1 Kings 17:8-16 | 2 Corinthians 13:3-10

(Kit Craig)

I bet you’re all expecting a bushwalking story!

It so happens that three of us went on an overnight bushwalk in the Yengo National Park last weekend. We got stuck in quicksand and it was very cold overnight. The end.

Sorry; God hasn’t send me a bushwalking sermon this time. I prayed for one, but I suspect God may be getting bored with my bushwalking stories. This time his answer came in four very different and disturbing ways.

Just before Easter Sue and I agreed to buy a house at Dora Creek on Lake Macquarie, and a few weeks ago we spent a weekend up there to get used to the idea of moving. After church on Sunday we walked past the community hall, where some other worship service was underway. The singing was lovely. I recognised the tune but not the lyrics. I looked it up: the tune is Melita, written in 1861 to accompany a hymn “for those in peril on the sea”. The tune and the phrase stuck with me.

I felt God’s second hint in the news in early May of the young Somali woman named Hodan who set herself alight on Nauru, only a week after the death of 23-year-old Iranian Omid Masoumali, who also self-immolated on Nauru with the words, “This is how tired we are. I cannot take it anymore.”

The third hint was actually a little bunch of things. In late May Peter Dutton made his infamous comment that, “[Many refugees] won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English … these people would be taking Australian jobs and there is no question about that.”

That made me investigate. I found out three things:

  1. Our refugee intake includes people of all educational backgrounds, from those whose education has been seriously disrupted by conflict and persecution to those who come with degrees, masters and doctorates.
  2. Recent research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that, in the longer term, refugees are more likely than other groups of Australians to develop small businesses, creating jobs and building economic opportunities for others.
  3. Australian Government statistics also show that more than 80% of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat have been formally recognised as refugees. That is, they’re not “economic migrants”.

That in turn got me thinking about our refugee intake. I wrote to our local member asking for an update on the special intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees that the Abbott government announced in September 2015. He didn’t reply, but I did find out that in February we had reached 26 of the 12,000 number. By the way, that’s about one quarter of the number New Zealand accepted in the same period. I believe we’re now approaching 200, but that’s still less than 2% of our commitment.

I was getting really uncomfortable with where this was going. Then, God’s final nudge was the news of more than 700 refugees drowning in the Mediterranean last week. It made me remember that tragic photograph from September last year of the drowned 3 year old Kurdish boy, Aylan Kurdi, which was a catalyst for our declaration of a 12,000 special intake.

As Christians, how do we respond to all this? What should we do or say? What CAN we do or say?

Let me emphasise, I’m not taking a political position here: the refugee policies of either party that could possibly form government in July are so similar that I think they’re largely indistinguishable.

These are questions of morality and faith that beset me, and, I hope, you. In the face of the awful conundrum of boats and people smugglers and refugees, what would God have us do? What would Jesus do? I think we must heed today’s New Testament reading: we must put ourselves to the test and judge ourselves, to find out whether we are living in faith.

Let’s consider the story of Elijah and the widow in Zarephath. Zarephath was a city in Zidon (about where Lebanon is today). Therefore she would have been a gentile – shown when she swears to Elijah on “the living Lord your God”. We know that in biblical times widows were very vulnerable because they had no husband to care for them, and we know the widow was the mistress of a household, which implies that her son was still a child.

Put yourself in the place of this widow. Would you put the needs of an alien and stranger before those of your son or yourself? She and her son were dying of starvation and when Elijah found her they had nothing left to eat but “a handful of flour in a bowl and a bit of olive oil in a jar”. Doesn’t she have a moral obligation to give her son food before she gives it to an adult who is a stranger?

Yet she reacts in faith and generosity and takes Elijah in. And God provides.

We are in a much better position than the widow. Can we do less?

Now is the time to act, when our politicians are listening because of the election. Write to them demanding a more humanitarian, indeed a more Christian behaviour. Urge speeding up our intake of refugees. Urge greater generosity in our programs. Urge less hostile language. Refugees are not “illegal immigrants”, they are frightened people fleeing persecution.

The position of the Uniting Church Assembly is that Australia should increase our humanitarian intake to 25,000 for 2016-17 and to at least 60,000 by 2020. The church wants its members – us – to ask our candidates four questions:

  • Will you support efforts to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake?
  • How will you work within your electorate to build a culture of welcome and inclusion for refugees?
  • What plans does your party have for expediting the resettlement of refugees from Syria? Will your party commit to an additional intake of refugees from Syria in 2016-17?
  • What is your party’s plan to take care of the 30,000 people awaiting their asylum claims?

I emphasise again, I am not pushing a political barrow here. In fact, I’m very uncomfortable discussing a subject that many of us feel is outside our worship service scope.

But surely a faith that does not work to shape society is dead or dying, and politics devoid of faith is perilously at risk of corruption and petty self-interest or of short-sighted, self-focused aims and objectives that in the long term are to the detriment of all. As Christians we must enrich, not impoverish, our community life with the values and guiding principles of our faith.

God’s call to justice always moves us outside of our comfort zone, as it did with the widow in Zarephath. I pray we will respond to the call.

(The Uniting Church’s “Flourishing Society” election resources can be found here)

One Thought to “For those in peril on the sea”

  1. Jim

    Thanks for your thoughts in this sermon Kit.
    I don’t agree with some of the thoughts and arguments you’ve expressed but am glad that you’ve had the conviction to use our worship service to express them. I thank you for having the conviction to do so.
    I do, however, believe that Australia can only be comfortably and sustainably successful with a limited population and that our emphasis must be on being prosperous enough to enable us to continue to assist developing countries to limit their birth rate, increase their education and productivity and improve their infrastructure.
    We can achieve little by importing immigrants from countries such as India whose population is increasing at the population of Australia every year.
    We will do more good in the world by being a multicultural and multi-faith society with good educational standards and rule of law which we can export to our poorer neighbours, rather than importing their more affluent and better educated folk to Australia.
    Let’s keep our immigration program to a sustainable 70,000 people pa and limit refugee intake to around 20,000 genuine refugees pa who arrive by legitimate means rather than by enriching people smugglers.

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