On Not Being Afraid - A Sermon for World Refugee Sunday

Sermon on readings from Genesis 21:8-21, and Matthew 10:24-39

Listen to the words of Claudette, a Rwandan refugee:

“I will never forget the day of April 12, 1994 when a grenade hit my home in Kigali, Rwanda and that was the end of life as I knew it. At that time I was seven years old and my family was forced to scatter. My mother wanted to ensure that we stayed together as a family so she searched for several days for each of her children. Except for one sister she was successful in finding all of us.”[1]

They are such matter-of-fact words, so lacking in sensationalism.

She was seven when her house was bombed – no description of the fear or chaos.

Her mother found all but one of her children – no word of grief for this loss of a sister.

It is heartbreaking in the simplicity of the telling… the way that the tragedy of it is just accepted. And in the truth that there are 65 million such stories in our world right now – half of which are stories of children.

It’s a devastating reality… but why are we talking about it in church?

Well, for one thing, today is World Refugee Sunday. This is the Sunday that follows June 20, World Refugee Day. The Sunday on which many Christian churches and organizations have recognized the importance of speaking, as Christ’s church, about the painful reality of refugees.

Refugee Sunday is relevant to our worship because our faith is relevant to what is going on in our world. And there is a refugee crisis going on in our world. There are currently more people displaced by war, violence, and persecution than at any other time in recorded history.

But that doesn’t mean the trauma experienced by refugees is a new, modern crisis. In fact, the second reason to talk about refugees in church today, is because this week’s first reading is, in fact, the story of two refugees: Hagar and Ishmael

This is a hard story to preach about, because it is a problematic story. It presents several kinds of dehumanizing exploitation, without much redeeming comment:

  • Human slavery for one thing;

  • Which leaves no doubt about whether Hagar had any choice in bearing Abraham’s child;

  • That’s before we even get to the deep injustice of Sarah essentially condemning Hagar and Ishmael to death, for the crime of their mere existence.

  • And the fact that both Abraham, and apparently even GOD, sign off on this unjust exile – the loss of home, livelihood, and every source of security (exploitive as they were).

  • And, to add insult to injury, the other players in this drama refuse to even call Hagar by her name, calling her instead “the slave woman,” essentially denying her individual humanity.

In this story, the father and mother of God’s chosen people, who had previously forced their slave woman to mother a child, decide this didn’t work for them, so they classify her as a non-person to whom they have no obligations, and drive her away, sending her and her son into the dessert with completely inadequate resources to survive.

Hagar and Ishmael are helpless refugees, forced to leave their home, treated with utter contempt. It is an ugly story.

But it is also a story that shows us God’s heart for refugees: a heart both to save and to affirm.

The saving is very practical – and that is important to recognize. Hagar and Ishmael are dying of thirst and God shows them a replenishing source of water. They have a desperate, physical need, and God meets that need.

God also affirms – and this is also a vital point of the story. The woman who had been dehumanized as “the slave woman,” God calls by name. The tiny family who had been cast out to die, God promises to grow into a great nation. Even the name Ishmael affirms the value of this rejected, exiled child; Ishmael means “God heard.”

God heard, protected, and affirmed those whom the “chosen people of God” had treated with disdain and callous cruelty. God cared for the refugees, even though they were outside the chose people.

But, I am conscious of a danger that is inherent in lifting up this story in connection with the current refugee crisis. Those who want to avoid any obligation to respond could choose to lay the obligation back on God:

God has acted miraculously before to save refugees. Let God do so again. We can pray for God’s intervention, but it is not our responsibility to help people half a world away?”

That reaction is not always born from callous disregard. Sometimes it reflects the sense of powerlessness that comes from the tragedy-soaked 24 hour news cycle. The world is at our fingertips, but that world is so utterly broken that it seems pointless for us to try to bring about any change. What can we do for 65 million displaced people?

And, what is more, they might pose a threat to us. A threat to our way of life, or to our economy, or to our very lives. Surely God does not require us to put ourselves in danger…

Actually, that is exactly what God requires of us.

Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:38-39)

Today’s gospel message, from the lips of Jesus, prohibits our instincts toward self-protection. “Disciples are not above the teacher(Matthew 10:24)… and our teacher went to the grave to save us.

And God’s ultimate kingdom of peace will not come without the metaphorical sword of division (Matthew 10:34) … without rejecting the voices that deny Christ’s radical command to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to recognize that there are no limits on whom we must embrace as neighbor.

This talk about losing our life, and the sword of division, and practicing love with no practical limits is scary. I know. It scares me to think of losing any of the things I love about my life, much less the whole thing. This is not an easy teaching.

But there is also gospel here:

One commentator wrote on this passage from Matthew:

Dying to yourself, and losing your life, takes us beyond the anxieties of the moment to rest safely in God. What dies are the habits of individualism, greed, and self-interest….What is born is compassion and freedom.”[2]

Jesus is calling us to a genuinely new life. A life that is NOT controlled by fear. There is one phrase that appears in both the story from Genesis and the teaching from Matthew: “Do not be afraid.” This is not surprising considering how often this command appears in the Bible. In fact, it is the most frequent command from the mouth of Jesus.

We hear this command over and over because it is SO HARD to obey… But this fearlessness is the key to new life. Because not fearing means trusting in God. It means faith. It means letting go of any sense of entitlement to a struggle-free life, and finding the freedom of living as God calls us to, regardless of the consequences.

In our opening litany we confessed that God’s steadfast love endures forever. If we really believe that, then we are free to reach out to people in need because we do not have to fear.

We do not have to fear what we might lose when we give of our resources to provide for the practical, physical needs of those who have lost everything.

We do not have to fear the loss of our privileged status when we affirm the equal human value of people who have been devalued by the powers that be.

We do not have to fear even the loss of our own lives if someone enters our country who wishes us harm.

We do not have to fear.

I cannot promise you that doing whatever is in our power to welcome refugees will have no consequences in our lives. But I am confident that living without fear will be a source of life – for us and for others.

Claudette, the girl whose words I opened with, is an example for us in that regard. She spent 12 years as a displaced refugee before she and her family were finally resettled in Rhode Island, through the work of Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services.

She is now putting herself through college while simultaneously founding and working for a non-profit after school program for other refugee children to help them succeed in school.

So, if you want to do something practical to help refugees, I encourage you to go to Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services website (www.lirs.org). There are many ways, not all financial, that you can support this work.

And, if you want to affirm the lives of the refugees and ask God for the fearlessness to respond to their plight, I encourage you to pray to our God whose steadfast love endures forever.

You are welcome to join me now as I offer such a prayer:

God who hears every wail in the dessert and every prayer in the storm, listen to the cries of every bearer of your image displaced by war, violence, and persecution.

Accompany them on their journeys; provide them with food, water, shelter, and medicine; and bring them to a place of safety and welcome.

Stir up the hearts of your children, including me, who enjoy safety and plenty, to reach out with care to refugees near and far. Help us to recognize our blessings as resources you have given us to bless others, and not as possessions to be hoarded or protected.

Convict and reform those who perpetrate violence and oppression, so that they may use their power to heal and restore, rather than to divide and destroy. May Your justice reign in all the earth, and may all the people of the earth reflect your glory. The glory we know through the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, through whom we pray. Amen.

[1] http://refugeesunday.lirs.org/files/2017/04/RS_Stories_Claudette.pdf

[2] Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary”; http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2014/06/the-adventurous-lectionary-for-june-22-2014/

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