Refuge, Refuge

Joshua 20
September 15, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Way back in the Dark Ages, after I graduated from college and before I had decided what to do with my life, I spent three months traveling the US with a college friend.  When I left on my trip in September, I said goodbye to a family of seven: my mother, father, older brother, and three younger sisters — but when I returned three months later, it was to a family of nine.  During my absence, my parents had acquired two more children, a 13 year old girl and her 15 year old brother who had spent the previous year of their lives in a Malaysian refugee camp.  This was during the Vietnamese refugee crisis when almost 800,000 Vietnamese fled their country in boats, many of whom died during the passage when their boats capsized from overcrowding, or they drowned in storms, or were attacked by pirates, and those that did survive languished in refugee camps set up in the bordering countries.  My parents watched the news footage of the Boat people and their suffering, prayed about the situation, and decided to open our home to two children.  They contacted Catholic Family Services which works on refugee resettlement, and that is how Anh and Quang came to live with us.  They arrived in December, the week before I returned home from my trip: I bursting with stories about the beauty and bounty of the United States which I had seen in my travels, and Anh and Quang fresh from the horror of a country devastated by war and the squalor of a refugee camp.  The contrast between our experiences could not have been greater and was accentuated in those first few months as we watched Anh and Quang try to adjust to things that we took so much for granted.  They were mesmerized by toilets that flushed.  They had to be taught to sleep between their sheets never having had more than a ragged blanket for cover.  They struggled to wear the layers of clothes necessary for a western NY winter, and at Christmas, after graciously opening the presents we had placed under the tree for them, they carefully wrapped them back up and put them on the shelves in their rooms, the gifts too precious to them to actually use.

Quang lived with my family long enough to graduate from high school after which he got a job in Rochester, content to be a tradesman.  Anh, however, had higher aspirations.  She was a diligent student.  The first thing she had done when arriving at that Malaysian refugee camp as a 12 year old was to sign up for English lessons.  When she came to live with us, she applied herself wholeheartedly to her school work.  She got her high school degree and then continued to live with my family while she attended SUNY Geneseo, earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry.  Soon after, she met and married a Vietnamese doctor, and the two of them now run a health care practice in Missouri.

Because of Anh and Quang, I am admittedly biased when discussions of refugees come up.  Refugees to me are not statistics: they are two teenage kids all alone in the world escaping the horrors of a life I can’t even begin to imagine who, when given a chance, might turn into family.

After WWII, in an effort to provide relief to people displaced by the war, the U.S. Congress enacted the first refugee legislation, a set of laws that was later expanded after the Vietnam War to include standardized resettlement services for those seeking asylum in our country.  Since that time, the number of refugees admitted to the US each year has fluctuated but in the last few years, the government has been drastically cutting the number of people allowed into the country and recently there has been talk of stopping the program all together.  Consequently, pundits and politicians are engaged in loud arguments about whether openness to asylum seekers is part of who we are as a country; whether immigrants contribute to society or detract from it; the practical importance of providing a release valve to countries experiencing political upheaval, and the nature of our humanitarian obligations as a society.  Those discussions are centered on the question of whether providing asylum is a fundamental American value and I want to say upfront that while I may have personal opinions on that matter, I am not a political scientist.  I am not a historian, and so I cannot speak with any expertise on what makes up “American values” but I can speak to with certainty and conviction about our Christian values and what God calls us to as people who follow Christ.  When my parents wrestled with whether they should open their home to Vietnamese refugees, they didn’t consult the constitution.  They didn’t read a history about the founding of America.  They didn’t visit the Statue of Liberty to ponder the words carved at its base.  They prayed.  They went right to the One upon whom their lives and all of ours as people of faith are grounded, and they prayed, “God, what is our Christian call?”  And the answer they received was a commandment that has been part of our Judeo-Christian heritage from the moment God spoke to the people at Mt. Sinai:  “You are to care for the stranger.”  Not only did God tell the Israelites that they were to care for the stranger, but God commanded them to establish cities of asylum where any person whose life was in danger from violent attack could go and be assured of protection until their case had received a fair hearing.  These cities were open not just to other Israelites but were, the Bible says,  “designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them.”  Every person fleeing from violence was to be given a chance to speak their case.  I am not here this morning to talk to you about American values; I am here to remind us all that regardless of what the pundits and politicians decide, providing asylum is and always has been a Christian value.

In order to show you just how foundational this value is, I want to turn to our scripture reading for today, to Joshua 20.  You might be excused for thinking that I am preaching this sermon in response to the events of this week; that after news broke that the White House was considering cutting refugee admissions to 0, that I went to my Bible concordance and scoured it for a reference that would support my views but in fact, I planned this sermon a couple of weeks ago.  I chose today’s scripture simply because as I was reading through Joshua in preparation for my series on Old Testament stories, I was struck by this chapter which feels so out of place in contrast to the rest of the book.  Joshua is probably the bloodiest, most violent, and most disturbing book of our Bible.  After the Exodus and the years in the wilderness, God chooses Joshua to lead the people to the Promised Land but before they can settle there, they have to negotiate with the Canaanites who already inhabit the land, and Joshua’s idea of negotiation is annihilation.  Chapter after chapter of the book of Joshua is filled with bloodshed.  In chapter 8, for example, we are told that the Israelites ambushed the city of Ai, defeated the defending army, hung the city’s king on a tree, slaughtered its 12,000 residents, men and women alike, and then for good measure burned the city to the ground leaving no one alive.  The book of Joshua is anything but a book promoting “Peace, love, and okra,” and yet in chapter 20, in the middle of this recitation of triumphant conquest, it stops to repeat God’s commandment to provide asylum for the refugee.  It is a jarring juxtaposition and the very fact that this incredibly violent book takes that moment to acknowledge God’s concern for the refugee says to me that the right to asylum was such a fundamentally known core value for the Jewish people that even those recording Joshua’s violent campaigns had to acknowledge as an aside that “God cares about those strangers that you are fighting.”  It’s like those beer commercials that show scenes of people drinking and partying and then tag onto the end, “Remember to drink responsibly.”    

