Jesus the Refugee – Chuck Rush 1/10/16

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.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.