Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon for Refugee and Migrant Sunday

This is the sermon I preached last week for Refugee and Migrant Sunday. Four good comments, one very negative one – plus concern from my brother when I described it to him the night before. My brother thinks I’m too political in my preaching, and when I told him that I was being balanced – my family’s good migration experiences contrasted with the experience of recent asylum seekers – he told me I was about as balanced as the ABC. I’m taking that as a compliment. But see what you think. 

Today, the 26th of August, the National Council of Churches in Australia invites all its members to celebrate Refugee and Migrant Sunday. This celebration means a lot to me, because only two weeks ago my mother’s family celebrated forty years in Australia. The Hannahs who came here from Scotland weren’t refugees; they weren’t escaping persecution. They were 10 pound Poms, economic migrants, looking for a better life in Australia than the one they could have had in Scotland, where the coal mines were closing and employment opportunities were few. And in Australia they found the better life that they were looking for.

            The other side of my family, the Joneses, are also fairly recent arrivals. My dad was born in Australia, but my grand-parents and two of my uncles were born in England, and they too came to Australia after the Second World War looking for a better life, and a healthier climate. And they found it as well. So, as the child and grandchild of migrants I have a lot to celebrate today.

            I imagine that the same is true for most of us; that most, if not all, of us are descended from people who came to Australia relatively recently, looking for a new and better life, and in most cases finding it. Most of our families arrived here within the past 200 years, an infinitesimal amount of time when compared to the tens of thousands of years that the indigenous people of Australia have been here. In that sense we’re all recent migrants, and today is a day to celebrate and give thanks for the hospitality and the homes we’ve found in this country.

            But with all this celebration, today is also a day of sadness. Six years ago today, on the 26th of August 2001, Captain Arne Rinnan of the Norwegian cargo ship the Tampa, went to the rescue of 438 people on the Indonesian boat the Palapa. He then tried to follow the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, and take the people he’d rescued to the nearest port, Christmas Island. Although it was Australia that had asked the Tampa to rescue the Palapa’s stranded passengers, Australia then refused to allow the Tampa to land on Christmas Island and refused to allow its Afghani and Iraqi passengers to disembark. Instead, after days of political and legal discussion, the 433 asylum seekers from the Tampa were transferred to the troopship Manoora and taken to Nauru.

The Australian National Anthem has a couple of lines: “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.” My family found that true. The asylum seekers rescued by the Tampa didn’t. Six years later, only 28 of the 433 have made it to Australia. Some 179 returned to Afghanistan, told that it was safe after the fall of the Taliban. The rest have been resettled in New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Canada. There are some 12 million refugees in the world. Each year, Australia accepts 6,000 refugees and 7,000 humanitarian, mostly family reunion, migrants. So, today, while we can celebrate the generosity and the hospitality Australia has shown to migrants and refugees, we also need to acknowledge the times when Australia has rejected them, when we have breached UN conventions. Both elements, the good and the bad, the welcome and the rejection, are part of our history.

What does this have to do with today’s gospel reading, the story of a woman who was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight, healed by Jesus on the Sabbath to the horror of the leader of the synagogue? As it happens, quite a lot. A first glance, this story might seem to be simply a story of healing, an almost commonplace occurrence in the life of Jesus. But Jesus does not tell the woman that she is healed. Instead, he tells her that she is “set free”. This story is a story of liberation.            

Luke presents Jesus as an earth-shaking, justice-seeking prophet of God. Remember Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto in which he quotes Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19) Again and again Luke tells us stories that show Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. We’ve heard such stories again and again this year as the lectionary leads us through Luke’s gospel. In these stories we see Jesus as the one who reinterprets the law, or interprets it correctly; showing that mercy is the key to understanding the law, and that through the law, as Mary sang, “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-3). This is another one of those stories, a story that only Luke tells, a story of liberation and the lifting up of the lowly.

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. A woman who has been crippled for 18 years appears. Jesus calls her and says “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he lays hands on her, she immediately stands up straight and begins praising God. But the leader of the synagogue is appalled that Jesus has cured on the Sabbath, Rather than confronting Jesus directly, he instead, acting in an appallingly passive-aggressive manner, turns on the crowd, telling them: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” He ignores the fact that the woman didn’t ask for healing at all. She seems to have merely been coming to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was customary. It was Jesus who initiated the healing, not the woman who requested it. And then Jesus answers: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

The crowd rejoices, but on the face of it Jesus’ argument makes no sense. The woman’s condition, after all, was on-going, not acute. She had suffered for 18 years, surely she could have held on for a few more hours, until the sun set, the Sabbath was over, and Jesus could heal her without breaking it. Her case isn’t like the ox or donkey who needs water to drink. So, why does Jesus go out of his way to break the Sabbath and provoke confrontation?

