Christmas 1 – 12-29–2019 – St. Paul’s
Only four days after our heart-felt celebration of Jesus’s birth, Matthew gives us quite a jolt. Our sweet, sometimes sentimental celebration of the Nativity is brought to a grinding halt this Sunday by the Gospel. The events narrated by Matthew on this Sunday, the First Sunday of Christmas, are a long way from the Angel songs, the babe and his adoring parents at the manger.
Matthew: Hey, there’s a new King born down at Bethlehem! God is at last moving to save Israel.
Herod: Did you say King? We already have a quite wonderful king—me
King Herod whom the Romans set up in Jerusalem as their lackey to keep Judea under the heel of the Empire, when he heard talk that there was a new King did not take such talk lightly. Matthew says that Herod was troubled (Matt 2:3) and all of the powerful people in Jerusalem were also. He orders a bloody massacre of all the boy babies in the region. This was one of the thousands of horribly bloody pogroms ordered against God’s people down through the ages.
From the very first, but after his birth, Jesus caused
political trouble and was opposed by the powerful.
The baby Jesus is taken by his parents to Egypt for safekeeping. Can you imagine bundling up a newborn and making the trek all the way from Judea into a foreign country, where people speak strange languages, and have different customs and different ways? Most of us can’t imagine that because few of us in this congregation have ever been refugees. A refugee is someone who seeks refuge in a foreign land, because things in their homeland are so bad, that they must flee.
One of the first things that Jesus does, in the first days of his earthly life is to become an immigrant.
Apparently, Jesus and his family did not stay in Egypt very long. The Holy Family returns not to Bethlehem, but they go far afield from Jerusalem, all the way up to Nazareth, the hinterland. This new King will not rule from the capital city in Jerusalem, but must begin his reign outback in the insignificant little town of Nazareth.
This Sunday’s epistle lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews, says that Jesus Christ was the Incarnation of God. He assumed our flesh, and was like us in every way. That means that even though he was God Almighty, most of us can identify with Jesus, because he was also fully human. And yet here is one way that few of us, at least few of us in this congregation, can identify with our Lord. He was a refugee. He and his family, right at the beginning, were forced to flee their homeland. They had to put themselves at the mercy of the people of Egypt.
Jesus’s birth produced dislocation. It troubled Herod. His birth and the world’s response required his family to immigrate. Sorry, if you thought Christmas was just about Angels, wise men, and shepherds. Matthew brings it right down to earth, right down where we live. We live in a world that struggles with violence and the immigration that arises because of political violence.
The major change in immigration at our national southern borders is that immigration from the south used to be mostly men seeking employment in the United States. Now, over half the emigrants coming to our doors are children, being brought by their parents to our land to escape violence and injustice in their own.
Many Sundays you come to church and you feel as if you are going to be asked to take a trip into Never–Never Land. Not this First Sunday of Christmas. Today, our scripture’s concerns are as current as this morning’s headlines.
Jesus was an immigrant. Most of us in this congregation are in the position not to leave our homeland because of injustice, but rather we are the ones who have the challenge of receiving others who have left their homes. I believe that Christians, when we think about matters of immigration, are not only concerned about what is right and just, compassionate and realistic, but also must think about matters from the standpoint of our Christian faith. We’ve got a core conviction that the baby who this
Sunday is being carried by his parents through the treacherous desert, all the way to Egypt and then back again is none other than God’s Son.
It’s quite natural for us to prefer our own kind to people who have a different appearance, different language, and different customs than ourselves. Humanity possesses an innate and universal distrust and fear of the Other. Stick with our own tribe. Family first. Protect our borders.
This widespread, natural tendency among us makes all the more remarkable that early on in Israel’s history, God’s people are explicitly commanded to love the immigrant… as yourself” When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God (Lev 19:33-34). Unnatural enough to be told to Love your neighbor as yourself, (Matt 22:39) but to love even the foreign, non-English speaking, alien (NRSV) is counter to the way we come into this world.
