Refugee Sunday: This is Us

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 1.59.21 PM
Omran Daqneesh, seen bloodied and shellshocked in this still from a video taken by the Aleppo Media Center, quickly gave a human face to the humanitarian conflict in Syria. 

Micah 4:1-5
Matthew 13:1-16

It seems that there is more suffering and crisis in the world every time we gather here. Puerto Rico, Mexico, Myanmar, London, Texas, Florida, Oregon, Syria, and countless other places are in crisis or have experienced crisis recently. And on a day like Refugee Sunday, those of us who are practically-minded tend to think, well, practically: what is our role in all of this suffering? What, if anything, have we done to contribute? Now that suffering is happening, what can we do to alleviate it?

I heard about a book this past week whose title made me laugh as much as it made me want to buy the book. It’s called, How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. It’s written by psychologist Randy J. Patterson. (1)

There are several negative books and articles like this coming out now, giving us things not to do if we want to be happy or fulfilled. There are many from a few different sources: if you want to be miserable, they say, do things like maximize your screen time, pursue happiness directly, work too much, and don’t get enough sleep. 

Another strategy for unhappiness: direct all blame either inward (to yourself) or outward (to something else, completely absolving yourself). A fulfilled and healthy person, naturally, realizes that we all have a starring role in our own failures, but that we are also usually not solely responsible for any failure. Other people, situations, and environmental factors can and do all contribute to our success or failure at anything we do, as do we ourselves.

When we broaden the scale to look at the humanitarian failures around the world, the same is true. Some institutions and churches put it all on us — we can solve this problem, they say, we’re just not. “Look at these poor people,” they say. “They’re suffering because we’ve failed.”

This, of course, makes it all about us, ignoring the strength and resourcefulness of refugees around the world as well as making the plight of someone else about our own navel-gazing.

Other religious institutions put it all on God to fix it, theologizing away the problem. “Everything will be fine in the end,” they tend to say. “There’s no need to get political. God will take care of those people. We just have to pray for them. #ThoughtsAndPrayers”

Of course, we never consider when we say this that maybe we can be an answer to prayer. As Luther wrote, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

And like the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, we’re always trying to justify ourselves in reply: “And who is my neighbor?”

My answer is that our neighbor is anyone we consider an “us” and not a “them.” That was definitely Jesus’ idea when he told that parable about the Good Samaritan, who to the Jews at the time was the ultimate “them.” Jesus always seems to be trying to broaden our idea of who our neighbor is, and whom we consider part of “us.” 

Refugee Sunday is about gathering around the table to remember the us all around the world that are driven from their homes by violence, economic hardship, and disaster. Refugees around the world are part of Christ’s body and all refugees of any faith were created by God. You all know that better than most congregations — this congregation and many of you as individuals have long been part of refugee resettlement, advocacy, and aid. You understand that refugees aren’t an issue — they’re people.

Refugees are part of us.

One such person was a little boy who made the world weep for Syria a year ago as he sat, shell-shocked, bloodied, and dusty, in an ambulance after an airstrike. His name is Omran, and in the photo, he was five years old. I haven’t been able to quite find out where he is today.

Only a few days after this photo of Omran hit the news, a little American boy named Alex recorded a video of himself asking President Obama if Omran could come and live with him and his family.

“We will give him a family and he will be our brother,” Alex wrote. “Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together.” (2)

“He will be our brother.”

Sometimes I think that having “faith like a child” also means seeing others the way that children tend to.

Each of us is us. Which is just another way of saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And like the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, we’re always trying to justify ourselves in reply: “And who is my neighbor?”

I think by this point, we have our answer.

To be partisan from the pulpit is an abuse of power. To speak out for those who are in need or abused is historically one of the most traditional forms of Christian discourse. You can check the record on that, and I can recommend some socially active early church saints for those who are curious.

And of course, nothing is simple. I spend hours each week with earbuds in, listening to geopolitics streaming through podcasts of multiple political stripes as I do just about any household chore. I read a lot. I know that refugee resettlement, resource management, national security and geopolitics as a whole are complicated. That’s obvious.

