Texts: Genesis 7:11-17, 21-23; 8.1, 6-19; Romans 6.3-11; Mark 4.35-41
Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge and honour the Yallukit-Willam people, who have cared for the land on which this church was build for time immemorial.
In the Jewish and Christian imagination, life is about the long and difficult pilgrimage of God’s people from a place of isolation, fear, despair and bondage to a place of community, love, hope and freedom. The pilgrimage is long and difficult not because of God, but because of us. We make it long and difficult by our ongoing attachment to the things and the behaviours which comprise the walls of our many prisons. If we were to finally let go of such ‘treasures’ and accept Christ’s free offering of forgiveness and peace, then things would change very quickly. But, in point of fact, we don’t let go easily. Because we actually love our chains – even to the point of worshipping them - and because we are therefore loath to take them off, we find the way to liberation very difficult. And this is true whether we are talking primarily about individuals or societies, about personal spiritual travail or the struggle of tribes and nations to become more just and humane.
In Holy Scripture, this long and difficult pilgrimage from death to life, from bondage to freedom, is most often symbolised as a difficult passage, either across or through a large body of water. In the story of Noah, for example, God responds to the irredeemable wickedness of the world by hatching a Genesis project. God takes the very best of this world – Noah’s family and breeding pairs of every species of animal - places them all in a boat, and floats it through the awful crisis of storm and flood that destroys the world utterly. When the boat finally alights on dry land following the flood, its inhabitants spill forth to become the basis for a new world, a new humanity, and therefore the possibility of becoming a better –more just and peaceful - society. From evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace.
That pattern is repeated in the story of the Exodus of God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan. Under Pharaoh, God’s people a severely mistreated. They are slaves, and therefore have no control, whatsoever, over their own destinies. Their bodies and souls are nothing but the playthings of power. But Yahweh sees their suffering and sends his prophets Miriam and Moses to arrange their escape. Through the waters of the Red Sea as they run from Pharaoh, and through the waters of the Jordan River as they finally enter Canaan, the Hebrews are slowly transformed from a people without hope or identity to a people who have both a destiny and a future. From evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace.
There is a boat story in Mark’s gospel as well, and it draws heavily on the Noah and Exodus narratives. Here Jesus is with his disciples on a boat in the middle of the sea of Galilee. They are on route from safe, familiar, territory, to the region of the Gerasenes where they will encounter a demon named ‘Legion’. All about them is a wild storm which makes the sea ferocious. Now, we can glean from Mark’s larger story that this small tableau symbolises the vulnerability of Mark’s small church as it seeks to carry its gospel of peace and liberation into the midst of a hostile and militant Roman Empire. When Jesus stands up to rebuke the storm, when he cries out ‘Peace! Be Still!’ Mark is therefore telling his church that they can survive their ordeal if they look to Jesus, if they can trust in the grace of his presence in their midst, and follow with perseverance his way of suffering love. In the midst of evil and despair, through water, they will find their way - with Jesus - to a place of life and peace.
The church has drawn on these very stories, from its very beginning, to symbolise the pilgrimage from death to life that is conversion. Not surprisingly, the ritual of conversion is a washing in water. In baptism we die to the basic principles of this world. We are drowned to all that is evil and unjust and cruel and selfish in the world. With Christ we are buried in the waters, entombed in their icy depths. Yet, through the power of God’s love, we are raised from that place with Christ, raised to live a new life, with new hopes, and with faith in the new way of love God has shown us in Christ. The ancient pattern is therefore repeated again in this fundamental rite of Christian discipleship: from evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace in the company of our saviour Christ.
Now, what if we were to map this Christian pattern of pilgrimage and conversion onto the long and difficult journeys made by asylum seekers? What if we were to see in their incredible journeys across land and sea something of the same desperate hope that motivates Jews and Christians to flee from all that is evil and seek, instead, the peace and joy that God has promised? What if we were to interpret their voyages by boat, especially, in the light of Christian baptism? What if asylum seekers who get on leaky boats are not, in fact, demons come to threaten our peace, but simply people – people like us – who are actually fleeing the terrible demons that rule their places of origin in order to find - on the other side of dangerous and uncertain waters, a new life, a founded hope, a place where neighbours can live in peace?
If we reframed their journeys thus, it would be no longer be acceptable to write so-called ‘boat-people’ off as ‘economic migrants’. It would no longer be acceptable to tell them to ‘go back to where they came from’. It would no longer be acceptable to imprison them for years at a time, heaping our own tortures on top of the traumas they have already experienced. It would no longer be acceptable to build walls around our huge and wealthy continent and say ‘keep out’, ‘there is no room at this inn’. Why? Because, as the book of Deuteronomy (10.19) so simply puts it: ‘Show great love for the alien. For you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’ As Christians and Jews we are all boat-people, led by God from places of evil and despair, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace in the company of God’s redeemed people. We are boat-people in a personal and psychological sense, and we are boat-people in the more communal sense. For most of our ancestors came here from across the seas seeking some kind of baptismal hope for a new and better land, for a place and a community of resurrection from the dead. Who can deny it? We therefore have a responsibility, as people who are being loved and rescued by God, to love and rescue asylum-seekers. We cannot allow such hopes for life, life in all its promised fullness, to be still-born. It is as simple, my friends, as that.
Now, I am a person who has a better claim to this country than most. I am a direct descendent of Manalargenna, last chieftain of the Trawoolway clan whose traditional lands are in north-east Tasmania. My family has lived in that part of the world for at least 25 thousand years, and for many thousands before that here on the bigger island. But this I say to anyone who has come to these shores seeking refuge, asylum from the storm. You are welcome here! You are welcome! From the evil and despair of whence you came, through water, to a founded hope for life and peace in the company of God’s people, you are welcome! And I promise you this. That I will do everything in my power to persuade our government to make you welcome also.
This homily was preached at a service of lament with asylum-seekers at Williamstown Uniting Church in September 2013.