No one leaves home unless home chases you…No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. No one burns their palms under trains, beneath carriages… No one crawls under fences. No one wants to be beaten; pitied. I want to go home, but home…is the barrel of the gun. And no one would leave home, unless home chased you to the shore…unless home told you to quicken your legs, leave your clothes behind, crawl through the desert, wade through the oceans, drown, save, be hungry, beg, forget pride…No one leaves home until home is…saying, "Leave. Run away from me now. I don’t know what I’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here."
Excerpts from Warsan Shire's poem Home
“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Like many of you, I have been transfixed, horrified by the stories of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. This past week, especially heartbreaking were the images of three year-old Aylan Kurdi washing up on shore in Turkey. We have since learned that his family in Canada had tried to facilitate his immigration, but were turned down, because the United Nations had not officially recognized them as refugees. This reality, along with the massacre of Kurds at the hands of the so-called Islamic State, sent them on their treacherous, deadly journey by boat.
His death has become a kind of vivid image that has shed necessary light on a world in crisis. In the days that followed, there have been some glimmers of goodness in the larger story: Hungarian civilians swarming the Budapest train station to offer food and assistance; Austria opening the borders for transit; Germany agreeing to provide asylum to some. But for every moment of hope, it seems like there are thousands of agony. As long as war continues, people will seek safety elsewhere. As the poet Shire says, “No one leaves home unless home chases you.”
We are in the middle of our worship series on worship, where we have been looking at the various beats, moments, strands of what it is that we do here week in and week out. There is an order, a rhythm to worship – one that may not be immediately obvious until we pull back, reflect, and explore. And that’s exactly what we have been doing.
So here’s the question for today: what do people seeking refuge have to do with what we do in worship? Isn’t worship about our relationship with God? Isn’t the whole focus of worship for us to give glory and praise to God, and God alone? What do politics, current events, international issues have to do with any of this?
It’s a fair question. If we look at the map of worship, it is the hearing of the Word that is right at the center of it all. We gather together on the outskirts of town, make our way toward the main square, preparing for what we encounter there. We drop our guards, confessing our imperfection in honest transparency, and thereby opening ourselves to God’s mercy and forgiveness. We do all of this in anticipation of what we encounter in Scripture. And once we have met the Spirit within the Word, everything else we do is a response to what we have heard and known.
So what is it that we hear in Scripture today? We continue to read from the Letter to the Hebrews, this anonymous missive that has a Jewish audience in mind. It is a significant part of our own understanding of the continuity of God’s story from the Hebrew Bible into Jesus and beyond. There is a lot at work there, of course. Today’s lesson tells of the great heroes of faith: of Abel and Noah, of Enoch and Abraham and Sarah, all of them evidence of those who lived the faithful life before the birth of Jesus. And each one of them demonstrated how faith, faith in God, is rooted in hope, in what we cannot yet see.
The author then singles out one of the major threads of these biographies and weaves it into the central metaphor of faith. Noah gathered everything he held dear and put it onto a boat to ride out the storm. Abraham and Sarah followed God’s call to leave their native Ur of the Chaldees, in modern-day Iraq, and head toward the land of Canaan, now Israel and Palestine. These, and other, giants of faithfulness were strangers, aliens, migrants, refugees. They were looking for a new homeland, knowing they could not return to their own. They sought a better place, that beautiful place God had prepared for them.
That’s all fine and good. But here’s the thing: Scripture isn’t, actually, the goal. It may be at the center of our worship, but it is not the object of our worship. We read, study, learn, cherish the Bible; but we do not worship it. The purpose of Scripture is to point us to God. And in doing so, the hope is that it will transform us so that we will embody the faithfulness we encounter there.
So we turn on the news. We see fearful civilians piling everything they can carry into boats, few of them seaworthy. Others are making their way on foot, rejected by one country and hoping for welcome in another.
And then we return to our own faith story, where we see that those who fled are not unique. Flight is not an aberration. It is, in many ways, the central, shared experience. Even Mary and Joseph carried their infant Jesus into exile, finding safety in Egypt from the wrath of King Herod. In the words of the poet Shire, their own home had said to them, “Anywhere is safer than here.”
