What A Blessing.
Last Sunday, maybe 25 or so of us stuck around
To listen to Martin Okpareke tell his story of how he came
to work for Jewish Vocational Services.
Martin is a member of this community.
He worships at St. Thomas Moore parish over on Holmes road
And has lived in Kansas City for more than two decades.
Martin is Nigerian, and was a refugee fleeing violent unrest in his homeland.
What struck me about Martin, as he was talking
Was his big smile, which matched his big frame and energetic spirit.
When he came to this country, he said,
He was excited.
This was America. A welcoming land.
A place where he could finally be safe and have opportunity.
Refugees, he told us,
Are people who love their homeland.
Who are tied by culture and language there.
Who don’t want to leave, but who HAVE to go
Because of violence or disaster
Something so terrible that there is no choice but to leave.
Often things happen so quickly that families are broken up
Husbands and Wives, parents and grandparents and children,
Flee in different directions, often to camps set up in neighboring territories
Where they are often stuck for years.
Sometimes things calm down back home, and they can go back.
Or they can’t, because a new regime is in charge or someone has seized their home
Or the conflict goes on and on and on and before you know it years have passed.
These camps aren’t really designed for that, Martin told us
Still with this big smile
Its hard to go to school.
Hard to learn a trade.
Hard to build some wealth stuck in a camp. For years.
The average length of stay in a camp, according to Martin, is 17 years.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees,
There are 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide.
And about 16 million of them are refugees.[i]
10 million people are currently seen as stateless, where governments fall or change
and won’t recognize the citizenship of the people now displaced.
They formally have no homeland.
And when there truly is no place to go,
the United Nations helps resettle them in various countries around the world
As they did for 107,000 people in 2015, the last year for available data.
So Martin was telling us all of this,
And about his experience coming to this country
About how he landed at the airport,
So excited to be here.
Surely this was a godly thing,
Because Nigeria, as you know, was part of the British colonial system
And so he knew English, he said.
He was sure he could make it here.
Only as some of our own Kirk members
can attest about the differences in language around the world
it wasn’t so easy to be understood, or to understand.
But his liaison from Don Bosco Community Center
Didn’t sweat it.
He took him to McDonalds for a hot meal
And then to an apartment
And it was the start of a new life
A new opportunity
Some new hope.
Martin felt blessed.
Blessed for the warmth and the hospitality shown to him
Blessed to be able to sleep in a secure and stable place.
He felt blessed.
Today Jewish Vocational Services has taken over the work of Don Bosco in our area
And are the ones responsible for resettling refugees in Kansas City.[ii]
This fits well with their mandate,
Because JVS traces their roots back to 1949,
Where they organized to support Holocaust Survivors, Refugees,
And immigrants from the second world war.
It is part of their DNA to help foreigners in our land seeking safety and hospitality.
After registration through the United Nations
And a two-year vetting process with the US state department
Refugees are sent across the country to places like JVS
Where they are given a hot meal upon landing at MCI
And an apartment and job opportunities
And some training
And about three months to figure America out,
After which time they’re expected to make it on their own.
Last year, JVS settled 580 refugees from fourteen different countries
And five different languages in the Kansas City area.
They rely heavily on volunteers to help make this process easier
Befriending the refugees, helping them understand our culture a bit better
So that they’re not so alone in this new land.
This is such an amazing operation.
These foreigners, from every religious background, from all sorts of different cultural tradition
Receiving local support from Jewish and Christian and Muslim communities
Here in Kansas City.
Some of those volunteers, Martin said to me
When they get a chance to help these families
Just to help them feel normal,
To greet them and help care for them.
Well, they feel so good inside, you know.
They find their faith growing
Their hearts expanding
They feel, well, blessed.
This turned out to be a completely different sermon than I had intended at the start of the week.
Here we have one of Jesus’ most famous teachings of all time
The kind of thing that so-called red-letter Christians just love
You know, those who look for the red-letters in their bibles
The words of Jesus, and in this case, his very own sermon.
Last week we saw Jesus calling his first disciples
Part of his mission to teach and to proclaim and to heal
As part of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
He found Simon and Andrew and James and John, fishermen by the sea of Galilee
And invited them to follow him. And they did.
They heard in his voice an assurance that they could do it
They could be his apprentices; they could learn what it meant to follow God.
And so they dropped everything and followed.
It would be a challenge for them.
Not everything he would say would make sense to them.
They often got it wrong, actually. It was so confusing at times,
Jesus would press them to question long held beliefs about what it meant to follow God.
He would suggest that outsiders like Samaritans or Centurions were worthy of God’s concern.[iii]
He told stories about the last days where
Those who fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty
Clothed the naked, visited the prisoner
Welcomed the stranger in their midst
Were like they were caring for Jesus himself.
And what’s more, those who rejected those in need
Would be like rejecting Jesus too.[iv]
The disciples would be sent out to glean crops on the Sabbath[v]
Jesus would speak kindly about a woman caught in adultery[vi]
Suggest that a young man who was away in a foreign land,
wasting away his inheritance and taking care of pigs
should be welcomed back with open arms
a kind of boundless love
reckless and inscrutable
but the very heart of God.[vii]
It was so bizarre, this Jesus
Like nothing they had heard or seen before.
But also so lively, so hopeful, so loving.
And according to Matthew,
It all got started after Jesus invited these disciples to follow him
And then he sat them down on a mountainside and taught them about blessing.
A BLESSING is an expression of God’s favor.
Some translations say “Happy” but that’s not quite right.
These people who are blessed may, or may not, be happy.
But they are blessed. God cares for them. God loves them.
God wants God’s people to care and love for them too.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus said
Because the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
And Blessed are those who Mourn
Blessed are the Meek
Blessed are those who hunger, and thirst for righteousness
The pure in heart
Oh the Peacemakers, they will SEE GOD.
