Monthly Archives: August 2022

Refugee Discipleship


Genesis 15:1-6

Psalm 33:12-22

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Luke 12:32-40

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:13-16.

Our second lesson for this coming Sunday is an excerpt from a much longer roll call of faith heroes in the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with Abel, the first born of Adam and Eve, and ending with the prophets. I encourage you to read Chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews in its entirety. The faith of these individuals, we are told by the anonymous author of the letter, consists of the assurance of things they do not yet see, trust in promises not yet fulfilled, belief in a future beyond the horizons of their lifetimes. Like them, disciples of Jesus are “strangers and foreigners on the earth.” They are “are seeking a homeland.” They are refugees for whom there is no permanent place, no ultimate loyalty and no “blood and soil” tie to any place.

Unless you have been residing on another planet for the last ten years, you know that “refugees,” “foreigners” and “strangers” are among the most hated individuals on the globe. Refugee camps all over the world host millions of people that are unwanted by any nation anywhere. Refugees fleeing war zones, gang violence, religious persecution and starvation brave unimaginable dangers seeking to bring themselves and their families to safe havens in our country and others, only to be met with barbed wire, armed guards and a population unwilling to offer them sanctuary. Like the saints of old, they suffer “mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They [are] killed by the sword; they [go] about….destitute, persecuted, tormented…”  Hebrews 11:36-37. It is as refugees, the writer tells us, that disciples of Jesus are to live. We are a people belonging to no country but seeking a homeland that, for now, is only a promise.

Refugee status defines much of biblical history. Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden. Abraham and Sarah are foreigners and squatters in the land of Canaan. They later become refugees driven by famine into Egypt and compelled to trade sexual favors for security in that realm. The people of Israel spend four hundred years as enslaved and exploited laborers in the land of Egypt and forty more years as landless nomads in the wilderness. Following the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, the people of Israel are carried into exile and resettled throughout the middle east. Those who return to the land of Israel find themselves ruled by imperial decree and treated as foreigners in their own land. Jesus and his family came to Egypt fleeing political violence and genocide. As the Letter to the Hebrews makes clear, the story of Israel and the Church is a story of God’s love for refugees and God’s choice of those who are “no people” to be “God’s people.” I Peter 2:10.   

In view of all this, it should come as no surprise that the church has historically been involved in the ministry of welcoming refugees and assisting them in resettling. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, an oranization of my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been in this good work for eight decades. That has never before been considered a political issue. Welcoming strangers is part and parcel of discipleship. As the GEICO commercial says, “its what you do” when you follow Jesus. See Matthew 25:35. There has, of course, always been some opposition to admitting refugees into the country, most of which has been grounded in racism, xenophobia and an unfounded fear that refugees will take jobs away from hard working Americans and bleed taxpayer dollars in public benefits. But these misguided and uninformed voices were a small, if noisy, minority. Overall, refugee resettlement has been historically popular and has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. Consequently, the church’s resettlement ministry has been no more controversial than running food pantries and thrift shops.

But then came the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and his virulent rhetoric characterizing refugees as murderers, rapists and violent criminals. For many reasons, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article, Trump’s rude characterization of refugees caught on in a big way. Churches that had been involved with refugee resettlement for decades suddenly found themselves faced with angry local citizen’s groups and even death threats. See “Opposition to Refugee Arrivals Keeps Getting Louder,” by Joel Rose on NPR’s All Things Considered. Suddenly, this ancient church practice of welcoming strangers recognized in the Hebrew Scriptures, established as a fundamental Christian practice in the New Testament and practiced by monasteries, convents, hospitals and inns throughout the centuries has become subversive and anti-American.

The church has historically stood with the refugee because we are refugees ourselves. If we don’t look much like refugees seeking a better homeland, then perhaps it is because we have gotten a little too cozy with the one through which we are supposed to be “just passing through.” In the words of the hymn/poem below:

“O shame to us who rest content
While lust and greed for gain
In street and shop and tenement
Wring gold from human pain,
And bitter lips in blind despair
Cry, ‘Christ has died in vain.’”

We have perhaps forgotten that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that no claim of national sovereignty can rise higher than God’s bequest of this good earth for the benefit of all people. No demand for national loyalty can rise above Jesus’ call to love our neighbor, no matter what side of any humanly drawn border that neighbor might have resided. Baptism trumps citizenship. To turn away a refugee is to turn away Jesus. The nations built on foundations of blood, soil and culture that would demand our ultimate allegiance at the expense of our neighbor are simply too small to accommodate the reign of God. Nothing less than the “Holy City seen of John” is fit to be called our homeland. These are neither liberal propositions nor conservative ones. They are neither Democratic nor Republican. They are just plain Jesus. If they do not comport with your politics, then you will just have to get yourself a new politics or a new savior.

Here is the text of the hymn written by Walter Russell Bowie cited above. It speaks of the City long sought by the biblical saints and how pursuit of that homeland ought to shape our hearts and actions.

1 O Holy City, seen of John,
Where Christ, the Lamb, does reign,
Within those four-square walls shall come
No night, nor need, nor pain,
And where the tears are wiped from eyes
That shall not weep again.

2 O shame to us who rest content
While lust and greed for gain
In street and shop and tenement
Wring gold from human pain,
And bitter lips in blind despair
Cry, “Christ has died in vain.”

3 Give us, O God, the strength to build
The City that has stood
Too long a dream, whose laws are love,
Whose ways, the common good,
And where the shining sun becomes
God’s grace for human good.

4 Already in the mind of God
That City rises fair:
Lo, how its splendor challenges
The souls that greatly dare:
Yea, bids us seize the whole of life
And build its glory there.

Source: RitualSong (2nd ed.) #957. Walter Russell Bowie (1882–1969) was a priest, author, editor, educator, hymn writer, and lecturer in the Episcopal Church (United States). He was born in Richmond, Virginia where his family had deep roots. He received a B.A and M.A. from Harvard University. As an undergraduate, Bowie was co-editor of The Harvard Crimson along with Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was ordained a deacon in 1908 and returned to Virginia where he entered the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary, now known as Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.  Bowie became known as a preacher as well as author and hymnist. In the 1920s, he advocated for creation of the League of Nations and US immigration reform. He staunchly opposed the the Ku Klux Klan and the spread of religious fundamentalism. Bowie joined the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, The Church League for Industrial Democracy, the Citizens’ Committee to Free Earl Browder and the Civil Rights Congress.