Fćrsluflokkur: Evrópumál

Living tradistion, sleeping tradition

*This is a sermon that was hold in the opning service of Scandinavian conference "Living Word, living tradition" at the Háteigs-church on 10th of November 2015.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen.

I am immigrant from Japan and before I moved to Iceland, I was ordained in the Japanese Lutheran Church. Japanese protestant churches have only 150 years’ history at most. They are young and therefore we don’t have very strong traditions as Christian churches yet.

When I moved to Iceland about 20 years ago, I got a sort of culture shock by seeing the differences between the Icelandic church and the Japanese church. I felt that the Icelandic church had a very rich tradition as the church of Christian nation with 1.000 years’ history.

Tradition is, however, not a holy thing. Sometimes we try to add a new tradition to the “traditional tradition” or we need to shake and wake up some sleeping tradition. I began to serve as pastor for immigrants officially in 1996. The immigration issue was a rather new phenomenon in Iceland at that time, and I felt that I was always apart from the Icelandic tradition, both in society and in the church environment.

The word “tradition” sounds perhaps too ambiguous in this context. So let’s say that “tradition” means here some sorts of ceremony, feast or ritual for particular topics, such as immigrants or gay people, that is being considered as a part of the nation’s culture.

20 years have passed and I think Icelandic society has begun to form pieces of new traditions regarding immigrants and cultural diversity, such as the Multi-cultural day of Reykjavik and the Religious Forum in Iceland.

In recent years I have spent considerably with asylum seekers in Iceland in my work. The number of asylum seekers has been increasing here in Iceland, though the absolute number is much smaller than the other European countries. Until only few years ago, the Icelandic church had nothing to do with the asylum seekers’ issue, honestly speaking.

Fortunately, now the whole church is more aware of the necessity of a presence of the church in the asylum seekers’ issue and also in the reception of quota refugees, and today I have good colleagues and co-workers to work together.

But more or less, we all have to admit that issues regarding asylum seekers or refugees are not deeply rooted in the Icelandic church. We feel those issues are new topics for the Icelandic church and therefore asylum seeking people are out side of the tradition of the church. Indeed I cannot point out any traditional service or custom in the church for them.

This is actually an interesting phenomenon and I think it deserves to be thought through why those issues have not rooted in the church tradition, for there are numerous stories that address seeking for asylum and refuge in the Bible.

Adam and Eve escaped from the eyes of Father God and hid themselves behind trees. The first refugees of mankind! The story of Noah’s ark is a story of refuge from natural disasters. Jacob, the son of Isaac, ran away from his father in law, Laban. The prophet Elijah took refuge in the Mt. Horeb. In the Psalms, the word “shelter” is used more than 40 times.

There are many other stories about asylum seeking in the Old Testament. So at least in the Old Testament, seeking asylum is one of the important themes and of course, we may not forget the Exodus. The Exodus was the great escape.

As we know, “Shema Israel” is the daily prayer of the Jewish people and also confession of their faith in God. By praying Shema, Jews are supposed to remind themselves of: “the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”(Deu. 6:12)

The Exodus is actually the foundation of the faith of the Jewish people and their existence. God lead them to the safe land and they must not forget that history. It is therefore the core of the Jewish traditions to say Shema twice every day.

We can see another important tradition of the Jewish people to remember the event of Exodus in the feast of the passover. The passover feast has been celebrated in order to remember the Exodus for centuries. “You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever.” (Ex. 12:24)
Therefore for the Jewish people, it is really the middle of their faith, ritual and tradition to have an experience of being refugees.

How we Christians understand the foundation of Judaism might not be unanimous, but still we cannot deny that their tradition has become a part of our tradition, too. The Passover feast is when Jesus and his disciples had the last supper, an essential part of the Holy week and a special occasion for us Christians, too.

Besides, we have our own tradition that regards asylum seeking. That is the escape of the Holy family, Joseph, Maria and the new born baby Jesus, to Egypt. This episode is actually very important and has a symbolic meaning that huge changes would be brought to the world by the birth of Jesus. Anyhow, the land of Egypt to which Jews are referring every day in Shema as “the house of bondage” has now changed into a shelter for the Holy family.

And we hear and listen to this story every year at Christmas time. So we cannot deny that to seek for asylum is also in the very middle of the tradition of our church.

So my question is why then do we feel as if asylum seekers and refugees are out side of the churchly tradition, ritual or service?
Churches on the continent must be providing many services for asylum seekers. But are these services considered as a part of the main activity of the churches? Or are they considered as a sort of social welfare activities taken care of by the churches, just like church aid?

In this context, I would like to point out that here is an example of a tradition that used to be living and have influence on our religious life, but has fallen sleep.

I am not highly educated theologian, so I entrust you this matter as material for discussion and speculation. I would like, however, as a street pastor, to witness from the reality that I am facing.

That is asylum seekers and refugees are often dehumanized. When we see photos of boats filled with refugees, when we watch videos in which thousand refugees are walking, holding small children, to borders, who can say that kind of situation is humane? I have friends who are asylum seekers, and many of them have been living in Europe for 8, 9, or even longer than 10 years without sufficient civil rights. Is this situation humane?

No, not at all. They are dehumanized. And maybe, this dehumanization of asylum seekers is not only a result that society has brought to them, but also the reason why they are being kept dehumanized for a long time. Dehumanization is a method we use when we don’t want to confront violations against humanity and want to leave the problem as it is.

We need to break down this dehumanization of asylum seeking people. And I do believe that that is one of the important roles for us, Christian churches, and a part of our essential purpose.

I went to church for the first time when I was 19 years old and got baptized when I was 21. I was the only Christian in my entire family. I was seeking for purpose of my life, and from the beginning it was easy for me to believe in an almighty God who is the center of the universe.

But I found it so difficult and ridiculous to believe that the Son of God became a human person. How could it be possible? I couldn’t understand it. 35 years have passed, and now Jesus Christ is “the Thing” in my religious life. I noticed at some stage, that I could communicate with God because of Jesus. Without him, how could I try to approach God and his will? Maybe I could feel the presence of God when I am in magnificent nature. I am sure that you would feel the same.

But that feeling doesn’t teach me how to understand the sins of man, the meaning of forgiveness or the importance of love among us sinners.
Through Jesus, through his teachings and behavior, we can learn, presume and be assured by what the will of God is, what his expectations to us are. Namely we are allowed to have communication with God on the level of our personalities.  

“(….) the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (….) And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1: 1, 14) What a miracle it is. What a grace it is. Divinity became a human in order to meet us and give us salvation.

If we are thankful for this miracle and grace, if we truly believe that our life has been changed by meeting Jesus, how can we leave them alone, who have been dehumanized by their situation, by the negligence of our society or by the obvious prejudice of it? 

Jesus has become a man, in order to meet us and release us from the sins, namely to humanize us in its true meaning. And is Jesus not visiting every single person in society to do the same to that person? If so, it is the traditional core mission of our church to humanize the dehumanized around us. Jesus is working for it. So, are we with him, or what?

Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Amen


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