A Moral Response to Refugees

Leviticus 19:33-34
If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not do wrong to him. You should act toward the stranger who lives among you as you would toward one born among you. Love him as you love yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

You’ve all seen the deeply, deeply tragic photo of the 4 year-old Syrian boy who drowned trying to flee that war-torn country with his family. His tiny, vulnerable frame on the sandy shore lifeless, waves ebbing and flowing – it is heartbreaking, soul-breaking. A child refugee in a family of refugees fleeing a madman and a mad war, a victim of humankind’s destructiveness. This image is an iconic reminder that, like some of our Universalist brothers and sisters teach, hell is here on earth. Especially in places like Syria.

When I saw that photo, my breath was taken away for a few moments and then tears joined breaths' return. As I thought about all of it, and as I think about it now just a few weeks from the celebration of Epiphany, I thought of the often forgotten fact that Jesus when he was a toddler was like this boy, a refugee with his family of refugees fleeing a madman and mad violence into Egypt. The moment the photo captures could have easily been Jesus at another time in the same general area of the world as Syria.

Jesus’ famous words as an adult strongly resonate when considering Jesus’ own past reality as a child refugee. Those words come from Matthew 25: 

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the commonwealth 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 refugee and you welcomed me.”

When Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was giving a portrait of the Commonwealth of God, a clearer translation of the Kingdom of God. Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25 lays out what the Commonwealth of God looks like, who is included from the get-go and who is not and must do some work. Jesus finishes his long teaching with an allegory about being hungry and being fed, being thirsty and being given drink and being a refugee and being welcomed. Those listening are confused. They say, Lord, but these things didn’t happen. You weren’t ever hungry and we fed you. You weren’t thirsty and we gave you drink. You weren’t a refugee and we took you in.”

Jesus famously responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the most vulnerable among you, you did it to me.’” 

And Jesus also goes on to say the opposite, when you do not do these things for the most vulnerable among us, you fail to do them for me.

How you respond to the most vulnerable among us defines how you respond to Jesus. Actions toward the most vulnerable are actions toward the Christ residing most potently in the most vulnerable.

We often hear that we are a Christian nation, especially from our Evangelical brothers and sisters. Sometimes it is said explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Please note, I disagree with this perspective. We are not a Christian nation. We are a nation of religious freedom. But how can anyone claiming Jesus as their own treat him so badly in the form of the Other? Jesus is there in the face of each refugee escaping war and devastation. Jesus is there in the lives of children fearful and in danger fleeing a madman? Jesus is there in the immigrant fleeing poverty and hunger for a better life across a border. If we don’t welcome them, we are in no way a Christian nation, we are in no way a nation that applies, as Waitstill Sharp put it, Christian intentions.

Thankfully, people like Rev. Waitstill Sharp and Martha Sharp Cogan give us a model for seeing past the clamor and seeing the least of these and their struggles.

Maybe you saw the documentary a few months ago about the Sharps produced by Ken Burns. But if you didn’t, Waitstill Sharp was a Unitarian minister who began his ministry in 1933, the very year Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and began his reign or terror. His wife Martha joined him in ministry. 

The Sharp’s most important calling was that of refugee advocates and justice workers. Together, applying the tenderness of pastors and the tenacity of spies, they saved a number of Jews fleeing Nazi occupation and genocide. For their heroic actions, which they humbly called simple, human behavior, Israel named them in 2005, Righteous among the nations, two of only five Americans to receive this honor.

Simply put, the Sharps offer us a picture of what it truly means to treat all, especially the most vulnerable with compassion, with dignity and an open heart and an open door, even in dangerous times. 

We should note that the Sharp’s actions happened at the very time when America was strictly limiting the number of Jewish refugees allowed into the country. Instead of the immigration policy becoming looser during the Holocaust it became more stringent. 

Today, as we face another refugee crisis, this country’s newly elected president has mirrored our stance during the Holocaust where we said to those seeking refuge from genocide, “sorry, there is no room in the inn.”

The moral response, the compassionate response, the American response, is the Sharps' response: “make room.” Sacrifice the need for perfect security and comfort, as if that ever existed, and make room. Make room firstly in your heart, clear the floor of compassion, dust the dressers of care, remove the cobwebs from the high ceiling of empathy.

It is clear what the moral response is: be human, be humane.

Yet, maybe a larger question than what is the moral response is this question? What differentiates people like the Sharps or even the less courageous among us who cannot fathom turning a refugee away and those who can fathom it and make it a reality?

What marks the difference between those who say, “make room” and those who say “there is no room?” I believe it comes down two things, ignorance regarding the other and fear of insecurity.

