Preacher: Rev. David Ourisman
Scripture: Deuteronomy 26:5-9
Sunday, September 8, 2019
I want to begin by saying I don’t claim to have the answer to the refugee crisis.
Like all of you, I hear the tragic stories of what’s happening on our southern border and elsewhere in the world. Like all of you, I am appalled at the inability of our elected leaders to treat this human suffering as anything more than a political football.
I’m not sure whether the problem is that we don’t know our stories well enough…. or whether we’re too familiar with them so that we don’t hear what they actually say.
There’s nothing new happening in the world today; it’s all happened before. The Bible tells stories of migrants who journey to new lands to seek a better life. The Bible tells stories of people caught up in the slave trade and taken against their will. The Bible tells stories of hungry people looking for food in times of famine, stories of desperate people fleeing political oppression, stories of families seeking asylum from threats upon their lives.
These are our stories, the stories of the people of God. They’re all in the Bible.
Abraham and Sarah. They lived in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia. They were a nomadic family, just like every other nomadic family of their time, living and surviving as best they could. Their settled lives were disrupted when Abraham hears God’s call:
Leave the place you’re living. Leave the land where your tribe has dwelt for generations. Your future is not here. Your future is in a land that I will show you, a land where I will bless you and make of you a great nation.
So Abraham and Sarah answered that call. They became migrants. They set forth on a journey, not knowing where they were going, just following the directions of their divine GPS until they came eventually to Canaan.
Our tradition begins with Abraham and Sarah as migrants in search of a better life, leaving behind everything they knew, journeying into an unknown future, For Paul in his letter to the Galatians, this is the archetype of faith.
It was reckoned to them as righteousness.
Skip ahead three generations. Abraham begat Isaac, who begat Jacob, who begat about a dozen sons, one of whom was named Joseph.
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, a fact that did not endear him to his brothers. They sold him into slavery to a caravan of nomads on their way to Egypt. Once in Egypt, the nomads sold Joseph to Potiphar, an officer in the Egyptian army.
Just think about that: Joseph, an ancestor of our faith, literally literally taken to Egypt in the slave trade. But though he was a slave, people began to recognize his extraordinary abilities. Among other things, Joseph was able to interpret dreams, so when Pharaoh began to have disturbing nightmares, he called on Joseph to explain what they meant. There would be seven years of plenty, Joseph said, followed by seven years of severe famine. Joseph advised Pharaoh to stockpile grain during the good years so the people could survive when the famine came. Not only did Pharaoh accept Joseph’s advice, he put him in charge of the entire project.
Imagine that… Joseph, brought to Egypt, against his will, in the slave trade, became the one who saved the entire nation through his foresight, wisdom, and administrative ability.
But the story goes on. The famine afflicted not only Egypt but also the land of Canaan, where his brothers still lived, yes, the very brothers who had sold him into slavery.
The brothers found themselves hungry; their children were hungry. They heard there was food in Egypt, so they left to Egypt to plead for food. They got an audience with the governor who, unknownst to them, was their very own brother. To cut to the point of the story, Jacob and his twelve sons (in other words, all of Israel) were saved because Egypt welcomed this tribe of refugees in a time of famine.
And they stayed in Egypt and prospered in their new home, and they contributed to its well-being for a long time until generations later, when a new Pharaoh came to power who did not remember the story,
who did not remember what this foreign slave had done for Egypt.
This new Pharaoh was xenophobic, fearful of this large immigrant population.
He said to his subjects, The people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.
He began a program (let’s call it what it was) of political oppression.
He set taskmasters over these immigrants. He made them do the hard labor that the Egyptians didn’t care to do. He turned them into slaves. He made their lives miserable.
And so we come to the next chapter of our story, to Moses, who was also a descendent of this immigrant people.
Ironically, he was also the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter and the adopted grandson of Pharaoh.
In other words, Moses had privileged status in Egyptian society, but he threw it all away in a moment of passion. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, he made a decision at that moment about who he really was.
Moses got angry and killed the Egyptian, a criminal act for which he knew he would pay. So Moses fled Egypt a fugitive from justice. He immigrated to the land of Midian and married a Midianite woman. He began a family and became comfortable tending his flock of sheep…
… until God called Moses out of this comfortable place. Go back to Egypt. Lead your people to freedom… And so Moses did (with a little arm twisting).
The great migration lasted 40 years. It’s called the Exodus. Israel once again became a nation of refugees, this time fleeing political oppression. They wandered 40 years in the desert, returning, eventually, to the land of Canaan.
Now here’s an interesting twist to the story. Do you suppose the Canaanites welcomed them back home with open arms? Not exactly… They met resistance. They came up against walls. Remember the story of Jericho? Remember how “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down?” That’s what happened when the Israelites came back to Canaan.
Migration looks very different, depending on where you’re sitting… whether you’re the one migrating, seeking a better life or whether you’re the one already there, fearful your better life will be taken away.
Which brings me to one last refugee story in the Bible.
Do you remember how Matthew tells the Christmas story?
Do you remember the political oppression of King Herod,
his order to kill every Hebrew boy under the age of two? Do you remember how Joseph trusted his dream and fled with his family to Egypt?
So get this straight: In Matthew’s narrative world, Jesus was a political refugee, with a well-founded fear of persecution: because of the threat that Herod had made upon his life. Jesus, a political refugee.
And later in Matthew’s story, and only in Matthew’s story, Jesus tells a familiar parable. I wonder: In Matthew’s narrative world,
could it be that Jesus was speaking out of the depth of his own experience when he told the parable…
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
And when the righteous ask, When did we ever do this for you? he says,
As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
Which brings me back to where I began.
I don’t know whether the problem is that we don’t remember our stories well enough or whether we’re so familiar with them that we don’t hear them any more.
Turning our backs on brothers and sisters who only want a better life free from hunger and poverty free from the persecution of criminal gangs and criminal governments … Closing our hearts to them is not what Jesus taught.
I don’t claim to know the answer to the refugee crisis, I only know what Jesus said:
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.