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Trinity 3: Responding to a photograph

At the fete yesterday on of the charities that we supported was People Not Borders and over the last four to five years they have raised the plight of refugees and organised collections of necessary items for children in camps. It is a good charity to support and we have had Sue Hampton speak at St Mary’s.

It has been estimated that in the world at this present time there are 68.5 million displaced people who are fleeing war, violence and persecution.

Every period in world history has known massive displacement of peoples. I read about the movement of black American to the Northern cities such as Chicago in the 1920s, and the mood was summed up a comment “the worst place there, has to be better than the best place here.”

To uproot and leave with what you can carry is a huge thing and to live with the vulnerability and uncertainty that this must bring.

Possibly the plight of modern-day refugees is best captured by photographs.

We have access to so many different types of images, but a photograph can sometimes hit home and make you think about an issue afresh.

A few weeks ago there was a photograph of a father and daughter, Oscar Alberto Martinez and Angie Valeria, who had drowned together in the Rio Grande, attempting to cross over from Mexico into Texas.

They were from El Salvador and there was a desperate sadness to the story behind the photo.

Alberto had carried his daughter over the river and left her to return and help his wife. As he left his daughter panicked and followed him back into the water. As he turned back to help her they were both caught in a current and drowned.

The photo of their face down bodies, surrounded by plastic bottles, with the little girls arm around her father has caused a storm that may well have repercussions in the American elections next year.

The holding camps on the Mexican and American border have been described by some as “stain on the nation’s moral character,” and by others as necessary barriers to stop the nation being overrun. When you have to consider this from a Christian perspective it does raise profound issues of compassion, generosity and hospitality.

The ongoing tragedy of what has taken place in Syria has led to a huge movement of people into Europe over the last five years and again if was a photograph of a young child, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey that again encapsulated the desperation of families seeking safety.

In the Bible stories there is a reoccurring theme of movement and transience. From the journeys of Abraham in Genesis, the movement of the Hebrew’s from Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and then exile into Babylon and the hope of return.

The reading from Isaiah captures the longing and hope of the people that the people will return to Jerusalem and her fortunes will be restored and they will be comforted. These are words of longing and hope for a better future after exile and disappointment. The hope that they can live again in freedom and not in fear.

As the story continues the experience of movement does not stop. In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary have to flee the persecution of Herod and travel to Egypt. They have to live as refugees and return when it is safe. In the Gospels Jesus moves around Galilee and then heads south, through Samaria and towards Jerusalem. He is described as being on the road with his disciples, moving from place to place and dependent on the hospitality of others.

In the story of the appointing of the seventy, they are to go from place to place, and it will be dangerous. They will be like “sheep in the mist of wolves,” carrying very few provisions and a warm welcome is not guaranteed. If they are not welcomed then they “should wipe off the dust that clings to our feet, as a warning against you.” If they are welcomed and if they are ignored or threatened, one thing remains the same, namely that for both the “kingdom of God has come near.” It has come in healing and hope or judgement.

There is in the Christian witness a very strong emphasis on generosity and compassion. I think that we associate this with being like Jesus, responding to the needs of the poor and sick. It often strikes me that disciples of Jesus and the church are more identified with those who need help and hospitality.

One of the parables that we are told is that there will be a judgement and the criteria for getting through will be how compassionate and generous you have been to the sick, the hungry, prisoners and “the least of these.”

Those who are rewarded have no idea that they have helped Jesus through compassionate living, but it is in care for those who are disadvantaged that they have helped Jesus.

I have to say that trying to imagine what it must be like to live with the vulnerability of being a refugee is hard. The images captured by the photographs maybe hit home for us as we see people seeking to protect the ones they love in the most desperate of circumstances. There is something in them that speaks to our common humanity.

I believe that the compassion and desire to respond that we can feel is God given, but like all gifts it can be awakened or remain dormant.

The words of Isaiah are words of hope that better days are coming.

On Wednesday we are showing in the Film Club, the Birth of a Nation, in which a slave preacher, Nat Turner, decides that there is more to the Bible than “slaves obey your masters,” and discovers a message of hope and liberation. He goes down the path of violent rebellion, but many slaves, maintained hope and dignity through non-violence.

There is a spiritual called “there is a balm in Gilead,” from the prophet Jeremiah, that holds to the hope that despite all the obstacles, God can make a way out of no-way.

The story of Alberto Martinez and his young daughter suggests that hope is in short supply, but maybe that photograph might start a momentum in which love and compassion can tilt the balance.

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