Note: This is the text from a sermon I preached on Sunday, June 23, 2019 – World Refugee Sunday. It was two days after my wedding.
World Refugee Sunday is one of my favorite Sunday’s of the entire year. The book of James warns us that we shouldn’t have favorites and those of us in ministry are taught that no Sunday should truly be more special than any other, for the purpose of every Sunday is corporate worship of God and the fellowship of believers; yet, here I stand, unapologetically confessing this to you on one of my favorite Sundays. Declared by the United Nations in 2000, June 20 is World Refugee Day. Soon thereafter, the World Evangelical Alliance along with several Christian denominations declared that the Sundays before and after June 20 would be recognized each year as World Refugee Sunday. In recent years, the trend of recognizing its legitimacy as a liturgical holiday has grown alongside the refugee crisis taking place around the world: a growing epidemic concerning which I’d now like to share some statistics with you that I received from the United Nations Refugee Agency.
-As of the end of 2017, there were 68.5 million individuals worldwide who had been displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.
-1 in every 110 people globally is either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee.
-3.5 million refugee children are unable to attend school and receive an education
-Since 2015, more than 1.4 million persons have taken the chance to swim the Mediterranean Sea or board unseaworthy dinghies in desperate attempts to flee Northern Africa and the Middle East. Over 10,000 have drowned in the process.
Now, many would prefer I keep this out of the pulpit. They would argue that what I’m discussing is a political issue and that politics don’t belong in the church. I overwhelmingly agree with them that this is a political issue but couldn’t disagree more that politics don’t belong in the church. Jesus was not only political – he was adamantly outspoken about the politics of his day. He was defiant as he challenged governing laws and those who would seek to enforce them, religious laws and religious authorities, social customs and the upper echelon of society who sought to keep class divisions in place. Jesus was very political and so should we be as well.
However, one thing Jesus never was – was partisan. You see that’s what we should really be concerned about with politics in the church. We should be political but we should never be partisan. Politics when used in it’s purest sense allows us, even when we disagree, to work together for the common good. It creates empathy, allowing us to think, to feel, to sense what the “other” is thinking, feeling, and sensing. When partisanship creeps in, prejudice comes with it. The empathy stops and all the preconceived notions of the “other” keep us from working together for the common good. Partisanship creates “me vs. them” and inserts the lie into our minds that the “other” is selfish, the “other” is bad, and the “other” doesn’t belong.
I mentioned that over 10,000 people have drowned fleeing persecution across the Mediterranean Sea. Among the approximately 216 who drowned in September of 2015 was Alan Kurdi. You may not recognize the name but I would almost guarantee that you would recognize his picture. You see, Alan Kurdi was a 3 year old Kurdish boy who was fleeing with his family during the Syrian Civil War in which Kurds were being persecuted. In the early morning hours of September 2, 2015, having been denied asylum multiple times and desperate to escape persecution, Alan’s family of four along with 12 others boarded a rubber inflatable boat intended for only 8 people, with no life jackets, and cast away for Greece. The boat capsized shortly after it launched. A now infamous picture shows Alan’s lifeless body washed up on the beach of Bodrum, Turkey.
I remember getting home late on September 3, 2015 after a rehearsal. I crashed on the couch in my living room after a long day and turned on the TV. The image of Alan Kurdi spread across my television. I’ve never been the same. I watched for the next several minutes as the news reporter told the story of what happened and I wept. I thought of my nephew Lawson, merely 5 years old at the time, and found myself consumed with the thought, “What if that was him?”
Politics isn’t the reason there are 68.5 million displaced individuals in the world. Politics isn’t why 3.5 million children aren’t being educated. Politics didn’t kill Alan Kurdi; partisanship, fear of the “other”, and a feeling that they do not belong is the cause.
When I was in 5th grade, my mother and father divorced. My mother won custody and moved my sister and I with her from Alabaster, AL back to her home town of Anniston. The majority of her family still lived there and she desired for us to be closer to them. At first, things were great – I was able to be closer to cousins my own age as we all lived on the same street in the same neighborhood, often playing together, eating together; it was a great time in my life. Something happened over the next year and my mother’s relationship with the rest of her family soured. Soon, we weren’t playing together, we weren’t eating together, and we rarely saw each other. Many assumptions were made and it caused a rift between my mother and her family. When I was in 6th grade, my mother suddenly lost her job. She struggled to find work and soon thereafter, we lost our house. I still remember sitting in my mother’s van as she called relative after relative asking if we could stay with them. We lucked out and one of my aunts let us come to their house. We weren’t there long before they asked us to leave. We were back in the van and, once again, my mom called several relatives. One of my family members told my mom that they would pray for guidance on what to do. At 11 years old, I almost lost my faith that day as I witnessed my family choosing prejudice. That family member did end up letting us stay with them, although it was never a feeling of welcome, and eventually, our lives were back on track in a positive light, but much of the damage had been done; in my mind, to my family, I didn’t belong.
We are currently facing an epidemic of outrageous proportions. Millions of men, women, and children around the world are being told they don’t belong. They are being told they don’t belong by their countries of citizenship – that they aren’t the right ethnicity, the right color, the right gender, the right religion, the right sexuality, the right ideology – and they are being hurt through the abuses of power and force. Then as they seek refuge from this persecution and from poverty and starvation, they are told they don’t belong because they aren’t the right nationality or aren’t going through the right processes which take years and resources far beyond their reach. They find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place both of which are plastered with giant banners that say “You don’t belong!”
Meanwhile, Christ tells us in our Gospel lesson that:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
He will separate them not by age, not by race, nor by gender. He will not separate them as Americans from Mexicans, he will not separate them as Egyptian from Kenyan, he will not separate them as Israeli from Palestinian. No, he will separate them in one way:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘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.’”
Christ will divide the sheep from the goats solely based on the ways in which they have and have not cared for his people – for his family.
On Friday, I made a vow to Becca. I made a vow to “love her as I love no other.” I made a vow to “share all that I am with her.” I made a vow to take her as my wife through “sickness and health, through poverty and plenty, through joy and sorrow; now and forever.” We can all agree that when I do not uphold these vows, I fail her as her spouse. There will be times that it happens and we will do our best to derive mercy and grace from Christ to forgive each other and work to better ourselves but it all starts with our promise to one another.
From that same vein, why is it that we make promises to Christ that we will follow him, we will be his disciples, we will love him and obey him; yet, when he gives us Matthew 25, we do not act?
John Wesley tells us to, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” I tell you that when we feed all the hungry that we can, we welcome all the strangers and refugees that we can, we clothe all the naked, house all the homeless, heal all the sick, and free all those in bondage that we can and we do it with a blind eye to the laundry list of demographic statuses – when we do all of these things that Christ explicitly directs us to do, I tell you that we are doing it to Christ. And when we don’t, when we let partisan beliefs blind us to those in need, regardless of socioeconomic status or race or gender or nationality – when we don’t help the refugee, in the same way, we do it to Christ himself. Christ looks at the American business man, the Honduran farmer, the Israeli mother, the Palestinian father, and the Kurdish child and says, “You are mine. You belong.” When will we do the same?