Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 28C, October 9th, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week we focused on the reading from the book of Lamentations. If you recall, it was written in response to the destruction of Judah in 587 BC. The Babylonian Empire had conquered Judah, destroyed its capital city of Jerusalem, and carried off many Judeans into exile, where they would be forced to serve the Babylonian Empire. Still others had fled for safety, knowing that if they stayed in Judah they, too, would only be killed or captured. They lived as refugees in Egypt. Few remained in Judah, and they lived in a climate of fear as their new overlords crushed their communities and their ways of life.
And so they lamented. They grieved. They got angry at their oppressors, the Babylonians. Last week’s reading comes from the book of Lamentations; today’s Psalm is also a lament, this time from the people who were carried into exile and captivity in Babylon. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” You can feel their grief, their confusion, their anger. What are they supposed to do now? How are they supposed to live? Are they supposed to live? Was God still with them, even in this foreign place? What do they do now? How can they be God’s people if they’re not in God’s land, not with their own people, if they’re a minority and can’t arrange their own laws the way they believe God is calling them to live? Will it all be over soon? Should they keep all their arrangements temporary, hoping they’ll be able to go home soon? And you can be sure the people in exile in Egypt were thinking those same questions, too.
Throughout the world today, millions of people are asking the same questions. There are about 65.3 million displaced people in the world. About one out of every 113 people in the world can’t go home, for one reason or another. Some of them are fleeing violence; some the disastrous effects of climate change on their farms; some the actions of their own governments. Many are internally displaced, that is, they have left home but stayed within the borders of their own country. 21.3 million of them are refugees, who have had to leave not only their own homes but their entire countries in the search for safety. Of those 21.3 million refugees in the world, over half are under the age of 18. To those people, these words from the Bible don’t tell a story about strange people long ago and far away. To refugees, the stories of the Babylonian Exile are their stories, the stories they live every day. How can they live in a foreign land, knowing their homes have been destroyed?
The Babylonian Exile is far from the only story about refugees in the Bible. God’s people have spent a lot of time on the move, for one reason or another. Some, like Abraham and Sarah, were drawn forward by God’s promises to leave their homeland behind and move to a new place, a place where they would always be strangers in a strange land. Some, like the Babylonian Captives, like Joseph, were carried off by force. Some, like Jeremiah and the exiles who followed him to Egypt, were fleeing persecution and violence. Some, like Ruth and Naomi, were fleeing economic and environmental devastation. Some, like the Hebrews in Exodus, were escaping into freedom. Even Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus fled from Judea to Egypt while Herod the Great was searching for Jesus to kill him. In all these cases, they left their homes behind, going into an uncertain future, trusting that God would take care of them. Sometimes that trust in God was all they had.
Maybe that’s why the ancient laws given by God in the first five books of the Bible repeatedly insist that God’s people take special care of foreigners, strangers living among them. For example, Leviticus 19 says “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” And again, in Exodus 20: “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” And throughout the law and the prophets is a constant drumbeat telling God’s people to take special care of widows, orphans, and foreigners.
But the foreigners themselves—the strangers, the refugees, the exiles—how were they supposed to live? Jeremiah’s words in our first lesson were written specifically to them: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” In other words, don’t just stay in temporary camps waiting to come home. The Exile would be a long one, generations long. And even after the Babylonian Empire was itself destroyed by the Persians and the Jews could return home, many stayed in the places they had put down roots. It was the beginning of the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world. God had given them new homes in what had once been a foreign land. And they had built houses and gardens and businesses and multiplied and worked for the good of their new communities, and they had prospered.
Refugees today face that same choice, except most of them don’t have the benefit of a prophet telling them how long their exile will be. Most refugees don’t want to be resettled; like the Judeans in the Exile, they hoped to return home soon. They want their homeland to be safe so they can rebuild their communities, and so they wait and hope that the conflict that drove them out will cease soon. The average refugee lives in a refugee camp for a few years and returns home as soon as peace comes. The small percentage who are permanently resettled in other countries stay in refugee camps for an average of twenty years before being resettled in a new land.
And what are they like, these strangers who come to their new homes grieving and destitute, with nothing but the clothes on their back? We hear a lot about immigrants and refugees, in the news and through the rumor mill, and most of it is completely wrong. For example, immigrants (whether refugees or legal immigrants or illegal immigrants) commit fewer crimes per capita than native-born citizen. They are less likely to steal, start fights, vandalize, cheat, do drugs, or hurt people than the average American is. And they’re not burdens on the system. If they get help right at the start to learn our language and find homes and get jobs, they are less likely to need social services from government or charity than the average American is over the long haul. They don’t take jobs away from Americans, because they are significantly more likely to start new businesses than native-born Americans. Immigrants and refugees create jobs. In fact, the five cities in the country with the fastest-growing economies are also the five cities with the largest percentage of immigrants. There are a few bad apples—every group has them—but they are only a tiny part of the whole.
God told the Exiles to build communities and seek the welfare of their new home. Immigrants and exiles and refugees today do that too. The question we face today is, how are we going to respond to them? How are we going to respond to the strangers in our midst? The Bible is quite clear: whenever it talks about strangers, it says we are to ensure they receive both justice and mercy. The Hebrews were a nation of immigrants, people who travelled and found new homes in the places God led them. And because of that, God said, it was especially important that when they had a homeland, they remember and respect those who didn’t. America is also a nation of immigrants: every one of us is descended from people who came here from somewhere else. My own great-grandfather homesteaded in 1916. Our own ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, not speaking the language or knowing the customs, trying to start a new life in a safe and prosperous place.
There is a lot of fear in America today. Fear of people who are different, mostly, whether they are our fellow Americans from different walks of life or different political beliefs, or people who come here from different lands hoping to build a new life. And there are a lot of people, particularly politicians and news media, who have a lot to gain by keeping us afraid and nervous. But we as Christians are called to put aside our fear, to trust that God will be faithful no matter what. Just as God was with the Exiles in Babylon; just as God was with our own ancestors who first settled this prairie; just as God is with those today who have no choice but to flee their homes.