Tag Archives: refugee crisis

“A Lament For Times Such As These” – Sermon on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

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Scripture readings: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

 

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Many of us may have spoken these words from this morning’s passage in Habakkuk a lot lately.

Unrest, tension, and the ever-increasing division that’s taking place throughout our country as we get closer and closer to the end of this election season.

How long, O Lord, how Long!?

Devastating state budget cuts to programs and services that many in our community – including many of us – rely on.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Indigenous communities fighting desperately to protect their water and sacred burial sites. More police shootings of unarmed persons of color. The continuous bombings of innocent families in Aleppo, Syria.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Financial strain. The death of a loved one. A debilitating illness…The loss of a job. Broken relationships. Depression and anxiety.

Too often in times such as these, it can be easy to just check out. We often feel so overwhelmed with grief, anger, and pain. The needs around us seem too great, and we feel lost and defeated by a sense of helplessness. We fear the kind of backlash we might receive if we do speak out against injustice. We wonder where God is in the midst of all of this suffering, and we worry that if we express our real emotions and if we are honest about our doubts, others – and maybe even we – ourselves – will start to think we have lost our faith.

And so it becomes much easier to just shut our eyes and to ignore the cries around us – and within us. To just allow ourselves to become numb to the world’s afflictions.

And yet, we hear the author of 2 Timothy this morning urging us not to give up hope, even and especially in times such as these… For we have been saved – the author reminds us – and therefore we have been called to a holy calling, that does not allow us to shut our eyes to the pain around us.

“I recall your many tears,” the author writes from behind prison doors to Timothy, likely referring to the tears Timothy had shed over the suffering of many under the Roman Empire and over the persecution that the early Christians were facing. “I understand your sense of helplessness and why you seem to be at a loss of faith. And yet,” he continues, “I remember your sincere faith, one that has been passed on through your ancestors. One that I am sure still remains deep within you. Therefore, I urge you to remember that faith. Remember why you have that faith and who walked alongside you, helping to shape and inform your faith.  Rekindle that gift of God that is – indeed – with you, no matter how much you might feel it has been lost. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” he urges, “but rather God gave us a spirit of love and self-discipline.”

Yes, it is in times such as these, when we must hold onto our faith the most – even when we feel we may have lost it. It is in times such as these when we must open our eyes to the suffering in our midst and cry out to God in our anguish. Because we don’t just encounter God in the times that are easy, comfortable, and joyous, and we don’t just encounter God when we feel most confident in our faith. We also encounter God in our anger, in our suffering, and in our strongest of doubts. We encounter God when we step out of our comfort zones and when we face our biggest fears. Because God actually meets us right there in all of the messiness – even when we don’t see God and even when we refuse to let God in.

God is right there with us.

I love what one author shared in her lectionary devotion this week: “When I am in the midst of a tough time, I don’t always see God at work,” she explains. “Looking back on those tough times though, I can often see God in hindsight. When I was a senior in high school, my family was having a lot of trouble. God gave me good friends to support me and an outlet in music with my choir teacher and my class to express my emotions. I remember praying and begging God for resolution while I waited. What I couldn’t see until looking back, though, was how God was present in the midst of that tough time. Now I see that God provided the right people at the right time. I also see that one can’t go around pain, or over it, but we have to go through it.”

How long, O Lord, how long?!

Yes, it is in times such as these when we must go through the pain. It is in times such as these, when we need to join our voices with the voices of our siblings around our city, our country, and throughout the world in lamenting the suffering, violence, and injustice that surrounds us. 

And yet, when we just can’t find the words to say, we can look to the words of those who have paved the way for us.

“How long, o Lord!?” – We cry out with Habakkuk this morning.

“How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

How long, o Lord, how long!?

Now sometimes, we might need to stop right here with these words because we might not be quite ready to move beyond this place of lament. And that is okay. For a bit. Because there are times when we need to sit for a while in this place. There are times when we need to do our grief work. For we cannot go through the pain without first actually taking time to express it and process it.

And yet, after some time we will eventually need to move forward. Because our lament cannot just end here. It must move us to act.

And so we can look to the rest of our passage in Habakkuk this morning for guidance as we begin to move through. When we are ready, we – like Habakkuk, must take a stand at our watch-posts, and station ourselves, keeping watch: waiting with our eyes open to see God in our midst and with our ears open to hear how God is calling us to let our laments move us to action.

And when our inadequacies and sense of helplessness in times such as these get the best of us and when we feel like our faith is just not big or strong enough for us to make a difference, we can look to our Gospel text in Luke today. For, Jesus’ message to the disciples when they asked him to increase their faith in the face of such great suffering – is the same message that is intended for us. “If you have faith even the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you can say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

In other words: “Your faith is enough to make an incredible impact in the world.”

