December 13, 2015, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Matthew 2:13-15
Today is the 3rd Sunday in Advent, a day that tradition allows us to sneak a little joy into this season of expectant waiting. This is the Sunday when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. I imagine that as a little like releasing a little steam from a pressure cooker, so that it doesn’t explode. Mom used to let my brother and me open one present on Christmas Eve for the same reason.
The Session and Board of Deacons looked at the Zephaniah passage with me at their meetings last month. One of the leaders you elected said it sounded like God was saying, “Relax, I got this; it’ll all be OK.” to the Israelites. The seven verses that make up today’s Old Testament lesson are bursting with joy, with promises of deliverance and God will be enthroned in their midst and they shall be brought home. And this promise comes to a people who are not especially unfaithful, but listless, a people who have practically forgotten what it means to have hope in the Lord. The coming Day of the Lord, which the prophet mentions earlier in the book is a day of judgment as well as a day of deliverance. And it is a word of hope delivered to a people who have practically forgotten what it means to hope.
In some ways as I read this I feel like I’m reading a letter that was written to someone else. What does it mean for me to have hope? What kind of deliverance does the prophet lead me to anticipate? As I approach the celebration of the birth of the one I call Lord and Savior, how can I experience this word of powerful and profound hope?
I am also aware of the spirit fear that surrounds society this month. In the wake of the terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists in France last month and the shooting in San Bernadino, CA last week there is a lot of fear in the air. And fear leads people to do dangerous things, just as extreme ideology of all kinds leads people to do dangerous things. Some of the fear that has been expressed has been directed at refugees, especially refugees from Syria this month. World Relief, the agency that resettles refugees sent to this part of Wisconsin invited faith communities to observe today as Refugee Sunday. Church is the best place to bring your fear, remember this is the month when we sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” when we sing about Jesus’ birth.
Oh, and Jesus was a refugee. Really, that reading from Matthew about how Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt because Herod was seeking to destroy the baby king who was born in his realm, would qualify the holy family for refugee status in today’s terms. Legally, refugees have to prove a “well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality or political opinion” that precludes them from returning to their own country. They seek to settle permanently in a third country. They fled Judea, went to Egypt and were eventually resettled in Galilee.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 and it is much too complicated for me to hope to explain this morning. As a nation, Syria had about 22 million residents in 2013, the last time there was a reliable census. As of last month 4 million Syrians had registered as refugees, that is they had left Syria for another country, and begun the process to be resettled permanently in a third country. Estimates are that 7.6 million Syrians are “internally displaced,” that is, they have fled their homes, but are still in Syria. They are not in the refugee pipeline at this point, but they have moved to another place in Syria because of the war, or the fear of the war. That means that in just over four years more than half of the people in Syria have been driven from their homes by the war. Imagine the disruption to a nation where half the population has had to move to escape violence.
About 850,000 refugees from Syria have tried to reach Europe by walking to Turkey, getting into some kind of water craft and trying to reach Greece. Those images have been in the news for months. About 93% of those fleeing Syria are Sunni Muslims, about 3% are Christian—this is nearly identical with the composition of the Syrian population nationwide. The civil war has not discriminated in whom it has uprooted. Muslims are every bit as likely as any other group to be harmed by the war—caught in the crossfire.
Refugees from Syria who will be settled in the United States are currently in temporary quarters, refugee camps, in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Those who make it to Greece hope to be resettled in Europe.
When refugees are processed as expeditiously as the system allows, it takes about 18 months from application to resettlement in the US. There are 13 discrete steps to the process and 12 of those steps take place overseas. One of the steps is a background check for each applying refugee that includes interviews with their neighbors in their home country. In the case of Syrians, that’s really difficult logistically—because half the population has moved in just the last four years! So it’s common for families to wait three years or more before arriving in the United States.
Certain voices in the news have argued that we need to screen refugees before they resettle here. We must and we do. In fact, I’ll use a line I often use when people send me inflammatory messages via email that are not true, “You will be relieved to learn...” “Refugee vetting has an excellent record. Of 785,000 refugees admitted to the United States since 9/11(/01), just three have been arrested for terrorism-related charges, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.” [NYT, 11/19/15, p. A29, Nicholas Kristof] That’s .00038% of refugees admitted to the US in the last 14 years have been arrested for terrorism. The system that is currently in place is extremely thorough and successful. That’s a fact that should drive out fear.
In the past week several statements have been sent to faith leaders about how we as a nation, and we as Christians can and should respond to refugees. One came from the Presidents of Presbyterian Seminaries, which said this in part:
“Because of fear our politicians and too many in the media try to win our votes for themselves or their candidates by demonizing the refugee and immigrant. If we follow them we will turn from following Jesus who was once a refugee in a foreign land, and we will ignore the rich biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger. We resist such enticements and pledge to be advocates for laws that regulate in a just and orderly manner the flow of refugees and immigrants.” From “An Appeal to Christians in the United States”
Another statement that crossed my desk was signed by 1,000 American rabbis and sent to Congress. The letter concludes with six incredibly moving sentences:
“In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. [This is in reference to the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 refugees from the Holocaust which was not permitted to land in the US, and was sent back to Europe, where many of the passenger will killed in concentration camps.] In 2015, let us not make the same mistake. We therefore urge our elected officials to support refugee resettlement and to oppose any measure that would actually or effectively halt resettlement of…any group of refugees. As Rabbis, we take seriously the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger.” We call on our elected officials to uphold the great legacy of a country that welcomes refugees.”
In the 10 commandments there is this phrase, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…” [Deuteronomy 5:15]
God’s liberation of the Hebrew slaves is central to Judaism, and Christians have taken that central fact and built the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The Living God is one who longs for all people to be free from slavery. The Living God desires that all people dwell in shalom, which doesn’t mean merely “peace” but “health and wholeness.” As followers of the living God our faith demands courage from us. That is, facing our fears of strangers, facing our fear and stepping beyond it. And we can do that. I have seen you do that.
One Saturday each month we unlock the doors and feed breakfast to anyone who finds their way to Magnolia Hall. I remember the first time we did that—I knew it was a success when I heard about a half dozen men laughing in the kitchen at 6:45 in the morning.
Now, after more than a year and a half of serving breakfast to strangers we’re more comfortable and less tentative with new people. And we see Community Breakfast not as something we do for other people, but as a gift we offer to everyone—and more importantly, as a series of gifts we receive from our guests. There is an expectation that our guests have something for us. And our experience welcoming guests makes us less afraid. Hearts are changing one by one for people who take risks, and step beyond, or around, their fear. Meeting people and making friends. To me, that points to the joy that Zephaniah writes about, a joy and deliverance that we can scarcely understand…but joy and deliverance, shouting, singing, rejoicing that refugees fleeing Syria and finally reaching a new, safe place are feeling.
I’ll close with a modern expression of that joy, which I found in the Christian Century this week:
The boat carrying Nabil Minas bounced on the surf off the Greek Island of Lesbos as the Syrian refugee waded through the water to set his children on the rocky shore. Then he fell on his face and kissed the ground. A Christian, Minas crossed himself and covered his face with his hands, weeping with joy. Then he stood up and hugged everyone, including Lisbeth Svendsen, a Norwegian volunteer who was embracing Minas’s wife and daughter. “Thank you,” he said over and over.” [12/9/15, p. 12]