Sunday 20th December 2015, Carol Service
by Revd Chris Palmer
One of the iconic photographs of his year was of the body of Alan Kurdi, a three year old Kurdish boy from Syria who drowned in the sea trying to find refuge. The photograph is credited with raising public awareness of the plight of people fleeing an impossible situation in the middle East, and with prompting Western governments to offer some limited places of safety to those escaping terror.
In the light of this, a lot has been made of Jesus the refugee. We heard the story of his flight to Egypt to escape the threats of the murderous King Herod. And Malcolm Guite’s poem, written before the current crisis, says that Jesus is present with all the refugees of our world:
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
At a most basic level, this means that how we regard refugees is how we regard Jesus. There’s a murkier end of opinion which portray refugees as opportunistic people seeking to enrich themselves, or which allows the possibility that a tiny number of people of violence have sought to travel as refugees to besmirch all those escaping violence. Such views are in danger of demonising Jesus. How we talk about refugees is how we talk about Jesus.
Seeking to change the quality of the conversation about those who are fleeing terror is hugely important. Words and ideas are powerful things. Lobbying MPs to make our country more hospitable takes this a stage further. Giving to charities that support refugees in this country or abroad, a stage further too. Joining in local action groups that support refugees who arrive in our Borough, a step further still. All good.
But I wonder whether spiritually we need also to have the courage to identify with those who are refugees. This is somewhat dangerous, I know, as it would be offensive to compare their plight to our comfort. But seeking some identity is right. Christian spirituality has always done this. The bible talks about Jesus’ followers as strangers and aliens in the world. We sing, ‘Guide me, O thou great redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land’, although we live a settled life in a fertile country. These rather damaged metaphors can be mended in the context of the refugee crisis.
Spiritually we are being asked to avoid tying our security, our well-being too closely to our homes, country and possessions, our jobs and qualifications, even our human relationships. These things are gifts from God at one moment, and traps to ensnare our souls at others. God calls us to be ready to live joyfully with them or joyfully without them. Because either way we live with God.
The other people in these stories are the people of violence who create refugee crises. A terrible civil war became the opportunity for ISIS to gain control in an uncontrolled situation. The result is complex: Who are real the baddies? And who are the not quite so bad people that western nation might involve in a solution? And in the nativity story, if Jesus is the embodiment of every refugee, then Herod is the embodiment of every tyrant.
But just as we are called to identify the refugee in us, we need also to have the honesty to identify the tyrant in us too. We divide the world into goodies and baddies; and we’re the goodies and they are the baddies. But such a binary account of people is dishonest. Whilst there is, of course, much good about us, we each have the capacity to demean others, to victimise, discriminate, belittle, and harm others through the choices we make. And maybe the violence within us is restrained only by our comfort and the rule of law.
To the extent that we cannot admit the damage we do or are capable of, we fail to repent, we live self-justifying lives, quick to correct others and slow to find the healing and forgiveness we need.
Malcolm Guite’s poem finishes with a reminder that every Herod is accountable to their victim:
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
Our temptation is to see judgement as simply the moment the evil get their comeuppance. But the whole message of the Gospel is that God shares our human life in order to redeem and save every Herod, including us. This is good news.
To empower the victims of our world is their salvation. And to strip the tyrants of this world of power is their salvation. Jesus born in poverty, escaping to Egypt is the hope of both, is the hope of all. And if we have the courage to own the refugee and the tyrant in ourselves, Jesus will be our own hope too.
The sermons refers to Malcolm Guite's poem, Refugee, which can be found here