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I’m not really one for preaching on topical subjects. I can’t – it was drilled into me at a young age that to do so, to pick an ‘issue’ and then find a Bible passage that will tell you what to think about it, it is no way to use the Bible. In my conservative evangelical church, we took a book of the Bible and worked our way through it week by week, chapter by chapter. It was solid training for me.
So much as I believe that the church needs to be talking about the migrants at Calais and our response to the dehumanising political discourse we’re forced to listen to about “marauding” “swarms”, I wasn’t about to launch into a sermon on the matter.
Until I opened my Bible.
We’ve been working through Genesis 37-50, better known as the story of Joseph. Along the way, we’ve covered everything from arrogance to abuse, sex, betrayal and despair to reconciliation and forgiveness. But by chapter 47, everything seems to be wrapping up nicely. No space for political drama, I thought.
Here’s a bit of what I ended up preaching.
Last week, we heard about an emotional reunion. Joseph had been separated from his family for years, growing up instead as a slave in Egypt, then a prisoner, and now as a powerful administrator directly under Pharaoh. The famine across the whole region had brought his brothers unknowingly to ask him for food, and slowly, with tricks and secrets and more tricks, Joseph had revealed to his family who he was. In chapter 46, the reunion was complete – Joseph and his elderly father Jacob were reunited. Together again at last.
If we were writing this story ourselves, the happy ending would probably see Joseph coming home, right? Home to where he belongs. That’s the perfect hollywood ending, the scene that tells us everything is resolved – everyone back together at home.
But that’s not what happens in our story. It’s not possible – Joseph can’t come back to Canaan with his family, because there’s no food in Canaan. That’s why they had to leave! Instead, the only option is for the whole family to move – to come and join Joseph in this foreign land. And Joseph, ever the schemer, starts to make plans to make it work. Because it simply has to work – there is no plan B. His family’s wellbeing depends on it.
The conversations with Pharaoh play out exactly as Joseph predicts, negotiations with the most powerful man in Egypt seem to be his speciality, and Joseph’s family are given safety. They’re allowed to stay in what Pharaoh calls “The best part of the land”, in Goshen. They’re allowed to stay, not just for a few days or weeks, but to “settle”. To make Goshen their home from home. And here’s the cherry on top – Pharaoh says “if any of your brothers are up to the task, give them a job – put them in charge of my livestock, the royal livestock.” He gives them work. Royal work.
Jacob’s family were starving. They fled their home because they had no food. They came for refuge in a foreign land. They were reliant on the good will of the leader of that land. And they were allowed to settle, to work, to live.
How can we read this story, and not cast our minds to the 5,000 migrants currently in Calais, in the refugee camp they call ‘The Jungle’?
As we think about the founders of our own faith, the beginning of our own story, with a family in need of food and walking for miles and miles and miles to another country – how can we not think of the stories of those migrants living just across the channel from us?
Perhaps, among all the politicians speeches about cracking down, and the language of crisis and national security, we haven’t heard much about the stories of children, teenagers, women and men all trying desperately to escape some of the harshest situations in the world. Some are running from bombs and guns. Some are escaping kidnap and sex trafficking. Others still have left cruel dictatorships and the threat of torture.
One of the migrants in Calais is called Maseb Gessess, and she comes from Ethiopia. She worked there as a human rights defender, advocating for the rights of women. It got her in trouble. The authorities saw her as a threat. She was put in prison, had her bank account frozen. She was harassed and threatened. Her only choice was to leave. Since eventually arriving in Calais, she’s had mace sprayed in her eyes and mouth. She’s been treated like an animal.
These are people in need of food, shelter, protection, and a chance to settle down, to work for a better life. People who have travelled long dangerous journeys because they simply didn’t have the option to stay where they were.
People just like Jacob’s family.
When Jacob’s family needed a home from home, Pharaoh gave them the best of his land, he gave them safety, and space to work. When migrants try to reach England to find a home away from home, they are sprayed with mace and beaten by police.
I didn’t have any easy answers to give to the congregation, as I asked them what it would look like for us to be a welcoming church, a welcoming community, a welcoming nation. But I did want to point out that, without the Daily Mail’s scaremongering and bizarre political point-scoring, our natural reaction to people moving between countries is not one of horror and hatred. It’s understanding and compassion.
As its history unfolded, Israel became a people with a distinct and treasured national identity – the chosen people of God. And yet, this “exclusive blessing” was never meant to be exclusive at all. From the moment this nation was conceived, God told Abraham, “I will bless you… and you will be a blessing… and all people’s on earth will be blessed through you.” Blessed to be a blessing. Given to so that others would receive.
And this comes out time and time again in the way that Israel is instructed to “love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut 10:19), and that “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born” (Lev 19:34). Hospitality and compassion for the refugee was always intended to be at the heart of Israel’s national identity.
And ours? What is the key message from our Prime Minister? What’s our national identity to look like?
Desperate people seeking safety and a better life are “very testing”. We have “jobs, a growing economy, an incredible place to live” so we must “protect our borders”. We will certainly not be a “safe haven” for those in desperate need of refuge.
Why the hell not, Cameron? What kind of country prides itself on refusing to help the most vulnerable people in the world? Not a Christian one, that’s for sure.