Reflection: The Foreigners November 26, 2017
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14; John 14:27
I was thinking this week about those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves living in a foreign land. In this land, their religion is a source of scorn or suspicion. In this land, they are visibly different – in clothing, perhaps in stature or skin colour, in the way they live their daily lives, in their habits of eating and their habits of praying. In this land, the roles played within the family are held suspect. In this land, they are a visible minority – sometimes a very successful minority, but for generations they will continue to be seen as newcomers, immigrants, foreigners, outsiders – even those born and raised in that land. They will always be marginalized, different, and vulnerable to attack and abuse. How would those folk feel about their experience in that land? Would they mourn? Would they become depressed? Would they become angry? Would they want to lash out? Would they begin to call out for justice, to their God and to the government that rules them?
I am talking about the people of Judah living in 6th century Babylon – but I could just as easily be talking about Syrians or Nigerians or Pakistanis in Canada, Mexicans or Haitians or Columbians in the U.S., Algerians or Moroccans or Libyans in France, Somalis or Turks or Surinamese in the Netherlands – or even Canadians, Americans and Europeans in the People’s Republic of China. The experience of being a stranger in a strange land is an experience common to many in our world – and will be more so as environmental crisis and civil conflict drastically increase the number of displaced people on the planet. It’s to a displaced people that the prophet Jeremiah brings words of wisdom and hope.
His instructions to those in exile are: settle in, live your lives, and work for the good of the place where you live. This exile will come to an end, but not for years to come. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but it’s apparent that generations will be born and pass away before the people of Judah will return to their homeland. To spend their lives dreaming of “back home” and resenting and despairing over their present fate will do them no good. Note that he doesn’t say, “give up everything that makes you you and be like everyone around you” – he doesn’t say that. He says “pray and work for the good of the city” – in other words, try to be a good neighbour, a good citizen, in this place where you have come to live. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in the story from Daniel last week, were trying to do just that. The problem was, that their neighbours didn’t want them to be who they were; the neighbours insisted on them being exactly like them.
In Canada, we pride ourselves on multiculturalism. But there has been a significant backlash over the last decade or so – perhaps longer – against those who wish to preserve what they feel is important about what they bring with them from their lands of origin. We have our share of people like the officials of Daniel’s and Jeremiah’s day who target immigrants for criticism, condemn them for being different, and insist that their loyalty to their traditional ways must be rejected in order for them to be good Canadian citizens. Yet many of those same immigrants are sincerely trying to do what Jeremiah asked: to work and pray for the good of the cities and country in which they find themselves.
As those who –mostly- find ourselves the “old-timers” in our cities and countries, we have a significant role to play in how folk experience their integration into Canadian society. If we make it difficult, if we marginalize people, if we shun them or stare at them or condemn them or laugh at them or simply act as if they’re inconvenient to have around – well, I don’t think that’s going to help them follow Jeremiah’s instructions, is it? Why would one work for a city or country that does not make one welcome? Why would they NOT become angry or depressed and do exactly the reverse?
Don’t get me wrong, this is not some form of rationalization for those who use violence to strike against their adopted countries out of anger or disillusionment. These acts are wrong, inhumane, inexcusable, and must be condemned in all instances. God’s instruction through Jeremiah is clear, and not conditional. Settle in, live your lives, and work for the good of the city and country in which you live – no matter what, even if we’re not altogether happy about our experience in that city or country. What I’m saying is that we have a part to play in all of this, too – to see that their experience in this city and country is one of welcome and acceptance.
We do not have a king in this country. We elect our leaders democratically, and so, like it or not, we are responsible in part for the messages our leadership extends to those who become a part of Canadian society. On the Sunday in the year when we specifically reflect on the rulership of Christ in our lives and our world, we might ask ourselves what a country, a city, or a municipality ruled by Christ would look like. And we might ask ourselves what we are doing to see that reflected in our present political bodies. Are WE working for the god of our cities and our country? How so?
Some of us are adept at working within political systems. We get active in party politics, attend municipal meetings, lobby governments and have connections with power players. Some of us work more on the outside of the system, through rallies, letter-writing, email campaigns, phone calls, marches. Some of us simply try to work in our own corner, doing what we can where we can to deal with the day to day results of systems that oppress others, but not really comfortable with actually trying to change the system. And some of us feel powerless, and feel like there’s no point in doing any of the above because nothing ever changes. If you feel this way, then perhaps the rest of Jeremiah’s words are for you:
11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
God promises hope; God promises a future in which your welfare and the welfare of others is secure. That means, there IS a point! Things DO change! That means that nothing is ever hopeless.
It is in the interest of the “powers that be” – whether they are economic, political, or cultural – the powers that flourish in environments of fear and hopelessness and meaningless – it is in their interest to keep us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. As I said to the Study Group on Monday – I don’t imagine a cabal of James Bond-like villains around a table plotting to keep us down and afraid. But the Bible talks about principalities and powers – both systems and individuals that grow their own power and wealth and influence by keeping us thinking that all we can do is stick our noses to the grindstone and keep our eyes on the ground in front of us. The word we often use in theological jargon these days is “empire” – hearkening back to the power of Assyrian and Babylon and the Roman Empire and looking today at the systems that keep people down. When God asks us to work for the well-being of the city and the country in which we live, it is NOT to support the empire – it is to support the people and the land and the creatures that live within that empire. That means if the empire, the powers that be, are oppressive or death-dealing, then we oppose them in favour of systems that are more humane and life-giving.
As we look around at this congregation, we have a number of folk here born in Canada, and a number of people here who immigrated to Canada at some point in their lives. We have people whose parents or grandparents were immigrants, and we have people whose ancestors go back millennia to the early days of First Nations here on what some call Turtle Island. Almost all of us have stories either of our own or from our ancestors of what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land; we also, too, as Christian people, ought to have a particular sensitivity to this situation, as so much of the Biblical story is about a people who struggled to find and maintain a land of their own. According to Luke’s gospel Jesus himself was a refugee, along with his parents.
I invite you this week to pay attention to the news you see and hear, and the things the people around you are saying. I invite you to examine your own thoughts words and actions – or inaction – and to pair them with the words we’ve heard from Scripture today. I invite you to hear the call to ALL of us to take responsibility for what happens in our land and our cities. I invite you to hear the assurance of God that there is a future for us all that is a future full of hope – and ask God how you and I can be a part of it. May God grant us the vision and the courage to move forward in hope. Amen.