Awhile back I was actively involved with mentoring refugees who had been resettled here in Sioux Falls by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. It was a privilege to walk alongside an individual or a family as they negotiated the very hard transition from a war-torn nation where genocide was destroying tribes because of long-held resentments that reached back hundreds of years. In my training for the ministry I learned that even though a refugee is freed from the impending threat to their life with their refugee status, they were now in a new kind of refugee status: a stranger who had lost everything–land, culture, family–they held dear to them to live in a new land with a culture and language that is vastly different from what they had escaped. I could spend much more time addressing what I observed over those years, but I would like to share what came back to mind as I read today’s Office of Readings.
In reality we are all refugees to some degree because we are not at home in this world’s culture, or at least we should not feel at home. The language and the mind-set of the culture should feel foreign to us. The values of the culture should feel odd when we try to fully embrace them. We should feel like sojourners rather than denizens. The LORD Jesus Christ emphasized this in so many ways as he taught His disciples and the wanna-be followers who tagged along during his earthly ministry. Today’s passage from Matthew 8 is just one exchange he had that reveals to us how we should then live:
“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Another of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But Jesus answered him, “Follow me,
and let the dead bury their dead.”
Jesus wasn’t conveying to his followers that a home or a dead relative wasn’t important, he knew the heart of the men who were asking the questions and could see the reasons for not following him were excuses to stay in their comfort zone. As I read the passaged I recalled a conversation I had with one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who I was helping tutor in order to get his GED. During that conversation, I asked him how had he and the other Lost Boys had survived as orphans during the years of wandering further and further away from their destroyed villages. He replied with words that are forever etched in my memory. “We had God.“ The gaze of his eyes were set on the horizon and I imagined all the moments of despair and hopelessness he must have felt as he literally ran for his life and how God revealed himself to him. After a few moments of silence I asked Deng if he still held to that truth now as a refugee in America, his answer stunned me. “In Sudan we knew God was all we had and all we needed. Here in America I notice that people have ‘God and…,’ I am afraid I will forget God when I get what you American’s have.” We talked about that for quite a bit because I was the one who needed to learn to live as a refugee in this world and Deng was my sage. I am a better person because of Deng’s influence on my life.
Like the men in today’s gospel I was prone to be more concerned about where I lay my head rather than Who I can rest in. I was prone to allow earthly obligations and societal norms to cloud my eyes and detract me from the values of God’s Kingdom. My “God and….” included loop-holes and self-justification. My “God and….” had the disturbingly familiar image of my SELF. My “God and….” was a trinity of me, myself, and I. I would spend hours fretting over what people thought of me or all the ifs and buts that I used to qualify my faith in God.
I am sure that it is not an accident that The Church offers up an example from Abraham’s life in today’s reading. We do well to remember what the God of the Old Testament required of the great heroes of our Faith. Abraham lived much of his life as a refugee, the LORD intended it so. “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you…I will bless you…All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” We will never know how Salvation History would have looked if all God’s people put their faith in what God said and obeyed accordingly. Because of Abraham’s obedience to the LORD we can see how the Story of Salvation did unfold to reveal what LORD intended through His people: Abraham and his descendants. Like us, the people of God got into a lot of trouble when they chose to worship “God and….” and over and over the LORD drew them back by reminding them of their ultimate purpose. Prophets would regularly hand down a message from God to His people that usually began with, “On that day…..” A vision of the “promised land” would then be told where justice and mercy ruled the day. And then God’s people would forget Him because the distractions of what the culture offered up was seemingly more attractive.
It’s the human condition, we forget to remember who we are, where our true home is and what we are to be about. The LORD, ever-patient, allows history to unfold but He is always calling us back to where we belong. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament is the handbook for refugees! The exhortation to remain faithful to what we have seen and heard about our identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God is strong. Abraham is recalled as the example for us as we sojourn in the kingdom of this world: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents…for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God….” Abraham had struggled with trying to serve “God and….” It didn’t go well for him, but in the end he lived his life worshipping God, life improved! The key to the map of faith was this: “…he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,…”
How about you, friend? Do you see this world as a foreign country? Does your faith in God include an “and”? What does your “God and….” look like? Perhaps you worship God and…political party or position or reputation or family obligations, or stuff. “God and….” has many faces!
Heavenly Father, remind us again that your Kingdom is not of this world. In you alone we are truly at home, draw us back to You.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.