Migrant and Refugee Sunday
Readings: Micah 6:6-8 Matthew 25:31-40
I have heavily annotated this sermon (the small print) as I know I will be challenged on the facts, given previous experience.
Years ago, there was a family in dire straits. The government was gearing up for a massacre in their village and they got wind of it. So they fled over the border to a neighbouring country and stayed there until the government changed.
Now, if that were today, and they were fleeing to Australia, we’d be complaining about them jumping the queue—not that there is a queue, actually. We’d suggest their boat ought to be turned around and sent back. And if it sank, too bad.
(People will die. They died the last time the navy forced boats back to Indonesia and they will die the next. They have always died. David Marr in the Sydney Morning Herald)
I’m not making it up. We’ve all seen this in the press. It’s come from our political leaders as well as from the shockjocks. And it’s been happening for years in a "race to the bottom" by both major political parties.
"Our principle criticism was of Prime Minister Howard himself, who during he re-election campaign was vigorously stoking people's fears of foreigners after September 11 to justify his summary expulsion of asylum seekers who had reached outlying Australian territory." HRW executive director Kenneth Roth. He said asylum seekers had clearly been entitled to consideration of their refugee claims in Australia, "But in blatant violation of international refugee law, he (Mr Howard) summarily expelled them to other places without ensuring their safety from persecution," he said. Human Rights Watch report.
And if this family had made it to Australia, we’d put them in an isolated camp, way up in the desert, or on a remote island, where they couldn’t get proper legal assistance, and would have poor medical facilities, and where they would be even more traumatised than when they arrived.
Baxter, Nauru, Christmas Island, Manus
We’d call them illegal immigrants, even though there is nothing illegal about being a refugee. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has said recently that boat people are “not doing a very Christian thing” by trying to come to Australia.
Myth 8: People who come by boat are ‘illegals’. Fact: Anyone who comes to Australia seeking protection – regardless of whether they come on a boat or on a plane – has a right under international and Australian law to apply for that protection. As an asylum seeker, they have legal status.
This is all rather sad, really, because this family I’m talking about, was the family of Jesus. Jesus was a refugee, fleeing from Herod, says the gospel of Matthew. (Matt 2) If the Egyptian border had been shut to keep out the refugees, the way we try and keep boat people out, well... we might not have a Christian faith. They might have died of thirst in the desert.
The first time I pointed this out in a sermon, I had people yelling out at me from the congregation. At least one person walked out. Over morning tea I thought I was going to be thumped by another person.
Such people sometimes tell us that Jesus was different—although not why—and that they are talking about the economic migrants who are jumping the queue and are not really refugees at all.
Which is funny and sad all at once, because Jesus’ ancestors were economic migrants. When it got dry in Israel, Joseph brought his family over to Egypt to help them survive. (Genesis 42ff)
After a few years, things didn’t go so well in Egypt and they had to make a run for it. We call that event the Exodus; and Israel has been told, by God, forever after:
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 aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19:34)
And it says in Deuteronomy 10.19:
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And, just by the way, all of us Anglo Australians, were economic migrants. We came from England looking for a better life. Even in my life time we were still taking over the land from the original owners, without asking. I grew up on Nukunu and Ngadjuri land; I was told they were all dead, which was a lie; just like Adelaide folk were likely told there were no Kaurna people left; just a few distant aborigines left in the outback and on a few isolated missions.
How can we pretend that people who have come not to take over the country, but simply asking for shelter, and crying for mercy, do not deserve help, given what we have done?
[Peter] read us the story from Matthew 25 this morning. Just in case we didn’t get what it was saying, it goes like this:
Jesus is imagining the Last Day, when he thought all people would be brought before the King for Judgement. Who gets judged righteous, and enters into eternal life in this story?
It says nothing about the people who go to church,
or who are citizens,
or who have the right papers.
It says nothing about those who believe the right things,
or who have the right theology.
It says nothing about those who sing the right kind of hymns,
or who help in the Op Shop,
or who work on the Church Council...
or those who preach or who are elders...
or even those who are in the right religion.
The ones who are adjudged to be righteous—
right with God—
and are to enter into eternal life, are the ones who,
when the Lord was hungry gave him food.
And who when he was thirsty, simply gave him something to drink, without getting their theology right.
When he was a stranger they welcomed him.
When he was naked, they gave him clothing.
When he was sick, they took care of him.
When he was in prison they visited him.
And the people who missed out, the ones whom Matthew figured were going to the place of eternal punishment, they wanted to know when was it they saw the Lord like this, and they didn’t help him?
