Beyond the Talking Points: The Current Refugee Crisis

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Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to be the judge of a high school debate competition.  Not surprisingly one of the debate topics centered around “the current refugee crisis.”  Unfortunately I only got to listen to one such debate.  Those arguing in favor of accepting refugees did an okay job at listing out several economists, historians and anthropologists who all argue that accepting refugees will most likely improve a country’s living standards over a long term period of time (up to 1oo years!).

Those arguing against it did a fascinating job of listing out everything that is happening today.  They had current and relevant data on the spread of disease, the increase of poverty among nationals and the outbreak of violence.  It was all quite disconcerting and overwhelming, especially when that team pointed out, “All our opponent’s data is about what might possibly happen.  Ours is about what is happening.”

They won the debate.  The reality is that when people cross borders, particularly because of persecution or poverty, they bring a lot of bad stuff with them, not intentionally but it happens.  This team’s crude listing of current statistics did a lot to undo the pie in the sky optimism of those who claim, “yeah but none of that will happen because, you know, love.”  Sadly that seems to be the argument many are making even today.  However, the threats are very real and we would be foolish to deny that.

Yet I remain in absolute favor of open borders worldwide, starting with our own.  I do so not because of a pie in the sky optimism but because I am a biblical Christian.  I am not a fundamentalist one but I still believe the narrative of Scripture should be given absolute primacy in all affairs.

The narrative of Scripture leaves little room for gray when it comes to feeding, clothing and accepting foreigners, even dangerous ones.  God does it and God wants us to do it.

You can look at the prologue to the 10 Commandments where God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  This statement, upon which the 10 commandments rest, calls to mind the recent past where the Israelites were strangers in a foreign land.  God not only rescued them but accepted them into God’s presence.  We serve a hospitable God.

You can also look at the entire book of Deuteronomy, most notably passage like chapter 10:18-19 where, “God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Then there is chapter 16 where Moses takes great pains to clarify that the benefits of the national festivals extend to the foreigners who reside in their towns.  Then the book ends with Moses pronouncing a curse upon anyone who refuses to grant foreigners justice (see 27:19).

You can also study the minor prophets who pronounce God’s wrath upon Israel over and over again because they did not accept strangers and foreigners (most notably Zephaniah 7:10).

The Psalms too proclaim that our God loves the foreigners and defends their cause.  (See Psalm 94:6 and 146:9)

I wish I had the time to cite another 100 examples but clearly the Old Testament God loves immigrants, rescues immigrants, feeds and clothes them and insists we do the same.

But this isn’t just about Israel and God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God who deserted the heavens to welcome wayward sinners into the hospitable presence of God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God reaching out to make room in his house for us.  At the same time, Jesus is the ultimate example of one who was crucified for being so hospitable.  And Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Therefore, although I am very much inclined to accept the prognostication of the anthropologists, historians and economists who argue in the long term it will be to our benefit, I still know that in the short term we might get crucified and not just with violence but also with disease.  The danger of hospitality to refugees is very real.  What happened in Paris on Friday was very real.  The threats of disease and violence and increased poverty (at least in the short term) are big problems.  But if we trust and follow the God of Scripture, these are problems to solve, not problems which should cause us to reject God’s commands.

In close, I remember the early church.  You probably didn’t know that the number one cause of death among early Christians was not martyrdom but disease.  The Roman government had a way of isolating the sick and letting them die in extreme poverty.  This was all so that the healthy didn’t get sick and it worked!  It turns out that the healthy do stay healthy when they don’t go around sick people.  The early Christians didn’t care.

They were so overwhelmed by the picture of a healthy God embracing a sick creation (and getting crucified for it) that they went to the sick, fed them, clothed them, took care of their needs and then all died of the same diseases.  They did this not only willingly but joyously because they believed in The Great Physician who would one day heal them, even from death.

If we aren’t willing to become a bit poorer, a bit sicker, a bit less safe for the benefit of others, even our enemies, I just don’t think we really understand the grace and compassion of a healthy and loving God who was crucified to welcome the very dangerous, very sick and very poor sinners into a holy nation.

At least that’s my two cents.

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Preaching the Eucharist in a World At War

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I spent the week doing many things, not least of which was preparing a sermon on Communion in my sermon series on “Why We Worship.”

As many of you know evangelical churches seem to be falling back in love with the sacrament after about 70 years of forgetting about it.  I managed to get in early on this trend because I was lucky enough to attend a youth group in high school where my youth pastor celebrated the Eucharist every week.  In fact, I would have liked to preach 6-8 sermons just about Communion but my preaching calendar prevented me.

So I have to try to scratch the surface in one sermon.  But what do you say in one sermon that summarizes the 2,000 year tradition of eating bread and drinking wine together?  This has been my question and my problem.  I started with John 6 where Jesus says, “unless you eat my body and drink my blood you have no part in me and I have no part in you.”  This verse leads to the wonderful sentiment expressed by many lately that when we partake of the Eucharist we don’t just recall Jesus’ death but we are “re-membered” into Christ’s body, meaning we become members of Jesus’ body again.

One of the central acts of the Eucharist is the breaking of bread to remind us that the body we are membered into is a broken one.  I absolutely love how vague Paul is when he recounts the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.  Paul says that Jesus took the bread, broke it and said, “do this in remembrance of me.”  Does “do this” mean “eat this.”  Or does it refer to “break” so that Paul meant, “Break in remembrance of me?”

If it is “break in remembrance,” then maybe when we eat the broken body we become a broken body.  The Eucharist does not stop there.  We go one step further and drink spilled blood.  The blood and water that poured out of Jesus’ side are contained for us in the Eucharist goblet of wine.  This reminds us that the solution to the world’s suffering might not be in taking the blood of others but by shedding our own.