And Blessed are the persecuted
Along with the reviled and slandered falsely. They’ll be blessed too.
So this week, we closed the door on our refugee program.[viii]
Who is to say how long it will be closed.
Its hard to imagine a group of people in our day more directly applicable to this Sermon of Jesus
Than these refugees: people torn from their homeland
Forced into limbo for years in temporary lodging, in a camp somewhere,
And then plopped down somewhere to start a new life.
Poor in spirit? Check.
Hunger and thirst after what is the good: almost uniformly.
The persecuted, without a doubt.
While the closure of the refugee program was ostensibly done in the name of security,
The fact of the matter is that something about our vetting has worked thus far.
As Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute pointed out
Foreigners from the countries we’ve locked out
Have killed exactly zero Americans in terrorist attacks on US soil
Between 1975—that’s the year I was born
to the end of 2015.[ix]
It is still more likely, in this country
To die from a lawnmower than from a terrorist incident.
I’m agnostic about whether our processes can be improved even more
Perhaps they can be.
But whatever fear we have isn’t particularly rooted in the data.
There’s something wrong with the spirit of all this.
There are not many subjects more pervasively discussed in the Bible
than how people of faith are supposed to treat foreigners.
The Hebrew Bible uses the word ger more than ninety times. That’s a lot.
It means sojourner, or a foreigner that isn’t just passing through.[x]
The translation we most often use sometimes calls them “resident aliens”
People of another place who come here, to where you are
To live among you.
And we could be here all day if we went through just a handful of those citations
But from Exodus through the prophets, how the people treated those gerim
Those foreigners in the land, was of deep and consistent concern.
So just two examples.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God,
Mighty and awesome,
Who is not partial and takes no bribe,
Who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
Who loves the strangers (that’s the gerim, the foreigner, the resident alien)
Providing them food and clothing.
YOU shall love the stranger,
For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Or this, from Leviticus:
When an alien resides with you in your land,
You shall not oppress the alien.
The alien who resides with you shall be to you
As the citizen among you;
You shall love the alien as yourself,
For you were aliens in the land of Egypt:
I am the Lord your God.
And then there’s the teaching from the New Testament,
Where you see the Apostle Paul saying
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcome you,
for the glory of God.”
Or the author of Hebrews reminding us:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers
for by doing that some have entertained angels
without knowing it.”
And then there’s Jesus, and those red-letters.
Stories about Samaritans and Centurions and Prodigals.
And, to put a point on it, maybe, the gospel of Matthew,
Which we’re reading from today,
Reminds us that Jesus himself knew
about what it meant to be a foreigner in a foreign land.
Jesus himself was a refugee
Mary and Joseph fled from Nazareth after he was born
And took shelter in Egypt from the political wrath of Herod.[xi]
But here we are.
My friend Rocky is a pastor in Chicago.
Over the last few weeks, his wife Meredith and their daughter Laura
Spent some time with other families getting an apartment ready for
A refugee family: an accountant, a literature major, and a toddler.
They were furnishing it with a crib, you know, and other furniture.
They even had a little stuffed bunny rabbit for the babe.
I saw a picture of it on facebook.
But they’re now stuck, unable to come.[xii]
Still without a home. Still seeking a place that will offer them hospitality and welcome.
As people of faith, sometimes its hard to know what to do, you know.
There are so many different voices swirling out there.
So much worry about offending our friend, or our neighbor.
And this seems to have gotten worse, this past month,
An already fragile compact being pulled at the seams
Testing our neighborliness and our compassion for each other.
It is possible, though, to bear the teachings of Jesus out into even this world.
It is, though it might not be easy.
It is possible to be a voice of welcome for the stranger,
Hospitality for the foreigner
Concern for the oppressed.
It is possible to advocate for the values of God.
Its more than just possible: it’s a calling, to all of us who claim the name of Christ.
Today Pat read from the prophet Micah
Where God is wrestling with the people whom God loves.
The LORD has a controversy with his people
Those who claim to follow God but who struggle with getting it right.
Micah reminds the people of their own liberation from Egypt
Where they were resident aliens, mistreated and enslaved
And that reminder prompts the people to repent
To seek atonement for their missteps.
How about thousands of rams for a sin offering, God?
Ten thousands of rivers of oil for a libation, a ritual pouring to atone for sin.
No, says God.
God has told you what is Good…:
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice
And to love kindness
And to walk humbly with your God?
Maybe it was a hidden blessing to us that Martin Okpareke joined us here last week.
Martin was educating us about what it was like to be a refugee
To be without a home, to be looking for a blessing.
Martin was sharing with us one possible way that we as a community
Might seek to partner with others who are trying to respond as Christ might respond
With acts of justice
Humbly seeking to walk with God.
We’re still exploring what it might look like,
Who knows if it will be a partnership we will be able to undertake.
But I’ll tell you,
If you’re feeling unrooted and unsure and tossed about these days
What better blessing could there be for you
Than to offer some measure of God’s welcome
To foreigners who are here, now, making this place their new home?
What more hopeful witness could we offer than to live out the teachings of the Gospel
And to help proclaim the Kingdom of God as our Lord and Savior Jesus did.
If you’re looking for a blessing, there is no greater blessing than to be a blessing
To those who need it.
So may we ponder the blessings of our life
The way God claims us, loves us, challenges us,
Focuses us, and helps us share all of who we are
With the most vulnerable in our world.
What a Blessing, indeed.
May it be so.
[i] http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html accessed January 28th, 2017. This does not include the 5.2 million Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA.
[x] New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press
Image Credit: UNHCR Refugee Camp, found at www.unhcr.org