Ignorance of the other: Most people who want to severely restrict refugees fleeing war have most likely never met a Muslim, have never sat down with them and had a conversation, have never heard their stories, their experiences, their hopes, their dreams. There is so much ignorance about Muslims and refugees. 

This kind of ignorance about and lack of familiarity with the other easily turns into a demonizing of the other. 

This demonizing effect means that the other is seen more as material object labeled "Muslim" than human soul practicing an Abrahamic faith. Only knowledge of and relationship with the other can remove this. But there must be a willingness to obtain such knowledge and have such a relationship. Openness to relationship with the Other, that's the foundation to peace.

The fear of insecurity only propounds things. This fear sadly coincides with this ignorance about the other, an ignorance that leads to a demonizing of in this case Muslims.

The worry is that the refugees coming here will turn out to be terrorists in disguise. Most “no-roomers” will point to the Paris massacre where ISIS terrorists were disguised as refugees.

We must be honest, not all refugees are Saint Theresas. Like us, refugees are full human beings. Like us, a small percentage come with anger and violence in their hearts. Indeed, there is always some risk allowing someone to reside in the inn.

But, to borrow Jesus’ question, “what good is it to gain a false sense of security, yet lose your soul?”

Or his words in Matthew 5, “If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even the Rome-bought tax embezzlers love their friends. If you welcome only your brothers and sisters, what’s so great about that? Don’t even those who believe in nothing do that?”

The soul of our nation says the same thing our churches should say, there is room for you here. “Bring me your tired, your poor muddled masses.” The open arms and open heart of Lady Liberty is fundamental to who we are. This foundation of our nation indeed is Jesus-like - making room for the refugee and the immigrant.

What is missing in our defiance of who we were? What are we missing now that makes hospitality to the stranger controversial?

Simply put, we are missing Love in its ultimate sense. In an example where the cliche is absolutely true, what the world needs now is love, sweet love.

But what is required for real, godly love is something we often don’t think about. What is required for godly love is something Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhism sage, calls “interbeing.” Interbeing means seeing that we exist together and a little of me exists in you. 

Dr. King describes it this way: “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

I am because you are. This is because that is. We inter-are. We exist entwined together even if we are an ocean or two away. 
Borders cannot stop this. Walls cannot stop this. Illegal executive orders cannot stop this.

Without an insight into our interbeing, real love, godly love, lasting love that can change the world is unobtainable.

The Sharps certainly understood this truth. In the desperate, worn faces of those seeking refuge somewhere safe, Rev. Waitstill Sharp saw congregants in need of pastoral care, in need of a shepherding to a place of safety. In the scared, vulnerable faces of French children, Martha Sharp saw her own children and her own students needing a protective, sheltering love. The Sharps lived-out the meaning of interpathy, a deeper empathy that knows we innately share each other’s pain. 

It is telling that the Sharps life-saving work involved helping children. Children so often lead us to see the truth and necessity of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interpathy. The children shall lead us, to quote the words of the Hebrew prophet. They shall lead us in this way of interbeing and interpathy. We must follow.

Maybe remember Alex. He is the 6 year-old from Scarsdale, New York who wrote a compassion-soaked letter to President Obama after seeing that haunting, heartbreaking photo of another Syrian boy, Omar. Maybe you remember that image of Omar being torn from the rubble of war and stunned in the loss of loved-ones. I am going to close my words with Alex’s words in his heaven-reaching letter. Though written to former-president Obama, I offer them as a prayer. I hope those in the halls of power, especially our new president will hear.

Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.

Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.

Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!



God which art Breath, Light, Love, help us to in spirit join the Refugee, the Pilgrim, the Stranger, those fleeing war and poverty and chaos. Help us in spirit to sit with them and hear them and see their plight and plea. Help us, O God, recall or somehow experience, even to a small degree, what it is like to be lost, without a home place, seeking a safe space, looking for a welcoming face, needing a sincere embrace. Help us to sense in our souls some semblance of their fear, their stress, their anxiety, their memories of the horrors they are escaping, their hope for a better future. Help us to show as Jesus embodied “compassion toward them.” Help us to stand with them, and walk them to a warm home, a hot meal and tea, and a soft bed to rest in. Help us to look past what separates us and see what unites us – we are all sojourners just passing through and thou art a God of mercy and Thou joins us along Thy way as Thy Breath, Light, and Love. Amen.

Epiphanies & Conversions

A couple days ago, January 6th, was the Day of Epiphany. The word epiphany is actually one of my favorite words. It is a lovely word. And it has several meanings.

When it comes to the Christian holy day known as Epiphany, there are actual two versions of Epiphany. Western Christianity’s version of Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men coming to visit baby Jesus. We Three Kings of Orient Are. They come bearing gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In Eastern Christianity, Epiphany, sometimes called Theophany, commemorates the Baptism of Jesus in River Jordan. Today is actually the Sunday we commemorate Jesus’ baptism.

