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Love refugees — and love those who fear them, Welby tells Washington congregation

28 September 2020

youtube/archbishop of canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury preaches to a congregation in the the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, by video link, on Sunday

The Archbishop of Canterbury preaches to a congregation in the the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, by video link, on Sunday

CHRISTIANS should “channel the abundant grace of God” towards both refugees and those who fear them, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

In a sermon preached to a congregation in Washington National Cathedral, in the United States, by video link, on Sunday, Archbishop Welby said that “the greatest movement of people in human history continues to grow,” although it had been “almost forgotten amidst the pandemic”.

“From the burning refugee camp the weeping of the helpless rises into the unhearing air,” he said. “From the dusty road with the trails of belongings abandoned, children lost, women violated, men humiliated, bodies unburied, there are only the after-marks of horror beyond horror.

“From Dover in England to Queensland in Australia, the tides rise and fall on innumerable beaches, and only the groan of the shingle testifies to the lives lost at sea.”

Refugees fled their homelands “for any and every reason”, he said. “They may have illusions about their destination, and their reasons for fleeing may be more or less understandable. Yet they flee.”

The Archbishop also drew attention, however, to “the cries . . . from the poorest among us. They are the cries of those who find their neighbourhoods changing; for the refugees do not normally come to the wealthy areas, but to the poorest.”

The inhabitants of poor communities said that it was “almost impossible” to share their “inadequate resources” with “strangers”, he said.

“Like the travellers, the displaced, they are often not heard . . . until they vote; until their voices are channelled so loudly that they can no longer be ignored.”

When addressing the refugee crisis, Christians “must not compromise with false simplicities”, the Archbishop said. “But we must, as Christians, channel the abundant grace of God.”

St Peter’s first epistle, the Archbishop went on to say, taught that the Church comprised people who were once “aliens and strangers. . . Because we were exiles, we love exiles.

“How that must change us, if that truth grabs us deep in our gut, as it must. . . We cannot surround our love with barbed wire, so that only those with the password can be its recipients.”

Yet Christians sometimes treated “church life as politics, and our way of doing things as superior to all others”; made “malicious comments through social media”; and could be “insincere” and “cruel”.

“We have been transformed, not by our virtues, but by the grace of God alone. Yet sometimes we behave as though we then had to wage a civil war in God’s Church so that our views may prevail. . .

“It is no wonder that, in the global North, we see numbers decline; for the rule of love is so often the rule of self.”

The Church, he concluded, should be a place “that, knowing its exile, loves the stranger, knowing its forgiveness has become the home for the Spirit of love”.

 

Full text of the sermon (as delivered)

 

Genesis 28.10-17; Psalm 84.1-6; 1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-10; Matthew 21.12-16

 

ALMOST forgotten amidst the pandemic, the greatest movement of people in human history continues to grow. In 1945, around 20 million were displaced. In 2015, it was 60 million; today, it is in excess of 75 million. From the poorest and most desperate come the cries.

From the burning refugee camp, the weeping of the helpless rises into the unhearing air. From the dusty road with the trails of belongings abandoned, children lost, women violated, men humiliated, bodies unburied, there are only the after-marks of horror beyond horror.

From Dover in England to Queensland in Australia, the tides rise and fall on innumerable beaches, and only the groan of the shingle testifies to the lives lost at sea.

The causes of movement vary. Poverty, ambition, fear, war all play a large part. Some flee modern slavery. Some run from family or clan disorder. They flee for any and every reason. They may have illusions about their destination, and their reasons for fleeing may be more or less understandable. Yet they flee.

The cries also rise from the poorest communities among us. They are the cries of those who find their neighbourhoods changing; for the refugees do not normally come to the wealthy areas, but to the poorest.

As they always have since the USA was founded, since the pilgrims 400 years ago, since the words of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet on Lady Liberty were inscribed, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

These are the words that have made the USA admired across the world. Yet, when they came, they too often had to continue to yearn. They came to poor areas and, as in London’s East End in the 19th century and many parts of the UK today, they brought change.

Those already there often say “We are not cruel, not antagonistic, but you, in the richest parts of the land, recognise that taking so many strangers in and sharing the inadequate resources we already struggle with — why, that is almost impossible.”

Like the travellers, the displaced, they are often not heard until — in the latter case, of course, for those in our own nations — until they vote; until their voices are channelled so loudly that they can no longer be ignored.

The complexity of this people movement is extraordinary. The social complexity in our own nations is dramatic. But, as Christians, we do not resolve problems by their over-simplification. That is the broad road with much good company of those whom we can find who will agree with whatever view each of us chooses.

The path of the cross, of following the Crucified God in his journey, is one that tells us to embrace the complexity of suffering and walk alongside those with whom we disagree passionately, bearing our crosses and helping each other. That is even more true in the time of pandemic, where fear is as prevalent as the virus and causes us to turn inwards.

The readings of this day confront us with that complexity; for they are about movement, refugees, and home.

We began with a lonely victim of self-imposed family trauma. Here is Jacob, the narcissistic conman, found out, thrown out, down and out. He has cheated his father and his brother.

Yet God’s grace and love are greater than his sins and failing. He is in great danger. Hot pursuit is close behind him. Wild animals are around about him. Yet God, the God of his ancestors, is with him.

In Jacob’s ignorance and sin, God draws near, rescues, blesses, sets him on a new course. His future is of blessing received and given.

Here is no simple solution. Virtue is not rewarded, nor sin punished. There is no comfortable sense that, because he is blessed, he was therefore right. God’s grace is lavish, but it also demands that we give all that we are.