There’s a story I often think about when I feel overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness in the midst of so much suffering throughout the world.

One day a wise man was walking on the beach when he noticed a younger man, who was throwing things into the ocean. As he got closer to the young man, he asked him: “what are do doing?” The young man answered him: “well, I’m throwing starfish into the ocean.” “Why, might I ask, are you doing this,” the wise man asked him. “Well, the sun is up and the tide is going out.” The young man said. “If I don’t throw them in, they’ll all die.” Upon hearing this, the wise man said, “Don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” Just then, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he looked at the wise man and said: “Well, it made a difference for that one.”

Amen.

 

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“Welcome One Such Child. #WelcomeRefugees. A Call to Radical Hospitality” – Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

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They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” – Mark 9:30-37


Her name is Diana. She is four years old. And she has traveled with her mother and father, who are Christians from Damascus, Syria, for 15 days, mostly by foot to get to Germany. Every night, they sleep on the streets – in the cold and sometimes in the pouring rain. They have made it to Hungary, but the Hungarian police want the families to board a bus and be taken to a detention camp, where refugee families are crammed together behind fences and sometimes even inside cages. One Hungarian detention camp has been known for its police officers to throw food to the families in the cage. One reporter described this scene: it is “like feeding animals in a pen.” Some of the families decide they will try to run away so they can avoid the detention camps and continue their journey toward Germany. But Diana’s mother, Rowa, knows they would likely be chased by police officers and in their condition, they wouldn’t make it very far. Since Diana has become ill and has come down with a terrible fever, her parents decide that while they have come so far and are so close to safety and freedom, they have no other choice than to get on the bus with their daughter, and be placed in a camp. And so now four-year-old Diana, who has not been welcomed in her own home country of Syria, who is not welcomed to make Hungary a place to call home, is now not allowed to move on to a country that would welcome her as one of there own.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This is what Jesus said to his disciples in today’s Gospel passage in response to one of their many misunderstandings.

At the beginning of our passage, as the disciples are journeying through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for the second time. But the disciples still don’t understand. And now, after they enter the house in Capernaum, Jesus reveals that the disciples have completely misunderstood Jesus’ values and what it means to follow him as one of his disciples.

“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asks them. But the disciples remain silent, because they had been arguing about who among them was the “greatest.”

Now, I can’t completely blame these disciples. You see, as is the case today, in First Century Palestine, to be deemed the greatest was based on social status: the most successful, the most wealthy, the most popular, the best educated, the most privileged. To be the greatest meant – and still often means today – to have power over others. In such a system both in First Century Palestine and 21st Century North America, it can be quite difficult for any of us not to constantly seek to be the one first in line. And when those we deem as the “others” or as the “strangers” among us enter our territories (and our homelands) and seem to threaten our comfortable lifestyles and our paths to climb the social latter, we are often tempted to demonize them and to turn them away. To deny that they – too – are made in the image of God. To refuse to recognize the face of God in them.

Yet, Jesus has a different way to greatness in mind.

And so he sits down on the floor of the home, calls the twelve to gather around him, and responds: “Who is the greatest of all? Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

For Jesus, the way to greatness is not to BE first, but to put others first. To live as servants, providing love and grace to those around us. To put the well-being and basic needs of others in front of our own wants, our sense of security, and our temptation to get ahead.

For the disciples living in First Century Palestine, this was completely radical. And it is probably pretty radical for many today, as well.

But just as the disciples begin to wrap their minds around this counter-cultural way to greatness Jesus is describing, Jesus does something even more radical.

He picks up a child, places her in the middle of the disciples, embraces her, and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”

Now to many of us, this may not sound too off-the-wall. We live in a culture that – for the most part -values children. And we know quite well that throughout his ministry, Jesus loved and embraced and surrounded himself with children. However, in First Century Palestine, children were only valued in their future, when they became adults… if they became adults – for many children never survived past their young years. In their childhood, they were considered more of a burden than an asset to the rest of the family. They were another mouth to feed and body to cloth. They were the silent ones, the least of these, those who were the outcasts of society.

So here we see that Jesus’ way to greatness is extremely radical. His path to greatness in this Kingdom of God he often speaks of is nothing like the path to greatness in the oppressive Roman Empire of his day. Jesus’ path is not about climbing the social latter and befriending and caring for only those who have something to offer us.

Rather, Jesus’ path to greatness is servanthood. It is putting our selves last so that others who’ve been last can be brought into the frontline. It is picking up and embracing those whom the world deems as the last and the least, the others, the strangers, those on the margins of society and bringing them to the center with our loving embrace. It is welcoming one such child, and thus in doing so, welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him.

