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Sunday, 6 September 2015

Refugees? Migrants? People?

The situation was changing so fast this week that this sermon was being updated right up until the last minute - you might prefer to listen to the podcast to hear what I actually said!

“Even the dogs,” said the woman who had come to Jesus to beg healing for her daughter, “Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers!”

It's always difficult to know what is going on in this story – why was Jesus so foul to the woman? Very unlike him, he's normally courteous, even to women who are no better than they should be. But here he is, in Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon, having a brief holiday, and this woman comes to him, and instead of healing her daughter, he says “Let us first feed the children. It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words – bugger off, my mission is to the Jews, not to the likes of you!

At least, that's what it reads like. Of course, we don't know the tone of voice he said it in. I wonder whether, at this stage in his life, when he is obviously exhausted from so much that has gone before, he really isn't certain who he is and what is mission is. And maybe, maybe when he says that, he is wondering aloud whether he ought not to reserve his energies for his own people. And she replies that even the dogs get to eat the leftovers, and this, for him, is the voice of God, telling him that yes, he can and should heal her daughter. Which he promptly does, and when she goes home she finds her daughter peacefully asleep, with no sign of whatever had been tormenting her.

Whatever Jesus was, or was not, thinking when he confronted this woman, he did heal her daughter. He showed that His love has no boundaries. It is not just a particular race, or a particular tribe, who are God's people. It is each and every one of us.

And in our first reading, from the letter of James, we heard this: “My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don't have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.”

And in today's Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, there was this verse:
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate.”
“Or crush the afflicted at the gate”. I wonder what that reminds you of? I know what it reminds me of.

And unless you've been living under a rock for the past two months, you will know that there's a major crisis going on in Europe. Today, there are more refugees than at any time since the end of the second World War. War and famine have driven countless millions – I'm not exaggerating, there have been at least four million people who have left Syria alone – countless millions from their homes to save their lives and, they hope, find a better life elsewhere.

Roughly 3,000 people are trying to find a new home in Europe every day. Three thousand people whose home lives are so unbearable that they can't stay there any more. They confide their life savings to someone who offers to get them a safe passage, and find themselves on a rickety, overloaded boat that may or may not get them across the Mediterranean. Many, far too many, don't make it. Or they find themselves locked in the back of a lorry, again probably overcrowded, very hot, no water or sanitary facilities. And again, many die.

And if they arrive on Europe's borders, when they do, they find themselves blocked off by barbed wire fences. Not Welcome Here, is the message they get, although, to be fair, a great many countries do welcome them. Germany, for one. But it's a matter of getting there.

And many of them speak good English, so where they want to come is here. After all, if you're going to have to resit exams so that you can work as a doctor or an architect or whatever in Europe, it's a lot easier to do it in a language you already speak than to have to spend a couple of years learning German or Swedish first before you can sit the exams. Or they have family or friends who have been able to settle here.

And we don't seem to welcome them, either. They are forced to live in squalor in a makeshift camp in Calais – although there is talk about building a more permanent camp for them – starving and hopeless, having to pay their minders for the chance to try to get on a lorry, with many so desperate that they have tried to run through the tunnel, or even to swim across, and have died. Our politicians talk about “swarms of migrants”, as though they were not quite human.

And yet each and every one of them is an individual with his or her own story. And most of these stories are of hardship, of persecution, of famine, of war, of flight, of despair. They are human beings.

We call them “migrants”, lumping them all under one umbrella. The term is supposed to be neutral, less laden with emotional baggage than “refugee” or “asylum seeker”. It isn't, of course, because people then talk about “illegal immigrants” or “economic migrants”. And it's noticeable that if we Brits go to live abroad we aren't called migrants – I did the whole economic migrant thing back in the 1970s, when I went to work in Paris for some years after leaving school, but nobody called me a “migrant”, economic or otherwise – I was an expatriate! And people talked about cultural exchange, and our young people learning about different lifestyles, and so on, and it was all considered a Good Thing.

And, of course, many of your families came over here to work and contribute to our society and learn about our way of life – and have enriched this country beyond all measure! Maybe you can remember the bewilderment of arriving here, not too sure of your welcome, not too sure what life in this cold and rainy land was going to be like.

Even if someone does make it across the Channel, their problems aren't yet over. They aren't allowed to work while their claim for asylum is being processed, and although they do get an allowance, it really isn't very much. Not really enough to live on, and certainly not enough for a comfortable lifestyle. And if they are found not to be in imminent danger of death back home, they are thrown out again, and if that's on their records they can't really go and try their luck somewhere else in Europe.

I don't know what the answer long-term is. The politicians will have to work that one out between them. I think it's finally got to the stage that the political will to do this is actually there, which is a good thing. They need to work out some way, perhaps, of screening migrants before they get stuck outside barbed-wire borders, or locked out of railway stations, or forced to live in squalid camps.

But what can we do? You and me? Well, first and foremost, of course, we can pray for them. We can pray for those forced to leave their countries, those forced to hand over large sums of money for very dubious means of travel, those forced to risk their lives again and again to try to get to safety.

We can stop believing most of what we read in the Daily Mail, and read round from various sources – the BBC is relatively impartial, and it's not difficult to find first-hand accounts from people who have visited the camps themselves. Obviously we mustn't be naïve – while most people are genuine refugees who only want to find a safe place where they can live and work and bring up their families, there will be a few rotten apples. We know there are, of course – look at the traffikers who are responsible for so many, many deaths from sinking ships and overcrowded lorries, and who charge people for the “privilege” of breaking their ankles or worse trying to get on trains. But by and large, they are ordinary people like you and me whose lives have been disrupted by war or famine.

And we can donate. There are various organisations, mostly in Calais, who collect donations of things like toothbrushes, tents and tracksuit bottoms, to distribute to those in need. There doesn't yet seem to be a regular dedicated place where you can drop off your donation, but there are various charities who will see to it that a cash donation goes where it will do most good. And there are occasional “pop-up” collection centres – there's one in Hackney, but it's only open today, so not much good to us; their van will be going over tomorrow. And, of course, our local food banks are always needing donations, even if it's only a cheap packet of pasta or tin of meatballs. Many of those who use their services are refugees.

What we can't do is nothing.  "Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers".  " What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life?

It is our problem, because these are people for whom Christ died. And I don't know about you, but I don't want him to be saying to me “I was a refugee at that camp in Calais, and you did nothing to help.” Do you?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your sermon on the tragic current refugee situation. Also lovely to hear your voice :).

    As you mentioned, isn't it revealing that our great old 'enemy' Germany is setting the pace in offering significant help on both a national level and on an individual level. Bless 'em.

    Those who don't want our country to help and yet claim we are a 'Christian Country' need to spend more time reading and heeding Jesus' words.