Before Jacob, in his future, as well as blessing are 14 years of gruelling and underpaid labour. He will live by his wits; he will cheat again. Yet God’s grace remains lavish.

Politics is the art of enabling good and flourishing communities: but its materials are the bent and twisted forms of human beings — human beings like Jacob. His complexity of action and motivation is met in God not by simplifying or by condemning, but by calling. God calls him to be faithful and obedient.

When we see the refugee and when we see those who fear the refugee, we must not compromise with false simplicities, but we must, as Christians, channel the abundant grace of God.

Our second reading, I Peter 2, tells us that the largest nation on earth is not China or India; the most powerful is not the USA. The world’s greatest nation is without borders, without an army, without passports on paper. It the nation of God’s people: the holy nation, the royal priesthood, all those who, having been aliens and strangers, are now transformed into being God’s own people.

Aliens and strangers in the world that Peter inhabited were like the undocumented today. No matter how rich they were, they had little or no protection in law and no remedies from the courts. They existed in large numbers because every city and every province in the Roman Empire had its own residents and its own aliens.

Peter tells the churches that they have been changed, that all that they are is new. They now exist as God’s unique people, called to be holy and separate from sin — not a point to overlook. They must reflect the nature and image of God. They are to be Jesus to the world of their day, as we are today: faithful, full of grace, loving one another, loving their enemies, committed to peace, resilient in time of trouble, as we also must be today.

Their resilience, faith, grace have a purpose. They have a message to proclaim: God, who is in the transformation business, is liberating people from darkness into God’s wonderful light.

Because they — we — were aliens and strangers, we know that God loves the Jacobs. Because we were exiles, we love exiles.

How that must change us, if that truth grabs us deep in our gut, as it must. We cannot choose what we’re going to hate. We cannot surround our love with barbed wire so that only those with the password can be its recipients. We are God’s people. It is God who chooses, not us.

God’s country is not a democracy; it is an autocracy of the purest love, the greatest purity. We do not choose to be its citizens: its ruler called us out of helpless, terrifying darkness. Our role is to proclaim; our joy is to celebrate.

Yet that is not always how we show ourselves — when we treat church life as politics, and our way of doing things as superior to all others; when we engage in malicious comment through social media; when we are insincere; when we are cruel.

We have been transformed not by our virtues, but by the grace of God alone. Yet sometimes we behave as though we then had to wage a civil war in God’s Church so that our views may prevail. There’s a story of an English vicar who is called to see his bishop. He’s been in his parish for a year. And the bishop says, “Now then, how’s it going?” And the vicar says, “It’s going very well.” And the bishop says, “And how do you get on with the other churches in your parish?” And he says, “Oh, we get on very closely. They worship God in their way, and we worship him in his.”

It is no wonder that in the global North we see numbers decline; for the rule of love is so often the rule of self.

As Peter says, realistically, “rid yourselves” of such things. Being human and thus failing to be all that we should be, all that we will be, is not just for our times: it has been the history of the Church. But it is to be our daily struggle to be like Christ.

And in the Gospel, though, we see the nature of home; for our home is not a building, not even one of the splendour of the National Cathedral. Home is the people of God built together as living stones by the master-builder of all creation.

Jesus, in the Gospel passages, draws all our attention. He casts out the bankers and the moneychangers and the merchants — we all remember that. We forget that he brought in the children, the blind, and lame. The former praised God; the latter found healing.

How dare he! They were unqualified to praise in good theology. They were disqualified from being in the temple by their injuries and bodily incapacity. Both groups were the antithesis of those he cast out.

Yet he calls them in, showing the reversal of everything of our world: that is the reality of the Kingdom of God. And remember: this parable is one of the ways in which he demonstrates the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is not the Church: the Church points to the Kingdom, proclaims the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is seen in those caring for the outcast and the marginalised.

The Kingdom is seen in the foodbank where, to quote someone in Dover, near Canterbury, “I came seeking food and went with a parcel of love.” They had come ashamed; they went restored.

The Kingdom is seen where people act for others, where God’s reign is perceived. And we are to see it and proclaim it.

In your great cathedral, in a side chapel, is a Coventry Cross of Nails. . . It has been there for very many years. It is the symbol of the worldwide community of the Cross of Nails, started in Coventry Cathedral: nails that symbolise the horror of war — taken as they were from the bombarded ruins of the medieval cathedral — and symbolise the strength of resurrection love, sent by the community that rose from those ashes and ruins.

In 1940, the Provost of Coventry, with the smoke rising round him from his burning cathedral, saw a vision of the Kingdom of reconciliation, and these crosses, in churches all around the world, point to forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. In your own nation, in mine, will we live that out? will you live that out? Will your symbols become your proclamation — especially in these times, where, around the world, injustice is faced, judgements [are] made, and hopes flare or fail, depending on your side, your background, your race? Especially in this time of Covid-19?

In the psalm, we heard of the beauty of home, that even the sparrow has a nest and the swallow a home. St Benedict, in the sixth century, in his Rule, speaks of stability. Stability, for him, is the sign of home. Stability that is built on fear and exclusion is a fake.

Stability is to be in the dwelling-place of God; and we know, we dream, we long, we pray that the place of stability may be the living, love-embedded, grace-abounding Church of Christ in its myriad forms — that it may be the Church that, knowing its exile, loves the stranger, [and], knowing its forgiveness, has become the home for the Spirit of love.

May you and I join in that place of travelling that makes the valley of Baca a spring, and to be of that company that goes from strength to strength: the People of God.

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