A Sermon from Sherborne

Refugees-or heros?

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 11th August 2019 by Canon Tim Biles


There are two passages in today’s readings which have excited me. One from the Epistle and one from the Gospel. I want to share why they excite me and I hope they excite you – and don’t send you to sleep.

First the Epistle [Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16]. Here the author of the letter describes how ‘Abraham set out for a place, not knowing where he was going, living in tents, searching for a better country’. And this made me think of a later generation, of Moses escaping the tyranny of the Pharaohs, wandering forty years in the wilderness, also in tents, not knowing where he was going, facing dangers, starvation and rebellion among the multitude of followers who he called ‘a stiff necked people’. All travelling in hope! They are the founding fathers of our Judaeo-Christian civilisation. They are our heroes! We are born of travellers’ stock. We may well claim ‘A wandering Aramaean was my father’, and an heroic father, too.

The similarity with today’s world events should be evident to all as tens of thousands of people escape from war and tyranny, living in the open and going they know not where but seeking a safer land and a better life. The first time I realised these wanderers were heroes was in Ethiopia where I met some of the 7,000 Sudanese ‘lost boys’ who had escaped after seeing their parents killed and their villages burnt to ashes. They had walked barefoot across Sudan, a three-month trek through dangers that took the lives of half their number, the survivors finally swimming the crocodile-infested river to an Ethiopian village in the Gambella Region. That village had no doctor, no hospital, and I saw rows of children who had survived the journey only to die of exhaustion or malnutrition on arrival. I vowed to respect for ever those who wander the world seeking a home to call their own, I began to look on the refugee as hero.

So how great is – or should be – our shock and dismay at seeing the way refugees are being treated today. In one place we see a wall being built to keep out people who are called ‘rapists and criminals’. We have heard of children separated from their parents, being caged. In another place, Italy, the government has made it a legal offence for anyone to assist in a refugee rescue, with a fine of €50,000 first time and confiscation of the rescue boat second time. Our own government has withdrawn the ships from the Mediterranean which were attempting to rescue those whose dinghies had capsized or ferries sunk in the desperate effort to reach safety. ‘Let them drown’ seems to be the preferred option. And for those who do survive we have a policy called ‘hostile environment’ with unlimited detention for immigrants. Where are the Christian voices appalled by this inhumanity? I hear the Pope regularly crying out for compassion, and a group of faith leaders in the UK – Imams, rabbis, Quakers, Catholics and 24 Anglican bishops – have written to protest because treating refugees as an unwanted plague has become normalised. Compassion is passing out of the political language but compassion and the recognition that we are all made in the image of God is at the heart of the Christian gospel.  Abraham ‘knew not where he was going’. Moses wandered in the Wilderness for forty years. Jesus ‘had no place to lay his head’. For us all, people of faith, ‘a wandering Aramaean was our father’ [Deuteronomy 26.5]. Compassion must be restored to politics, please God.

And the second passage that excited me was the line that ended today’s Gospel [Luke 12. 32-40]. Jesus says to his hearers, ‘Be ready, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’.

Well, some people have taken this to be a reference to the end of the world, which many in those days expected; a sort of ‘Repent, the end is nigh’ warning. Others have taken it to be a reference to our own death which may happen at any time, expected or not, so ‘be ready’ whatever the hour. I don’t warm to either of those thoughts, but I offer another instead:

I doubt any of you would be here if you had not had some moments or flashes of insight, moments of joy as of a revelation, a divine moment, the Son of Man coming in an unexpected way. There is no boundary to the multiple forms it may take. Be watchful, be alert, have your eyes open because God may make himself known at any moment and in any way, suddenly, unexpectedly.  God is for ever revealing himself. Spiritual awareness is having the eyes to see, so that we don’t miss the moment. It may come in music, it may come in the garden, it may come in a child’s laughter: as the Gospel suggests it will probably be where and when you least expect it – there the Son of Man comes. These ‘magic moments’ are unlimited: it is only our blindness, our dullness, our limitations that stop us seeing them; the whole creation is shot through with the divine. You all know St. Paul’s words about those who give hospitality to strangers– they ‘entertain angels unawares.’ Divine messengers in their many forms surround us. Are we aware? ‘Lord gives us eyes to see the vision of your world, redeemed and won.’

These moments should not be rare: the world we move in is alive with God. Perhaps you can recall moments or events or, most likely, a person or a place, which lifted you beyond yourself to a better place. I hesitate to give one example because there should be so many. But when I was confronted with that line of Sudanese boys who had walked for months seeking safety and now lay huddled together dying on the earthy floor – refugees but most certainly heroes – the divine message was clear and direct: that the refugee deserves honour and respect.

A much more likely daily experience is to be ready to find the divine in each other. One of the great spiritual leaders of the last century, Mahatma Gandhi, taught ‘if you do not see the Divine in the next person you meet, you will not see him anywhere else’. Made in the image of God, the divine is within us all. See it! Say it! Enjoy it!

We are in this Abbey to make Eucharist which means to ‘give thanks’. Giving thanks is the heart of our faith and meant to be the heart of our life. Moaning and pessimism are out. Giving thanks is in. We are born to rejoice, to see the world, as it is, alive with God, filled with blessings. Then we will truly be making Eucharist, and we will be ready to see the Son of Man every hour, in unexpected ways.

Lord, give us eyes to see the vision of the world redeemed and won. Amen.

Canon Tim Biles 11/08/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne