Jesus the Refugee
Deut. 10:17-21; Mt. 2:1-14
As you know, we read this text in the middle of a rancorous national debate over immigration and refugees. Just before Christmas, a number of Governor’s signed a petition or implemented executive orders to prevent refugees from the Middle East from entering their state until such time as the Bureau of Immigration could verify that they weren’t prone to acts of terrorism like the one we witnessed in San Bernadino, California. North Carolina was among those states.
One of my fraternity brothers sent me a picture of a billboard near his law offices. It features Joseph walking, pulling a donkey with Mary, looking for lodging in Bethlehem. Very traditional. Except this one has a caption with Joseph saying to Mary, “We have to keep moving Mary, we’re in North Carolina”.
Our text, this morning, has some of that holidays are over, we are back to the real world of rough and tumble politics. The Wise Men come from the East. They are priests/scientists that read the stars to uncover your destiny. Romans were very religious and they all wanted to know their destiny, what the future holds.
These wise men have seen a new astral configuration that they take to be an omen that the Jewish Messiah has been born, so they travel to Jerusalem. None of the Jews have any idea about this. It is true that a few sects of Judaism were actively praying for a Messiah to arise and throw off the hated Romans, so that they could recover their freedom.
So the text is ripe with irony. The pagans believe and have more spiritual insight about the Jewish Messiah than the pious Jewish leaders of the day. It portends that Jesus will be rejected among his own people. He was rejected, despised, says Handel in his wonderful aria.
And then Herod, hearing of the potential birth of a political rival, introduces wanton violence of truly tyrannical proportions. He kills all the babies in the entire region. It recalls a policy that Romans were known for, from which we get the expression, ‘scorch and burn’. If a region failed to pay the full tax or tribute they owed Rome, the soldiers were ordered to the area to destroy whatever they could, rape whomever they could catch, and steal whatever they could find. In this case, it portends, that the Romans will later execute a miscarriage of justice when they unjustly arrest Jesus and that they will deploy wanton violence when they crucify him without cause as a potential threat to their political and military power.
It is a bit of literary foreshadowing that reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Madonna with Child and spindle. Leonardo depicts an ordinary young Mary with her child playful in her lap. And the child is holding an ordinary spindle that mothers all across Italy would have in their home, used for spinning wool that they made clothes from. Only Leonardo captures the young child just when the spindle has turned so that it looks like a cross. He does not know what sad fate awaits him. His mother does not know what sad fate awaits him.
Both of our texts this morning speak directly and unambiguously to the way we are to treat refugees because it is deeply imbedded in the spiritual tradition of Judaism and Christianity (and also Islam I might hasten to add).
Deuteronomy tells us to welcome the refugee, and to show love to the refugees in our midst because Jews were once refugees in Egypt. The passage in Matthew also faintly remembers this with this literary reference to Herod’s killing of all the babies in the region. The Egyptian Pharaoh, when the Jews were enslaved, ordered all of the first born sons of the Jews to be killed, but the midwives would not do it, so Moses was born. Jesus is something of a New Moses that comes to lead his people from slavery to freedom.
The Israelites are later given these admonitions from God to remember the refugees in your midst because you were once a refugee also, and were it not for the kindness that people showed you when you had nothing leaving Egypt, you never would have made it to freedom.
And, really, all of us Americans can say pretty much the same thing. We are all from somewhere else. My family first came to America in the 1600’s. There may have been some people on that boat that were landed gentry or were connected to the Crown, I don’t know. But as far as we can tell, our family came here because they were indebted and persecuted religiously in England. They were refugees.
Today we are told to worry because the latest wave of refugees could theoretically bring a terrorist threat (coming from the Middle East) or they will theoretically take our jobs (from Central America or Mexico). Ironically, my people did both. It was too hard to clear the thick forests for farm land right off the boat, so we stole the plowed fields that the Indians had been tilling in their migration and we killed them when tried to defend their land.
No, we can all trace our families back to a time when we left behind economic difficulty, religious persecution, stifling social hierarchies, violence, and we ran as far away as we could… to America… to start over. Our ancestors were all daring, with nothing to lose, vulnerable, looking for a Promised Land.
And our passage in Matthew picks up on just this theme. Orthodoxy teaches us that God was in Christ taking in the condition of humanity so that through the Christ, God understands and experiences fully what it means to be human.
And what is it about the human experience that God takes a special interest in understanding? A vulnerable young mother, on the run with her only child, fleeing to Egypt where she doesn’t know anyone, can’t speak the language, with precious few resources. God knows what it is like for us to live on the margins. God cares especially for those that are praying with the last bit of spiritual strength that they have because there is no other option left.
Jesus will grow up. One day Jesus will teach us that God is like a poor woman that has lost a coin that women used to embroider on their head scarves. And she looks and looks and looks for that coin in her house and finally finds it. And she is more happy over finding that one coin, just as God is so happy over finding little old you and bringing you back home, that she just rejoices with a deep happiness. God looks out for the lost, for those on the margins.
You think you are forgotten because it feels like no one in the world cares about your silly problems, you are not forgotten. God loves you, God cares about you, and God is seeking out you, especially when you are on the margin.
