Galatians 3.23-39; Luke 8.26-39
One of my favourite moments from the recent jubilee celebrations was the sketch in which Paddington Bear took afternoon tea with HM the Queen. Those of you who familiar with the story will remember that Paddington was from Darkest Peru (BTW a fictional place with high mountains and deep jungle), where he had been brought up by his Aunt Lucy now living in a care home. He was found homeless by the Brown family on Paddington station and taken home with them. Many observed that Paddington was a refugee and was treated with kindness and respect. Why is this particularly significant? Because tomorrow is world refugee day.
I thought some definitions might be helpful. These come from the office of the UNHCR (United nations High Commissioner for Refugees): A refugee is someone who fled his or her home and country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”, according to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Many refugees are in exile to escape the effects of natural or human-made disasters.
Asylum Seekers are those who say they are refugees and have fled their homes as refugees do, but their claim to refugee status is not yet definitively evaluated in the country to which they fled.
Those fleeing have certain rights: to be protected and safe. They have the right to right to seek asylum in another country; borders should remain open to all people forced to flee. There should be no pushbacks – returning people to return to a country where they would be at risk before evaluating the dangers they would face back home.
People should not be discriminated against at borders. All applications for refugee status must be given fair consideration, regardless of factors like race, religion, gender and country of origin.
People forced to flee should be treated with respect and dignity. Among other things, this means keeping families together, protecting people from traffickers, and avoiding arbitrary detention.
To give you some idea of the scale of this globally, at the end of 2021 at least 89.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order. Among them are nearly 27.1 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18.
There are no simple solutions to these complex issues. Yes, I’m sure a small proportion of those arriving in this country in small boats are what are described as economic migrants. The Rwanda Scheme has been much in the news this week and has shocked many people. All the bishops in the House of Lords signed a letter to The Times condemning this scheme. Their letter ended with these words: We must end the evil trafficking; many churches are involved in fighting this evil. This needs global co-operation across every level of society. To reduce dangerous journeys to the UK we need safe routes: the church will continue to advocate for them. But deportations — and the potential forced return of asylum seekers to their home countries — are not the way. This immoral policy shames Britain.
So how does today’s gospel reading help us as we reflect on these issues? Jesus has crossed into gentile country and he is immediately confronted by a man who is possessed by demons. He is an outcast living rough in the tombs outside the city and is extremely violent. His name is Legion reflecting that many demons had entered him. Jesus tackles this man head on. He confronts evil. He restores the man to health and enables him to return to his home in the city clothed and in his right mind. (I’m not sure how he would have been received! With some scepticism probably). Remember the Greek word for healing and salvation is the same. Jesus has saved this man. Jesus is victorious over the forces of evil.
Reflecting on this, how can we bring healing in the face of evil and the challenges we face today both locally and globally. In High Wycombe the Wycombe Refugee Partnership has been working since 2015 to offer wrap-around support to resettle refugee families in the High Wycombe area. This includes housing, education, language, befriending, welfare and job-seeking support.
If we turn to our reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia, he reminds them that through baptism they have been clothed with Christ. There is now no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female: all are one in Christ. The distinctions between people, between opposites have been reframed. I wonder what pairings we might substitute for Paul’s list? Black/white? Straight/gay? There are others, I’m sure.
We are called to respect all human beings. As Christians we have been clothed with Christ. It’s another way of saying we are to become more like Christ, enveloped in Christ’s love. Jesus treated the man who confronted him with respect; he was healed, sent home and given a task to do. This sounds a far better model. The challenge is how can we be part of this transformation.
Let us pray in the words of our first hymn that we will build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Amen.
The Revd Jackie Lock, Associate priest