God’s desire at all times is for us to connect the dots between then and now. And there are times, such as during a refugee crisis, when that connection strikes me as very straightforward. Individually, we may not have experienced the trauma of fleeing home to find shelter in another place. But it is the central story of our faith. It begins with Noah, continues through Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, spends hundreds of years in captivity in Egypt, follows Moses for two generations toward a land brimming with promise, sets roots down for a while, finds itself cast into exile again, is on the move with John the Baptist and the disciples and an apostle named Paul, and finds its fullest embodiment in the Son of Humanity who has nowhere to lay his head.
Look: I’m not naïve. I know that national politics and international law are complex realities. They are not governed by purely religious principles – nor should they be. There are contradictory moralities at work. In the forging of national identity, there is a kind of tribalism to which we consent by necessity. There are economic realities, political battles, ideological principles that come into play. In other words, governments will make choices that are not necessarily the ones that we would make.
That all said, here is the guiding principle of faith as I see it, one that calls us to action today: the church, as the body of Christ, is called to embody what we encounter in Scripture. In this instance, we are meant to be welcome for the stranger. We are supposed to become that God-built city that the world is longing for.
I don’t know if our own nation will do anything to help out. I’m still waiting to see if we will adopt the metric system. Whatever the case may be, I don’t see how we, the church, can wait to act.
I want to point you toward a resource for that very purpose. Our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has an arm called Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The website is up here in case you want to visit it and find out more. PDA, as it is called, is working on two fronts on this particular crisis: one is with churches in Hungary and Europe making humanitarian aid available to the refugees; the second is with the Presbyterian Church in Syria and Lebanon who are providing comfort and aid on the ground; and the third is by helping Syrian refugees relocate here to the United States.
The fundamental principle in all of this is that we are not solitary agents in our faith. We have been led to this place and supported by, as the author of our lesson puts it, this “great cloud of witnesses”, those who have come before us, gifting us with the rich inheritance of faith in God through Christ. Who are the people in your cloud of witnesses?
There are many that come to mind for me; one that I am reminded of today is a friend who is known to many of you. The Rev. Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel, now retired, was the Founder and Director of Atlanta Ministry with International Students for many years. Oglethorpe Presbyterian was one of the founding churches, and we still support their vital ministry, with several of our members serving on their Board.
Fahed, by his own identity, is a Palestinian Arab Israeli. He was born before the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1948, during the war, he and his family fled their village while their mother stayed vigil in their home. They found shelter in a neighboring town, and were among the relative few fortunate enough to return home. Fahed came to study in the United States. His own story highlights the contrast between the hospitality that flows in his blood and the relatively isolated welcome he received here. That experience, as an international student largely left to his own devices, led him to establish this ministry, founded on the principle that hospitality is central to the Christian call.
Over the years, if you have been a part of this ministry, whether volunteering for one of their events or befriending one of the students, would you please stand for a moment? I know from many of you that the impact of these border-crossing friendships is such that they have lasted through the years, long beyond the required time commitment.
For me, Fahed was central in my call to ministry. I was a young, drifting college graduate, who found welcome in his office while I was trying to figure out what was next. After a few twists and turns, I found myself applying to several seminaries. Fahed came to Chicago on behalf of the Atlanta Presbytery when I was ordained. Fahed was here when I was installed as your pastor ten years ago. Fahed baptized my oldest child. In short, Fahed’s own ministry of welcome to this spiritual refugee has shaped me and my ministry to this day.
In short, Fahed is one of many in the cloud of witnesses that has helped shaped me and my faith. I am sure that you have your own that you remember in one way or another. And having remembered them, today we also remember that we are called to join with that great cloud. We were made to embody that faithfulness we have inherited, so that others might be recipients, as they move out in faith.
And that, in essence, is what we do in worship when we hear. We listen to the Word of God as we see and year it in Scripture. We read the stories and lessons of all of those who have gone before us. We remember the great cloud of witnesses who live within Scripture. And yet, hearing is not a passive act; not in the least. It is an act that, when we are truly open, we are changed…transformed…moved. And being so graced by God, we set work building God’s city for all of those who are looking for home in this restless world.
May it be so.