The Preference of God and the Presence of Christ

This is a sermon I gave during "refugee week", if you're not in a reading mood you can listen here

The sermon bounces out of a “for the whole family” talk where I showed a clip from Ratatouille (early in the film when the colony is forced to flee the farmhouse by boat, and Remy is separated from his family) and spoke about it as an analogy for a refugee journey. I also spoke about seeing Chasing Asylum earlier that week.

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The Biblical narrative is rich with stories about journeys across or through treacherous waters. If we allow ourselves to expand beyond water, the Bible is basically a library of stories of people migrating either freely or by force from one place to another… a collection of migration tales, forced exiles, and refugee stories. Abram being called by God, Moses and the Israelites in the dessert, young David fleeing Saul, Ruth and Naomi returning to the homeland, the disciples scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen.

Some has dubbed our present age, the “age of migration” – According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs there are approximately 244 million international migrants worldwide. And it was revealed this week that there are a record 65.3 million people displaced worldwide – basically 1% of the global population, or 3 Australias.

Many of the journeys that migrants and refugees have to undertake, are perilous and filled with danger. For us, in Australia, the journeys that those desperate souls take to reach our shores are very often by boat, across an unforgiving ocean. An ocean as vast as it is unpredictable. Our psalm captures some of this feeling today – the power and danger of the water is evident, but so is the Psalmists faith, who, by recalling how God made a way for the refugee Israelites fleeing Egypt, confirms that despite the foreboding nature of the waters, God is more powerful. The Psalm is an attempt to hold God faithful, to cry out to God to remember God’s actions and promises in light of deep disturbance and desperation.

When the waters saw you, O God,

    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;

    the very deep trembled.

The clouds poured out water;

    the skies thundered;

    your arrows flashed on every side.

The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;

    your lightnings lit up the world;

    the earth trembled and shook.

Your way was through the sea,

    your path, through the mighty waters;

    yet your footprints were unseen.

You led your people like a flock

    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

The refugee faces a journey that often requires people to leave behind not only possessions, but also people. Many of the men featured in Chasing Asylum had to go before their families and are now waiting, hoping for the situation to change so that they can be reunited. And unthinkable though it may seem, to leave behind loved ones in search of freedom and life - there is something in our Gospel reading that captures this necessity in the pursuit of new life and liberation:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It is not surprising that migrants have identified with Jesus, a migrant Christ, who not only experienced the plight of a refugee as a child, but who says such things as the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

Even if they reach the hoped for destination, the refugee journey is still not secure. Upon arrival (if they are not detained illegally), refugees and migrants are often met with many of the concerns of the flesh that Paul warns us against – Jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy… idolatry. While the others are mostly self evident, idolatry is the one worth honing in on for a moment. When we, or when those who oppose immigration and welcoming refugees, do so out of some kind of fear of things changing, out of fear of losing a certain ‘way of life’ or national identity, then that is a kind of idolatry. For the nostalgic past, the golden days of old are, in those cases, being raised to lofty heights, worshipped and protected, over and above the needs of people. Over and above the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control

So how do we come to think of those migrants and refugees undertaking such perilous journeys? Facing unsafe and unpredictable seas. Having to leave behind loved ones without security that they’ll ever be able to look back and see them again. Unsure of what kind of new land, what kind of reception awaits them at the end. How should we frame our conversations and understandings of migrants in light of the Biblical narrative and our Christian tradition?

I have used the lectionary readings as a way to wade into our discussion on how we might view and respond to the needs of refugees. But I think we need to look for a deeper undercurrent in Christianity’s Biblical narrative and theological tradition.

I have two thoughts; the first concerns the preference of God. 

There is an expression, which captures a great theological truth, and perhaps the overriding message of the Old Testament prophets – “God has a preferential option for the poor”.

When God enters the Exodus narrative, it is not as some abstract principle or ethereal ideal that all can strive for. No, God enters the narrative decidedly and emphatically on the side of the oppressed Israelites. God takes sides against Pharaoh and the Egyptian oppressors.

God’s grand entry into the narrative of human history is to take sides with the poor. And we know that it is the poor, more than simply the Israelites, whom God has a preference for, because once Israel is established, God will raise up prophets to condemn the Israelite elite for their neglect of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. God has a preferential option for the poor. This is not to say that God does not love all people, or that all people are not made in the image and likeness of God. But it is to say that God, much like any parent who discovered that two of their children had withheld food from the third, would take great action to right that wrong, would go beyond, would not hesitate to choose sides to ensure that the hungry child is fed and that the other two made aware of their unjust behaviour.

Jesus shows this preference as well; firstly, we could say, through the very act of becoming incarnate as a vulnerable child within a marginalised and oppressed people – choosing for the locus of God’s revelation a forgettable town and a forgettable people. Further, throughout his life, this preference is made clear, as Jesus chooses company with the downtrodden, praises the offering of the poor widow more than the rich, and declares that the gesture which will be remembered is that of the woman washing his feet more than the Pharisee who gave him dinner.

In light of all this, when we come to consider the refugee in our midst (or attempting to reach our midst) we must see God’s preference for them. For they have nowhere to lay their head, no guarantee of home, no guarantee of safety, security or material provision – they are those who have most often born the brunt of the decisions of oppressive forces, and for that reason the Spirit shows preference. This should shape our attitudes and actions on this topic. James Cone says it thusly, “By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering”.

The second thought concerns the presence of Christ.

I want to briefly touch on 2 passages, Matthew 25 and Acts 9. Both well known passages – it’s the “what you did for the least of these you did to me” and Saul’s road to Damascus experience, where he discovers that his persecution of a minor and marginalised group is synonymous with the treatment of Christ.

Both of these passages deal with the idea of Christification. The people in question – these marginalised, suffering people come, in some special way, to represent the presence of Christ, represent and perhaps embody Jesus in the community they encounter. Jon Sobrino called these people the “crucified people” those who suffer and die under unjust systems and structures -- “in this crucified people Christ acquires a body in history”. Through this embodiment the christified least join in Christ’s revelatory, messianic, and salvific work.

This means that when we act to greet the refugee, to offer welcome and hospitality – we are not solely performing acts of charity – we are encountering and welcoming into our midst the Risen Christ. Just like for those who fed the hungry or clothed the naked, or welcomed the stranger in the story of Matthew 25, what we do for them we do for Christ. If this is the case, then our care for the refugee is a concrete expression of our worship or discipleship. For Daniel Groody, this means, “unless we act to alleviate [the migrant’s] suffering, we are like those who stood by and watched Jesus die on the cross”.

This is why Joel Cruz says there can be “no salvation outside of the poor, and the church must find its identity and purpose serving them”. The christification of the migrant and refugee not only provides added imperative and greater meaning to the communities which form around their welcome and love, it also provides the refugee with greater agency. Rather than merely becoming a recipient of charity, they, by being christified, by joining with Christ, gain agency. Becoming Christ in our midst, they shake us from our apathy, challenge our idolatry, sanctify us through acts of love, drawing forth from us the fruit of the Spirit, leading us into the a deeper awareness of the presence of Christ and more authentic discipleship.

Luis Rivera puts it this way, the “denial of hospitality, care, and justice separate us from Christ [but] the practice of love and service for the migrant [or refugee] allows the Christian community to serve and be in communion with Christ”.