This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is Deuteronomy 10:12-22.
One of the things that Christians have often wrestled with is how we deal with the fact that our Scriptures contain books of laws and commandments which were given by God to the Jewish people; and it’s not always obvious or straightforward to work out how those laws or commandments relate to our lives as Christians.
Some things we decided fairly quickly didn’t apply to us; food restrictions, keeping the Sabbath, the requirements for animal sacrifice, and so forth, we can see being abandoned even in the New Testament. But if there’s one thing we’ve held onto as absolutely central to Christianity, it’s that human beings have a dual obligation, to love God and love one another. Jesus himself affirmed this as the principle on which everything else hangs.
So when we come to a passage like today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we need to read carefully; is it dealing with matters of loving God, or loving everyone else? Listen again to what Moses had to say: “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, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.”
“You shall also love the stranger.”
We are commanded, we know, to love our neighbours as ourselves. This reading fleshes that out a bit further; you shall also love the stranger. It’s not that the stranger is not your neighbour, but that he is a particular category of neighbour; someone who is in some way an outsider to the community; someone who experiences a degree of isolation; someone who is socially vulnerable.
This is, by the way, part of why the movement for social justice is an unavoidable part of authentic Christian life. Because it’s by working for social justice that we seek to create a society in which those neighbours who are in some way vulnerable have a fair go in life; in terms of access to financial security, opportunities to participate in their community to the full, and opportunities to fulfil their God-given potential. And we’ve seen this historically in the Christian push to abolish slavery, to establish adequate welfare for those in need, and to provide education to even the poorest in society.
Social justice isn’t optional for us. It’s part of our very DNA as Christians. Love the stranger; make sure vulnerability doesn’t turn into suffering.
Let me unpack a specific example for you this morning; and that is the question of how we treat refugees in Australia.
To be clear, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her home because of war or persecution, and who seeks protection in another country. By international convention, to which Australia is a party, such a person has a right to protection in another country.
Let me say that again; by international law, a refugee has a legal right to protection in Australia.
But what actually happens to many refugees here is sickening. It’s not easy to get permission to visit detention centres and I never have; so I rely for my information on accounts written by other people. The points that follow I’ve taken from a public submission to an Australian senate inquiry, and if you ask me afterwards I can provide you with a link to more information.*
- Isolation and lack of communication are constant realities. I’ve already mentioned that it’s difficult to get permission to visit; mail deliveries might not happen for up to a month at a time; public phones don’t exist in the centres and even when a refugee might be allowed to leave to use one, it is too expensive for them to make calls; equipment for electronic communication is in disrepair, very slow and requires that the refugee know how to use it and be literate in English.
- There is a lack of medical care. Illnesses are left untreated. Pain medication is not given. Injuries are left to heal, or not. There are stories of people going blind for want of basic treatment of an eye infection. One such mother had two young children to care for; children whose smiles she will never see again. Not only is mental health treatment completely inadequate, but the conditions in which people are kept create and compound existing mental health issues.
- Fresh water supply is not consistent, and in Nauru has been reported to only be available for two hours a day; in that time refugees must see to their drinking and washing needs. Conditions are often unsanitary.
- Normal family life is disrupted and the ability of parents to care for their children is compromised.
- There is lack of legal assistance, or of access to information exercise their legal rights. Interviews determining someone’s future are often held without any legal advisors present.
And people are left in this situation, in limbo, for years on end, with no idea of whether or when they might be able to leave.
That’s just a start. That’s the beginning of painting a picture for you of what we are doing to these people; people who, let us not forget, have a legal right to our protection.
It’s hardly loving the stranger, is it?
I would go so far as to say this; I have sometimes heard people voice concerns that Australia is losing its character as a Christian nation. That as religious education has been removed from schools, as same-sex marriage is on the horizon, and so forth, we are becoming a nation detached from our religious heritage.
To those people I would say this: as long as we keep a single refugee locked up in what amounts to a concentration camp, we have no right to any credible claim to being a Christian nation. Maybe we ought to worry less about whether children in the local primary school are hearing the story of Adam and Eve, and worry more about whether children who have already been traumatised and displaced have any hope for a better tomorrow under Australia’s sun.
I know I stated that strongly, and that some of you might find that confronting. But sometimes we need to hear things which we find confronting.
We can do better than this. Our God commands us to actually love the strangers who seek our protection. And I put it to you this morning that we have a Christian obligation to seek justice and mercy for them.