Sorry, we’re Closed (Refugee Focused Worship)

Sorry, we’re Closed (Refugee Focused Worship)

Theme: Sorry, we’re closed (Sunday 13 Sept, 2020)
Series: Hungry
Bible Reading: Genesis 18:1-15
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain

This Service will be run Online Only – 9am on our Facebook page –

Kids Church Activity Sheet Download

Late last year, the Refugee Council declared 2020 as a “Year of Welcome”, a year when we consider what it means for countries and individuals to open their hearts to the people around the world in desperate need. Then COVID19 arrived and everything closed, including most countries borders. How can we continue to have open hearts when COVID has closed everything.

This Sunday Phil will be exploring a number of ideas on this theme including:

  • Using the passage from Genesis 18:1-15 about Sarah and Abraham to explore how our faith is connected to how we welcome and be hospitable to those who come from elsewhere?
  • Interviewing Anne Cornford about why she is participating in the “Refugee Ration Challenge”
  • Pondering how the experience of dislocation and unsettleness that COVID19 has brought us might give us an insight into how refugees feel
  • Being open to how “welcome” might help us and other feel a sense of peace and settledness

We encourage you to connect with us online with an open mind and open heart.

Sermon Text

Have you got a story of turning up somewhere and discovering that it was closed?  For example, the other week when it was Marion’s birthday and all she wanted was dinner from the local Thai takeaway … and without checking first we discovered that during COVID it is now closed on Tuesdays.  Turn up to a “Sorry we’re closed” sign.  [Write in the comment section]

I know of other people who have stories of planning a whole holiday around visiting a certain place only to discover the “Sorry we’re closed” Sign.

This year it has felt like that COVID19 has closed many things… closed workplaces, closed shops, closed church buildings, closed events, even closed our borders.

This week we have seen some heartbreaking stories in the news of people who were desperately seeking permission to enter QLD to see dying loved one but were being stopped.  I remotely attended a funeral on Thursday where the daughter who was in Victoria couldn’t attend her own mothers funeral.  It is heartbreaking and we are now hearing people asking why we have up the “sorry we’re closed” signs.

Our bible reading today reminded us that one of the major Biblical narratives is this idea that we are called as people of faith to be welcoming and hospitable.  I have preached on this topic numerous times over the past 2 years … in the welcoming and belonging series, the extravagant hospitality series and most recently in the Grace series.  It is part of who we are as God’s people is to be welcoming and hospitable.

And this story from Genesis is such a great example of this.  Abraham and Sarah themselves were strangers in a strange land after being called by God to leave their birthplace of Ur and travel to the Promised Land.  And in Genesis 18, they see three travellers passing by.  They were strangers to Sarah and Abraham, but that did not stop them welcoming the three travellers and providing hospitality.  

Three quick observations from the bible reading:

  1. Why was Abraham and Sarah so eager to be hospitable to these random people passing by?  The simple answer is that culturally this is what you did in that era.  If you saw someone you offered hospitability.  But for Abraham and Sarah it was also an expression of their faith.  Hospitality in the Jewish understanding was Mitzvah … an expression of obedience to God’s will.  This is particularly important when it comes to strangers who are hungry or in need – it becomes an ethical obligation to help. 
  • Did you notice that for Sarah and Abraham, hospitality to the stranger was not just a “whatever” response but it was the finest flour, the choice meat, the best they had to offer.
  • Lastly, I noticed that there is a blending when it comes to who is the visitor?  Is it the Lord or is it three men?  It interchanges within the story.  Or maybe it is way that Abraham see visitors, he treats them like he would if they were the Lord.  After all Hebrews 13:2 talks about entertaining angels and Jesus in Matthew 25 said that whenever you feed or clothes or gave a glass of water to the least of these, you did it to Jesus himself.  But there definitely is this interchanging of the Lord and Visitors.

So how does this reading tie in with this idea of “Sorry, we’re closed”?  I wish to focus on the refugee situation just for a moment.  One of the side-effects of being in the middle of a COVID19 crisis is that some of the other world crisises that we are also trying to work through have been pushed to the side.  For example, the climate crisis is still there but we are not talking about it much now.

The refugee crisis was a huge global issue before COVID19 and things have not changed.  Here is some statistics.  More than one in every 100 people on Earth have been forced from their homes by conflict or disaster.  That’s nearly 80 million people – the most on record.  This is not people who are have left their home looking for a better economic environment but are people who would prefer to have stayed in their home but were forced to flee due to conflict, persecution or disaster. 

And this was before COVID.  When COVID19 happened, one of the impacts of COVID restrictions has had a massive impact on the refugee situation, and that is that COVID has closed nearly every countries border in the world.  All countries have put “Sorry, we’re closed” sign.  Anne Cornford was telling me of a story of a refugee family who have been approved to settle in Australia but are stuck in a refugee camp waiting until the borders reopen.

And so we have this developing disaster of refugee camps around the world which already were not great, suddenly being overwhelmed with people, limited access to food, healthcare and sanitation, disruption to supplies and donations and an environment which is terrible for social distancing and good hygiene – meaning that they are very susceptible the pandemic.

You may have seen in the weekly email or on our Facebook posts that Anne Cornford as well as Marion, Bec, Matt, Matt’s girlfriend and myself are participating in the Act for Peace Ration Challenge – starting today.  Act for Peace is the same people who run the Christmas Bowl and they are hoping to raise awareness and funds to help in particular the 5 million refugees in Jordan who have fled the war in Syria.

