Saturday, August 27, 2005

Refugee Sunday

Story – we were slaves – not only do we understand God as the one who is faithful and who redeems, but we understand ourselves as those who are faithful because we are redeemed.

For the last couple of weeks we have been reading the beginning of the story of Moses – the story that represents ground zero of the self-understanding of the people who we call Israel.  In the sense the Bible uses the name, that means Jewish people, and it also means Christians as well - who see that we as a people begin when God first chooses a wandering people to make a covenant with.  Last week, in the story of Moses’ birth we read about God working through the bravery of women – of Hebrew midwives, a little girl and the daughter of a king.  The faithfulness and courage of people who didn’t matter much in the world they lived in.  This week God appears to Moses in the heart of a burning bush. 

But let’s start a few verses earlier and notice first what this story is all about: that Israel groans and God hears.  Because actually this isn’t primarily a story about Moses, it’s the defining story of God’s people - the story of God’s astounding faithfulness revealed in the liberation of God’s captive people – a pretty good story for Refugee Sunday when churches across Australia deliberately refocus on what God’s attitude is to the statistics of war and history – the 23 or so million people who today are displaced in our world because of wars and ethnic or religious persecution, people whose lives are on hold because they are living in displaced persons camps, people who don’t belong anywhere.  People who get labelled as illegal immigrants or queue-jumpers, people whose individual stories often get submerged in the sheer scale of the problem they represent for the powers-that-be.

Israel – remember the word itself means the one who wrestles with God – Israel is in Egypt because they are on the run from famine – you remember the story of Joseph, and how he is sold into slavery in Egypt but ends up as Pharaoh’s right hand man, then in a complicated sort of turn-around when the whole region is gripped in a dreadful famine Joseph arranges for his entire family to join him in Egypt where there is enough to eat.  Joseph is the original immigrant who makes good, you can just about hear the grumbling of unemployed Egyptians who complain these Hebrew immigrants are taking the best jobs – and the extended family are the very sort that get the worst treatment in today’s refugee policies, because they’re what in today’s jargon we call economic refugees, on the run not from bullets or torture cells but starvation.  The Hebrews are a refugee people, and eventually the Egyptian government decides there are less votes in being nice to them than there are in getting a bit of work out of them, so they’re put to slave labour.  Not only that, but as we heard last week, Pharaoh brings in a policy of doing away with all the Hebrew boy children to make sure the Hebrew problem won’t exist in another 20 or 30 years.

And then we get to this remarkable short preamble to the story of Moses’ leadership.  The people of Israel cry out to God in their distress, and God hears them, God remembers the promise made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; God sees the oppression of this refugee people and God has compassion on them.  The upshot is that they’re about to have to flee from their homes yet again, this time they are going to be escaping the genocidal policies of Pharaoh – but as we are going to see it is God himself who is in control – or as the Bible reading puts it, ‘I have come down to deliver them’ – and Moses is going to be the agent of God’s will.

‘Don’t you see?’, says this young woman in Perth, almost three thousand years later – ‘we were slaves and refugees, and now we are free’.  That’s the sort of God we have, that fundamentally is what God is like and the rest of the Bible, more or less, is spent on elaborating the same point, over and over again.  God isn’t interested in boundaries or borders; God isn’t interested in visas or politics – God is interested in and God is moved by the suffering of people who have no other recourse and no other option but to cry out to him and to demand his attention.  This is something we need to pick up on here – it’s not God setting the agenda at this point but the people of Israel themselves – firstly it’s the cries of the people that get God’s attention, and then God remembers, God acts.  There is a priority to human suffering and human need.  God sees the suffering of God’s people, and then God comes down to deliver them.  As Christians we recognise this as the story of Jesus, but the fact is that this is the pattern of God’s care for God’s people, over and over again.  God doesn’t just care from a distance, theoretically, but God’s care always takes concrete form, God’s care is always fleshed out in human action.

Yes, you might say, but these were the chosen people.  These were the ones God had made a promise to.  Of course God is going to look after them.  But here’s the point.  The promise God made to Abraham, and to Isaac and Jacob is the same promise God has been making, over and over, whenever God gets the chance.  Whenever anyone will listen.  It’s the same promise God extends to absolutely everyone, that God makes absolutely explicit, in the form of his Son.  God’s chosen people includes everyone Jesus came to give God’s message of love to – everyone who is made in God’s image.  Whether or not they are Jewish.  Whether or not they are Christian.  Whether or not they even know it.

The people God has compassion for are the people who need God’s compassion.  Simple as that. 

Then along comes Moses.  Now we don’t know much about Moses’ early life, but we do know he was lucky – being brought up in Pharaoh’s own household Moses is a good example of someone who even though he belongs to a despised minority manages to make the transition into the privileged world of the dominant culture.  Like the refugee who ends up as managing director of BHP.  Moses doesn’t seem to fancy himself as an activist, or as a rebel leader.  But he’s clearly a person who is prepared to stand up for the weak and the oppressed – already he’s got himself into trouble by killing an Egyptian who was beating up a Hebrew slave, and on the run from Pharaoh, out in the bush, Moses meets his future wife when he rescues her from a band of outlaw shepherds.  The burning bush that Moses sees out in the desert – now that of course would be a remarkable sight but you know I don’t think it’s that significant – in fact I think there are probably burning bushes all over the place, or whatever the equivalent is in the world we live in – I think God is always trying to get our attention and the thing about Moses is that he is attentive enough, he’s curious enough and he’s prepared to step outside his own comfort zone – so Moses turns aside for a look.

And Moses, quite reasonably it seems to me, objects to what God has in mind.  Partly it’s the same objections it seems everyone who is called by God always comes up with – why me?  I really haven’t got what you’re looking for, God.  Not much of a public speaker, you know.  And God does with this what God always does – not by promising that all of a sudden you’ll be a fantastic speaker and everyone will listen – but by saying, ‘I will be with you’.  That’s should be enough.  But actually these aren’t really the main objections – because Moses, who isn’t thick, knows that God is inviting him into a fairly high-risk enterprise.  ‘You want me to go to Pharaoh and tell him what?  And Moses wants to sort out a few things first, to get a few assurances – who are you anyway?  Who are you to tell me that being a Christian means I have to turn into a bleeding-heart do-gooder?  And God, who apparently can’t resist being enigmatic, says, ‘Who am I?  Who I’ve always been.  Same one I was when Abraham second-guessed me all the way to Canaan, when I didn’t require the sacrifice of Isaac, when I wrestled with Jacob until he found out who he really was’  God grounds both his demands and his promises – the present and the future – in the history of God’s compassion.  I’m the one you’ve always known, deep down, was with you.  I companion you, I’m with you through thick and thin – oh, and by the way, when you least expect it I’m going to call you to be more than you ever dreamed possible you could be.  My promises are going to come true through you and because of you.

Is all this reassuring, or is it just a bit disturbing?  If we’re honest, maybe both.  Here’s the reassuring bit – that God is for us, and God acts in solidarity with us, that the fundamental nature of God is to enter into our world and our reality in order to transform our lives.  And the disturbing bit is this – that the flesh and blood God needs to act in this world is ours.  In Jesus as in Moses, God comes down into the world in order to deliver God’s people – in other words in Jesus, as in Moses, God’s Word is incarnate, God’s promises take on human form.  As they do in you and in me, whenever we are prepared to turn aside to see the burning bushes in our own wilderness, for example at Baxter or at Port Hedland.  Whenever we are prepared to listen to the cries of God’s suffering people in detention centres and displaced persons’ camps – and hear God saying to us, ‘I just need you to slip in and have a word to Pharaoh’.