“The Lord your God,” the Jewish law said, “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing [and] you shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut 10:18-19)  Asylum for the refugee was so foundational to the Israelite DNA that later Jewish rabbis would add to the laws of asylum to make it even easier for the asylum seeker to find his or her way to the sanctuary cities.  

“The roads to those cities should be broad, and cleared of all obstructions,” the new regulations declared, “and all along the road, there shall be posted signs that read, ‘Refuge, refuge.’”

The book of Joshua is disturbing in its description of the human capacity for violence even among God’s people, and yet chapter 20 inserts itself into this recitation of the worst of who we are to remind us of God’s call to be better than that, to remind us that God doesn’t make distinctions based on political allegiance, ethnic heritage, or tribal affiliation.  In God’s eyes, every person deserves the dignity of a hearing and the right to safety and peace. 

Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual thinker and writer, often spent time in Trappist monasteries on retreat.  Trappist monks maintain vows of silence and Nouwen had found them to be perfect places for meditation and prayer.  On one trip, however, the weather turned stormy, and Nouwen ran into delays causing him to arrive at the monastery long after the monks had retired for the night.  He rang the bell and was greeted by a monk who he had obviously roused from his bed, but the brother warmly greeted him, took his wet coat, brought him to the kitchen, made him a cup of tea, and then sat with Nouwen chatting into the night.  After awhile, Nouwen says, the stress of his trip began to melt away and he was grateful for the monk’s attentiveness, but he was also surprised because he knew that this monk was supposed to observe silence.  He finally asked him, “Why are you willing to sit and talk with me?  Isn’t this against your rules?”

The monk replied, “Of all the duties of the Christian faith and the rules of my order, none is higher than hospitality.”

All else falls away before God’s call to welcome the stranger and listen to those seeking refuge.  For the Jews, the command to provide asylum was grounded in the memory of the days when they were refugees themselves fleeing for their lives from the cruel hand of Pharaoh.  For Christians, the command to care for the stranger arose from Christ’s welcome and invitation to the least among us to sit at the table with him.  

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father,” Jesus said, “inherit the kingdom 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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” 

Providing asylum for the stranger in need is not only a Christian value, but as the Trappist monk points out, it is first and foremost among all that Christ calls us to be, and I think that the reason that God has placed such a high value on our behavior toward the stranger is because when we practice this commandment, we will not only bring peace to the stranger but we will open our own hearts to the saving work of Christ.  As we saw in Jesus’ condemnation of the religiously self-assured, so many traits of personal piety can be turned into walls of self-righteousness.  We trumpet our purity of practice and the perfection of our careful virtues with such pride that there is no room even for Christ in our hearts, but the command to care for the stranger forces us out of ourselves and into the world of the other person.  Providing asylum and requiring that we give each person the chance to be heard forces us to listen to the voices and the stories of those whose experiences are so different from ours.  We are humbled as we confront the realization that even those very unlike us are still loved by God.  Our experience is not the only experience and we learn that God is bigger and broader and deeper than any one person, one nation, one culture, or one way of knowing the world.  When we open our hearts to the diverse stories of others, and when we welcome them into our lives offering them sanctuary with us, we not only change them, but we change ourselves.  Our minds are enlarged, our hearts are deepened, and Christ has room to enter.

Chapter 20 in the book of Joshua feels to me like a deliberate stumbling block placed in the middle of the violent campaign of the Israelite conquest to disturb the reader, to make us step back from our gleeful embrace of this story of national self-promotion to consider whether God’s compassion might extend farther than we could have imagined.  In the same way, we as Christians should be troubled by our society’s current demonization of the stranger and the growing desire to shut out the stranger who comes to us in need.  I don’t know whether providing asylum is an American value or not, but I know without a doubt that it is a Christian value and as followers of Christ, we need to continue to advocate for the right to asylum.  We need to broaden those roads, remove the obstructions, and all along those way place signs that say, “Refuge, refuge.”

And that is where I am going to end my sermon which I know will leave many of you very unsettled.  You are sitting there thinking, “That’s all well and good but what should I do?”  but I am going to follow the example of Joshua 20.  Joshua 20 didn’t try to resolve the conflict for the reader; it just held up two pictures — one, the violence of Joshua, and one the command of God — and it said, “Here is where we are, and here is where God wants us to be,” and then left us to be unsettled by that contrast.

Here is where we are — the White House is considering eliminating all refugee admissions.

Here is where God wants us to be — “ Appoint cities for the asylum seeker and along the way place signs saying, “refuge refuge.”

May you go from here today unsettled.