Anglican Episcopal Church
“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield…”
In some ways, it seems like only yesterday to me that refugees from conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-ravaged countries of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia converged upon Budapest, filling its streets and train stations, seeking sanctuary and a new life away from conflict and constant fear. Yet what happened nearly seven years ago is with us now again, as people in neighbouring lands have been forced from their homes, compelled to set out on perilous journeys in search of refuge from war, in search of solace along their journey, leaving behind them their homes and all that home means.
Home. In many cultures, if not most, home is easy enough to define. Home is where you are born; and home is where you die. The span between birth and death is often spent in familiar village or city neighbourhood; raising a family, plying a trade or profession, or working the fields. Home does not change all that much from one generation to the next. Home is where one belongs and where, when one is away, one longs to be. Home is a gift and a treasure. Home is permanent, fixed, and local.
Except of course when, suddenly, it is not; when it is wrested from us by forces not in our control; forces sometimes of nature, but all too often of evil, sin, greed, and wickedness, as we see playing out today in Ukraine. The plight of refugees and those forced to flee their homelands is sadly nothing new in human history. Scripture itself is filled with such stories and tales. And the ancestors of each and every one of us here this morning were at some point in the recent or distant past migrants and refugees, people forced from their homes by poverty or political instability and turmoil here or far from here. It is certainly true in my family history.
There are of course also those of us who choose to leave home for whatever reason. Look around our Saint Margaret’s congregation this or any morning – discreetly of course – and you are likely as not to find people sitting next to you from nearly all parts of the world. Some of us will be more or less permanent transplants here in Budapest, having made Hungary our new home. Others are here for a spell before returning home or moving on yet again.
In the ancient world, home was all that it is to us today and perhaps even more. Home was in a very real sense self; it involved one’s identity and sense of belonging. Home was where you were you. Home was love. It was certainly so for the ancient Israelites, who traced their ultimate origins to Abram’s epic journey, described or alluded to in our first Reading this morning, a journey from a place far away yet familiar, Abram’s home, to the land which the Lord would give him as a new home.
“I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans,” the Lord tells Abram, “to give you this land to possess.” To be in other words your home. The journey from home to home is always somehow filled with peril and “terrifying darkness,” as our Reading describes it. Only the reassurance of God’s Covenant fulfilled midst sacrifice and flame made the promised new home real.
Jesus treads the same land centuries later, the same homeland promised to Abram, “casting out demons and performing cures,” as he reminds the Pharisees and Herod, and by extension us, in our Gospel account this morning. He makes his way from his home in Nazareth, where he is rejected by his own townspeople, to the holy city of Jerusalem, only to find there further rejection and ultimately death itself. Jesus was in other words a refugee among his very own people. In some sense, his passage from Nazareth to Jerusalem mirrors Abram’s difficult journey centuries before. Perhaps more importantly for us, it mirrors the life journey of each of us; homebody, resident alien, migrant, and refugee alike.
But the ultimate homeland promised to those who will heed Jesus’ voice does not consist of green acres and square metres but rather of the geography of the heart, the geography of God’s kingdom among us. Abram marks the Lord’s covenant with him and his descendants by a solemn sacrifice of “heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon.” But the sacrifice that marks our Lord’s New Covenant and the gift of the kingdom, our one true home, is not that of young, unblemished animals, but his own death on the cross.
Refugee becomes in other word redeemer. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way,” says Jesus in recognition of the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem. Not even the warnings of presumably friendly Pharisees that “Herod wants to kill you” can dissuade him from his work and mission. For our Lord, the journey home is home itself. And Lent is our annual reminder of this reality; that we are all on the journey with Christ to Calvary.
As Paul tells us in our second reading from his Letter to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Abram’s faith in God’s promise was reckoned “to him as righteousness.” Today, our faith in God’s word and promise is reckoned to us as sign and assurance of our true citizenship in heaven. Ultimately, home is home only when it is home to all; only when we break down barriers of hate, suspicion, and racism and welcome the other home among us. Where Christ is among us is our only true home.
“Do not be afraid,” is one of the most common expressions or charges in all of Scripture, occurring well over one hundred times in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. And the very first time it comes up in the Bible is in our first Reading this morning, as God reassures Abram with these very words, “Do not be afraid.” Good advice always for those who trust in God’s promises, as did Abram. Good advice for us today. Perhaps the only hope for us – as it was for Abram – is to remember these words of reassurance and get about our life and mission.
Our faith always calls us away from places of comfort and the familiar – calls us from home even if we never leave home. Like Abram of old, we too are on our way to a promised land. And as followers of Christ, our journey together is a sharing in the journey home, a sharing in the way of sacrifice, in the way of the cross. My friends, “Do not be afraid.”
The Lord is our shield.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs