Jesus the Refugee
He has Sixty Million Faces
Violence has forced 60 Million people from their homes according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
The number of refugees and internally displaced people has reached its highest point since World War II.
BBC World News
We know Jesus by helping others: this woman, this man, this child. That's where we find him. Not in abstract ideas but in the face of the other.
--- A Sermon by Reverend Teri Daily
During my days as a physician in North Carolina, I served on a hospital committee that reviewed labor and delivery cases; we examined decisions made by doctors and nurses caring for mothers and newborns around the time of childbirth. I will never forget sitting in a conference room with a particular obstetrician while he made the case that if a pregnant woman wanted pain relief during labor, she should have to sign all the informed consent forms before she went into labor. His point was that the pain of childbirth might prevent a mother from fully understanding all the risks and benefits of epidural anesthesia; her thought processes might be clouded by the pain, he reasoned, thereby jeopardizing the “informed” part of informed consent. My argument in response was that when it comes to knowing the benefits of an epidural and whether or not she wants to receive it, a woman has never been more informed than she is in the midst of childbirth. But, of course, we were talking about two different kinds of knowledge, two different ways of being informed—one being intellectual knowledge (the kind of knowing that takes place in your head) and the other being experiential knowledge (the kind of knowing that takes place in your gut, or with every fiber of your being). In some ways it’s the difference between knowing about something and truly knowing it.
I think when it comes to God, there’s a difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God. Most of us aren’t sitting here because at some point in our lives we heard a riveting explanation of the Trinity, or because we read an internet article outlining the 8 Steps to Knowing Jesus as Your Personal Savior. Most of us are here because of experiences we’ve had and experiences we want to have. We’re here because somewhere along the way in the very doing of our lives we’ve encountered God or we’ve at least glimpsed enough to make us think that such an encounter is possible. We want to know God, not just know about God. We want to be informed with every fiber of our being.
In a sermon last year Pope Francis warned that thoughts and ideas about God are not enough in and of themselves to actually know God, to know Jesus. He offered three doorways into what he called “the mystery of Jesus.” The first is prayer—we get to know someone by conversing with them or by being in their presence. This is what prayer is all about. Second, we know Jesus by celebrating him—by taking part in the sacraments, especially communion or Eucharist. And, third, we know Jesus perhaps most of all by imitating his life, by walking with the poor and crossing all types of barriers and giving of ourselves in love. We know God through concrete acts of love.
I couldn’t help but think of the difference between knowing about Jesus and actually knowing Jesus when I read today’s gospel passage from Mark. Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and then rise from the dead on the third day. But at this point in the journey such talk is just unfamiliar speculation for the disciples—an abstract concept that doesn’t help them know Jesus at all. The disciples can’t even begin to understand what he’s talking about. (If they really knew Jesus, they wouldn’t be arguing about which one among them is the greatest, right?) So Jesus says, “Fine. You want to know me, you want to truly know what I’m talking about, then do this—embrace a child.” Jesus takes a child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
We come to know Jesus, to know God, not through grand, abstract theological ideas, but in and through the people right in front of us—in the cry of a hungry child, in the desperation of a woman fleeing from an abusive home, in the face of someone who’s just been told that the biopsy shows cancer, in a Guatemalan child so weak from malnutrition that she can’t walk. If we want to truly understand the death and resurrection of Jesus, we just need to walk with the suffering and the supposedly unimportant among us. And as we know, there is no shortage of such learning opportunities.
A report released in June of this year by the UN revealed that more people worldwide are displaced due to persecution, wars, and conflict than ever before. According to the UN Refugee Agency, “one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.” Over half of these displaced persons are children, and 86% come from regions considered less economically developed, i.e., the poorer areas of the world. We can hear these numbers, but they often don’t become real for us until we see all the pictures on the news or on the internet—refugees walking to Germany along railroad tracks, boats filled to overflowing and sometimes capsized, the small refugee child lying face-down on a beach. We come to know Jesus not by grand ideas or schemes or statistics, but by putting real life faces to the numbers—by embracing such as these.
So far the US has taken in 1500 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war in Syria, and President Obama has committed to taking in another 10,000 over the course of the next year. I wonder… What if the US and other countries were to measure greatness not in terms of Gross Domestic Product or technological advances or coercive rhetoric, but in terms of how welcoming we are to those in need? What if each one of us were to measure greatness not by how much money we earn or how many list-able achievements we have or the size of our church, but by how we respond to Christ in the person right in front of us?
With all the upheaval and suffering in the world, it is easy to become overwhelmed; it is easy to wonder where God is in all of this and if we ourselves can make any difference at all. When I feel this way, I often turn to these words written by Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury:
[T]he glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Let that be your inspiration. Consider the Lord himself. Amidst a vast world with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies our Lord devoted himself to a small country, to small things and to individual men and women, often giving hours of time to the very few or to the one man or woman. In a country where there were movements and causes which excited the allegiance of many – the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, and others – our Lord gives many hours to one woman of Samaria, one Nicodemus, one Martha, one Mary, one Lazarus, one Simon Peter, for the infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many.
We do need people in the world who hold big ideas, who understand how things fit together in the grand scheme. Such people are crucial—they help us understand the needs of the world. But we hear in today’s gospel reading that the big picture isn’t enough all by itself. To truly know God, we have to recognize and welcome Christ in the person right in front of us—this man, this woman, this child. Embrace one of these, Jesus tells us, and you will know me.
Let that rest on your mind and in your heart this week, as you go about your life and as you see images on the news and on the internet. Listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit telling you what it might look like to “welcome” this particular woman, man, or child. For such is the work of seeking and knowing God with every fiber of our being.
 “Pope Francis: To get to know Jesus we must pray to him, celebrate him and imitate him,” report by Suzy Hodges on the Official Vatican News website: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-to-get-to-know-jesus-we-must-pray-to.
 “UNHCR warns of dangerous new era in worldwide displacement as report shows almost 60 million people forced to flee their homes,” press release June 18, 2015, UNHCR website: http://www.unhcr.org/55813f0e6.html.
 Michael Ramsey as quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams, editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 666.