What I’m asking for is a small, but also seismic, shift in how we frame the conversation. Let’s acknowledge what we already know, and what you’ve heard today: refugees aren’t a them. They’re an us.

Most of us will never understand the horror or the hardship that refugees around the world have faced or are facing, but how differently might we approach these conversations if we simply framed the conversation differently? They are us. Literally. Members of our own congregation are former refugees and their children.

And yes, it’s complicated, and yes, in any such conversation we’re all bound to get offended. But that’s just the thing: grace is offensive. Go back and read that Gospel reading again. Grace isn’t easy. Sometimes grace even seems unjust, or makes us mad.

The workers who show up last in the parable get the same wage as the ones who worked all day. The landowner, meant to represent God, just scoff back, “What? Are you envious because I am generous?”

We don’t get extra points for good behavior, and we don’t get to demand good behavior from others as a prerequisite to loving and serving them.

We don’t get to choose anyone’s worth based on our judgement of their status or behavior. It also means that no one gets to choose ours. Our worth belongs to God, the landowner, who is always coming to get all of us.

Our worth is not our immigration status, nor is it our stellar record on social justice. And I hope you know that it means that whether you and I ever agree on anything related to politics, you are still us to me. Your worth depends on God, no whether your opinions are correct.

About this Gospel text, ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “Our gospel text for today is not the parable of the workers. It’s the parable of the landowner. Because what makes it the kingdom of God is not the worthiness or piety or social justice-yness or hard work of the laborers…it’s the fact that the trampy landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the market place. He goes back and back and back interrupting lives…coming to get his people.” (3) 

The truth, beloved, is that God is always coming to get God’s people, in many ways, places, and times. God’s coming to get some of us to drag us to work, helping vulnerable people around the world. God’s coming to get refugees around the world through the hands of workers and the hands of angels. And finally, God’s coming to get — to rescue — the whole world.

Because we can’t.

No matter how good we are, no matter how much we do, this whole thing is bigger, more complicated, than us. Because we are the Church, we will strive and we will act and we will help, but ultimately we will fail, because it’s bigger than us. We’re finite. We can’t even see the end.

But I need to believe that God can.

I know that it seems crazy to my counterparts who aren’t religious, but this is the truest confession of faith that I can make: the world is so messed up that I need to believe that somehow it will all someday be made right.

Our Old Testament reading is from Micah. George Washington quoted it more than fifty times in his writing about his vision for America. His dream was that in America, everyone could sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

We’re not there yet. We may not ever get there: achieving true peace for every person is something that no nation has never achieved. We keep messing it up, for others and for ourselves. And things keep happening — just this week, more earthquakes and more hurricanes.

Humanitarian crises keep being bigger than any of us.

But before being able to live without fear was America’s promise, it was God’s.

I am a person of faith because I have to hope that someday, Micah’s vision will be real, that someday,

“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees,
    and no one shall make them afraid.” Micah 4:3b-4

My friend Joe describes grace sort of like this — if you knew that a problem wasn’t yours to solve, that the burden wasn’t on you anymore, if the pressure was off — how much good could you do?

Oscar Romero was a Catholic archbishop who was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out and advocating for the poor and vulnerable in El Salvador.

In one of my favorite writings of any saint, one that I need to revisit often these days, he writes,

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

“This is what we are about: we plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

“We are prophets of a future not our own.”

The crises we see on the news are neither all our fault, nor are they ours to abandon. Either way of thinking of it will make us miserable.

The future is God’s, that someday all of this will be redeemed. The present is ours to work. God is coming to get us in the marketplace, so let’s go to work.

It’s not for a them — it’s for us. Amen.

1. I heard about this book thanks to Atlas Obscura’s David Plotz on the Slate Political Gabfest.
2. You can read more about Alex and his letter here.
3. You can read Pastor Nadia’s whole sermon here.

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