This isn’t fair!
What do you mean?!
When did we see you a stranger and not welcome you??
When were you in prison and we didn’t visit you?
And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” When you said the boats should be turned back, you turned me back. When you said the refugees should be left to rot on Christmas Island, you said I should be left to rot. When you said they were illegal, you said I amillegal.
We get told there is a flood of refugees. We are made to feel we will be over run. It is insinuated that the boats are full of terrorists.
Well, “ more than 90% of boat-people who have arrived in Australia in the past fifteen years have been accepted, eventually, as genuine refugees.”
And as for the flood, well...
Of the 10.4 million refugees under UN mandate between 2005 and 2009,... the people we took meant ... Australia was ranked 47th among those countries taking refugees. We hosted 0.2 per cent of the global total...
Australia was the 68th country on a per capita basis for taking refuges,
and 91st relative to our national wealth....
During 2009, more than half a million asylum seekers were recognised as refugees worldwide, with just 3441 (or 0.5 per cent) in Australia. This last lot of statistics is from the Federal Parliament itself, by the way.
You know what this adds up to? It is roughly one per cent of the total migration to Australia during the year. We’ve got nothing to complain about.
Most asylum seekers arrive on planes, not boats. It is a tiny number compared to those who overstay their visas each year. Why are we panicking?
Even given an increase in 2009, the annual average number of boat arrivals to Australia is tiny in comparison to the 50,000 people that over-stay their visas each year, or when taking into account that on average 95% of asylum seekers actually arrive in Australia by plane.
Of course even one refugee is one refugee too many. It is a human life-- a person-- who is being traumatised, even destroyed, in direct contrast to what God desires for all people, which is justice and peace.
So maybe there is a flood, when you look at it like that.
But what about the other floods we have in Australia, like in Queensland, and along the Murray. Do we say to the refugees from those floods, “No, too many. Form a queue. Yeah sorry you’re being washed a way, but form a queue anyway. No. No getting on a boat to be safe....”
Of course not. We deal with the flood as best we can, even though we can’t manage it or control it. And then we tidy up afterwards. That’s the Australian way. We give till it hurts. We risk our lives. We drop everything. It’s also the Christian way. We simply help those who need it. We don’t dole out our help and compassion based on colour and creed.
I have a friend working in a UN refugee camp. (S) He writes in the last few days: “3 more cobras outside my tent last night. That makes 6 in 8 days.” And he wrote, “6 large frogs have now been electrocuted by the wiring to my tent and are floating in the lake I now call home;” he is in the luxury accommodation.
Other friends were put on a truck because she had been shot. (S & P) The rest of their village had to walk to safety... and most of them died of thirst.
A colleague (KC) told me of the friend who rang from Africa in the middle of the night on a mobile phone: “We’re making a run for such and such a camp... our camp is under attack here. I’ll ring you if we make it.”
Many refugees are arriving from Afghanistan, and we criticise them for “jumping the queue.” But the Australian Embassy Website for Afghanistan says: “The Australian Embassy in Kabul operates from a number of locations that are not publicly disclosed due to security reasons. The Australian Embassy in Kabul has no visa function.”
There is no queue! Another friend (M) spent 17 years in camps before making it to Australia. Did she get in via the queue... at last? No. A family member finally made it to Australia, and sponsored her as a migrant.
What is the Christian thing to do? It is to stop crucifying the Son of God again (Hebrews 6:6) by putting people in camps in the desert and on tropical islands and traumatising little children and torturing people with years in virtual jails.
It is to feed the hungry. It is to clothe the poor. It is to welcome the stranger. It is to treat them as we would wish to be treated if we had to flee our country. It is nothing more and nothing less.
I challenge you to imagine that. To imagine things were so bad that you risked your life on a boat to get to New Zealand or to Indonesia. How would you like to be treated when you arrived, traumatised by the death of family, by rape, by beatings; ripped off by boat owners and smugglers, unsure if anyone you knew at home is still alive; not knowing if you will ever see home again.
Will you treat anyone less well than you would like to be treated? Will you vote for a politician who could not show mercy? Would you remain silent if it were your child on one of those boats?
The ones who are adjudged to be righteous—right with God— and are to enter into eternal life, are the ones who, when the Lord was hungry gave him food. And who when he was thirsty, simply gave him something to drink, without getting their theology right. When he was a stranger they welcomed him. When he was naked, they gave him clothing. When he was sick, they took care of him. When he was in prison they visited him.
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