This is a rough approximation of the sermon I preached at UMOJA Lutheran Mission Swahili-speaking Community in Houston on June 20, 2021.
Grace and peace to you UMOJA, in the name of Jesus, who crossed the borders of heaven and earth to show us the love of God.
It is a great honor to be with you today, my dear friends at UMOJA. On Father’s Day, and on world refugee day.
UMOJA it’s a beautiful word that means unity. I am reminded that Jesus prayed that his followers would be one, as the three members of the Trinity are one.
UMOJA as you know, is also one of the seven principles of African Heritage (UMOJA/Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and imani/faith.
To be a Father
I also learned that UMOJA is the name of an all female, matriarchal village in Kenya, a sanctuary for survivors of gender violence, sexual abuse, and girls fleeing forced marriages. Found it in northern Kenya, in a rural community where poverty is devastating, and the infant mortality rate is high, this community is a safe harbor.
Dear God, may all your children be safe. It is a place where women are not considered subordinate to men, a problem across the world, here in the United States, and sadly even in the church, even among people to claim to be religious.
One time Jesus came across a woman who is about to be stoned to death by people who claimed to be religious. “ she was caught in the very act of adultery,” they said. “The Bible says she should be stoned to death, what do you say Jesus. Jesus was quiet for a moment. He wrote in the sand. Nobody knows what he wrote, but I have a pretty good guess. I think he wrote, “So, where is the man?”
It takes two people to commit adultery. If they were caught in the very act of adultery, then isn one person missing? Where is the guy? Why are we going to stone her and not him? Could it be that Jesus saw the injustice, the inhumanity, the cruel lack of compassion and wanted to offer us a different way? Could it be that Jesus recognized the plight of women who are under the power and domination of men a society where they could not own property, hold public office, or receive an inheritance? This is the Jesus I follow.
It is not much different today, in some parts of the world, where women cannot travel or leave their house without a written document of permission from their husband. In Saudi Arabia women were not allowed to drive until just three years ago. Jesus is on the side of any who are oppressed. “Where is the man?” That’s what I think he wrote in the sand.
I ask you, where is the man today?
To be a man, to be a father is not to dominate, or to show power over women and children. To be a man, to be a father is to love women and children, like God loves. It is to protect and cherish the family. It is be a role model, to set the example of love, generosity, kindness, integrity. That’s what it means to be a man, a father. “I have shown you O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting Tanzania, where most of you are from, but I hope to go some day. I hear it is very beautiful. I also hear there are more Lutherans in Tanzania than there are in the United States.
I have had the honor of visiting Kenya, right next to Tanzania. Kenya is very beautiful. When I landed in Nairobi, I wanted to go for a run. I noticed that there was a large national park right across from my airport hotel, Nairobi National Park. So, I asked the staff at the front desk if I could go for a run over there. They all laughed, and said, “If you run over there, run fast; the lions will catch you and eat you.” I did not go for a run. We travelled to Kisumu on Lake Victoria and then drove north to Bungoma. There I have friends who run an orphanage, a home for glue-sniffing orphans who want to leave the streets, get clean and go to school. It is holy work.
On this Father’s Day I ask you, does Jesus care about orphans? Yes, of course he does. Orphans, widows, and aliens have a special place in the Bible. The people of God are called to give special care to the orphan, widow and alien. This is what led my wife and I to adopt our daughter Yuliana from an orphanage in Russia many years ago, with the help of Lutheran Social Services. She emigrated to the U.S. when we returned. God cares for those on the margins. When you engage them, you are blessed, because God is there.
The history of the world is a history of migration. The history of the Bible is the history of migration.
To be a Refugee
One of the oldest credal statements in the Bible is in Deuteronomy 26. When you come to the altar to make your offering, say, “A wandering Aramean was my father.”
Father Abraham and Mother Sarah, parents of a great nation migrated because God commanded them to. “Go from your country and kindred to a land that I will show you…” And they were resident aliens the rest of their lives, living hybridity, a dual-consciousness of two cultures.
Jacob was a refugee, fleeing for his life from his father-in-law Laban.
Joseph, like many African Americans, was forced to migrate when he was sold into slavery. “He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” But he thrived, with dual-consciousness, a Hebrew in Egypt.
“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Moses and the Israelites migrated to escape slavery and persecution in Egypt.
Jesus and his family were refugees. They fled into Egypt to escape persecution, when Herod sought to kill them.
You shall bring your offering, your first fruits, set it down before the Lord your God, and you shall remember this history of migration, “a wandering Aramean was my father,” and then you and the priests and resident aliens living among you, shall give thanks to God, and celebrate with food and the bounty of the earth. I am the Lord your God. And we are going to do that today, after worship today, giving thanks, sharing a meal with good Tanzanian food. Thanks be to God.
