Oh, what to preach, this first day of a new year? We could focus on the Isaiah text, or on the Psalm, which implore us to remember to be grateful to God for the abundance of gifts showered upon us each day – certainly glorious texts for a day of transition from old and welcome to new. We could turn to Celebrate, which offers us a re-run of the angels at the birth of Christ, glorifying God from the sky, and thus helps us to maintain the Christmas spirit of praise for a bit longer. Or we could turn to the official lectionary text from Matthew, in which the departure of the magi is briefly mentioned (and we’ll hear about those magi next week, just a bit out of order, but today they are already gone), and the tone of the gospel swiftly changes from the gratitude and praise exhibited by the magi to the darkness of Herod’s mad slaughter of innocent children.
There are benefits to the third approach, which we are going to take this morning.
For one, it reminds us that Jesus was born into a world not unlike our own, a world of turmoil and violence – and yet, or and thus, as we shall see, and thus as the angels tell us, “Glory to God!”
For another, the Matthew reading illuminates the plight of millions of refugees the world over, in the persons of the Holy Family and in their narrative.
And third reason to read Matthew is that it tells us that God is behind all, supporting God’s child and God’s people, and that, as Isaiah says, we have a multitude of gracious deeds to God for which to be grateful.
So let’s look at our reading from Matthew. What a story opens before us – a long and winding road of faith indeed. Jesus has been born, magi have come from afar with their gifts – and once again, an angel appears in a dream to Joseph. But this time, the angel does not say “Fear not” – the exhortation given to Mary and to Joseph before the birth of Jesus, and to the shepherds gathered around the manger. This time the angel says, “Get out of here! Go to Egypt!” For King Herod, furious at having been tricked by the magi, who did not return to tell him where the newborn king lay, goes on a wild and demented rampage, killing all children two years old and under, any one of whom, he thinks, might threaten his rule. Imagine the horror, the bloodshed, the wailing of mothers – and fathers – for their children. We hear the loud wailing and lamentation in Ramah, the weeping of the symbolic Rachel – the mother of a long-ago Joseph, the dreamer who saved his people in Egypt, Rachel, the mother of all of Israel, crying for her children.
There is much to fear here. The presence of God in the form of a human child — anticipated and lauded in the words of Isaiah — this presence has barely been recognized and celebrated when human sinfulness intrudes, in the form of a destructive, murderous, prideful and insecure king. We might pause to be amazed that God has chosen to enter this world as a helpless and vulnerable child, a child who is kin to all other helpless and vulnerable children. Glory to God, indeed!
And then, then we look away from the angel, away from Herod, and focus on Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Refugees in Egypt. As is so often the case, the Bible tells a whole world of a story in a few words: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”
What do you suppose it was like for this little family? Do you think they were welcomed, or ignored, or harassed in Egypt? Anglican priest and poet Malcom Guite puts it this way:
We think of [Jesus] as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cozy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
Did people help our little family, or did people fear them? They looked different from Egyptians. They wore different clothes, cooked different food, spoke a different language. Was there work for Joseph, or did his new neighbors say, “Egyptian jobs for Egyptians only?” Was Mary welcomed into a supportive circle of other young mothers, or was she shunned as an outsider when she tried to share new foods with the other women? Was the toddler Jesus able to play with other children, or was he exiled to the walls of his parents’ home, pointed at or avoided by children who saw him as “other?”
This is a telling story for us today, isn’t it? We might think that the question of refugees is far from us, something we see on the evening news about Syria. We might hope that the question of refuges is far from us, because we find that we are unsettled or even fearful when we consider that many refugees are Muslim, and that radical Muslims have brought terror into our lives.
But refugees are not far from us, and Muslims are not synonymous with terrorists. If you have been following the lengthy features in The New York Times about Syrians settling in Toronto, you might realize that “they” are closer than you had thought, but still think that “they” are not people you need to consider daily. In that case, you might want to know that Trinity Lutheran Church in Cleveland (as distinct from Pastor Angela’s Trinity Lutheran in Lakewood) houses Building Hope in the City, an urban mission organization which, among other things, serves refugees in the City of Cleveland.
I know a little about this now, because my husband, retired corporate internet person, is volunteering there, helping to teach English and helping families with daily needs. A couple of weeks ago, he took a woman to a medical appointment, husband and daughter in tow – the eight-year-old daughter acting as translator, going in with her mother to her stress test so that she could translate the doctor’s instructions, and then prancing off for her free, American snow-day afternoon. Think about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Was there someone in Egypt to help her find her way and translate for her if she needed medical care? Were there relaxing days in the company of friends?
There are other refugee stories I am just learning. Yesterday I watched a video on the NYT website about a Syrian refuge camp in Jordan. 70,000 people displaced by war. 2500 business start-ups — we are talking about intelligent and creative people, trapped in the desert and living in containers. The average stay in a refugee camp is 26 years. One 15yo girl being interviewed spoke of her hopes for medical school. What are her chances?
Now you know my personal reasons
Many in America find these stories frightening, because we are quick to see the Herods of this world, and slow to see the resilience, the courage, and the beauty of the human spirit required to resist them.
But it is a story to which we, as Christians, are compelled to attend, regardless of whether it has personal meaning for us. The ELCA’s Bishop Elizabeth Eaton tells us that
we Christians and all others of good will cannot let fear rule the day. Fear paralyzes, divides people, fosters distrust and clouds judgments. We also stand shoulder to shoulder with people of faith who are firmly opposed to vengeful reprisals and prejudice. In particular, we are concerned for and committed to standing with our Muslim neighbors who are facing threats and acts of discrimination and hate by those who conflate Islam with terrorism (www.elca.org).
It is a long and winding road, this journey of faith. It is a road on which legitimate fears must be addressed – fears of violence, of racism, of hatred. But it is also a road on which we are told repeatedly that God is at work, laboring for us, albeit often in quite surprising ways.
For Mary and Joseph and Jesus, it started with a journey to Bethlehem, and then a 200-mile trip to Egypt, and then a road to back Nazareth and, ultimately, to Jerusalem. For the rest of us, it starts at home, and expands to neighborhood and church and school, and then to a broader world and, one hopes, to connections and relationships with those we may never have imagined becoming part of our lives, any more than we imagined ourselves becoming part of theirs. And behind it all, as Isaiah says, is a God who saves, redeems, and lifts and carries us.
Think about Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Can you see them in the world’s refugees of 2017? Can you see their strength and powerful witness to God’s movement in their lives? Can you see that Jesus began his earthly life on the margins, in a stable, on the road, in a community of refugees?
Our faith is not glitzy. Despite our beloved Christmas sparkles and awe-inspiring music and brilliant candles, our faith lies in someone who journeyed, grew up, and then began the redemptive work of God among those who were poor, those who were hungry, those who were beleaguered by the powers and principalities. A child of God, a SOG, who came into the world as it is, who came to us as we are — perhaps hungry for food, perhaps hungry for security, most assuredly broken in some way.
A new year lies before us, a new portion of the road opens its way to us. How will we respond to the call issued by our infant king, our refugee child, our prince of peace? Fear NOT. God is at work. Jesus is among us. The Spirit leads us.