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"The journey is home" - Sermon at Holy Trinity Church Dubai

18 April 2008

I come from the nation of Kenya. It is the place of my birth, the land of my ancestors, the soil in which my roots are planted. I received my pastoral training there and have exercised ministry in the Methodist Church of Kenya as well as dedicating six years of service to the National Council of Churches as their general secretary. Today I am honoured to hold the office of chancellor at St Paul's University in Limuru, Kenya. I visit that institution, as well as family and friends in my native country, as often as I can manage.

But the path of Christian ministry has also led my wife and me far from the land of our birth. For one-third of my life - more than 20 years - I have lived and worked in the city of Geneva, Switzerland where the offices of the World Council of Churches provide a base for further travels to communities of faith around the globe.

In part because my vocation has an international dimension, I respond with empathy to voices in the Bible that speak from the perspective of the wanderer, the pilgrim, the traveller, the sojourner in a strange land. Like so many of you in this congregation, I resonate to the experience of biblical authors who left us histories, letters, psalms and parables involving long journeys, highways and byways, unfamiliar surroundings, yearnings for distant family and visions of home.

The experience of separation and change

Anyone who has moved hesitantly from one part of the world to another will recognize the exiles' cry in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down

and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

"Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

 

How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?

(verses 1-4)

Even if we have been able to make our own choice in relocating, there is a sense of strangeness, an inner alienation, that leads us to wonder if the songs of home and our dearly-held traditions are appropriate to contexts which we perceive as "foreign".

In these early years of the 21st century, analysts may well associate human migration and the uprooting of families with such contemporary phenomena as economic globalization or the scourge of modern weaponry and warfare. But the Bible shows, again and again, that the faithful have long counted in their number men and women on the move - people who are part of a movement, literally as well as symbolically.

From the opening pages of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are sent forth eastward from Eden, to the closing chapters of Revelation, in which multitudes gather from every nation and people to behold the heavenly city, there is an ebb and flow to the story of humanity. Abraham and Sarah leave their home to dwell in tents, ever on the way. Joseph leads his family to safety in Egypt, as later another Joseph and his wife Mary would take the infant Jesus there. When persecution arose in the south, Moses and Joshua were ordained to lead their people up from slavery, across hostile territory, to a land of promise flowing with milk and honey.

Prophets and rulers are depicted withdrawing to mountaintops and waste spaces on the plain, returning at last with a word or vision from the Lord. A dynasty falls, and is carried away to Babylon as Jeremiah laments. After seven decades, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the exiles' return and the restoration of community.

Jesus and his disciples seem to have walked the length and breadth of ancient Palestine, calling the lost sheep of the house of Israel, while Paul and other first-century apostles carried the good news of Christ by means of a transport system stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. There are many more examples of migration and mobility in the Bible, from Noah, Ruth and Jonah to the Ethiopian official who encountered Philip while riding homeward in his chariot. There is also the example of the disciple Thomas who overcame his initial doubts following the resurrection and, tradition tells us, eventually carried the gospel as far as India. And it is thanks to the blessings of Thomas' mission that many of the members of this congregation are here today.

One of the earliest confessions of faith in the Bible, in the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy, begins with these words:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;

he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number…

 

Later, the text continues:

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us,

by imposing hard labour on us,

we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors;

the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,

with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders…

 

This confession in Deuteronomy ends with a dedication of the first-fruits of the new land, the earliest crops to be harvested in the land of promise. One-tenth of the produce is to be given to the temple officials, the people are instructed, for the benefit of "the aliens, the orphans and the widows" in the land.   (Deuteronomy 26:1-13)

Concern for the migrant and the mobile, love for the neighbour

The laws and statutes of the Hebrew scriptures are full of concern for the alien, the resident alien, the stranger, the widow and orphan - all those who lacked a home or whose home was not firmly established. Another passage from Deuteronomy (10:19) puts the believers' responsibility in blunt terms, "You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

The biblical demand for justice on behalf of the least in society is closely related to that saying of Jesus called the Golden Rule: "do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12 and parallel). It is also united in spirit to the two great commandments taught by Jesus: love God, and love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:31 and parallels). The practical test of justice, and mercy, is love: in determining my own actions toward others, and the public policies and actions that I can influence, do I treat others according to the same standards that I expect and desire?

