile.
        Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers,
            you too will prosper.”

In other words, permanence on your land is not a given.
    No matter where you live—
        on land where you hold the papers, where you have the deed,
        or on land belonging to another—
        I am for you, as I am for all peoples.
        I am for your well-being and prosperity (or literally, shalom)
            and the well-being and prosperity
                of the city where you happen to dwell.
        Shalom is my intention for you and for all people.
    Right now, you are the refugees and exiles.
        Live as though you belong where you are.
        Then, in later generations,
            you will know how to treat the aliens
                who live with you in your homeland.
_____________________

And then, it can almost go without saying,
    because Jesus said it so often—
    our treatment of the poor is a moral issue.
    It’s all throughout the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament.

How many times did Jesus speak about God’s regard for the poor?
How often did Jesus, in his actions, cross boundaries
    to lift up the poor, the young, the women, the widows,
    the Samaritans, the Gentiles, the tax collectors, the lepers?
How often did Jesus directly command his followers
    to treat the poor and outcast with respect?
    Often, indeed.
    We heard one of his teachings this morning from Luke’s Gospel,
        urging his disciples, when they prepare a feast,
            not to invite their respectable friends and neighbors,
            ones they could most easily relate to, and socialize with.
        But rather, to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,
            and “you will be blessed.”
And let’s not forget that Jesus himself, as an infant and toddler,
    along with his parents Mary and Joseph,
    were outcast refugees, in Egypt for some years.

And in the epistle of James,
    one of the most practical set of teachings on social ethics
        that we have in the scripture—
    James says if you discriminate between the rich and the poor,
        if you give special attention, or advantage, to those with money,
            (and who among us doesn’t do that?)
        then you are working against God’s own purposes.
    Because,
        “God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world
            to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom
            he promised those who love him.”

And if you see someone suffering,
    and show only pity, but not compassionate action,
        then your so-called “faith” is dead.
        Dead.

Our moral obligation—
    when it comes to the poor, to refugees,
        to any persons who through no fault of their own,
            leave their homes and communities of origin
            because their lives and their well-being are in danger—
    our moral obligation is to protect them.
    If we have the means to provide shelter,
        and refuse to do so,
        we are rebelling against God.

Mennonite World Conference shared some inspiring stories
    where God’s people are responding with compassion,
        specifically to the Syrian refugee crisis.
    A Syrian refugee woman named Ibrahim, now living in Switzerland,
        was invited to join a group of Swiss Mennonite women quilters
            to help make quilts to send back to her home country.
    She happily joined them,
        after convincing them to branch out in their color schemes,
        to stop using typically Swiss colors,
            which were understated and monochrome,
            and use the bright multi-colored look that Syrians prefer.

    German Mennonite churches recently resurrected the practice
        of offering Church Asylum
        to immigrants or refugees who otherwise face deportation.
        This angered some German officials,
            like the Interior Secretary,
            because these actions are in a kind of legal “twilight zone.”
        They’re afraid churches are operating under
            a parallel legal system.
            In a sense they are, if they take seriously
                that God’s commands have greater authority
                    than human commands.
            But now they report that the Ministry of the Interior
                and national office for Migration and Refugees
                is taking a more friendly stance toward Church Asylum.
                It is proving successful, in safely protecting people
                    from being deported into situations
                    where their lives would be threatened
                        or their human rights violated.

There are countless more stories we could tell this morning.
    Many of you have walked alongside,
        with deep compassion, and patience, and persistence,
        refugees who have come into our community
            and become our neighbors, and friends,
            and in some cases, fellow church members.
    You have stories that can spur us all to greater compassion.

But it all begins with seeing God as the One
    who is refuge and strength,
    who is help in time of trouble,
        and who calls his people to be the same,
        whenever we have opportunity.
_____________________

Scripture is clear.
    And the stories are compelling.
    And the continuing need is great.
At this point, I don’t need to add any more words to the argument.
    It’s time to discern, and commit, and act.

So I’m going to give you the last five minutes of my sermon time,
    for you to contemplate, reflect, pray,
        and consider what God is asking of you.

I invite you to take out the half-sheet insert in your bulletin.
    And take out a pen or pencil,
        or borrow one from someone nearby.

The first three items are straight-forward,
    and won’t take you long to discern and decide.
The last two, not so much.
    There, I invite you to consider ways in which you are right now
        being asked to offer refuge (literally or figuratively)
        to a neighbor or stranger whose well-being is in jeopardy.
    And I invite you to consider ways in which you yourself
        are in need of refuge.
        How are you acknowledging that? denying that?
        Who are you seeking out for refuge,
            to protect you from losing your way or your well-being?
        How are you opening yourself to God’s refuge?

While we all do this together,
    we will be hearing a song,
        sung by a Christian artist Sandra McCracken,
        entitled “All ye refugees.”

    The repeated chorus is God’s invitation, and says,
        “Welcome home, gather round
            all ye refugees, come in.”

So take time now to listen, pray, reflect, commit,
    and write down your commitment.
    This paper will be yours to keep, and take with you,
        and follow-up on, with action.

May God speak clearly, and may we have the courage to listen and obey.

—Phil Kniss, September 20, 2015

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