Each year, a different place of worship in Memphis, Tennessee, hosts an interfaith Thanksgiving service in which clergy from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions share reflections. This year's reflections answered the question "What does it mean to be a refugee within our respective faith traditions?" The Reverend Hester Mathes, curate of Church of the Holy Communion (Episcopal), gave the reflection from the Christian perspective:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
From Christ’s birth in a stable far from his home, to his family’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod, to Christ’s ministry, which kept him from resting in one place for any length of time, our Lord knew far too well what it meant to have nowhere to lay his head.
The Christian narrative builds upon our common scriptural heritage and our shared history of being refugees from the very beginning of time.
Adam and Eve were forced to find a new way in the world away from their home in the Garden.
Noah and his companions sought refuge on an ark and watched their homeland disappear as the rains washed over the earth.
Abram and Sarai fled to Egypt in a time of famine.
The Israelites escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered through the wilderness in search of a new home in the Promise Land.
This only begins to skim the surface of the unsettled journey of God’s people throughout history.
The plight of the refugee is woven throughout Scripture lest we forget where we came from, and therefore it is our profound duty to welcome and give aid to the refugees of our day and age. For in the Book of Leviticus, God says to his people, “the foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”
Moving into the Christian narrative, God sends his Son, Jesus Christ, to the world to be our Savior and Redeemer. And yet, this Savior is born in the most unlikely of places, far from home in a humble stable after finding no room in the inn. Furthermore, his family was soon forced to flee for their lives from a jealous King Herod.
Our Savior Jesus Christ was a refugee.
From the moment of Jesus’s birth, we are forced to wrestle with the fact that this would be a very different sort of Savior. Safety and stability would not be the cornerstones of Jesus’s ministry. Salvation would be. Not salvation from our enemies, but rather salvation from our sins.
If Jesus had wanted to have a safe and secure place to lay his head, I have no doubt he would have made that happen, perhaps without even performing a miracle. But Jesus was not interested in a solid structure in which to store his treasures here on earth. Rather, Jesus came to show the way to a kingdom not of this world… God’s heavenly and eternal kingdom.
We are all on a journey seeking our refuge in God. We may not know exactly where we are going, but we can accompany and help each other along the way.In the words of King David’s Song of Thanksgiving, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation.”
No matter where we each find ourselves on our mortal journey, from homeless to ranch-style home to McMansion estate, there is a piece of us that is on a spiritual journey seeking our ultimate home which is not of this world. Like our ancestors before us, we will remain unsettled until we at last find our resting place in God's heavenly kingdom, our eternal home.
Nights like tonight are the light for our path as we celebrate our differences and our common thanks for each other and for God.
We may not know what awaits us on this journey, but one thing we do know is that come what may, we will face it together with God at our side.
This past weekend, the Episcopal Churches of West Tennessee came together for our annual Convention. Our Bishop led us in prayer with the words of Thomas Merton, and I thought to myself, this is the prayer of a refugee, for those seeking shelter on this earth, and those seeking shelter in God:
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
Art: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld - Flight into Egypt