Sunday, November 15, 2015

Wars and Rumours of Wars: Sermon, November 15, 2015

Then, as Jesus went out of the Temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!”

And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?”

And Jesus, answering them, began to say: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many. And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows.”
Mark 13:1-8, New King James Version

I want to tell you a story. There was a man, who served in the military of his country, and then left the army and tried his hand at farming. But there was unrest in that country, because of the oppressive actions of the government. Soldiers fired on a crowd and killed protesters, and the man heard about angry anti-government meetings, and sabotage, and reports of guerillas stockpiling weapons. Then it came, soldiers on their way to seize weapons were ambushed by insurgents, and fighting broke out in several places in the country.

The man kept to himself, but soon the strife reached his area. Rebel militias began to pressure pro-government people, and then things escalated, and rebel fighters seized property and burned homes and even executed those loyal to the government. And he heard that the same thing was happening to rebel sympathizers in pro-government areas. The man was already under suspicion as a former officer in the government’s army, so he had to flee before the rebels came for him, and after he left they did take his farm.

The man made his way to an area controlled by the government, and joined the regime’s forces. In a city held by the government he met a woman, and despite all the chaos around them they decided to get married. But her family supported the insurgency and they had to elope.

The man and the woman had children, a boy and a girl. But a foreign power intervened in the conflict on the rebel side, and the war eventually reached their city, and it was surrendered to the rebels. Government officials and soldiers and anyone else who sympathized with the regime had to get out, and the man and woman and their son and daughter were among the desperate families who crowded onto ships and sailed away from their country, knowing that they might never return. The ship they boarded was jam-packed, there was not enough food and water, the sea was rough, and the vessel was probably unsafe, but after a stormy voyage they reached a new land, as refugees.

This sounds like a story of Syria today. And it could be. Wars and rumours of wars. But this story is 230 years old. This is the story of my ancestors: John Hatfield who had to abandon his property in New Jersey, and he and his wife Mary Lockerman and their children had to leave New York City by ship in 1783 and come to Nova Scotia. They were loyalists, like so many of the families here in the Seaway Valley, refugees from the American Revolution.

I hear people say that refugees from Syria are dirty, that they carry disease, that they are terrorists in disguise and threats to security, that they are only trying to get free healthcare, that they will cost us too much money, that they are too different and will change our culture. And, you know, the same things were said about my ancestors in 1783. The United Empire Loyalists were dirty. The ones here walked from the Mohawk Valley in New York, after all. They often contracted disease in crowded camps and on ships. They could have been secret rebels. They could have just been after a Crown land grant. They cost the British government lots of money in transportation, and land, and compensation. A loyalist from South Carolina or Massachusetts probably didn’t have a lot in common with the habitants of Quebec or aboriginal people. And similar things have been said in more recent times, about the 35,000 Hungarian refugees who came after the defeat of the revolution in their country in 1956, and the 60,000 Vietnamese boat people who came to Canada 35 years ago.

Imagine the horror of Paris on Friday happening every day. That is the daily reality of life in Syria. The refugees from that country are not coming to bring this kind of violence to Europe and North America - they are trying to get away from the terrorists who bomb and shoot civilians. Most of the victims of the Islamic State have been Muslims themselves.

As the descendant of refugees, I can relate to the stories of people who have fled violence and oppression in Syria, and so many other places, because they are my family’s story, and the story of so many families here. And, sisters and brothers, all of us as Christians can relate, for the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament tells us that this is the story of Jesus and his family, who were forced to flee from violence in Bethlehem and make a hard and dangerous journey to Egypt and safety.

The churches of Seaway Valley Presbytery – which includes us - are sponsoring a refugee family from Syria, a Christian family of four whose home and church have been destroyed and are now in a camp waiting to come to Canada. We have now raised much of the $30,000 it costs to sponsor them, and are waiting for our family to arrive, as it takes a long time to go through the security and background and medical checks the United Nations and Canadian government conduct on refugees.

I want to read to you a part of a message from the Moderator of the United Church.

Sisters and brothers in Christ,

I bring you greetings in the name of Jesus, Comfort and Guide—and also once a refugee.

We are called at this particular moment in time to witness in a concrete way to our Christian faith in response to the needs of millions of desperate people seeking refuge and compassion. The plight of Syrian refugee children washing up on Mediterranean shores has struck at the core of Canadian self-perception as generous and welcoming people. As we have done in the past, we are responding once again with an outpouring of concern and compassion.

For decades, churches have been sounding the alarm about a deepening global crisis for forcibly uprooted people. We know that these are not the first tragic deaths among refugees fleeing danger, nor will they be the last. We must act immediately to turn the tide on this horrific reality. Right now, thousands of people from all over the world are risking their lives every day in search of safety. Some have been offered sanctuary; millions more have died en route at the hands of human traffickers or are held in detention camps, where they are treated primarily as dangerous security threats, or are ignored as if they do not exist.

Since the crisis in Syria began, the United Church has been actively contributing to humanitarian relief and sponsoring refugees. We are once again amplifying our appeal because the church wants to do all that it possibly can to help those in need of assistance and seeking refuge.

With a renewed sense of purpose, The United Church of Canada joins others in stating that we must respond urgently, compassionately, and comprehensively. United Church congregations have a long history of supporting refugees. Many of our communities of faith are already in the process of sponsoring refugee families to come to Canada. However, the need is great and it demands an even greater response from all of us.

Together, we have the capacity to make a profound difference in the lives of thousands of refugees. The time to act is now. Please consider how you and your faith community can best support the ongoing efforts to address this desperate refugee crisis, and please continue to hold the people of Syria and the surrounding region in your prayers.

In faith and hope,
The Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell
Moderator, The United Church of Canada