A dear friend of mine has written a cantata to mark the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, entitled ‘A sure refuge’. It tells the story of a minority community facing the terrible choice of abandoning their way of life or leaving their homes behind. The year is 1620, and a non-conformist community from the East Midlands have spent the last 12 years in Holland, escaping religious persecution in James I’s England. But looming war threatens their hard-won freedom. So they set sail again, on board the ship Mayflower, in search of a sure refuge in the New World. This story of people leaving one part of the world for another is of course only one of many, not just from centuries past but also in our time.
Although the psalmist talks about ‘refuge’ (for instance in Psalm 46) you won’t find the term “refugee” in the Bible. But the Word of God has plenty to say about people called “strangers” and “sojourners” or
“foreigners” in our translations. “Strangers” and “foreigners” refer to anybody who was from another ethnic group but had chosen to live with the Jews in Israel — no matter what category they might represent in today’s terms. For instance, the book of Ruth is about a widow from the tribe of Moab who chooses to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel and live there with her. In Ruth 2:10 we see her ask Boaz, in whose field she is gleaning, “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me — a foreigner?” She understands her status as being outside the tribe of Israel. “Sojourners” are people who are temporarily living in Israel or just traveling through the country.
There are clear principles in God’s Word about how his people are to treat strangers or foreigners. Here
are just a few:
- Jesus said how his followers treated strangers should show disciple-like behaviour.
… I was a stranger and you invited me in.—Matthew 25:35
- Foreigners or refugees are not to be oppressed.
Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.—Exodus 23:9
- Treat foreigners or refugees as citizens and with love.
The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.—Leviticus 19:34
- Make foreigners part of the community.
Foreigners were to be included in festivals and celebrations mandated in the Law (Deuteronomy 16:14; 26:11).
- All believers are to show hospitality to strangers.
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.—Hebrews 13:1-2
- All believers are strangers on Earth.
… live out your time as foreigners here with reverent fear.—1 Peter 1:17
Over the past weeks we have heard of the many people who have come from Afghanistan. As I write this the news also talks about those who are crossing the Channel today, looking for a safer, better land. We cannot and should not ignore their plight, but remind ourselves that Jesus himself was a refugee in Egypt, where for a while he and his parents needed safety and rest, which they received through the generosity of those living there.
Can we live out our Christian faith by being generous to those who seek a sure refuge?
Almighty and merciful God,
whose Son became a refugee and had no place to call his own;
look with mercy on those who today are fleeing from danger,
homeless and hungry.
Bless those who work to bring them relief;
inspire generosity and compassion in all our hearts;
and guide the nations of the world towards that day
when all will rejoice in your Kingdom of justice and of peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Rev Canon Wilma Roest