Sermon January 7 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 yesterday 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 all 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 we just heard -- our pretty Christmas story ends in chaos. Everything overturned, upended -- and they're gone. Running for their lives, as Herod's army starts its rampage. In scenes that this year feel only too familiar, except insofar as Herod’s army ONLY massacred little children. 

But is it good news that Mary and Joseph 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 of the places in the world in which ordinary people like us are dealing on a daily basis with the kind of brutality and unconscionable violence that Herod unleashes on the infants of Judah – it’s a questionable "gift" at best. I'm all for awareness, but awareness is not fun.

It's not been fun to be confronted throughout this Advent and Christmas season with the Nativity stories that have always evoked for us the hope and peace of starlit stables, and shepherds and sheep, and cattle lowing, and rosy babies in swaddling cloths – only to find that they can’t be separated from where they happened, nor from the present reality where they happened.

The infant Christ portrayed by William Kurelek in a tent near Parliament Hill, or in an abandoned rail car, or under a haypile on the prairie – these are metaphors. But the infant Christ this year portrayed in the rubble in Bethlehem, very much not. Awareness is not fun.

But unfortunately, awareness is the actual point. Whether we accept the historicity of the narrative details of the Christmas story, or see in them the building of callbacks to the prophecies of Isaiah, they still reflect Godness as choosing on purpose the fullness of human vulnerability. Even up to and including vulnerability to terrible military onslaught and having to run for your life. 

So that if that’s our reality, we’ll know God knows it intimately. And if it’s not our reality, we’ll learn it exists. And try to grasp what it’s like. And howl for it to stop. 

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, the Samaritan, but also and specifically the one who’s having to run for their life. As Jesus did with his parents. And to howl for it to stop.

It’s the great challenge of Christmas still meaning something after December's over. After we’ve cleaned it all up and put it away 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 THAT baby (Cogniet painting of Massacre of the Innocents). And its traumatized and terrified mother. To still see the face of God after "there appears to have been a struggle" – and howl that it needs to stop. 

May we be up for the challenge, in Christ’s name. God being our helper.