Sermon by Rod Benson
Sunday 9 October 2011
Scripture reading: Hebrews 13:1-3
Australia is a nation of immigrants with links to almost every other country and culture. Even the first Australians, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, came to this land from somewhere else.
All of us here today are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. And still people come, and we have a responsibility to welcome them, and (if we are conscientious citizens) to influence immigration policy for the common good and in harmony with our theological convictions.
If Australia possessed a Statue of Liberty, she would be set not in Sydney or Melbourne but somewhere on the coastline between Port Headland and Darwin, on land once erroneously called Terra Nullius, gazing out over the Indian Ocean from shores that have felt the imprint of millions of immigrants, with her face set toward Christmas Island.
When we think about immigration, we open a can of worms that includes border protection, refugees, asylum seekers, business migration, social inclusion and cohesion, multiculturalism, racism, xenophobia, and debates on population and resources.
If Jesus were here this morning, what would he say about immigration? I have no doubt that he would ignore the politics and the policies, and say something like:
- Tell me about the people who live in your street.
- Where did your family come from?
- What do the Scriptures say about border crossings?
The biblical witness is crystal clear when it comes to how Christians should feel and act toward immigrants. There is a coherent vision of community wellbeing, and a consistent emphasis on justice, grace and neighbour-love toward all who are in need, summed up most profoundly in the biblical concept of shalom, “a picture of community, of life in relationships, in which things are as they are supposed to be [and where people] live in harmony and delight with God, each other, and the world.”
Individual Christians and local churches are expected to reach out to such people with compassion and sacrificial love, possessing no ulterior motive and showing no favouritism toward particular groups.
In an article on refugees, Roy Branson observes that:
While Christianity affirms the importance of the individual stranger, it also values community. The sanctuary movement [that is, the historic practice of offering sanctuary to those fleeing danger] not only draws attention to the exile but also to the cities of refuge. As in designated Old Testament towns, and in British and European cathedrals into the 16th century, security from retaliation and injustice must be provided …
The theme of exiles and pilgrims as the chosen of God, who must in turn welcome the stranger, is so strong a theme in biblical faith that it creates a presumption in favor of admitting the immigrant, granting asylum to the refugee, and treating the alien as an equal.
And the late British pastor and author John Stott notes:
It is important that a church which has a passion for justice should stand up against any culture or system which overlooks injustice, especially when it refers to the weaker members of society. Yet such injustice goes further: it denies the very roots of the creation story as affirming each person as made in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect.
If Jesus were here this morning, he might say to all Australians, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12a). And to religiously minded people, he might tell the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), and invite you to go with him to Villawood Detention Centre. And to Christians, he might refer to the Great Commandment to love God and love your neighbour (Mt 22:34-40), and ask how you’re going in the challenge to love – really love – people who are quite different from you. And to a local church, he might draw attention to some of the many relational exhortations in the New Testament, such as Hebrews 13:1-3.
“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” (verse 1). Charity begins at home. If we can’t get on well with those with whom we have most in common, and those who know us well, how can we hope to show goodwill, let alone sacrificial love, toward strangers?
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers” (verse 2a). Open your homes and your lives to strangers, refugees, overseas students, homeless people, young people who don’t have the blessing of a stable family life. Who knows? Some of them might be incognito angels (see Gen 18:19; Jdg 13). And in showing hospitality to strangers, we not only welcome angels but Jesus himself (Mt 25:31-40). And some of them are not far away.
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (verse 3). Perhaps some of the Christians were behind bars, or subject to abuse, arrest and attack (cf Heb 10:32-34); Timothy had recently been released from prison (13:23). Or perhaps this is a universal request.
What’s important is that we recognise the humanity of those in detention, and demonstrate empathy and solidarity with them – for example, through prayer, visitation, writing letters or emails, making donations to meet their needs, working for their release, and assisting them as they integrate or reintegrate into the community.
Dallas Willard was for many years Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is also a Christian, and author of several important books on Christian spirituality and Christian living, including The Divine Conspiracy. In one of his books, he writes:
Some time ago I came to realise that I did not love the people next door. They were, by any standards, dangerous and unpleasant people – ex-bikers who made their living selling drugs. They had never tried to harm my family, but the constant traffic of people buying drugs, a number of whom sat in the yard while shooting up, began to wear down my patience.
As I brooded over them one day, indulging my irritation, the Lord helped me see that I really had no love for them at all, that after “suffering” from them for several years I would secretly be happy if they died so that we could just be rid of them. I realized how little I truly cared for nearly all the people I dealt with through the day, even when on “religious business.” I had to admit that I had never earnestly sought to be possessed by God’s kind of love, to become more like Jesus. Now it was time to seek.
Jesus himself is the ultimate immigrant, coming from heaven to point the way back to God and God’s ways (2 Corinthians 8:9; Philippians 2:5-8). The infant Jesus and his family experienced life as refugees, forced to flee the wrath of King Herod, and finding sanctuary in Egypt until the threat had passed (Matthew 2:13-23; see also 8:20). He knew what it was like to be an outsider, and a refugee, and to face the challenges of assimilation or integration – and the pain of loss, and ostracism, and rejection.
The church is collectively described as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Like Jesus, we’re supposed to know what it’s like to be outsiders. What better group of people to welcome immigrants, to assist them, and help them integrate with other Australians!
What is Jesus saying to you today?
Sermon 603 copyright © 2011 Rod Benson. All rights reserved. Preached at Hornsby Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 9 October 2011. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Andrew Sloane, At Home in a Strange Land: Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), p. 28.
 Roy Branson, “Refugees,” in John Macquarrie & James F. Childress (eds), Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), pp. 530-531.
 John R.W. Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (4th edn; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), pp. 281-282.