There are a couple more general meanings of the word. It can be a religious term that refers to an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being. So in Greek mythology and Hindu mythology there is a range of epiphanies, the appearance of various gods to bring a message or reveal a judgment.

Lastly, there is the common usage we hear a lot. This is how the Mirriam-Webster dictionary puts it:

a (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something

I experienced an epiphany listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – I saw the truth of God – that would be an example of this definition.

(2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
      b : a revealing scene or moment

An example of these definitions? Today, I had an epiphany – Winter in New England is no fun.

Epiphanies at their most powerful lead to transformation, to some kind of conversion to a new way of being. In the epiphany experienced by the wise men who come to visit baby Jesus this is certainly true. They come and are changed. They head back home different somehow. They feel closer to God. They experienced a moment of deep peace and redemption and they journey home with a sense of freedom and a deeper insight into the meaning of Grace.

With the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, we can imagine something changed in John in the process of baptizing Jesus. John experienced the real meaning of humility and selflessness in Jesus. He also heard the voice of God claiming Jesus as his beloved.

But I also think Jesus experienced some kind of transformation.

The Gospel of Mark begins with the Baptism of Jesus. There is no Nativity story in Mark. No story of angels coming to Mary and Joseph. No virgin birth. No shepherds or wise men visiting. Mark begins with an adult Jesus arriving on the scene and John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus as the anointed one, the promised one, the one. Jesus is baptized and then is tempted in the wilderness and passes the test, then Jesus returns to begin his ministry.

Does Jesus simply go through the motions during his Baptism? Was it simply a thing he was expected to do, something to get out of the way so he could begin his ministry? Or did the Baptism hold some importance and meaning in Jesus’ heart?

I think it was a very meaningful experience for Jesus.

In the early days of the church, all the way up to the 300’s, there was a school of the Jesus tradition that would come to be known as Adoptionism. The school asserted that Jesus became the Anointed One and the Son of God upon his Baptism. The Holy Spirit in the form of the dove comes down as Jesus ascends fromm the water, anointing Jesus. The voice of God declares that this One, this man, is the beloved Son of God. This amounts to God adopting Jesus as Holy Son and sending Jesus off to do the Father’s work of salvation.

Now, whether this is correct doctrine or not I won’t get into. But the fact that a whole school was built around the event of Jesus’ baptism in the earliest days of the church, and that the oldest gospel, the gospel of Mark, begins with the Baptism, tells us that the Baptism of Jesus was no insignificant experience. It was incredibly important in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus felt God’s presence extraordinarily. Jesus experienced the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus heard God’s voice break into time and place. This scene of transcendent glory is only matched by the story of the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

The Baptism also represented Jesus accepting his calling, his ministry, his appearance to the wider public as Son of God. It was a moment where there was no turning back, the point of no return.

Conversion means “turning toward” something. Well, Jesus with his Baptism, where he experienced the anointing of the Spirit, a mystical experience that marked his life, turns toward his mission in the world, his ministry to the world, his message of love for the world. It was a turn to the work at hand, the work of the Father. It was a turn where there was no turning back.

What about our own epiphanies? What about our own insights into the truth of Love, changing our hearts and minds? What about our own conversions, our own deep experiences of God, our own heart-turning toward God?

In mainline churches like this one, we often dismiss the reality of conversion, of heart-transformation, of turning toward God, of a heart-decision to truly see Jesus and truly internalize his life and teaching and follow the Way of Love he taught and lived and died for. We also dismiss the reality of mystical experiences where we sit and commune with, have quiet time with God in a personal way, and experience the indwelling of the Spirit. It is something more Evangelical churches talk about and foster in its members. “Growing in the Lord,” it is called. Some call it “Getting to know God.” I call it sitting with God. In sitting with God we naturally experience sacred moments, peaceful moments, strengthening moments.  

There was a recent article in the Washington Post that talked about a survey of churches in Canada. The headline says it all, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving.” I wonder what is lacking. The lack of spiritual and emotional buy-in in the liberal church? The lack of a devotional element where we feel a deep connection to God or to the Truth of Love or to Jesus the Way-Shower? The lack of expectation when it comes to contemplating and studying sacred texts, practicing prayer and meditation, and worshiping together?

I am not talking doctrinal correctness here. But devotional depth.

So I will asking in the next few Sundays this question – what does it mean to be a devout progressive follower of Jesus? What does it mean to be a devout Universalist? I will be answering these questions in the next couple Sundays. I look forward to it and hope you do too.