Though these words from Leviticus were written, maybe 500 years before the birth of Jesus, they make sense as the words of a God who comes among us as a baby, born to a poor family, who were immigrants.
Questions are raised in the current national debate about US immigration: Should we admit Syrian refugees, what to do about immigrants from Spanish-speaking America? If we let them in, what’s the cost? Will our nation be less secure? Will property values in my neighborhood be diminished? Will these newcomers help or hinder the economy? Are there criminals among them? Don’t nations have a sovereign right to secure their borders?
While these are not unreasonable questions, Christians ought to admit that in debates about others, we are compelled to think about these matters in the light of Scripture like this morning’s Gospel. Jesus was a refugee. If the Holy Family had not taken the baby Jesus across borders and into a foreign land, as God directed them, God’s plan of salvation for us could have been hijacked by Herod.
In the prayers of the ancient Mass, along about this time of the church year, there was a prayer thanking God that the land of Egypt had received the Holy Family.
Furthermore, when Christians think about immigration, we think, not only from the point of view of citizens of a rich, powerful nation receiving these vulnerable, impoverished, frightened people. We think from the point of view of the immigrant. I don’t have time to do it in the sermon, but we could go through the New Testament and track the theme that all of us were strangers, aliens, even (as Paul says) downright enemies of God but God broke down the border between us and God and saved us. All of us are naturalized citizens so far as the kingdom of God is concerned. Everybody in this church this morning, in one way or another, had to immigrate into the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
All that means is that when it comes to thinking about those who are different from ourselves, those who, because of their language, appearance, place of birth, or economic condition ask us to protect and receive them, Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ.
Christianity’s default position is our mission: to be a welcoming, prayerful, caring community actively sharing the love of God. Sure, we can argue about how we ought to be hospitable and what steps to take to integrate these newcomers and to enable them to thrive in North American cultures. We can be honest about the challenges involved in their coming to and being received as strangers in a strange land.
However, on the basis of this Sunday’s Gospel and our Christian doctrines of salvation and the Incarnation, as Christians we are prejudiced or predisposed toward hospitality. We are particularly partial to hospitality toward those in need, because that’s the way a pagan, non-believing nation treated the Holy Family and that’s the way God in Christ has treated us and commanded us to treat others.
No wonder King Herod was threatened by Baby Jesus!
Let us pray: This is a prayer written by Ira Hughes who I was in Seminary with….it is one I say many times…especially with the ministry along our borders….
We pray for children
who sneak popsicles before supper,
who erase holes in math workbooks,
who can never find their shoes.
And we pray, for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
who can’t bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers,
who never “counted potatoes,”
who are born in places where we wouldn’t be caught dead,
who never go to the circus,
who live in an X-rated world.
We pray for children
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
Who sleep with the cat and bury goldfish,
Who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money,
Who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink,
Who slurp their soup.
And we pray for those
who never get dessert,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
who watch their parents watch them die,
who can’t find any bread to steal,
who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose monsters are real.
We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed,
and never rinse out the tub,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who don’t like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at
and whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being.
We pray for children
who want to be carried
and for those who must,
for those we never give up on
and for those who don’t get a second chance.
For those we smother…
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody
kind enough to offer it.
We pray for children.
The world you have made
is powerful and dangerous,
diverse and beautiful.
By praising your goodness in all creation,
we creatures learn our place and know our strength.
Open us here to recognize the One you sent
into this complicated world,
Holy One, Human One, Vulnerable Child
At home wherever
there is rejoicing, or struggle, or anguish, or hope.
Teach us to follow Jesus
along the paths of praise and service
which lead to You.
God is all about abundance:
love that never wavers,
mercy that never fails.
Let us offer our gifts generously,
and in abundant love,
as a thanksgiving to God.
May you have
eyes to see and ears to hear and voices to proclaim:
In the work of justice: Christ!
In the practice of mercy: Christ!
In good news for the poor: Christ!
In the vision of peace: Christ!
And know you leave here this day
empowered by the Blessing of God Almighty…