It is radical hospitality.

*****

When I first read this text early this week in preparation for this sermon, I immediately thought of our current refugee crisis, which has become the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This recent mass flight (or as some are calling it: this “refugee exodus”) to Europe has especially overwhelmed my thoughts, emotions, and prayers this past month.

It’s been beautiful to see that many around the world are offering radical hospitality to our brothers and sisters who are desperately seeking refuge. I’ve been brought to tears watching thousands of grateful refugees get welcomed by cheering Germans holding signs saying “Welcome to Germany” and while reading posts and stories from people who are urging their home countries to receive and resettle more refugees by making the hashtag #WelcomeRefugees go viral.

And yet, the stories of these families making the dangerous and exhausting trek to and through Europe and the images and videos of children sleeping in the streets, walking for days on end, and crying and pleading with officers who will not let them continue their journey toward safety: these stories and images have touched my core.

And when I saw an image that went viral of the lifeless body of three year old Aylan Kurdi who was swept up on the shores of Turkey during his journey from Syria by boat, I was brought to my knees and wept.

And to know that there are so many more stories of families we don’t hear about and faces of children we don’t see who are displaced and stuck in Syria as well as in other countries around the world – and even at our own border – because of war, violence, and poverty… This overwhelms me with grief.

Because these stories and the faces of these children are the stories and the faces of our children. They are the stories and the faces of our children and youth who are involved in Edgewater-based programs like Refugee One and Centro Romero and who play soccer and music at Edgewater’s International Refugee Day at Foster Beach every June. These are the stories and the faces of the children and youth in our communities: they are our neighbors. They live in our buildings, go to our schools, shop in our grocery stories, eat at our restaurants. And they are the stories and faces of the children and youth who enter our doors here at Immanuel Lutheran Church for worship, VBS, IYO, and ECT youth group.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As we hear these words of Jesus from Mark, we might also hear his words from Matthew echoing in our ears:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus, our Comforter, our Lord and Savior, who was once himself a refugee, calls us to this radical hospitality of welcoming and embracing the child, the stranger, the one who’s been outcast.

*****

If you are at all like me, you might be a bit overwhelmed with this huge crisis and wonder how on earth you are to welcome those seeking refuge across the world.

While we may not be able to single-handedly fix what is happening in Europe, in Syria, and across the world, there are many ways we can respond to the international refugee crisis and provide welcome to those in need around us. (And every act is important.) For example, we can donate to organizations like the Lutheran Disaster Response, which directly helps those seeking refuge in Europe and in Syria, and we can voice our support for welcoming more refugees in our city and our country.

We can also extend our welcome here in our own community, a community that is home to so many of our refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters. We – at Immanuel Lutheran Church – already open our doors to children and youth in our community through the multiple programs and ministries we offer, and we are in the process of trying to offer more hospitality to the children, youth, and families in Edgewater – as we currently are working on opening the Immanuel Ministry Center.

And so each one of us has an opportunity to provide radical hospitality to children and youth in Edgewater right here by voicing our support and praying for our ministries and programs, donating our gifts or money to help these ministries, becoming a tutor or a leader at IYO or ECT youth group, or cooking dinner for one of these youth programs.

We can donate to or volunteer with Care for Real, Edgewater’s food and clothing pantry, which serves many new refugees in our community or we can help a new refugee family resettle in our community and help them learn English or write resumes through Refugee One, which is also based in Edgewater. We can take a few minutes to get to know the children and youth who attend Immanuel worship on Sunday mornings or one of our programs throughout the week. And in all things, we can keep the children and youth in our community, in our country, and throughout the world in our prayers and in our hearts.

Because, what Jesus said to his twelve disciples in the house in Capernaum 2000 years ago, he says to us as well:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

May we welcome the children. May we #welcomerefugees. May we welcome the strangers and those who have been outcast. May we choose to be a people of faith who follow Jesus in this call to offering radical hospitality to our brothers, sisters, and children in need of welcome.

Aylan Kurdi

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Aylan Kurdi.

This one beautiful name brings me to my knees weeping.

And that there are thousands upon thousands of other names of beautiful and beloved children (whether Syrian, Palestinian, South Sudanese, Libyan, Honduran, Guatemalan, Rohingyan…) we don’t know, who are dying because they are desperately fleeing war, poverty, and violence and yet nobody is taking them in…

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees.

Abraham and Sarah were refugees.

Jacob, Ruth, Esther, David, Naomi, Jeremiah… were refugees.

Moses and the Israelites were refugees.

I am reminded of our commands from God:

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 22:21

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Lev. 19:33-34

God, have mercy on us, for we have sinned!