BIBLE READING: Mark 9: 30-37
Since 2011, more than 200,000 Syrians died in the civil war. Close to 12 million, one-half of the Syrian population of 23 million, have been forced from their homes. More than 4 million have fled.
What began as an act of civil protest has continued to expand to civil war, genocide, and mass exodus. It began as protest in response to the arrest and torture of teenagers who wrote revolutionary slogans on a school wall.
According to the UN, globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Across the world, there are an estimated 60 million who are displaced from their homes because of war and persecution. The highest displacement on record. Those who leave the violence in their homelands then become targets for robbery, boat smuggling, human trafficking, and mistreatment from border guards.
As Jesus and his disciples were travelling through one town after another, his disciples debated who among them would be the greatest and have the most important position when Jesus came into his kingdom. Jesus responded, “‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Welcome is not merely receiving others; it is receiving others with gladness or delight, especially in response to a need.
The reception extended to Syrian and other refugees has been varied. Years of violence in Iraq and Syria have stretched the capacities of neighbouring countries to accommodate the displaced. Hungary has been slow to allow Syrian migrants to pass through, as the nation is in the process of erecting a 177 kilometre long wall along its Serbian border to keep migrants out (cost: $49 million).
As the European Union seeks to respond with compassion, there is a proposal of mandatory quotas for each of the 28 EU member-nations to help relocate refugees. Having learned a great deal about the long-term consequences of civil war, persecution and genocide from World War II, so far, Germany has extended the greatest welcome. As a result, by the end of this year, an estimated 800,000 refugees will likely request asylum in Germany. Europe is being overwhelmed.
How has Australia responded to this global crisis? So far our Government has committed to allowing entry to 1,200 Syrian refugees this year. While Labor quibbles about the numbers – this is agreed to by both sides of the house. The refugee crisis is a big issue for Australians.
By presenting the issue of welcome in response to the disciples’ questions about who would be the greatest, Jesus emphasises the relationship between welcome and greatness. His message is: If you want to be great, you must celebrate and welcome others the most, especially those who can benefit you the least. This kind of welcome is possible only when we see God in others.
We have come to a moment in our history, I believe, which invites us to break through and tear down the walls of anti-Muslim fear that have been erected since the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Now, the opportunity is for us to see the faces of Syrians and other refugees as people who seek peace, people who long for home, and people who have endured the ravages of civil war. And in their faces to see God.
What a sacred moment this offers us as a nation. What will we do?
For many of us, the answer to that question hinges on the projected impact of mass immigration on jobs, wages, and the overall economy. Based on recent history of mass immigration, employment and wages largely remain neutral in response to waves of immigrants. According to recent studies – refugees are more likely to start small businesses than normal migrants. They are generally grateful and loyal to their new country. My GP is a refugee from Vietnam. He endured the terrors of an open boat as a child to come to Australia.
But lets get real here, its not about economics, welcome is about our spiritual life – our identity - who we want to be – and want others to see us as. Nor is welcome simply about granting asylum. It doesn’t end with opening our shores. It really begins then.
Because of the extreme anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment so pervasive in today’s media, we must think not only about a governmental immigration policy, we must also think about and pray for a spiritual principle of welcome.
Using a definition of welcome as receiving others with gladness or delight, we need to begin to pray for guidance to discern any Muslim-suspicions within our own hearts and minds. Even the most Christian, and justice-seeking among us are not immune to unconscious incorporation of suspicions of others.
How many times in workplaces, churches, schools, retail stores, and neighbourhoods have felt suspicious toleration, but not welcome of women in black head gear, mean in strange clothes and long beards – and I'm not talking about Nuns and Bikers!. our suspicious toleration is shaped by the perceptions and assumptions we have about others, often fuelled by our rabid media, and our self-serving politicians. No welcome. No delighted reception. We have not always extended welcome to everyone – just to those like ourselves.
Jesus invites us to our own greatness and tells us the path to that greatness is not based on our pre-judgments or assumptions about others. Not based on whether we see them as our equals. And not based on our presumptions about whether they can benefit us in some way.
No, the path to our greatness as individuals, our church, and as a nation is the path of welcome – receiving others with gladness and delight. In order to do so we must recognise the face of God in all people. Ultimately, this path also leads to peace.
Acknowledgement: Rev. Cari Jackson
1. Think about times you have received genuine welcomes. What did others do that conveyed sincere welcome?
2. Who are the groups for whom welcome doesn’t come easy for you? What suspicions, judgements, perceptions do you have that make welcoming them a challenge?
3. What do we do and what might our church do to practice welcome across race, ethnicity, national origin, language, income, religion, and sexual orientation?