The Bible is a story of migration. The history of the world is a history of migration. Migration is a human right. You are free to move about the cabin. My ancestors migrated from Germany, as was their right. Where did your ancestors migrate from?
Migrants and refugees are holy to the Lord. I have great respect for you, my friends. Moving is not easy. Moving takes courage. It takes guts. To leave the country you love, the people you love, the food you love, the culture you love, and make your way on a new, foreign land, this is not easy. You are amazing. You are like Abraham and Sarah, forging a new life. I thank God for you. You are holy ground. God speaks through people on the move. God speaks through people in the margins.
Today is World refugee Day. We are now in the largest time of global migration the world has ever seen. Due to drought, famine, climate change, war and other causes, now 80M people are displaced. Some choose to move, but many have to move. Refugees are people who cannot go home.
Syria: Today most of the world’s refugees are coming from Syria. There are an estimated 5.6M Syrian refugees. 3.6M of them are living in Turkey. Many refugees still live in their own country. Most refugees who are outside their country will eventually go home. Some cannot go home.
Afghanistan: Due to war, widespread unemployment and poverty, there are 2.2M Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan alone. The UN says 2.5M people are expected to be living in a mass migration crisis in Afghanistan. This September 11, when our troops come home from the world’s longest war, the situation is expected to get worse. Intelligence experts predict a civil war.
To help alleviate the crisis, 30 countries in the European Union area are welcoming Afghan refugees. Afghans are among the top nationalities seeking asylum in the European Union. The US could and should admit 40,000 Afghan refugees this year. We could lift Special Immigrant Visas out of the bureaucratic muck. We could also allow private citizens to sponsor Afghan refugees as with did with Soviet Jews at the end of the Cold War. We could fly them to Guam for screening and processing as we did the Iraqi Kurds threatened by Sadaam Hussein in the 1990s. Veteran groups have been particularly vocal, because many of the refugees have been US supporters during the war, at great personal risk to their families. The Taliban will show them no mercy when we leave. We cannot turn our back on our friends who supported our troops.
On the night Jesus was born, his parents were on the move. They needed a place to stay but there was no room in the inn. Is there room in the inn today? Yes, there is. Houston welcomed 200,000 people from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 100,000 stayed. And we are fine. If Houston could welcome 100,000, the whole country could certainly welcome 40,000.
The Jesus I follow said to love your neighbor, even the stranger, even your enemy. When they asked him, “Yeah, but who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love? How far does this go? Jesus answered by telling the story of a man who was robbed, beaten and left for dead. The so-called religious people who claimed to be of God, walked right by the stranger. Why did the priest and the Levite walk on by? They were probably afraid of the stranger. Fear sometimes keeps us from doing the right thing. Who ultimately stopped to help the stranger? Another stranger. A foreigner, a Samaritan, someone Jesus’ listeners did not like. A man of another place, another race, another religion. Who is the neighbor? Who is the neighbor Jesus calls us to love? The stranger.
Ujima: My brothers’ and sisters’ problems are my problems. This is what it means to be in community.
Jesus says, whatsoever you do to the least of these you do to me. If you want to see Jesus, he promises to be present in the stranger. The stranger in need is Jesus.
Toward the end of his ministry Jesus told the story about the end of time, judgment day. On that day, the Son of Man will come in the clouds and will judge the nations. He will divide the nations into two groups the way a shepherd sorts sheep and goats. And he will say to those on his right, “Come, beloved of my father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
I was naked and you clothed me.
I was sick and in prison and you visited me.
If you want to know what is important to Jesus, just open the Bible. There it is. Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for those who are sick and in prison. This is holy ground. God is there. If you want to stir up the wrath of God, despise or ignore the widow, the orphan and the alien.
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
– Leviticus 19:34
I follow Jesus who was an immigrant. This Galilean mestizo crossed the border between the heavens and earth. He came to our world and breathed our poisoned air. Though he taught love for all: the sinner, the prostitute, the tax collector, he was nevertheless despised. He was a threat to the social order, and it cost him his life. He was crucified, tortured on the cross, a victim of human hatred, sin, and violence. But God raised him up because death does not have the last word. And now he sits at God’s right hand, so that some day when you cross that border, when you on that final journey go, this lover of migrants, refugees and asylum seeker will welcome you.
So rejoice. Christ comes to us in the least, the last and the lost. Let us walk in his footsteps. Let us be a migrant people, a holy people, taking up our cross, loving indiscriminately, sharing generously, and living in the love of Christ.
Grace and peace to you UMOJA, in the name of Jesus, who traversed heaven and earth to show us the love of God.