The answer is, surprisingly enough, that Jesus is not questioning the need to observe the Sabbath. Instead, Jesus is disputing the way the leader of the synagogue thinks the Sabbath should be observed. According to Jesus, the whole point of the Sabbath is liberation. Observance of the Sabbath is shown by living life abundantly in obedience to God’s will. The Sabbath year, the year of the Lord’s favour, was a year in which slaves were freed and debts forgiven. The Sabbath was observed in the first place because God had freed the Israelites from Egypt. The Sabbath is observed best when the oppressed are freed and the captives released.

Before her healing, the woman was one of the lowly, the oppressed. Bent over, she would have been unable to look a tall person in the face, unable to raise her face to the sun and the moon, unable to lift her hands and praise God. Her physical condition, and the fact that it was attributed to a spirit, meant that she was shamed before her community. According to some of the Levitical laws, she would have been seen as ritually unclean. And yet Jesus calls to her, touches her, heals her. There is no mention of her faith, no mention of forgiveness of sins. Immediately, and without condition, Jesus frees her. He then describes her as “daughter of Abraham”. She is a person of worth, a member of the covenant people. Freed, she is able to stand erect and look people in the face. She is able to stand straight and praise God, as she immediately does, recognising in Jesus’ actions the sign of God’s kingdom.

What message does this story of liberation have for us on Refugee and Migrant Sunday? Today, we are reminded of the many people in the world who are bound. There are more than 7 million people confined to refugee camps or segregated settlements around the world. Surely the international community, working together, can find ways to end this warehousing. In 2005, the Uniting Church’s Assembly Standing Committee did call for an end to this practice.

Then there are those refugees in Australia on Temporary Protection Visas, visas which last for 36 months, who have been found to be refugees but are not allowed to settle here permanently, are unable to leave Australia and cannot apply to sponsor family members to come to Australia. Surely liberation for these people, who have been found to have a well-founded fear of persecution, would include allowing them permanent protection. The Uniting Church has called for the end to Temporary Protection Visas.

The Uniting Church’s Hotham Mission works with asylum seekers on bridging visas, those released from detention while decisions are made on their applications for asylum, who have no right to work and no access to Medicare. There are estimated to be about 12,000 of them in Australia. Liberation for them might simply be enabling them to work, as the Hotham Mission’s “Safety not Charity” campaign argues.

There are 82 Sri Lankans living on Nauru, with no idea when or whether their detention might end. In 2006 Gregor Henderson, the President of the Uniting Church, said that “Indefinite detention on Nauru has had a terrible impact on the physical and mental health of people”. We can assume that the impact of indefinite detention has not changed since Gregor made that statement.

In today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, we hear of Jeremiah’s call and his fear. “Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’” The Uniting Church, like the other churches throughout Australia, has been trying to speak God’s word of liberation for asylum seekers and refugees. We have often been ignored and condemned. Today, as we celebrate the liberation of one woman and the welcome millions of migrants and refugees have found in Australia, let us hear again the word of the Lord: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord”. Let us continue to seek to bring liberation: hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness and joy where there is sadness. Amen.

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September 1, 2007 - Posted by | Ministry

2 Comments »

  1. Doesn’t look unreasonably political to me. It seems to me that people who don’t want to hear that kind of political comment might do better in another denomination that doesn’t take Scripture as seriously as we do! Although we’re not the only churches making a stand about refugees. It was the Anglican, Catholic and Uniting churches of Tamworth standing together and garnering support from the rest of the community that convinced Tamworth Council to reverse its decision about accepting refugees into their community early this year. The church members tell of people crossing to the other side of the road in order to sign their petition and expressing serious gratitude that they were taking a stand.

    Comment by Judy Redman | September 1, 2007 | Reply

  2. “…about as balanced as the ABC. I’m taking that as a compliment.”

    Does that mean you’re pretty awesome, but with a bit of conservatism creeping in at the edges in a worrying sort of way?

    Comment by Liah | September 11, 2007 | Reply


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