Treat the stranger well, says the Law of Moses, "…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." In much the same way, Jesus appeals to us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. When we have had experience of having been the "stranger", the foreigner, the alien, the "other", we profit by knowing more clearly how best to treat others as we ourselves would have them treat us. And in identifying that closely with the "other", our relationship is transformed from that of strangers into neighbours.

The prophet Jeremiah spelled this out in his letter to the exiles in Babylon. They had been carried away from their homes, against their will, and they were thoroughly alienated from the Babylonians. Jeremiah may have sensed that a day would come, far in the future, when the exiles could return to their ancestral homes. Meanwhile, he was called to proclaim this word of the Lord: "…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

In a subtle way, the prophecy of Jeremiah offered a means by which the exiles could move from calling out for justice to building justice. So long as they perceived themselves as estranged from those around them, they continued to be perceived as strangers. But as they acknowledged and reached out to neighbours, they came to be seen, more and more, as neighbours. In this way, they would come to be taken seriously as participants within the society.

Defending the weak, upholding those in need

According to the International Organization on Migration, in 2005 there were more than 175 million international migrants in the world, while another 25 million people had been displaced internally within their own countries. The movement of people continues, and one of the results is that almost every society on earth is becoming multi-cultural and multi-religious. A United Nations report on migration was published in 2006, and it points out many economic advantages to trends in migration. Immigrants are aiding their home countries, even when they remain abroad. Approximately 200 billion euros annually are sent as remittances by international workers to family members in their home countries. Immigrant workers also make significant contributions to the economy and culture of the nations where they live.

But migration also has negative consequences - political, financial and social - that often bring reactions from governments which threaten or curtail the rights of migrants and other minorities. Trends in migration further undermine human rights, as in the proliferation of human trafficking - and especially the trafficking of women and children. Economic opportunities in the global North contribute to a long-term "brain drain" from less wealthy nations. Warfare and civil unrest have combined to put whole populations to flight in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East.

International migration, by its definition, is a global issue. And the universal Church of Jesus Christ, in its all-embracing "catholicity", cannot shirk its responsibility to defend the rights of the stranger in every culture. Remember: the people of God were strangers in the land of Egypt, and many live today as strangers in strange lands - struggling to become neighbours.

The World Council of Churches, for its part, works with its member churches and other ecumenical partners to address migration and the changing landscape of church life as Christian communities are affected by migration. This year sees a global consultation on the topic, in which we will seek a unity of commitment and purpose in the whole Church's approach to offering a humane response to the injustices and animosities associated with processes of globalization.

Of course, an essential part of the churches' role in this era of migration is to offer hospitality to all. And so we continue to explore with our partners ways to strengthen the practice of hospitality at all levels of the church, from the global to the local. We must learn to welcome the stranger, every stranger, in a spirit of love and solidarity; to open up our relationships so that we may move from being strangers to being neighbours; to seek that reconciliation inspired by Christ's example which turns perceived enemies into lasting friends.

The journey is home

The late American theologian, Nelle Morton, wrote an autobiography which she gave the title The Journey Is Home. This sentiment is consistent with the New Testament letter to the Hebrews when it describes Abraham and his children as "strangers and foreigners on the earth… seeking a homeland".

Many of us are far from the land of our birth, and far from the land of our dreams, but Nelle Morton suggests that this does not mean that we are far from home. "The journey is home", and the people around us - whatever their backgrounds - are our neighbours. And so we are called, even in our "exile", to proclaim God's word, to strive for justice and peace, to seek the welfare of the city where we dwell.

"God is not ashamed" to be the God of such pilgrims and wanders, says the letter to the Hebrews; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.

The city is prepared, but - for now - the journey is home. And this is our assurance, from the letter to the Ephesians (2:19):

So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens,

but are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

Let us pray.

            Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:

            Grant that the journeys on which we find ourselves

            may offer us all the wonders of home.

            Bless us with true friends, neighbours and companions,

            with relationships founded in faith, love and justice.

            By the power of your Holy Spirit, affirm the one Church of Jesus Christ

            that it may serve your will on earth as in heaven.

            Lord, have mercy upon us, and send us your peace.

            This we pray in your Triune name.

Amen.

Sermon by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

in a eucharist service at Holy Trinity Church, Dubai