Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christ our Refuge and Refugee

Isaiah 63: 7-9
Matthew 2: 13-23

Once again, in today’s scripture, Matthew lets us in on one of Joseph’s angelic dreams. Once again, the angel gives Joseph information that will save Jesus. Once again, Matthew gives testimony to God’s vulnerable power.
Herod, who was the Jewish Roman appointee over Israel, was infamous for his cruelty and suspicion. The Jewish historian Josephus records that Herod's later years were full of attempts to defend his throne against the Jewish Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees. In the final years of his reign his three eldest sons were killed on suspicion of plotting to seize Herod's throne. Earlier in his reign he eliminated all the prominent Hasmoneans. He had an elaborate network of spies, and he often executed people for real or imagined conspiracies against his throne. Josephus even talks about a plan, never carried out, to have all the Jewish nobility slaughtered at the time of his own death to ensure that everyone would be mourning at his death
However, Matthew’s account of the plot to slaughter the innocent boys under two years of age in Bethlehem is not recorded in Josephus or other historical records. population statisticians estimate that the “slaughter of the innocents” probably took the lives of around 20 children: By historical standards, not enough to recount.
So, with God’s warning, Mary and Joseph take their little baby out of Israel and into a land where their ancestors had before been subject to another paranoid plot by a Pharoah to thin out the population of Hebrew slaves by killing the infants because they were becoming too numerous and threatened his authority.
Matthew’s story also begins the commonalities with the Exodus narrative of Moses, also born under the threat of a tyrannical ruler executing children for fear of being overthrown. Matthew is the only gospel writer to show Mary and Joseph taking Jesus into Egypt, further highlighting the similarities between Moses leading his people out of bondage and Jesus leading the world out of bondage to sin and death.
Though I do my best to relate to Jesus and let him relate to me through our commonly shared humanity, I cannot claim to be a refugee like he was. Just because I have at points in my life “run away from my problems” doesn’t make me a refugee, and Jesus never ran away from his problems. But there are many in this world for whom today’s scripture reading provides a special touchstone of connection to their own lives.
Through scouting around on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website, I learned that the total number of "people of concern" in the world stood at 21 million at the end of 2005. By the close of 2006 it was 33 million, the most dramatic one year increase in memory.
Hundreds of thousands of people became newly displaced in Columbia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sri-Lanka and Timor. Increased data-gathering in other nations such as the Cote d'Ivoire, Congo and Uganda increased the numbers dramatically. Even North America experienced dramatic rises in internally displaced persons as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
The point is that we now have a world that is increasingly "on the move" against its will. I hope that “hearing the numbers” in the context of today’s scripture reading gives you a stronger sense of connection with this issue than would normally be the case when hearing statistics of “millions of people.” Those of us who deny the issue or consider it unimportant remind me of the lazy person condemned in Prov. 24:33, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest.."
One of the issues of justice that I have covenanted to work on through our covenant discipleship group has been to appeal to our national representatives in Congress to take a more diligent approach in facilitating the resettlement of Iraqi refugees displaced by our war in that country. The “land of opportunity” that we call home has been less enthusiastic about receiving refugees than we have been creating them. There are currently around 2.5 million internally displaced people in Iraq, meaning they have either lost their homes to destruction, or have been evacuated, but have not left the country of Iraq, and there are another approximately 1.5 million refugees in the neighboring countries of Syria and Jordan.
Of the comparatively small number who are actually processed as asylum seekers by the UN and submitted to industrialized countries for processing, this year the USA was given almost 15,000 applications, and as of Dec. 1st has only accepted around 2400. 2.5 internally displaced people in Iraq, and we absorb .1% of the load. I think we can do better, I think our representatives can do something about it, so I let them know that. We are currently being out-hospitalitized by the notoriously open-armed Swedes, who received almost half of the asylum seekers in 2007.
And so our savior shares this in common not with us, but with those Iraqis, Haitians, Lebanese, and Eritreans. How do our actions cause the Son of Man and sons of men to seek shelter? How does our callous disregard for and disinterest in the actions and inactions of our super-powerful empire of a culture contribute to the life of the little Sudanese baby who goes to sleep each night in the dirt in a refugee camp in Chad?
What about the little girls who pass the hours not going to school or talking on the phone, but standing in line waiting for their daily rations at an internally displaced person’s camp in Iraq? “The foxes have their holes, and the birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head and rest.”
The Good news for us is that God doesn’t judge us for having things easy. God doesn’t judge us for being born into fortunate circumstances just because his own son was born into such desperation. But God does judge us for sitting in the lap of luxury and doing nothing for those who are sitting in squalor. We are the goats whom Matthew tells us are turned away at the judgment seat when Christ says to us, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
God, being incarnate in the life of a little boy who had to be whisked away into hiding, was a refugee, but through the sharing of a human life also became our ultimate refuge. We can take comfort in God because we know God has been though it. And we can offer our sisters and brothers who are hurting comfort by assuring them that Christ walks with them. God has experienced the hardships of life, and usually more so than we. So when we seek refuge in God, it is not in some distant Deity: it is in a shared experience.
Isaiah says that “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” God doesn’t redeem or love or pity from a pedestal. It is his “presence” that saves us.
And it is his presence in the least of those among us where we will find salvation. Through the giving of our lives, or the giving of some portion of our lives, to the alleviation of suffering in the world, Christ presents us with the salvation from the damnation of believing the word revolves around us.
While Christ is a refugee, and because Christ is a refugee, he is also a refuge. He is an embodiment of God’s empathy. He cannot offer us refuge in the form of protection from the world. Belief in him will not keep you from getting into a car wreck or suffering from cancer, but he can offer refuge in the way of a loving embrace, a held hand as we face our days and trials. His name is Immanuel, God is with us. Amen

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