People will come from North and South and East and West…

Now, you are going to think this is rather odd, but I want first of all today to turn to the Old Testament reading that we heard and speak on behalf of the Canaanite Liberation Front, the Popular Front of the Kadmonites, and the Free the Kenites Campaign. We heard what sounds like a rather lovely story about how God made a covenant with Abraham and promised him descendants, as many as the stars, and a land to occupy – from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates. It’s a great and stirring passage and every time I look up at the night sky I remember how God promised Abraham as many descendants (of his own) – and I feel glad to count myself in a way as one of them. It’s a great passage to read from a Jewish, Christian or Moslem point of view – all of us children of Abraham. But spare a thought for the people who are mentioned in the verse just after the one where the lectionary passage stopped. We heard how God promised to give Abraham this piece of land between two rivers, but we didn’t hear what the Bible says next – that this is the territory of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perrizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites. Why did the lectionary leave that bit out? You might think it was just to spare anyone the embarrassment of reading out such a list in church – it’s just the kind of list that many readers dread and that gives reading the Bible a bad name – all those funny words you can’t get your tongue around. But I suspect that the lectionary left out the list, because someone wanted to spare us the challenge of reading the story of our ancestors from another point of view. Perhaps someone thought that on a Sunday morning, with enough tough problems of our own, we might be spared the concerns of ancient peoples long gone. But what would the Canaanite view of this text be? How would the Kenites want us to read this story? What would they think about a God who takes their land away from them and gives it to Abraham?


There are lots of great passages in the Bible about loving your enemy, about welcoming the stranger and the alien, but there are also some passages like this one that are less comfortable, that look pretty much like ethnic cleansing, that remind us that the Bible reflects the world as it often is rather than as we would like it to be. Sometimes, it even looks as though God promises to clear the land so that the chosen people can enter it. If the Kenites, and the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites and the Perizites could speak to us now – they might well ask us to read the Abraham story from a different perspective.


So many of the themes of the Bible that we know best are about freedom – of liberation and deliverance for the oppressed. But if the Kenites and the Kadmonites and all the rest could come to us this morning they might tell us how the descendants of Abraham took their territory – not always simply by violence – sometimes just by buying it – but took it nonetheless. And they might ask us how we could find a passage like that one uplifting and inspiring when it is built upon the oppression of people like them? We are used to reading the Bible from the point of view of those who wrote it – but what about those who were written out of it? The story looks different if we tell it from where they stood.


But, the lectionary reading left out some other verses too (verses 13 -15). You might think they were left out to save the poor reader from too many verses – it’s hard work standing at the lectern! But in those verses God tells Abraham that his descendants will experience for themselves a time of living as aliens in a land that is not their own – that they will be enslaved and held in oppression for four hundred years. And we know, as the story unfolds, that something like this happened, that the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt – and that their liberation from slavery was then the greatest and most defining moment in their history. From this experience the people of God learnt how aliens should be treated and some of the laws that they developed afterwards reflected this. This one for example,


‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. He is to be treated as a native born among you. Love him as yourself, because you were aliens in Egypt.’


The scriptures are taut with the tension between the ethical duty to treat foreigners well and the religious promise that God would throw some people out so that his chosen people could have their own land.


And already, early on in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is another theme that keeps appearing – the hope that one day all people will come to Jerusalem to worship God – that God is really and always has been the God of all peoples – and a liberating God for all those people. And if the Kenites and the Kadmonites and the Perrizites and the Hittites would need convincing – well maybe that’s up to us to convince them and their equivalents today.


The world we live in is still one where this tension about race and tribe, about land and territory – is very much with us. There are still those who are afraid of those who are foreign, who feel threatened by those who are alien to them. It is still true that religion, sometimes even while claiming to be liberating to some, brings oppression and violence to others. There are still those who indulge in shabby fantasies about expelling foreigners. We do not yet treat aliens as though they were natives born among us.


