An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Exiles and asylum seekers

A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 by Ian Cook

In the Letter to the Ephesians Paul notes that we were foreigners but God has made us heirs; we will never be exiles again. But of course. It rolls off quite easily as we have never been exiles or foreigners (at least most of us). A typically Pauline image of the reality about the realm of our spiritual home written to the non Jewish (or Gentile) residents of Ephesus, pointing out that they as gentiles were no longer outsiders (foreigners) to God’s kingdom, but now they were insiders- heirs to the kingdom, along with Gods chosen people the Jewish nation.

This has led me to thinking about foreigners and exiles, of asylum seekers, of boat people and refugees. Of the people that the bible calls the strangers in our midst.

When a politician and former seminarian says that it is not Christian to take a boat to seek asylum, and that indeed the boat should be turned around and returned to its point of departure does he have a good scriptural foundation to work from?

Alexander Downer (former foreign minister) said last week that he was tough on asylum seekers as he believes Afghan young people have a responsibility to help develop their own country. It was silly he says for our young people to be going to fight in Afghanistan while Afghan young people were coming here.

We postulate that boat travel for refugees is dangerous and must be prevented on humanitarian grounds.

We refuse travel visas to people from likely refugee source countries lest they become refugees on arrival.

We equate refugees with thieves – they are coming here to steal what is ours.
Dare I suggest that in the aftermath of Nine Eleven our hearts have been hardened, and matters of asylum we have become the victims of our own irrational fears.
We gave permanent residency to 180,000 people last year; yet of these only 6,000 were boat people. How many hundreds of millions of dollars do we spend lest that 6,000 boat people should swell to 10,000?

We have gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent refugees and asylum seekers coming to our country. It is, we say, “in the national interest”.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus offers healing to all those that come to him. I wonder what the meaning of Jesus healing would be for our country, Australia?

The bible I find is anything but silent on the issue of treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. We miss most of its teachings however because we miss entirely the meaning of the word “stranger” used throughout most bible translations when referring to refugees, asylum seekers, boat people, foreigners and exiles.

Let’s begin in the Old Testament.

In Genesis 4 Cain the fugitive, having killed his brother, was left to wander the earth – finally settling in the land of Nod, yet under God’s protection (the mark of Cain) notwithstanding his great crime. It is a powerful biblical theme that the stranger has the protection of God, and may even be the face of God or an angel.

Genesis 12 God says to Abraham: ”Leave your country, your family and your fathers house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and will make your name so famous it will be used as a blessing ”.
Listen again to this following story of Abraham.
Abraham is living alone in the desert with his wife Sarah, and his slave girl Hagar. Three strangers come to his tent.
How will Abraham react? Hospitality or hostility? Hostility could be well justified as Abraham has his belongings and two women to protect.
How would you react? Hospitality or hostility?
Abraham chooses hospitality. He supplies water to wash the strangers feet; he provides shade for them to rest; he has Sarah bake bread for them to eat; he has Hagar kill the calf for a banquet. Only then do the strangers tell Abraham the news of the birth of a nation: that he, Abraham, would have a son by Sarah, (who had long passed the time of menopause). As the story unfolds Hagar gives birth to a son Ishmael and Sarah to Isaac, and every Jewish person and every Muslim person knows the meaning of that story of the genesis of their nations, and its subplot that God was to be found in the stranger.
We hear it however and it mostly passes us by.

The story of Joseph is one of a stranger and a slave who came to Egypt and made good

Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt wandering for forty years in the wilderness, in a foreign land. This experience of being in a foreign land shaped the thinking and actions of the Jewish people. You who have been strangers must now care for others who are strangers in your midst.

Ruth provides one of the most poignant stories in the Old Testament. Following the death of her husband, Ruth, a Moabite woman, goes with her mother in law Naomi to Judah, after telling her mother in law in these most beautiful words from the King James translation:
16 “ Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:17 Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
In Judah Ruth gleans the scraps of wheat from the fields of Boaz. They fall for each other, marry, and their son Obed is destined to become King David’s grandfather.The message to God’s people is clear: Care for the stranger and good things will follow.

The Old Testament is a rich source of teaching that says the stranger is my problem born out of the history of a people who had themselves been strangers in the land where they lived.

Thirty six times in the Old Testament God’s people are commanded to “love the stranger”; but only twice are they commanded to love their neighbour. Again and again in the stranger is found the face of God.
Again and again the stranger – be he/she an alien, an asylum seeker, an exile, a refugee or a foreigner has a special place in the story of God’s people.