No, we Christians are sensitive to refugees, not because we need to wade into a political fracas. We are concerned because we are called to express a simple but sublime humane love towards those that are vulnerable and marginal. We remember what that was like on the receiving end.
I stood with Rose Gelber in the middle of Newark on Christmas eve with one of the Mother’s that is in her English as a second language class. I was on official duty that day and I knew it, so I wore my clerical collar which I rarely wear. But sometimes you have to represent God.
This Grandmother had come from Ghana I believe. She had two generations living with her and three underfoot. Great values, terrific work ethic. These are families that will make it. They are just poor and they don’t speak the language well yet and they don’t have family networks. They don’t have expectations. But they have order and dignity, warmth and family love.
Rose is wishing them the happiness of the holidays and I tell them that our church has taken up a collection for Christmas. The mother looks at me with a smile and a ‘what?’. And I hand her an envelope.
Inside I have written a simple note that says, “One day in the future, you will know how to pass the blessing forward. From the congregation at Christ Church, the grace of the Christmas season be on you and your family.” And there is a hunk of sweaty cash in the denominations that poor people can understand, fives, ones and tens.
We leave before she opens it because it is too much to have to receive in front of another person. But I know it puts her on a new foot and opens a new door. I’m driving away and Rose’s phone rings and I can hear her full of emotion on the other end saying something like “Bless you, God has provided.”
God has provided. I love that line. I think of how many times I’ve heard Dave Bunting stand in front our congregation when we were 5% short from reaching a basic budget. And it doesn’t look like there is any way we can make it. And Dave says “God will provide”. And miraculously, most of the time, God really does, as someone steps up to the plate, usually at the 11th hour. We squeak in with $4.13 overrun that we roll into the next year.
Christians aren’t involved with refugees for the politics of immigration. We just want the privilege of seeing the joy in others when God’s blessing just blooms them in their lives. We are releasing the Spirit of Christmas in our world one blessing at a time. We can’t change the world but what a difference we made in this woman’s life. We are conspiring together to do some good in the world.
Right now, we happen to have a number of refugees from Syria and the Middle East. They are fleeing civil war. The tyranny of Assad, chemical weapons, barrel bombs, forcing all boys to be conscripted in the army. One the other side Isis, religious zealots of the most extreme variety, executions by sword, shooting anyone not overtly with them. Over 4 million people have fled their homes, 800,000 of them Christians that are on the verge of being eradicated entirely from a place where Christianity began. Just after Jesus died, St. Paul was on the road just outside of Damascus when he had some kind of spiritual experience that changed his life forever. He started the first church there, leaving Jerusalem. And we have been a stable force in the region ever since. But the ISIS followers have killed or driven almost all of the Christians out. And there are 3 million of their fellow Muslims that are on the run as well.
We are in an interesting position to be of help if we choose to. We have an Egyptian Catholic Church that meets at Christ Church on Saturdays, the Church of St. Augstine and St. Monica. The are Coptic Christians, one of the other oldest branches of Christianity, started the same time in Alexandria right after Jesus died.
We’ve never done anything together, although both congregations would welcome it. We are going to invite one of the leaders of the congregation to come do a lecture on Coptic Christianity in a couple weeks, just to make an introduction. I suspect a number of you would be interested in finding out just what they are like.
Together, we could probably forge a good alliance in working with refugees from the Middle East. They can help with the language, with culture, with customs. We have resources of volunteers, we can help make job connections. There is real potential help.
I mention this because in doing some homework to find out what is involved with the refugee migration, the social workers that are on the front lines are starting to realize that for better long term outcomes, it would be best if congregations and synagogues would adopt a family and mentor them on through the process of coming to our country.
I started doing some homework over the holidays because probably half a dozen of you have asked me or Caroline or Julie what we are planning to do to help. I suspect that we already have a quorum of people that want to get involved in a personal way that something might just come off.
I don’t have an agenda but I do know how to pick up a phone and make some inquiries. I like the idea of blessing one family, of making a difference in their lives. Lady Liberty stands in New York Harbor beckoning them with the hope extended to all our ancestors:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
I like the idea of pooling our resources with a partner like St. Augustine and St. Monica’s church, getting to know Arabs that we share a religious tradition with. But, this isn’t up to me, I’m here today, in my official robes representing God, asking you, ‘what do you want to do?’
My guess is that the refugee situation in the Middle East will be with us for quite a while, so we don’t need a quick solution. So I would ask you this day to pray for discernment, for creativity, for the humane impulse towards the stranger in our land. If you are interested in being involved, sign up. Let’s see how many people sign up, let’s meet together, and do what Congregational Christians do, “talk amongst yourselves.”
I’ve seen the pictures of Ramadi from the paper on Saturday, utter and total destruction by ISIS. We’ve all seen the pictures of city after city in Syria, utter and total destruction, pretty much like Sherman when he burned Atlanta to the ground. Whatever was back there is gone, probably never to return. Desperate, on the run, without resources. Just like my people, just like your people too.
Together, may we know the harder, more involved, and profounder way of living suggested by Miquel de Unamuno when he said, “May God deny us peace, but grant us glory.” Amen.