Sunday, July 3, 2016
Refugee – “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, natural disaster, or persecution (because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or holding a political opinion).” Immigrant – “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. Immigrants are motivated to leave their former countries of citizenship, or habitual residence, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of local access to resources, a desire for economic prosperity, to find or engage in paid work, to better their standard of living, family reunification, retirement, climate or environmentally induced migration, exile, escape from prejudice, conflict or natural disaster, or simply the wish to change one’s quality of life.” Stranger – “a person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar.”
Each of these dictionary definitions tells us something about the “other,” the ones who come from somewhere else, those who are not like us. At our best, we welcome the stranger and delight in the difference; at our worst, we fall into the clutches of xenophobia – a passionate and irrational hatred of those who come from other places. I suppose there is some grounding, something in our nature, some logic to being wary about difference until we can encounter it, see it up close and personal, begin to understand it. Every “other” is not loving, benign, filled with good will. But, come to think of it, neither are we always so. How then will we work to build God’s Beloved Community?
Break the Bread of belonging,
welcome the stranger in the land.
We have each been a stranger,
we can try to understand.
This hymn was my introduction to the deep and thoughtful theology in song of Brian Wren. Is he correct? Have we, each one of us, had the experience of being the stranger, the “other,” the immigrant, the refugee? I suspect, if we are honest, we have. We know that creation is infinitely diverse. There have to have been situations in which we felt out of place.
Break the bread of belonging,
fear of the foreigner still blows strong;
make a place for the strangers
give them the right to belong.
It is not difficult to hear how this hymn is addressed to those of us who are privileged, who largely live securely, well-fed, comfortably sheltered, lacking little. The hymn exhorts us, as people who have much, to be friendly and generous to those in need. “We have each been a stranger.” At the very least, “we can try to understand.” At our best, as children of God and siblings of Christ, we can do more – we can act with compassion, we can welcome the stranger, we can care for those in need, we can learn from the other, and we can delight in diversity. This is our calling – to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciling work. This is our joy – to help bring to life on earth God’s Beloved Community.
How hard is it to be a refugee? an immigrant? a stranger? It can’t be easy. In today’s Words of Preparation, Zimbabwean novelist, NoViolet Bulawayo, writes, “When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky…They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same…Look at them leaving in droves, despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong” (NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names). Can we “make a space for the strangers” and “give them the right to belong”?
But then, is belonging a right? I suppose that depends on your view of the world. If you look at the map on the wall of the chancel, you can see all the nation states of the world laid out in different colors. You can see the borders that carve up continents, each border marking difference, whether historic or arbitrary. These demarcations allow some to say, “You don’t belong here. This is our land. Go back to where you came from. It doesn’t matter what war, natural disaster, or persecution has brought you here, you are not welcome. Go home.” Some have gone so far as proposing, and even building, walls to reinforce these borders. “No foreigners have the ‘right’ to belong here in my backyard.”
But look at this photograph of the earth from outer space. Do you see any borders? Any indication that any inhabitant of the earth hasn’t the right to belong here? I don’t. It is has been speculated, with some justification, that this is God’s view of the earth. When God created the earth, in all its wonderful diversity, God called it “very good” and blessed it. Alice Kirkman Kunka says, “When we reflect on the issue of immigration and the existence of borders between countries, it is good to recall that when seen from outer space, the earth does not reveal any borders. Borders are human-made creations that separate people who are governed by different governments. God’s world has no borders,” she insists. “God does not create ‘illegal’ people. The human condition has created these barriers to the shalom that God intends for creation” (Alice Kirkman Kunka, “Pastoral Reflection on Ruth 1:1-18, Justice for Immigrants – year B, Proper 26,” ncchurches.org).
From the beginning, God intended shalom, peace, harmony, well-being for creation. Another of my favorite hymn-writing theologians, Thomas Troeger, believes that “God made from one blood all the families of earth…” With all our diversity, we share one common Parent. Each of us belongs to the family of God. So, who is ever to say to a sibling, “You have no right to belong. You are not welcome in this, our common home, even though it is your birthright as much as mine.”
Today’s text is a tale of refugees. Naomi and her family flee to Moab when famine strikes in Judah. It is interesting to consider what desperation can do, to humble you. Hebrew Scripture scholar, John Holbert, describes the situation this way: “Now, Israelites and Moabites were not the best of friends. After all, when Lot’s two daughters determined to repopulate the land after the devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah, they chose the only man around to do so, dear old dad. And one of the progeny of these incestuous trysts was named Moab — that tells you what some Israelites thought of Moabites, not high on their list of loves” (John C. Holbert, “Telling the Story – Reflections on Ruth 1:1-18, November 1, 2015,” patheos.com).
I wonder how many of our conflicts are family feuds or fights among friends. This hostility between Moabites and Judeans reminds me of the bitter battle between Jews and Samaritans, even though they could trace their roots back to common forebears. Or consider the ill-will among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, in spite of our claim to a common heritage from Abraham. Anyway, Naomi and family, as many humans do, turned where there was food available, in order to survive. Old grudges die hard until one is desperate.
Then the scene reverses. The men all die. Naomi and her daughters-in-law are left to fend for themselves in a harshly patriarchal culture. How would they survive? When Naomi hears the famine has lifted at home, she decides to return, along with her faithful and beloved daughters-in-law. But, somewhere along the way, she determines that they would have a better chance of surviving if they split up. She attempts to send the younger women home to their Moabite families. Orpah accepts her wisdom, but Ruth refuses to return. She has chosen to cast her lot with Naomi, who after all is a strong and resourceful figure.
In her commentary, Alphonetta Wines notes that “Despite cultural and religious norms to the contrary, Naomi and Ruth embraced each other. They made room for one another in their hearts. Neither lost their identity in the relationship. Naomi was an Ephrathite, Ruth was a Moabite. Although Ruth adopted Naomi’s faith, prior to her coming to Judah, she worshipped the gods of her people. Even that did not stop their friendship. Ruth and Naomi … Naomi and Ruth … theirs is a message the world needs to hear” (Alphonetta Wines, “Commentary on Ruth 1:1-19, November 1, 2015,” workingpreacher.org).
Listen to these women, learn from them. Perhaps there is something in women’s way of knowing, of caring, of embracing that helps us reach across barriers and welcome strangers who are in need. The work of compassion is God’s work. Like a hen, she will gather her chicks under her wing. Like a mother, feeding her family, the table will be beautifully set with room for all. None will be excluded, and the meal will be sumptuous.
I usually try to avoid patriotism in worship on the 4th of July weekend. But, on this holiday weekend, it won’t hurt us to remember that all of us came to these shores from somewhere else. None of us can truly claim to own this place, except perhaps some native peoples, who tended to believe that no one could own “Mother Earth” anyway. So, let’s close with the view of another woman who had her own vision of how we might break the bread of belonging. Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty are the words of Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese descent.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!