Sermon January 8 Rachel's Children Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you put away Christmas yet? Of course we’re not meant to until Epiphany is over, which was technically Friday but sort of today…
But if you’ve already put away Christmas then I must confess that I envy you a bit. Because at my house it’s sort of degenerated into “there appears to have been a struggle”. Like, if we were robbed, we might not notice.
But the good news is, that’s very faithful to the gospel.
Because what begins with starlit stables, and shepherds and sheep, and cattle lowing, and rosy babies in swaddling cloths, and the gold and the frankincense and the myrhh --
if we really wanted to replicate how that pretty scene all ended, then the end of that beautiful Christmas Card scene that we all know so well? Can also best be described as "there appears to have been a struggle".
In which we'd have to get up in the middle of the night, chuck most of Christmas in a box knowing we might never see it again, put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in our pockets -- maybe with a few Christmas oranges -- and just run. Away. With only what we can carry. As fast as we can but terrified at the same time that at any moment we could be caught.
Because this passage from Matthew that Michelle just read for us -- our pretty Christmas story ends in chaos. Everything overturned, upended, half a piece of toast still on a plate, and the fire still smoldering -- and they're gone. Running for their lives, as Herod's army starts its rampage.
And is it good news that they got out safely? Of course it is, of course it's good news. But it's not like they didn't know what was still happening behind them. It's not like Mary and Joseph weren't aware that if their little boy was safe, had survived, if they'd been lucky, how many hundreds of others hadn't.
It's not like Mary and Joseph don't know, now theoretically safe in Egypt, what's still happening at home. And I say 'theoretically' safe because, who knows? It's not like they can blend in, in Egypt. They're not Egyptian, they're Israelites. They're Jews. Why would they be there? What are they running from? Maybe they've committed a crime?
So what if an Egyptian alerts the authorities they're there, to send them back? How safe are they really? What if the Egyptians think they've come, cleverly with infant in tow, but in fact as Herod operatives? What if the Egyptians just don't want them there -- strangers, different, Jews, more mouths competing for food, Joseph taking carpentry work away from an Egyptian carpenter. How safe are they really? Would anyone even notice if they just... disappeared? Would anyone care? They're strangers, different, Jews.
So of course it's good news that they got out safely, made it to Egypt out of reach of Herod's army. But it's not great, is it. It's not security, it's not settled, it's not home....
We make a lot of the fact, at Christmas, that God chooses to enter our human life in its most radical vulnerability -- in the defencelessness and weakness of an infant, in the toil and need of poverty, as one for whom there's no room in the inn.
So it can't then be meaningless when God as this infant is forced to flee, to seek refuge. That too, it has to be, we have to understand it, as also an expression of that same most radical vulnerability of human life. Frightened, endangered, fleeing, displaced, temporary, insecure, waiting waiting waiting with no certainty that better will ever happen.
Clinging as much as possible to anything that offers stability, security, a connection to home, and only too aware that no matter where one winds up, it'll be as a stranger. Maybe not welcomed. Maybe not trusted.
It cannot be meaningless that in God's acceptance of the most radical vulnerability of human life, the infant Jesus becomes a refugee.
And not a refugee from a flood or from famine -- which would be bad enough. But the infant Jesus becomes a refugee from the worst that humanity can dole out. From a brutal regime whose terrorizing control is so complete that a massacre of children can simply be ordered -- and apparently randomly, as far as most people know -- and it'll be carried out.
It isn't an accident. We can't think it meaningless. It cannot be meaningless that God's choice to enter into human life at its most vulnerable includes the flight into Egypt -- includes the infant Jesus becoming a refugee from terrorism, brutality, and certain death.
It can't be meaningless in and of itself, and how can we imagine it was meaningless in Jesus' own life as he grew up -- when thirty years later, when a lawyer stops him on the road and says to him, "I know I'm supposed to love my neighbour, but who is my neighbour", Jesus answers him with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The outsider, the stranger, the despised. Because who's our neighbour? That guy, Jesus says. The one we wish wasn't here, because he doesn't belong.
We have no idea how long Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stayed in Egypt. Based on the dates of the reign of Archaleus, Herod's son who took over after Herod died, and who's mentioned in the Matthew reading, Jesus could have been as old as ten when they returned.
Old enough, at any rate, to know either in his bones or intellectually, what it's like to be the stranger, the outsider. Maybe old enough to see how it affected his parents. But obviously old enough, either way, that it did affect his message, what he taught his followers -- what he teaches us -- about who we're meant to think of as our neighbours, when we're trying to love our neighbours as ourselves.
And that's the gift, it seems to me, in this reading for us today. Which, I don't say that lightly. Because in some ways this passage is also a "gift" in quotations marks, in the sense that having to hear it -- having to sit down and get reminded that there are places in the world in which ordinary people like us have to deal on a daily basis with the kind of brutality and unconscionable violence that Herod unleashes on the infants of Judah -- that is a questionable "gift" at best. I'm all for awareness, but awareness is not fun.
But at the same time, most of us here -- perhaps not all, but certainly most of us -- we have to go back generations and generations to locate in our own families the desperate need to leave behind home, in search of survival. A significant majority of us, on top of that, are probably descended from those whose desperate need was driven by famine, by hunger -- not by violence. Not by the clear and present danger of violent death.
So that we simply don't have any notion of what that's like. I know that I simply don't have any notion of what that's like. My ancestors arrived at Ellis Island because if they'd stayed where they were, they'd have starved. End of story.
And that isn't the same. There is a fundamental emotional difference between leaving behind an existence of unrelenting poverty in search of better -- and leaving behind what's been a good and full and happy regular life, because suddenly there are machine guns on the streets and every building's been bombed into rubble. The two just aren't equivalent, and most of us -- even if we imagine back to our ancestors -- probably don't have any notion of what that's like: to have to flee from home in terror of violence.
But that's what Mary and Joseph and Jesus have to do -- escape to Egypt for only one terrifying reason: so that Jesus won't be murdered. That's part of the radical vulnerability into which God chooses to enter our human life, and be shaped by it in such a way that it then shapes how Jesus later teaches us to answer the question "who is my neighbour".
Because yes, the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised and broken-hearted -- but also, and in a very special and specific way, those who are fleeing terror and violence. As Jesus himself had to with his family.
There are times, in other words, when the specifically Christian message of the gospel is more than simply a general and good-hearted care for all God's people. And this passage from Matthew is one of those times.
This passage from Matthew makes it specifically a Christian call, a Christian mandate -- to specifically regard and treat as neighbour the one who is not just the stranger, the outsider, but also and specifically the one who has had to flee somewhere in fear of his or her own life. As Jesus did with his parents.
It’s the great challenge of Christmas meaning something after December's over. After we’ve cleaned it up and moved on into January. It’s the great challenge of Christmas to see the face of God beyond the pretty baby in the pretty Christmas card scene. To still see the face of God after "there appears to have been a struggle" -- in the traumatized and exhausted when they finally land wherever they land.
To still see the face of God in friends and strangers, and care just as much as we did a month ago. May we be up for the challenge, God being our helper.