In Leviticus 19:33-34 we read ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
In Leviticus 25:23 God says: “The land belongs to me and to me you are only strangers and guests”.

Not only were strangers an accepted part of Old Testament society, special laws were made to protect their interests:
Laws about Food: At harvest the Jewish people were commanded to leave the gleanings,- as with Ruth- also the dropped fruit, and some of the grapes for the poor and the stranger. (Lev 19:9-10). Every third year a tithe of the harvest was to be left for the poor and the stranger, the widow and the Levite.
Usually widows, orphans and strangers are linked together as a common needy group in Old Testament pronouncements. All were seen as needing support from the community they lived in.

Legal matters: The Children of Israel are told that they may not discriminate in law against foreigners Deuteronomy 24
Laws about the Sabbath Strangers were treated as Jews in Sabbath observance Thus they were not be made to work on the Sabbath- the day of rest was for everyone.

What about the New Testament?
It begins with the birth of the infant Jesus,- the refugee who, led by his parents found asylum in Egypt from the wrath of Herod.
The teaching of Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan is about as direct as it gets, even if it is the Jew who here becomes the stranger to the Samaritan.
Paul writing to the Hebrews: 13:2 says:
And remember to always welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Again the allusion to the presence of God in the stranger.
Jesus again in Matthew 25 speaks in the beatitudes:
I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Yet again God is in the stranger

A Greek term for hospitality towards a stranger used in the New Testament is Philoxenos: (Philos=love; Xenos=stranger. Philexenos: love of the stranger;

From Xenos we also have the much darker derivative:Xenophobia
an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries or an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers.
Of course I am not xenophobic, I just love my country and my flag!!

How today we react as a community may depend on how we are feeling as a community.
At the cusp of WW11 fear and suspicion of the stranger grew as the Nazi threat evolved The movie “Voyage of the damned” tracked the attempts of a boatload of Jewish refugees to find refuge at the commencement of the war. With 1000 Jewish asylum seekers aboard, the MS St Louis travelled from Hamburg to rejection in Cuba, in America, and in Canada, before being turned back to Europe and grudging asylum in England, France Belgium and the Netherlands. As many as 600 of the 1000 subsequently died at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps.

After WW11 as peace returned, our attitudes changed and one outcome was the most loved stage and film musical of the era, tracing the lives of a family of asylum seekers. The musical? “The Sound of Music” and the story of the Von Trapp family. You cannot escape knowing that they had real wealth, and that Baron Von Trapp had both status and political power; yet that family were asylum seekers as much as any Afghan family fleeing persecution in their homeland in Afghanistan. Who could forget Mother Abbess that wise and knowing Mother Superior who facilitates the Von Trapp’s escape to asylum in Switzerland. By the standards of today’s politics this woman should have been demonised as a people smuggler and jailed for her actions.
Worse, she not only facilitated, but encouraged asylum seekers in general with that most moving anthem for an asylum seeker:
Climb every mountain, Search high and low,
Follow every byway, Every path you know.
Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow,’ Till you find your dream. A dream that will need All the love you can give, Every day of your life For as long as you live. Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, Till you find your dream.

Was it only yesterday that we welcomed asylum seekers as people made of the sort of stuff that would grow our country – that we needed for our country?

We used to have 5’0” fences around our house; we could look over the fence and say hello to our neighbour as she put out the washing. As a child we left the front door unlocked so that the iceman could put ice in the icebox and take the sixpence we left on its lid. Today we cannot see our neighbours over the fence; if we wanted ice, the iceman would no longer be able to get in.

In the 1970s the greatest of mime artists, Marcel Marceau made an allegorical movie about a gardener who had prepared a magnificent bed of flowers which everyone admired. Children came and in their playing they inadvertently trod the flowers, so damaging the garden. The gardener built a low fence around the garden, but the children jumped over it: he built a higher fence, but the children climbed it; finally he built a fence so high that even their balls could not be thrown over it.
Now the gardener was isolated and now no-one could see the garden. Worst of all the sun could not get in and the flowers all died.

Here at South Yarra we have just spent $60,000 dollars renovating the toilets, providing clean facilities, hot water and showers. The outside entry to the toilets has not been locked for many years and generally neither is the adjacent chapel. Will we continue to leave these doors open for the convenient use of the stranger in our community.

How high is the fence around your house,……….. and how high would you wish it to be.

How high do want the fence around our country, Australia. I wonder if you have ever seen an angel?


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