And in a world saturated with conflict, especially over the last few months in places like Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and now Ferguson, MO, it might be important for the church to be re-membered into Christ’s broken body.  Many in our culture currently seek to label the good guys and the bad guys in any given conflict, then encourage us to exercise violence accordingly.  When we listen to them, we find ourselves looking for the good lions who will rush onto the scene and destroy all the bad guys in paw’s reach.  We cry out, “Who will break their bones and take their blood?”  In our prayers we ask God to send down those lions.  And we are not surprised when many hurt and broken people volunteer, excited they finally get to execute “swift justice.”  Then we are surprised when the media puts them under a fine microscope and shows us they are no conquering heroes, but very flawed individuals whose pursuit of “swift justice” destroyed what they were trying to protect.

In such a world, in such a time, the Eucharist reminds us that to save the world, God didn’t come as a lion but as a lambe.  God’s body was broken and the blood shed and that begins the process of making things right.

When I finger those small pieces of unleavened wafer in my hands on Sunday mornings, I find myself asking the question a popular worship songs asks, “Who could have thought a lamb could rescue the souls of men?”  Who would have thought that a broken body and shed blood saves the world?  Then when I eat and drink, I become re-membered into that body, a broken body that refuses to break other’s bodies (even the most vile) and all in the hope of resurrection to come.

Beyond the Talking Points: Let’s Reclaim Persecution

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Yesterday Robin Williams died.  My Facebook exploded with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about what Robin Williams actually taught us.  Then a very well meaning person said, “Yes, an actor has died but lets not forget Christians are still being beheaded in Iraq.”  A few hours later several had commented on her post trying to justify why they care more about Robin Williams then the Christians in Iraq.

Of course caring about Robin Williams and caring about Christian persecution are not mutually exclusive.  You can actually care about both at the same time.  In fact my Facebook has been filled for 2 weeks with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about the persecution.  This morning, as if on cue, I saw a link to another blog titled, “Why Christians Need to Grow A Pair.”  As the title would suggest, the author spends a few hundred words ranting about why we aren’t doing enough about the persecution in Iraq.  She argues that we quickly ignore and scroll past the stories about it because it makes us uncomfortable.

And she is right.  It has made me very uncomfortable and I struggle with what to think and feel about it all.  Even during church on Sunday I fought with myself during the prayer time to put words to the tragedy.  I want to be fair.  I want to be balanced.  I want to avoid propaganda of any sort but I also want to acknowledge that these persecuted Christians are us.  They are our brothers and sisters and we should care about them.

This is a difficult dilemma for a pastor.  The source of my discomfort is the word “persecution” has been way over used recently.  The religious right overuse it to score cheap political points.  The older people in my community overuse it to argue the world is getting worse and worse because their narrow definition of Christianity isn’t broadly accepted.  And people from most faith traditions overuse it in their propaganda to get those who don’t agree with them to be sympathetic to their cause.  In fact ISIS even uses the word “persecution” to defend its action.

But in the spirit of “growing a pair” I think the Iraqi tragedy gives opportunity to reclaim persecution for what it really is.  And the pictures in that blog give us a pretty accurate definition.  Persecution is not being told you can’t pray in schools.  It is not giving rights and privileges to people who don’t agree with your religious beliefs.  It is certainly not the Supreme Court deciding against your particular brand of faith and it is not an elected leader disagreeing with you.

Instead persecution is being driven away from your home and threatened with starvation or execution because you believe in a God who doesn’t endorse violence.  Persecution is fleeing into the wilderness without food and water because you refuse to take a side between two warring factions.  Persecution is choosing not to renounce Christ when your children are at gunpoint.  Persecution is denouncing the violence of the world when that violence is targeted against you.

I had a wonderful professor in seminary who told us, “You all talk about the church being persecuted and the church in exile.  Exile is having a fish line run through your lip and being led in chains away from your home to be slaves in a foreign land.  That is not what is happening to the church in the USA right now.  Instead what is happening is what happens when the owner of your favorite restaurant sells the joint to someone who doesn’t like you.  You used to go to the restaurant and you were given the best seats and your food was prepared meticulously.  But now the new owner makes you sit by the kitchen door, when every time the door opens it bangs against your table.  Then they bring your food late and it is cold.  It is frustrating as can be, but it is not exile.”

In that spirit, can I recommend we reclaim the word “persecution” for what it really is?  Can I recommend we come face to face with the true horrors that are happening overseas?  Look at the pictures.  Study them to the point where you are defenseless against them.  After that reclaim your faith.  I would recommend you use the words of Jesus, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”

The Iraqi Christians are the blessed ones.  They are the privileged saints.  And that confession does not excuse the violence or the perpetrators.  In fact, it does just the opposite, it condemns them.  Because when ISIS curses them, the Christians are blessed.  When ISIS kills them, they live eternally.  When ISIS drives them out of home, they find eternal rest in God.  When ISIS imprisons, God liberates them.  This is how God’s wrath works itself out, by blessing those who are cursed.

Neither does their blessedness let us in America off the hook.  Again, it does the opposite by putting us in the driver seat.  We are called to join God in doing the work of blessing the persecuted.  The author of the “grow a pair” blog recommends we join God in three ways.  First we should pray for them.  Second we should give to them.  Third, we should use our social media.  Every prayer offered, every dollar given, every retweet or share online increases our unity with the persecuted.  As we pray, give and share we participate in God’s blessing to them and at the same time, denounce and condemn the deeds of hatred and violence.

So lets use our prayers, gifts and apps to honor the martyrs because they are the true saints, the ones who have stared evil in the face and chosen Christ.  I hope if persecution ever does find me, I can face it with half the courage they do.