To explain more about this I interviewed Anne during the week and I will let Anne explain what it is and why she is doing it.

VIDEO – Anne Cornford Interview

Thanks Anne.  As I said in the interview, we will keep you updated on how we are going and interview Bec and maybe Matt next Sunday to see how we went. 

But for me it is about raising awareness, so I wish to share a story from the Act for Peace website about Fatima and her family.  Fatima is a strong Syrian woman, but she will never forget the humiliation and powerlessness she felt when she first became a refugee.  Fatima did not want to leave her home in Syria but as she explained “When the war started, the Syrian army wanted to take my son, and force him to kill fellow Syrians.  We had to leave Syria.  We couldn’t get passports, so we had to pay to be smuggled out.  It was a very hard journey. The smugglers drove us in pickup trucks across the desert, and they drugged the children at night so they wouldn’t make any noise and get us discovered.”

Fatima did find safety in Jordan, where she still lives in the refugee camps with her children. And while they are safe, life is still incredibly hard.

“We mainly depend on coupons and packages distributed by NGOs,” she says. “I never thought this would happen to Syrian people who were living in prosperity and dignity”.

Despite all she has been through, Fatima remains positive and is determined to help her fellow refugees.  She has been trained as a volunteer and helps with food distributions.  “People who come here are already shy and broken on the inside. I want to help people keep their dignity.  I want to distribute packages with love and a smile”.

Fatima wants people to know that she is just like them, a mum who loves her boys and is trying to make the best out of a difficult situation.  “I try and always make sure we eat together as a family.  Meal times were very different back in Syria, but it’s still my favourite time.”

But the reality is that Fatima is stuck in the refugee camps because nearly all the borders in the world are closed.  COVID means that countries can’t reopen borders so the question I have is how do we continue to have open and welcoming hearts like Abraham and Sarah when everything is closed?  How do we be hospitable when COVID 19 makes hospitality hard?

Just on an aside … I was reading an interesting post about how COVID19 has impacted on people’s volunteering and serving God within the church.  It was saying that people with technology gifts are in high demand, people involved in worship are still serving, pastoral care has adapted but continues … but there is one key area of gifting that are really struggling at the moment.  Do you know who they are?  The people who have the gift of hospitality.

We have stopped serving food at church for the past 6 months.  It is hard to invite people around for a meal at the moment.  Even homemade cooking is discouraged.  So what does a person who loves being hospitable do? 

Unfortunately the article didn’t really give many answers, but I just wanted to say to those who are blessed with the hospitality gift … we value you and love you and want you to know that you are important in this time when your gifts are harder to use.  We’re all in this together.

To finish with, I just wanted to make two additional points:

Firstly, as I said before, I am keen to raise awareness of different issues that people are facing and part of raising awareness is an openness to see things from another perspective.  Sometimes it is hard for us to connect or resonate with the issue of refugees because it can be so beyond our experience … but I don’t think it is as removed as we might think.

For example, we have a number of people in our church community who have had the experience of packing up and moving from your homeland to a new country here in Australia.  Unlike refugees, you most likely were not fleeing war or disaster but instead it was something that you chose to do … but you still have had that shared experience of having to leave some things that you love behind, and feeling the dislocation and struggle of trying to find your place in a new community … just like refugees feel.    Is this true?  If anyone was born overseas … could you confirm in the comment section if this sort of makes sense … that your experience can give you an awareness or insight into the journey or refugees?

Actually, I think that this COVID19 experience we are living through right now can also give us a glimpse into the experience of refugees.    For many of us, COVID has brought us to a place where we know we can’t go back to the way things were and we are not sure of what the final destination post-COVID will ultimately be like, and so we are living in the tension and feeling of dislocation in this period of transition and uncertainty … just like Fatima is feeling in the refugee camp in Jordan.

So maybe we can take these glimpses of insight and awareness to help us to be more open, more welcoming and more hospitable to those who are refugees?

Lastly, I wanted to finish with some hope from our Bible reading.  Abraham and Sarah went out of their way to offer three unknown visitors a warm welcome and generous hospitality.  They did this because they saw it as part of their faith, part of who they were.   And as the story showed, in the process of offering this welcome and hospitality that Abraham and Sarah were themselves blessed.  The strangers blessed them with a prophecy … a promise of a child.

Not that the motivation for hospitality should be that we receive in return … but it is amazing at how many times this happens.  When we welcome the stranger, when we are hospitable to those who are in need … we are blessed.

I loved sidebar to the Fatima story that when the reporter from Act of Peace went to her small shack in the refugee camp to interview her, he ended up having cooking lessons from Fatima on how to cook Mujadara – a classic Syrian dish.    

Even in this time of COVID 19

May we all be like Abraham and Sarah,

Ready to welcome, generous with our hospitality.

I am going to leave this here but I want to put out a challenge for part 2 of this talk.

Next week, God has stirred within me to explore the idea of hunger.  What does it mean to be hungry?

Literally hungry for food?

Spiritually hungry for God’s word or the presence of God?

Or even to have a hunger for justice and what is right?

That’s next week but I wish to give you a challenge which might help you engage with this topic a bit better.

I challenge you next Sunday morning to skip breakfast … so that you might be a little hungry when talking about hunger.  This is the perfect challenge for kids.

Or if you are older … how about also skipping dinner on Saturday night … not eat for the 18 hours before church so that you will be experiencing hunger while we explore what it means to be hungry. 

All optional … just an idea.

But for now, Steve is going to lead us in a song.