Sermon for World Refugee Day Chapel Service

Sermon for World Refugee Day Chapel Service

Chapel of Christ the Lord, Episcopal Church Center, New York, NY
June 19, 2009

When I run early in the morning here in New York, I often go by a fish market. It always smells like the sea, and it dredges up memories of the place I grew up, the place that for me has the deepest resonance of home, even though I haven’t lived there for many years. Smell has an astonishing ability to evoke memory. What does home smell like to you? For some of us, those treasured memories of home are touched by the smell of incense or warm and fragrant bread that might be broken in a gathering like this.

Our religious journey is about going home, searching for that garden where once again we might know ourselves in right relationship with God and each other. That’s what Paul is getting at in his letter to his brothers and sisters in Corinth – his journey home to God has had enormous obstacles – being put to hard labor, thrown in prison, flogged and stoned, and often near death – but he hasn’t stopped trying to reach that home. He’s been stoned and shipwrecked, adrift at sea, in danger from the forces of nature as well as human beings, supposed friends, enemies, and foreigners. He’s been hungry, thirsty, cold, naked, and sleepless, but he keeps on journeying toward home.

That’s a pretty fair description of the experience of many refugees. The word first appears in the late 17th century, applied to Huguenots, seeking safe refuge from the persecution they’re suffering. The meaning expands to include civilians fleeing the violence around their homes in Flanders during the First World War. In either case, it’s about having to leave home, because of war or a different sort of organized violence, like the millions who have fled the Swat Valley in Pakistan in recent months. In the last few years, the ranks of refugees have expanded due to environmental cataclysms like the floods in New Orleans, storm damage in the Iriwaddy Delta, volcanic eruptions in Montserrat, and now, drowned coasts in Bangladesh and rising sea level in Kiribati and Tuvalu.

In every case, people leave home and need to find another one if they cannot go back. Yes, we may be on a journey, but we all yearn for a place to lay our heads, raise children, feed families, find meaningful employment and a place in a community that will care that we exist. “It is not good that the adam (the earth-creature) should be alone” (Gen 2:18). And the responsibility of the people of God is always to “care for the widow and orphan, and for the sojourner in your midst.” Sojourners, wanderers, or foreigners include those people who have fled their homes because life simply cannot continue there.

We’re here today to remember those who have no home, to learn what we might do to care for the sojourner, and to discover that the sojourner just might be the treasure hidden in our midst.

I met a Sudanese family when I was in Mobile (Alabama) last month, members of All Saints Episcopal Church. We helped to dedicate a Habitat home that had been built for this extended family of 15-20 people. The mother had lost children in Sudan, taken back by her dead husband’s family, she’d remarried and raised more children, taken in cousins and their relatives, recovered her first brood, and somehow they had all made it out of a refugee camp to be resettled in Mobile. They lived in a neighborhood with several other refugee families, including Iraqi Muslims. All had gathered for this great event of handing over the keys and the owner’s manual for a new home. The mother was going around hugging those who had helped to make her new home possible. Her embrace was like the fierce mother bear to whom God is compared in the Bible – a nearly crushing embrace that said, “I will never let you go,” and delivered with ululations and words of joy. Her demonstration became a sacrament of home. That’s the work set before us – we, too, are meant to be a sacrament of home.

What does home smell like to you? What does it feel like? It shouldn’t smell of blood, or cordite, or fear. It should feel like a warm embrace that says the life of this wanderer matters. It should say, you belong here, and we will help to make this a home big enough to give you a place and meaning and hope and peace

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