In Bangladesh last week I saw some people who had been thrown out of their own land and then made unwelcome in another. I met refugees from Myanmar, the Rohingya people, in vast camps in Bangladesh. There are an estimated 1.2 million of them now living in the camps. They have been expelled from Myanmar and can’t go back there. Their land was taken because it is rich in minerals and resources. So now, they have no land of their own – they are stateless, they are poor, and their future is very uncertain. And, of course, there are refugee camps in other parts of the world too.


What have we, from our experience and our faith, as children of Abraham and followers of Jesus, to say in response to such a situation and to such a world? And not only about what’s happening so far away, but also in our own country and in the United States where tensions between ethnic communities are not far below the surface… We have the ethical duty impressed upon us by the holy scriptures, not to oppress the alien and always to welcome the stranger. We also have those other voices to hear – of the Kenites and the Perrizites, the Girgashites and the Hittites of today – the voices of the other side of our story, those who challenge us to rethink the world we live in – and to remember that we, who are not Jews but Gentiles, have now been made welcome into the people of God.


In Bangladesh, I heard people say about the Rohingya people some of the things that I hear people in the UK say about people from Bangladesh; they have too many children, they are dirty, they are taking resources from us… The narratives of racism are familiar and repetitive and tragic. This kind of thinking imprisons us all. We can all, all of us, be tempted to speak about ‘our people’, ‘our tribe’, ‘our country’… and to fear the other.


But what of Jesus himself – that son of Abraham through whom we have seen God? In the Gospel reading for today, we see him weeping and lamenting over Jerusalem. We can only think that if he were there today he would weep still, over a Jerusalem torn apart still by religious and racial enmity. How Jesus weeps to see Israeli soldiers turning their guns on Palestinian boys – or Palestinian boys throwing stones at soldiers. How Jesus weeps to see the people of God – the descendants of Abraham – at war with one another. But again there is a piece of scripture which the lectionary has denied us, a verse just before this story of his weeping. Jesus is dreaming aloud of the time to come when God will put everything right. And as he speaks he longs for the day to come when,

‘From east and west, from north and south, people will come and take their places at the banquet in the kingdom of God.’


This son of Abraham, Jesus of Nazareth, longs for the time when the Kingdom of God will come – a kingdom which will embrace all the corners of the world, and all the people of the world. Within the Kingdom of God as Jesus proclaimed it there is room – not just for the chosen ones, not only for the children of Abraham – but also for the Kenites and the Kadmonites and the Perrizites .. and all the rest – for all God’s children. This is the great hope that the followers of the Jew from Nazareth should keep holding before the world..


There is in all of us a very human tendency to want to be with, and to live alongside, and even to worship with, people who are like us – who will tell us just by being there that we are normal. Otherness troubles us. When trouble strikes, we want to live in our own land, among our own people. But the promise of the Gospel is that one day, when God has made us new, we will be happy to take our place at the banquet in the kingdom of God – where there will be people from east and west and north and south. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, ‘There is no such thing as Jew and Greek – you are all one in Christ’.

These words, spoken by Jesus, are an invitation to those of us who follow him…


‘From east and west, from north and south, people will come and take their places at the banquet in the kingdom of God.’


Last weekend I was doing some training with Citizens UK – I was one of the oldest in the group, and it was a group of people that really reflected the diversity of the UK today. I got to know a woman who is a rabbi from North London. I got on really well with an Imam called Bashir who is a prison chaplain and a gentle and wise man of peace. I met one of the trainers who is second generation Bangladeshi British. I met a very young man from Cardiff, of Sudanese background whose ambition to go back and rescue that nation from a corrupt government. From east and west, from north and south, people will come take their places at the banquet in the kingdom of God.’


The kingdom of God has room for the descendants of Abraham, but also for the Rohingya and the Perrizites, the Yazidi and the Canaanites, the Bangladeshis and the Jebusites.. people like us and people like…. people. It is a kingdom where racism is ended, and where the borders are open.


Thanks be to God, Amen.